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Top 5 World Chess Championships That Never Happened

Top 5 World Chess Championships That Never Happened

NathanielGreen
| 94 | Chess Players

No chess event is more important than the world championship. This November, GM Magnus Carlsen will face off against his challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi for the crown. It is the next of dozens of matchups throughout history we've been able to witness at the game's highest stage. Even matches that happened a century ago can still be enjoyed today, thanks to game notation.World Chess Championship 2021

But what about matchups we didn't see? Wilhelm Steinitz and Isidor Gunsberg had a match in 1890, but we couldn't get the ones that follow below? Well, no one said life is fair.

We're going to stick with matchups that would not have required time travel to happen (with one semi-exception). Everyone would love to know how players of the past would match up with those in the present, but that's for a different discussion.


Lasker vs. Pillsbury And/Or Rubinstein

Harry Pillsbury came out of nowhere to win the famous 1895 Hastings tournament, and he did it with some of the most accurate chess that had ever been played up to that point: roughly the equivalent of a modern grandmaster but in an era of minimal opening theory and no computers. Pillsbury—who, along with Frank Marshall, GM Samuel Reshevsky, and GM Reuben Fine, would belong on a "Mount Rushmore" of American players active between Paul Morphy and GM Bobby Fischer—eventually reached an equal lifetime score against the reigning world champion Emanuel Lasker (5-5 with four draws).

Unfortunately, Lasker accepted no new challengers between 1896 and 1907, and Pillsbury passed away in 1906, already some years past his prime. But he still got one last shot at Lasker and won their game at Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, in 1904.

From 1907-10, Lasker did play four world championship matches, facing four players who themselves never became champion: Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter, and David Janowsky. Lasker beat Marshall and Janowsky 8-0 each and Tarrasch 8-3, while barely retaining his title against Schlechter in a 1-1 match.

In the middle of that run, he met a fifth such never-became-world-champion player at St. Petersburg 1909, probably the strongest of the five: Akiba Rubinstein, who won an instant classic.

It ended being the first of just seven meetings between Lasker and Rubinstein, with Lasker ahead but only 2-1 (four draws). The two were set to play for the championship before World War I broke out. Out of money after the war, when cash for the prize fund was the most important attribute a potential challenger could have, Rubinstein never got his match, and his play gradually declined.

Emanuel Lasker Akiba Rubinstein Harry Pillsbury
L-R: Pillsbury in an undated photo, Lasker in 1908, and Rubinstein also around 1908. Photos: Wikimedia public domain (Pillsbury, Lasker, Rubinstein).

Lasker instead met and lost to Jose Raul Capablanca in 1921. That loss ended Lasker's 27-year reign as world champion, which is still the longest ever. Had he ever faced Pillsbury or Rubinstein, it may have been cut short and the course of chess history changed.

Capablanca vs. Alekhine: The Rematch

Yes, two players who once contested the world championship are in an article about players who never contested the world championship. When Capablanca played Alexander Alekhine in 1927, Alekhine won in an upset. At 34 games, it was the longest decisive world championship match in chess history. The only longer one was the 1984 match between GM Garry Kasparov and GM Anatoly Karpov that ended without result after 48 games.

Jose Capablanca Alexander Alekhine
See, it happened. Right there. Photo: Wikimedia public domain.

Kasparov and Karpov wound up playing 144 games in five world championship matches and 193 times overall. Can you imagine if we got even half that many Capablanca-Alekhine games? It would never have quite been that many, but still....

Instead, we have to settle for 51 title games between Alekhine and... GM Efim Bogoljubov. Just two years after facing Capablanca, Alekhine defended his title but chose Bogoljubov as his challenger instead. "Bogo" was wiped out by Alekhine, 11-5 with nine draws. Alekhine then waited five years to defend again, and he chose as his opponent: Bogoljubov, again.

This is like if Carlsen got to pick his opponent and kept playing against—ok, it's hard to get out of this sentence without insulting somebody, so just pick your least favorite GM in the world top 25-30.

Anyway, 1934 saw Bogoljubov get crushed again, 8-3 with 15 draws.

Efim Bogoljubov
Bogoljubov, Alekhine's own personal punching bag, around 1925. (Not pictured: Being punched repeatedly.) Photo: Wikimedia public domain.

A year later, Alekhine played another match underdog, Max Euwe. At least this opponent refused to fold, and Euwe in fact won a close one, 9-8 with 13 draws. Alekhine took back the title two years later, and World War II broke out two years after that. Capablanca continued to angle for his rematch into the fall of 1939, seemingly convinced in October that it would happen. It didn't happen, and he passed away in 1942. 

So who would have won? We'll never know, obviously. While Capablanca held a 9-7 lifetime edge even with his disastrous world championship result, most of his successes happened before World War I.

