Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Starting this Friday (November 9), Norway's 27-year-old chess player Magnus Carlsen, the world champion since 2013, will defend his title against Fabiano Caruana, who is a year his junior.

At this level, it is a young person's game. China's Ju Wenjun, currently defending the women's world title in Russia, is also 27. But the men's match - between the whizz-kid who was mentored by the man some believe has been the greatest ever player, Garry Kasparov, and the Italian-American who won the challengers' Candidates Tournament earlier this year - will take place in historic surrounds.

The World Chess Federation (FIDE) has chosen the venue as The College in Holborn, Central London, a huge, modified events space in Southampton Row that retains many of its original features, including Victorian furnishings, marble reception areas and a glass-dome roof.

It is a fitting setting for an event that, officially, originated in the same era. In 1886, two leading players in Europe and the United States, respectively Johann Zukertort and Wilhelm Steinitz, played the first billed World Championship chess match.

For hundreds of years before this, of course, some of the world's strongest players had established their right to be known as the best - players such as the Spanish priest Ruy Lopez de Segura, who wrote one of the first books on chess in 1561, or France's Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais, who defeated Ireland's Alexander McDonnell in a challenge series in 1834.

There was also the sudden eruption of a 20-year-old US talent, law graduate Paul Morphy, who decisively beat all the leading players of the day in a period between 1857 and 1858.

Morphy abruptly retired from the game in 1859, although he was regarded by many until his death aged 47 in 1884 as the absent champion of the game, and known as "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess".

Norway's 27-year-old world chess champion Magnus Carlsen will defend his title in London this month against US challenger Fabiano Caruana in a match that starts on Friday ©Getty Images
Norway's 27-year-old world chess champion Magnus Carlsen will defend his title in London this month against US challenger Fabiano Caruana in a match that starts on Friday ©Getty Images

Two years after the demise of this prodigious talent, the title many had ascribed to him was officially on offer for two men who, it was said, had both risen at a dinner party upon hearing the toast to the "greatest chess player in the world".

According to Chess Monthly, Steinitz had insisted that the contract for the 1886 match must specify that it was "for the Championship of the World". Smart move.

Zukertort, a German-Polish grandmaster representing Britain, was one of the world's leading players throughout the 1870s and 1880s - as well as being a sometime soldier, musician, linguist, journalist and political activist.

But by 1886, his health was declining, and he died two years later aged 45. In the match, which was played in New York City, St Louis and finally New Orleans, Zukertort established a 4-1 lead by the time the first change of venue took place, but fell dramatically away after that, losing 10-5 to an opponent who had developed a new, positional style of play.   

Steinitz, born in Prague in what was then the Kingdom of Bavaria, retained his title until 1894, when he was beaten by German mathematician and philosopher Emanuel Lasker, who himself remained champion until 1921.

At this time the system for world title matches was amiably ad-hoc. If a player appeared a credible challenger, and either he or his backers had some money for a match purse, they could set up a match with the incumbent.

In this manner, before the Second World War, the title passed between Steinitz, Lasker, Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe and back to Alekhine, with each defeating the previous holder.

When Alekhine died in 1946, FIDE set up a round-robin tournament involving the leading talents of the day to establish the new world champion, who turned out to be Russian electrical engineer and computer scientist Mikhail Botvinnik.

In the immediate post-war years the World Championships were dominated by Soviet Union players, with Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian taking their turn at the top.

The preponderance of dominant Soviet players, allied to the Cold War politics of the time between the Soviet Union and Western nations, created an atmosphere of suspicion that took dramatic shape in 1962.

Shortly after the candidates event of that year, another super-talented American 20-year-old player, emerging a century after Morphy, alleged that there had been collusion among the Soviet entrants that had helped Petrosian to emerge as challenger for a title that he went on to take from Botvinnik in 1963.

The name of this latter-day Morphy was Bobby Fischer, who also has many within the game that rate him as the finest player who ever lived.

Fabiano Caruana is the first American challenger to the undisputed World Chess Championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972 ©Getty Images
Fabiano Caruana is the first American challenger to the undisputed World Chess Championship since Bobby Fischer in 1972 ©Getty Images

Fischer publicly claimed that the Soviet players had worked together to prevent any non-Soviet player - and specifically him - from winning. He alleged that Petrosian, Efin Geller and Paul Keres had all agreed to draw their games with each other.

