The modern era of chess began with Willi elm Steinitz, who became the first of thirteen World Champions in 1886. Every subsequent World Champion has pushed forward the boundaries of chess knowledge, science, and art, each in his own way reflecting I he intellectual ethos of his day.
Steinitz was a contemporary of Darwin and Marx, who proposed rigid theories to elucidate the evolution of species and the nature of society and government. Like them, Steinitz tried to impose an ironclad theory on chess. In his case, it was the insistence ihat no attack could be successful unless a prior strategic advan-lage had been achieved. This contrasted strongly with previous practitioners of chess, who had not been averse to launching haphazard attacks, whatever the situation on tine board.
Emanuel Lasker was World Champion in tire early twentieth century. He was a philosopher who developed an entire intellectual program based on the struggle. He relied not on "theory," but on what worked against specific opponents. Good defenders were lured into unsound attacks, while avid attackers regularly found themselves exposed to Lasker's own mercilessly aggressive fire power.
In his foreword to Lasker's biography, none other than Albert Einstein paid tribute to Lasker's independence of thought:
Emanuel Lasker was undoubtedly one of the most interesting people I came to know in my later life. Few, indeed, can have combined such a unique independence of personality with so eager an interest in all the great problems of mankind. 1 met Emanuel Lasker in the house of a mutual friend and I came to know him well during the many walks we took together discussing ideas on a variety of subjects. It was a somewhat unilateral discussion in which, almost invariably, I was in the position of listener, for it seemed to be the natural thing for this eminently creative man to generate his own ideas, rattier than adjust himself to those of someone else.
José Raoul Capablanca, the third Champion, mirrored the rise of the transatlantic New World, while the exiled Russian aristocrat Alexander Alekhine had a turbulent style based on revolutionary tactics, parallel with that of Dada and Surrealism in art and reflecting the contemporary political turmoil in Europe.
After World War II the USSR began to dominate world chess. Hie dynasty was founded with Mikhail Botvinnik's World Championship victor}'. Alekhine had died in 1946, and after a two-year interregnum Botvinnik took the title in 1948. Since then, with the single exception of Bobby Fischer, every World Champion has been from the former Soviet Union.
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