Years Capablanca Alekhine Drawn
1913-14 4 0 1
1922-New York 1927 1 0 6
1927 WCC 3 6 25
1936-38 1 1 1
TOTAL 9 7 33

Capablanca's edge decreased after the war, but he still hadn't lost to Alekhine when the title match began. He'd even won a fifth game at the New York tournament earlier in the year. But that was followed almost immediately by the big upset, and Capablanca never played for the world championship again.

History tends to blame Alekhine for this, and the bitterness between Capablanca and Alekhine was such that neither played at the same tournament again until 1936, nearly a decade later. For Capablanca, who won their game in Nottingham that year, it had to do.

They played just three times total after 1927, with an even 1-1-1 score, and so it's impossible to say who would have won a rematch. That makes the lack of one even more disappointing, considering also that whoever won would have given their historical reputation a major boost.

Most people rate Alekhine behind Capablanca historically, despite the result of their one match. Two match wins for Alekhine and that surely would not have happened. Meanwhile, if Capablanca had won the rematch and kept the title the rest of his life, perhaps with a successful defense against Euwe, he would have a much stronger case as the greatest chess player ever, instead of the top five to 10 where he usually is. So many questions remain unanswered.

Tal vs. Petrosian

This matchup would have been an epic clash of styles between the attacker GM Mikhail Tal and the defender GM Tigran V. Petrosian. In fact, they each have an argument as being the single greatest attacker and single greatest defender of all time, respectively.

That doesn't mean they sometimes didn't crush each other. Here's Tal beating up Petrosian:

And here's Petrosian routing Tal:

The dream match almost happened. Depending on how inevitable you think World War I was and how willing you think Fischer actually was to defend in his title in 1975, Tal-Petrosian arguably came the closest to happen of any match in this article.

Petrosian defeated GM Mikhail Botvinnik in 1963 to become world champion. Tal reached the finals of the 1965 Candidates against GM Boris Spassky. Unfortunately for Tal, Spassky won their match, 7-4, and faced Petrosian in 1966. Petrosian won that match before losing to Spassky in 1969, a match Tal again almost qualified for by reaching the Candidates semifinal where he lost to GM Viktor Korchnoi who lost to Spassky who beat Petrosian who... no wait, that's the end of that process.

Mikhail Tal Tigran Petrosian
Tal, seated left, and Petrosian, standing right, observing a game in 1961. Photo: Gerhard Hund/Wikimedia, CC.

The lifetime score between Tal and Petrosian, counting exhibitions/blitz, was 5-5 with 36 draws. It would have been an epic world championship match, no doubt producing multiple brilliancies as the unstoppable force of Tal met the immovable object of Petrosian. And if Tal had become world champion a second time, there's no telling where he'd be ranked among the best chess players in history, which is currently generally somewhere around 10th.

Karpov vs. Fischer

This is the obvious one everybody talks about. To this day, more than 45 years later, people still debate who would have won. Karpov can't seem to get out of an interview without being asked about it. This is also the only match on the list where the would-be contestants never played each other in any situation, let alone a championship, only adding to the intrigue.

Bobby Fischer Max Euwe
Fischer with Euwe in 1972. Photo: Bert Verhoeff/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Technically speaking, this match did happen, and Fischer forfeited. He attempted to take some old-school control over the championship process as the active titleholder. Fischer could not pick his challenger, but he could try to change the match format. FIDE was fine with switching from best-of-24 to first-to-10 wins, but was not in favor of Fischer's demand that he retain the title in a 9-9 tie. And that was that.

Anatoly Karpov Max Euwe
Karpov with Euwe in 1976. Photo: Hans Peters/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Where Tal-Petrosian would have been a clash of playing styles, and the later Kasparov-Karpov matches were, Fischer-Karpov would have been an interesting study of what happens when world-class players with similar styles meet. 

If Fischer's chess had a defining characteristic, it was the ability to find counterintuitive moves in the right moment. Examples include 18...Nxg2 against GM Robert Byrne in 1963, 13...Kxe7 against GM Milan Matulovic in 1968, and 22.Nxd7+ against Petrosian in 1971. Fischer needed a very keen positional sense to know exactly when to break the general principles of chess, yet perhaps no player is better known for a "keen positional sense" than Karpov.

Sometimes we talk too much about "positional chess" as an alternative of sorts to "tactical chess," and clearly Fischer and Karpov had to be great tacticians to become world champions, but watching these two trying to find all the tiniest subtleties in a position and squeeze the other, and only then perhaps finding the satisfying tactical finish, would have been fascinating.

But Fischer gaveth, and Fischer tooketh away. While he was going three years without a single competitive chess game, Karpov was busy qualifying in Candidates matches against GM Lev Polugaevsky, Spassky, and Korchnoi. With hindsight, it's not surprising that this match never happened.