According to reports, this was confirmed in 2002 by the man who had headed the Soviet team, Yuri Averbakh.

Fischer, meanwhile, said he would never again participate in a Candidates Tournament as he felt the format, combined with the alleged collusion, made it impossible for a non-Soviet player to win.

As a result of the controversy, FIDE altered the format of the event, replacing the round-robin system with a series of elimination matches.

But of course, Fischer did not want to play in it…

At 15, he had become the youngest grandmaster in chess history. After observing his extraordinary play, Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein concluded: "By then, everyone knew we had a genius on our hands."

Although Fischer had ended his formal education at 16, dropping out of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he subsequently taught himself several languages so he could read foreign chess magazines.

Shortly after taking part in the Candidates Tournament, Fischer won the US title with 11 wins out of 11 - the only perfect score in the history of the tournament.

Sports Illustrated offered a diagram of each game in an article entitled "The Amazing Victory Streak of Bobby Fischer".

Here is another stat. From the age of 23, Fischer would win every match or tournament he completed at for the rest of his life.

But that still left some big gaps, as the unpredictable genius often refused to play matches, or at times complete them.

Fischer's win in the 1966-1967 US Championship qualified him for the next World Championship cycle.

At the 1967 Interzonal in Tunisia, Fischer scored 8½ points in the first 10 games to lead the field. His observance of the Worldwide Church of God's seventh-day Sabbath was honoured by the organisers, but deprived Fischer of several rest days.

This led to a scheduling dispute, causing Fischer to forfeit two games in protest and later withdraw, eliminating himself from the 1969 World Championship cycle.

In 1970, after another period of alienation from match play, Fischer began a new effort to earn the title so many thought should be his - a title that by now belonged to another Soviet player, Boris Spassky, who had beaten Petrosian in 1969.

After defeating all other relevant challengers, he was teed up to challenge Spassky for the title.

The Cold War background meant the meeting resonated internationally - it was seen in terms of a lone American challenging a Soviet chess system that had dominated the world for more than a quarter of a century.

Inevitably, it was called The Match of the Century. Unusually, it lived up to its billing. And part of the draw was the drama of Fischer himself.

Bobby Fischer, chess genius, arrives for the third game in his
Bobby Fischer, chess genius, arrives for the third game in his "Match of the Century" world title challenge against Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972, having been persuaded to continue after forfeiting the second game because of playing conditions ©Getty Images

After agreeing to play in Yugoslavia, Fischer raised a series of objections and Iceland became the final venue. Even then Fischer raised difficulties, mainly over money. It took a phone call from the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a doubling of the prize fund by financier Jim Slater to persuade him to play.

Slater's bonus brought the prize money up to an unprecedented $250,000 (£192,000/€219,000) - worth around $1.46 million (£1.12 million/€1.28 million) in today's terms.

Fischer was keeping himself trim with tennis and swimming part of his preparation, but his challenge almost ended before it began as he played rashly to lose the first match, then forfeited the second over a dispute about the playing conditions.

With the meteoric and unpredictable challenger apparently poised to call the whole thing off, Spassky - a comparatively placid and normal human being - agreed to Fischer's demand that the third game be played in a back room, away from the television cameras.

Fischer won his first game and went on to win seven of the next 19 to take the title by a score of 12½-8½ points.

Upon Fischer's return to New York a Bobby Fischer Day was held. He was offered numerous product endorsement offers worth $29.3 million (£22.5 million/€25.7 million) by today's prices. All of which he declined.

Fischer appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with US multiple Olympic swimming champion Mark Spitz. He made an appearance on a Bob Hope television special. The 1972 World Championship match attracted more worldwide interest than any chess championship before or since.

But Garry Kasparov versus Anatoly Karpov - a world title challenge that had five gripping episodes between 1984 and 1990 - ran it very close.

By the time these epic confrontations took place Fischer, like Morphy before him, had the status for many of world champion in exile. But it was an unofficial status. In 1975, when he was scheduled to defend his title against Karpov, he insisted it be played in the following fashion: the match to continue until one player wins 10 games, draws not counting; no limit to total of games; in case of a 9-9 scoreline, champion retains title and prize fund split equally.

