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Chess in the 20th Century: From Lasker to Deep Blue – 25 Important Facts

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

The chess world is loaded with history throughout all the ages, though records of the earliest years are lost to time. Thankfully, chess during the 20th century was well-recorded, so we have all the exciting things to look back on and learn from. So, what were some of the historical facts about chess during the 20th century?

Chess didn’t change much during the 20th century since most modern rules were already established. But the way people play the game changed significantly. The 1900s saw a rise in attempts to throw opponents off their game. But this was also the era where chess-playing AI was born, changing the game forever.

The 20th century was an exciting time in chess history, with many fascinating and humorous incidents. 

These are 25 historical facts about chess in the 20th century:

1. Emanuel Lasker Was The Reigning World Champion

When the year 1900 rolled around, Emanuel Lasker was six years into his 27-year reign as chess world champion, which he won from Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894. He would only be dethroned more than two decades later.

2. Positional Chess Grew In Popularity

Positional chess became the preferred way to play in the early 20th century. Opening moves that were popular before, like the Queen’s Gambit, were left behind in favor of a more weakness-targeting strategy.

3. Capablanca Defeated Lasker

In 1921, Jose Raul Capablanca defeated reigning chess world champion, Emanuel Lasker. The match was delayed multiple times due to factors like the 1st World War, but eventually, Lasker was dethroned.

4. A Siamese Cat Joined The Chess World Championship

During the 1935 world championship, the Russian chess champion Alexander Alekhine would take his Siamese cat called Chess with him to play matches, both as a good luck charm and in the hopes that his opponent would get an allergic reaction and be distracted. The cat was eventually banned from matches, which could be why Alekhine lost that tournament.

5. Alekhine Became The 4th World Champion

In 1927, Alexander Alekhine won the world championship title from Capablanca. It was unexpected, as many people still regarded Capablanca as one of the greatest chess players ever, and many expected him to keep the title as long as Lasker had.

6. A Jewish Chess Player Dined With Nazis

Aron Nimzowitsch was a chess player who made a few changes that revitalized the game in the early 1900s and made it more popular than ever. He was also a Jew who, through his protection from three separate consulates, often socialized with Nazi leaders. He passed away before the holocaust, but his entire family suffered during it.

7. Chess Was Partially Banned In Massachusetts

During the 1920s, the state of Massachusetts banned the playing of chess on Sundays. Some players were even arrested due to the ban.

8. The USA Banned Postal Chess During WWII

Postal chess was popular during the 2nd World War, but the US government feared that people were using these games to send coded messages. Thus, postal chess was banned in the United States for a few years, which extended to trans-Atlantic mail.

9. Alekhine Was The Only Chess Champion To Not Lose His Title

Alexander Alekhine was challenged for his World Championship title numerous times but remained undefeated until he died in 1946. Technically, he never lost his crown.

10. Russia Dominated The World Chess Championships

Russia and the USSR delivered most of the chess world champions from 1927 throughout the rest of the 20th century. Some of the few exceptions were Bobby Fischer, who won in 1972, and the 1984/85 championship tournament, which had no winner. 

11. Nazis Arrested And Executed Many Chess Masters

The 2nd World War was a dark time for chess, especially in Germany, where Jews were banned from playing the game. Nazis raided the Warsaw Chess Club, arresting and eventually executing all the Jewish players they found there.

12. Mikhail Botvinnik Became The 5th World Chess Champion

The 1948 World Chess Championship was the first that the FIDE organized. That year, Mikhail Botvinnik won the champion’s title, becoming the fifth chess world champion and the first since Alexander Alekhine passed away.

13. A Chess Match Was Lost Over A Jar Of Honey

In 1979, Rosendo Balinas played against Jeremy Silman at the Lone Pines Tournament. Ten turns in, Balinas emptied a thermos flask full of hot tea into a pot of honey, then proceeded to drink every drop. His eyes immediately glassed over from the sugar, and he played the last 12 moves in a stupor, losing spectacularly.

14. The Cold War Was Also Fought On A Chess Board

We all know that the cold war didn’t end in nuclear destruction as many expected it would, but there were skirmishes in the form of chess matches. The USSR invested massive budgets in ensuring that Soviet chess players were formidable, and the results paid off; very few non-Russians won chess championships during the 1900s.

15. Chess Was An Integral Part Of World War II

Chess played an integral but unofficial role during World War II. While some nations banned the game, others embraced it. The allied forces even employed chess masters to assist Alan Turing in breaking codes.

16. Many Chess Masters Were Recruited As Spies

During the cold war era, many countries (on both sides) recruited their chess masters as spies. The idea was that these chess players could more easily gain access to opposing countries during tournaments, which enabled them to access restricted information more readily.

17. Alan Turing Created The First Theoretical Chess AI

Alan Turing developed a program that could play chess, which he published in 1951. It was only on paper, though, as computers at the time could hardly be called computers by today’s standards. However, the principle behind it was sound enough that we can still find it in today’s chess AI platforms.

18. Bobby Fischer Broke Russian Chess Dominance

In 1972, Bobby Fischer defeated the previous World Chess Champion, the USSR’s Boris Spassky. It was the first time since the 1920s that a non-Russian or USSR player won the championship, which meant a lot for the western world.

19. Bobby Fischer’s Reign Became Short-Lived

Fischer was known as a bit of an eccentric player who had many strange views and made high demands before he would play in a tournament. When the FIDE would not grant his demands in 1975, he gave up his champion’s title rather than competing and disappeared from public view. The USSR reclaimed the title in the person of Anatoly Karpov.

20. The First Match Between Chess Master And Computer

In 1989, machines and technology had evolved to such an extent that IBM’s Deep Thought played a match against Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion at the time. Kasparov defeated Deep Thought, but it was only the beginning, and he would defeat an improved Deep Though again in 1996.

21. Kasparov Lost Against The Computer

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue finally managed to beat Garry Kasparov. This led to outrage from the chess master, who believed someone else was playing against him and pretending to be the computer. Meanwhile, IBM programmed Deep Thought to play unpredictable moves based on past chess games.

22. One Of The Longest Chess Game In History Took Place

One of the longest chess games in recorded history occurred between Ivan Nikolic and Goran Arsovic in February 1989. The 269-move match lasted over 20 hours before ending in a draw. The FIDE has since changed its rules to avoid such long games.

23. Chess Led To Killings, Murders, And Violence

There have been numerous murders and violent outbursts caused by people losing at chess. One such incident occurred in 1979 when a prisoner in Nevada strangled his cellmate after losing against him.

24. Chess Became The First Game Played In Space

Chess was the first game humans played in space. In June 1970, two Soviet astronauts on board Soyuz 9 played a consultation chess game against Viktor Gorbatko, who was still on earth.

25. Kasparov Became The Second-Longest Champion

After Lasker, Garry Kasparov was the second-longest reigning world chess champion. He won the championship title in 1985 and lost it 15 years later, in 2000, ushering in the next century of great chess minds.

To Sum Up

The 20th century was an important time for chess. Players faced many challenges, like persecution during the world wars, but the game also developed into a sport and teachable subject thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Russian and Soviet players. The game wouldn’t be the same today without the strides (and sacrifices) made throughout the 1900s.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.