This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2011 - When I was a much younger man, I saw a film titled "Who's the Man?"
It was a light comedy, but throughout the movie, the two main characters would pronounce, "You the man!" to each other.
In the chess world, this was never an issue. Well, not until recently.
Since 1886, there was always an official World Chess Champion. The chess world always knew who "the man" was, until 1993 and the infamous Kasparov-Short match.
Garry Kasparov, clearly the best player in the world and the World Champion to boot, was to defend his title against the lesser-know British GM Nigel Short. Nigel was one of the top 10 players in the world, but nobody thought he could beat Kasparov.
Kasparov and Short were required by FIDE (The International Chess Organization) to play a match with specific dates, prize money and a specific site. The problem was, Kasparov and Short did not agree with FIDE. They wanted to play at another site, other dates and had a larger prize fund in mind. FIDE did not agree, but the players did not back down. They played the match on their own terms, and FIDE decided that match did not count. FIDE also made the controversial decision that Kasparov, who won the match, was no longer World Champion.
With the best player in the world no longer the official World Champion, it was no longer clear who "the man" was. This went on for many years. Kasparov still considered himself the world champion, as did many of the world's leading grandmasters, and decided to play Vladimir Kramnik for the "title." Kramnik ended up winning and became the new, albeit unofficial, World Champion. FIDE had its own ideas, and had a number of World Championships in the meantime. Players such as Anatoly Karpov, Alexander Khalifman and Ruslan Ponomariov became FIDE World Champions during that time period. Very few top grandmasters considered those players World Champions though, as Kasparov and Kramnik were clearly better.
Luckily for FIDE, Vishy Anand and Veselin Topalov were to become FIDE Champions, and they were super strong players (and Kasparov retired in 2005).
The titles were finally unified in 2006. The match between Kramnik and Topalov settled the matter once and for all, and Kramnik was victorious, which made him the one-and-only World Champion!
You would think that would be the end of it, and as far as FIDE and top grandmasters are concerned, it was. Since 2007, Anand has been the World Champion, and he has defended his title successfully twice. Still, many wonder today what they wondered in the 1990s and early 2000s: "Who's the Man?"
Why, you ask?
Well, Anand is clearly the World Champion, but many feel the 20-year-old Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, is actually the world's best player. Magnus has been the highest rated player in the world for more than two years, but he has yet to have a title shot. Magnus did not agree with FIDE's system of determining who would challenge Anand, so he did not play in the last World Champion cycle. It is rare in the chess world to have a strong World Champion like Anand, and yet to have most grandmasters believe another player, Carlsen, is better.
May 2012 will be the next World Championship match. Anand will play the less-heralded Israeli Grandmaster Boris Gelfand. Anand is huge favorite, and the winner of this match will definitely be considered the World Champion, but the aching question "Who's the Man?" will still be up for debate.
Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.