The FIDE Congress agreed to the first stipulation, but not the other two. Many considered the 9-9 clause unsporting, as the challenger would have to win 10-8 to prevail.

Fischer sent a cable to the then FIDE President, Max Euwe. "As I made clear in my telegram to the FIDE delegates, the match conditions I proposed were non-negotiable," he said. "Mr Cramer informs me that the rules of the winner being the first player to win ten games, draws not counting, unlimited number of games and if nine wins to nine match is drawn with champion regaining title and prize fund split equally were rejected by the FIDE delegates.

"By so doing FIDE has decided against my participation in the 1975 World Chess Championship. 

"Therefore, I resign my FIDE World Chess Championship title. Sincerely, Bobby Fischer."

FIDE automatically installed Karpov as the new champion in 1975.

Garry Kasparov, left, and Anatoly Karpov pictured during their world title match at the Park Lane Hotel in London in 1986 ©Getty Images
Garry Kasparov, left, and Anatoly Karpov pictured during their world title match at the Park Lane Hotel in London in 1986 ©Getty Images

After the 1972 World Championship, Fischer did not play a competitive game in public for 20 years.

Karpov, with his stiflingly effective positional play, dominated chess for almost a decade until the contrasting, aggressive talents of fellow Soviet player Kasparov came to beat upon him.

In the space of six years, the two men contested five hugely close and dramatic championship matches.

The 1984 match was controversially terminated with Karpov in the lead. Having reached 5-0 in a "first to six wins" match, the titleholder looked on the verge of a whitewash. But Kasparov clung on with a series of draws until he won game 32 to make it 5-1 to Karpov.

Another 14 draws followed, with the contest passing the previous world record length for a title match of 34 games.

Kasparov then won games 47 and 48 to bring the score to 5-3, at which point the then FIDE President, Florencio Campomanes, declared the match over - against the wishes of both players - citing potential risk to their health and announcing that a new match would start a few months later.

The following year Kasparov got his hands on the title after an epic struggle, by 13-11. At 22, he was the youngest world champion in history, and he would not relinquish his status for many years.

In their 1986 match, Kasparov opened up a potentially decisive 3-0 lead, but Karpov responded later with three consecutive wins to draw level. At this point Kasparov dismissed one of his seconds, grandmaster Evgeny Vladimirov, accusing him of selling his opening preparation to the Karpov team. In his later autobiography Unlimited Challenge, Kasparov described this incident in a chapter entitled "Stab in the Back".

Others have since disputed that Kasparov had been correct in his allegations.

Kasparov then scored the single win he needed to retain his title with a 12½-11½ scoreline.

In 1987 a 12-12 draw meant the defending champion retained his title. And Kasparov extended his rule in 1990 with another 12½-11½ win. In tennis terms, it was like watching Borg and McEnroe.

There followed a period when rival world titles existed as FIDE persisted with Karpov while Kasparov carried on within the new organisation he had helped to form, the Professional Chess Association.

It was not until 2006 that FIDE resumed control over a unified title competition, with Russia's Vladimir Kramnik, who had unexpectedly beaten Kasparov in 2000, becoming the first champion in the new unified era.

He was succeeded in 2007 by India's Viswanathan Anand, who in 2013 gave way to another swiftly rising chess prodigy, then aged 22 - Carlsen.

In 1986 the musical Chess - with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA - opened in London's West End, to enduring success.

Rice, who had been fascinated with the 1972 world title match, had the idea of telling a Cold War story by using the long-standing US-Soviet chess rivalry.

The story involves a politically driven, Cold War-era chess tournament between two players from America and the Soviet Union and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.

Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any real individuals, the character of the American grandmaster, named Freddie Trumper in the stage version, was loosely based on Fischer.

Other elements of the story are said to have been inspired by the chess careers of Russian grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Karpov.

For a sedentary process, as Rice's project attests, chess carries a formidable emotional charge and political potential. Not for nothing did Vladimir Putin hold a personal meeting with Russia's national team before their participation in the Chess Olympiad in Georgia two months ago.

Through his victory in the Candidates Tournament earlier this year, Caruana has become the first American challenger to the undisputed World Chess Championship since Fischer in 1972.

In terms of character, Caruana and Fischer are worlds apart. But the game that unites them will always be likely to produce unsuspected drama. And so the chess world awaits…