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Chess world champions have only been recognised since 1886, although the first international tournament was held in London in 1851 and won by Adolf Anderssen (of Germany).

The first individual world chess champion was decided on the outcome of a match between Steinitz and Zukertort in 1886, two years after the death of American Paul Morphy (1837-84) who in a six-month tour of Europe in 1858 had proved himself the best player in the world at only 21 years of age.

From 1886 onwards succeeding holders of the title chose their opponents, devised their own match terms and set financial stakes to be raised by potential challengers, many of whom found the cost of challenging too prohibitive. However after the death in 1946 of reigning champion Alekhine the control of world championship events was taken over by FIDE (the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, founded in 1924) who also organise world championships for women, teams, juniors, blind players etc. An elimination cycle now produces a championship challenger every three years.

In 1993 Kasparov (arguably the greatest chess player of all time) split from FIDE and formed the PCA (Professional Chess Association) as a rival organisation for a short period. This led to split titles from 1996 until 2007 between a Classical World Championship (in matches against a single challenger) and a FIDE World Championship (in eight-player double round robin tournaments). After a reunification match in 2007 won by Kramnik (Kasparov having retired in 2005 while still ranked world No.1), the world championship returned to the format of a match between the champion and a challenger.

The Chess World Champions and their years of tenure are as follows:

1886-1894Steinitz, Wilhelm (CZECH)
1894-1921Lasker, Emanuel (GER)
1921-1927Capablanca, Jose (CUB)
1927-1935Alekhine, Dr. Alexander (USSR)
1935-1937Euwe, Dr.Machgielis (NL)
1937-1946Alekhine, Dr. Alexander (USSR)
1948-1957Botwinnik, Mikhail (USSR)
1957-1958Smyslov, Vasily (USSR)
1958-1960Botwinnik, Mikhail (USSR)
1960-1961Tal, Mikhail (USSR)
1961-1963Botwinnik, Mikhail (USSR)
1963-1969Petrosyan, Tigran (USSR)
1969-1972Spassky, Boris (USSR)
1972-1975Fischer, Bobby (USA)
1975-1985Karpov, Anatolie (USSR)
1985-2000Kasparov, Garry (USSR/RUS)
2000-2007Kramnik, Vladimir (RUS)
2007-Anand, Vishwanath (IND)
The first women's world champion was recognised in 1927. Like the men's championship, most of the top female players of the 20th century have been Russian. From 2000 onwards the championship has been decided at knock-out events (similar to the FIDE men's title from 1998 to 2005) rather than a defence of the title against a single challenger.
1927-44Menchik-Stevenson, Vera (UK)
1950-53Rudenko, Ljudmila (USSR)
1953-56Bykova, Elizaveta (USSR)
1956-58Rubtsova, Olga (USSR)
1958-62Bykova, Elizaveta (USSR)
1962-78Gaprindashvili, Nona (USSR)
1978-91Chiburdanidze, Maya (USSR)
1991-96Jun, Xie (CHI)
1996-99Polgar, Susan (HUN)
1999-01Jun, Xie (CHI)
2001-04Chen, Zhu (CHI)
2004-06Stefanova, Antoaneta (BUL)
2006-08Yuhua, Xu (CHI)
2008-Kosteniuk, Aleksandra (RUS)
Women are able to compete against men in chess, and so some women choose not to compete for the separate women's title. Chief among these is Judit Polgar, the world's top rated female player, who has never competed for the women's title.

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