Played throughout the civilized world, chess has fascinated people for centuries. Though it dates to antiquity (some researchers believe terra cotta pieces excavated from Mesopotamia of 6,000 BC were used in chess), there is debate as to which culture its origins should be credited. A Dominican friar from Italy wrote a chess treatise in the Middle Ages. Its 1474 translation by Englishman William Caxton standardized play for a short time, but it was not until international play of the next century that rules were widely agreed upon. A Syrian, Philip Stamma, acclaimed as the pioneer of modern chess technique, helped popularize the game in the middle of the 18th cent. through publications and play that stressed strategy.

London was the site of the first modern international chess tournament in 1851. In officially sanctioned modern chess tournaments, players accumulate points won at various levels and can advance toward the top designation of grandmaster. Tournament play uses clocks to limit the time permitted for moves, and the concentration and fatigue of a match require players to be in good physical condition.

Outstanding players of their day who were considered world champions were: François Philidor of France, 1747–95; Alexandre Deschappelles of France, 1815–21; Louis de la Bourdonnais of France, 1821–40; and Howard Staunton of England, 1843–51. Official world champions have included: Adolf Anderssen of Germany, 1851–58 and 1862–66; Paul C. Morphy of the United States, 1858–62; Wilhelm Steinitz of Austria, 1866–94; Emanuel Lasker of Germany, 1894–1921; José R. Capablanca of Cuba, 1921–27; Alexander A. Alekhine of France, 1927–35 and 1937–46; and Mikhail M. Botvinnik of the USSR, 1948–57, 1958–60, and 1961–63. Players from the USSR and Russia have dominated international play since the late 1940s.

The 1972 World Chess Championship, held in Reykjavík, Iceland, between the American Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, received unprecedented worldwide coverage and boosted the game's popularity. The enigmatic Fischer broke the Soviet stranglehold on the world title in a match reflective of cold war tension. Fischer, however, forfeited the title in 1974, the first player ever to do so, by refusing to play a championship match.

Chess's popularity was enhanced in the 1980s by championship duels between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. In 1993, Kasparov, who had held the world title since 1985, broke with the International Chess Federation (FIDE), which reinstated Karpov as champion after a playoff. Kasparov, still regarded the best player in the world, lost a match in 1997 to the IBM computer Deep Blue (see artificial intelligence for a more detailed discussion of the development of computer chess programs), which was then retired. In 1998, Karpov retained his championship by defeating Viswanathan Anand of India, but relations with FIDE were further strained when Karpov refused to participate in a 1999 tournament, which was won by the relatively unknown Russian Aleksandr Khalifman. Despite Khalifman's claims on the FIDE championship, by 2000 it was widely recognized that Kasparov was the world's number-one player and that his onetime protégé, the 25-year-old Russian Vladimir Kramnik, was ranked second. In a 2000 match Kramnik defeated Kasparov in a 16-game match and became the world's top chess master. In 2006, in a world championship reunification match, Kramnik defeated Veselin Topalov, whom FIDE recognized as world champion in 2005, ending the 13-year dispute over the title. In 2007, however, Anand won the title in tournament play.

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