No player can sustain the run Fischer went on from 1969-72, and Karpov was too good to not become champion eventually. It would just have been great to see it all play out over the board.

Kasparov vs. Carlsen

When Kasparov ended his competitive chess career in March 2005, he was still the top-rated player in the world, as he had been for a whopping 20 years. His retirement was followed by a five-year period of GMs Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, and Veselin Topalov trading the number-one spot. That ended when Carlsen took the lead position in 2010. He has yet to relinquish it.

Magnus Carlsen
Carlsen at age 22. Photo: Frans Peeters/Wikimedia, CC.

This is the only match on this list that could not have logistically happened in the timeline we live in. But suppose Kasparov was born just two years later and Carlsen two years earlier. Now maybe a younger Kasparov does not become world champion until 1987. (Or maybe 1987 is the new 1984, but we didn't change Karpov's age, you know.) Then, perhaps, without the disillusionment of his 1984-86 matches with Karpov, Kasparov never splits from FIDE. That in itself is a major and welcome change in this timeline, but I digress.

Garry Kasparov
Kasparov at age 22. Photo: Rob Bogaerts/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Now, all we would need is for Kasparov to hold the title until Carlsen arrived in 2008, instead of 2010 when Magnus became world number-one. Maybe Kramnik never gets a match with Kasparov in a normal cycle, and that's all this timeline needs for our match to happen. Or perhaps Kramnik takes it in 1999, Anand in 2002, and Kasparov takes it back in 2005. Whatever the situation, we just need Kasparov to win in 2005. He ain't gonna retire in the middle of a championship reign.

While we never got to see Kasparov and Carlsen face off in their primes, we have seen them play on occasion. The year before Kasparov retired, he met Carlsen in a rapid tournament in Reykjavik. Carlsen was only 13 years old and still an IM. He lost a game but also held a draw.

A dramatically edited video of this encounter survives on YouTube:

We also saw Carlsen and Kasparov face off in Chess960 in 2020, when they drew in 55 moves. By that point, of course, Kasparov was long retired while Carlsen was in the midst of his title run. 

It really needs no explanation why a match between peak Kasparov and peak Carlsen would have been epic. They were named the top-two best players in history by Chess.com in 2020, and that's close enough after also considering how close their peaks came to overlapping. The most overlap on that list is number-one Kasparov against number-five Karpov, and it was a lot of overlap, for which we should be grateful. The next best combo is number-four Capablanca against number-eight Lasker, who were rivals for about 20 years, unless you want to count Capablanca's brief efforts against number-six Botvinnik in the late 1930s.

Top 10 Chess Players World Championship
The Chess.com list of Best Chess Players in History, from 2020.

But number-one vs. number-two would have been amazing. It's getting a bit late for Magnus to meet his match, unless perhaps he and Nepomniachtchi are about to meet in several title bouts beyond 2021.

Honorable Mentions

Botvinnik-Reshevsky

The Cold War drama of 1972 could have happened in the 1950s if Reshevsky had won a Candidates to face Botvinnik. He finished joint second at Zurich 1953 amid numerous later reports that the Soviets had colluded to stop him. Two years later, Reshevsky got a match against Botvinnik anyway, as part of a USSR vs. the World event. In four games, Reshevsky won one and drew three. However, the lifetime score was 5-2 in Botvinnik's favor with seven draws, including 3-1-1 in the 1948 World Championship tournament.

Botvinnik-Alekhine

This match was agreed to after World War II, but it became somewhat difficult to consummate when Alekhine died in 1946. If he had survived to play Botvinnik, how much longer would the old championship system of handpicked challengers have continued? Instead, FIDE had the opportunity to take over the process. In three games they played between 1936-38 (at the same Nottingham and AVRO events that finally forced Alekhine and Capablanca to play again), Botvinnik defeated Alekhine once with two draws.

Smyslov-Tal

If Smyslov had held his Botvinnik rematch in 1958, this is likely the match we would have seen in 1960. When they did play, Smyslov's solidity was a bit much for Tal's dynamism, and Smyslov held a 5-3 edge with 21 draws.

Conclusion

History is full of what-ifs. Even after the regular world championship cycle was developed and we stopped getting Alekhine-Bogoljubov travesties in the world championship, there were several missed opportunities for great championship matches that would surely have brought excitement and intrigue.

Who do you think would have won an Alekhine-Capablanca rematch? Or a Kasparov-Carlsen match in their primes? And what are some other world championship matches you would have loved to see? Get involved in the discussion and leave us your comment below! And be sure to be there this November and December for Chess.com's World Championship coverage with GM Fabiano Caruana, GM Robert Hess, and IM Danny Rensch!

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