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Birth of the FIDE World Chess Championship

fide_logo1924 Founding of FIDE: The World Chess Federation (FIDE) was founded at Paris in July 1924. Since it had little influence on the World Championship during its early years, it concentrated its organizational activities on the biennial Olympiad and the Women’s World Championship. Max Euwe became World Champion in 1935, and was more sympathetic to FIDE than his predecessors, Capablanca and Alekhine, had been. FIDE’s hopes of influence disappeared again after Euwe lost the title in a 1937 rematch with Alexander Alekhine.

1939 Olympiad: The 8th Chess Olympiad started at Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August 1939. As the preliminary section came to a close, war broke out in Europe. The English team left immediately, but the other teams stayed to finish the event. Six matches were not played. The German team, which included two Austrian players, finished first, followed by Poland and Estonia. Some players stayed in South America, although Alekhine, captain of the French team, returned to Paris via Portugal in January 1940.

WWII Four World Champions dead: World War II left more than 50 million dead during its six year legacy of misery and destruction. Among the dead were many well known chess players, including Vera Menchik, killed during a bombing raid on London. She had been Women’s World Champion from 1927 until her death in 1944. Former World Champions Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) and Jose Capablanca (1888-1942) also died, although they were not direct casualties of war. Reigning World Champion Alekhine died in Portugal in March 1946.

WWII Alekhine’s activities: After returning to France in 1940, Alekhine enrolled in the French army and served in intelligence until the armistice was signed. He travelled to Portugal, returned to Paris, then played tournaments in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1941-42. He travelled to Spain in 1943, staying in Spain and Portugal until the war ended. In 1945 he received invitations to two English tournaments, but they were withdrawn because of anger over anti-Semitic chess articles published under his name.

1946 The death of Alekhine: When the war broke out in 1939, Alekhine had been negotiating a title match with Mikhail Botvinnik to be played in Moscow. In early 1946 Botvinnik renewed his challenge, and the British Federation agreed to host the match. It notified Alekhine of its decision in March, but he never received it. He died the day the proposal was sent. The stage was set for FIDE, inactive since 1939. The organization, along with the crown jewel of chess, the World Championship, was to be rebuilt.

1946 Winterthur: In July 1946, at Winterthur, Switzerland, Alexander Rueb, FIDE President since 1924, convened the first post-war FIDE Congress. He proposed that a title tournament take place in 1947, to include ex-Champion Euwe; Reshevsky and Fine of the USA; and Botvinnik, Keres, and Smyslov of the USSR. He also proposed that FIDE be split into geographical zones. The zones would allow decentralized governance of FIDE and would serve as a starting point for a World Championship qualifying cycle.

1946-47 The first zonals: Rueb proposed that the first events in a cycle would be zone championships. The winners of those zonals would meet in an Interzonal tournament. The top players from the Interzonal would meet in a Candidates tournament. The winner of that event would then meet the reigning World Champion in a title match. Rueb’s proposal met general acceptance, several zonals were held, and four players qualified for the first Interzonal. To fill the 20 slots, other players were invited directly by FIDE.

1947 The Hague: In July 1947, the second post-war FIDE Congress was held at The Hague. Since the six player title tournament had still not been held, the Congress focused on agreeing the best route to determine a new World Champion. Unlike the previous Congress, where the American delegation had not attended and the Soviets had not been invited because the USSR was not a member of FIDE, the two chess superpowers were present. All parties agreed that the match tournament proposed by Rueb would be held.

1948 match tournament: The World Championship match tournament started March 1948 in The Hague, and finished mid-May in Moscow. Of the six players originally invited, all but one accepted. Each player met the other players five times. Botvinnik finished first, three points ahead of second place Smyslov. Reshevsky and Keres tied for 3rd/4th, one half point behind Smyslov. Euwe was not able to keep the pace and was the only player with a minus score. Mikhail Botvinnik was crowned the sixth official World Chess Champion.

FIDE’s first full cycle: The next FIDE Congress was held at Saltsjobaden (Stockholm), Sweden, August 1948, at the same time as the first Interzonal. The top point on FIDE’s agenda was the choice of venue for the Candidates’ tournament. Both Budapest and Buenos Aires had attractive offers on the table, but there were many conflicting factors to consider. The USSR also declared its intention to organize a tournament at Moscow for the Women’s World Championship.

David Bronstein won the Interzonal tournament in the last round of the event. He and the other top players earned the right to join the unsuccessful players from Hague/Moscow 1948 in the Candidates’ event. Reshevsky, Euwe, and Fine all declined to play and their places were taken by the near-qualifiers from the Interzonal.

Since the 1949 FIDE Congress marked the 25th anniversary of the organization’s founding, the Congress returned to FIDE’s birthplace of Paris. The venue for the Candidates’ tournament had still not been decided, and Budapest was finally chosen over Buenos Aires. Rueb announced his decision to step down from the presidency. Folke Rogard of Sweden was elected the second FIDE President.

In May 1950, Bronstein tied with Isaak Boleslavsky for 1st/2nd place in the Candidates’ event at Budapest. The playoff was held a few months later in Moscow. After 12 regulation games the match was tied (+2-2=8), but Bronstein won the right to challenge Botvinnik by scoring the first full point in a sudden death continuation.

From March to May 1951, Botvinnik and Bronstein battled to a 12-12 (+5-5=14) draw. Botvinnik retained his title by the narrowest of margins.

The FIDE World Chess Championship had completed its first full cycle, achieving the dream of Alexander Rueb. The structure built by the FIDE Delegates of the 1940s saw evolutionary changes through the years until it was replaced by the FIDE Knockout format in 1997. Many observers now yearn for the reintroduction of that same original format.

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