Americans Who Have Beaten World Champions

by admin on September 11, 2022

The latest news that has blown up the chess Internet came in two waves last week. First, at the Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, world champion Magnus Carlsen lost a game to a young but rapidly improving American grandmaster, Hans Niemann. Hans grew up in the San Francisco area, so people around here were full of pride — local boy makes good and all of that. Like the rest of the chess world, we were blindsided by the next act in the saga. Carlsen dropped out of the tournament, hinting but not actually saying that he suspected Niemann of cheating.

I would write more about the scandal, but I think that every chess blogger, commentator, podcaster and streamer has already offered their opinions. Nothing that I say is likely to change anybody’s mind. But perhaps some of you might be interested in my previous blog post, Hans Niemann and the Fifth Endgame of the Apocalypse, dating from 2015. It is actually one of my favorite posts ever, about an endgame I never understood (K+2N vs. K+P) until I saw Niemann play it in virtuoso fashion as a 14-year-old. I still can’t say I understand the endgame, but at least I learned a few things from him.

The only relevance of my previous post to the scandal is this: I think of cheating as a pathological form of shortcut-taking. As you play over the endgame, and see how much work Nielsen must have put in, how much obsession was necessary to master every obscure detail of an endgame so rare that you might never play it even once in your life, ask yourself: Does this look like a person who takes shortcuts?

Instead of writing about the scandal, I’m going to go a different direction with this post. With his victory, Hans Niemann has added his name to the not very long list of American chess players who have beaten a reigning world champion of (classical) chess at a classical time control. (I’m assuming that Magnus Carlsen is technically still the World Champion even though he has indicated his intention not to defend the title against Ian Nepomniachtchi this fall.)

Here is, I believe, the complete list of Americans who have achieved this feat, compiled by consulting I have not included exhibition games, simuls, blitz or rapid games, or games that were played before or after the World Champion’s reign. I am not a chess history expert, and is not necessarily a comprehensive source, so please correct me if you spot any mistakes or omissions.

Wilhelm Steinitz (3). Let’s not forget that Steinitz was an American citizen when he became the first World Champion. He defeated the second World Champion, Emmanuel Lasker, 3 times during the latter’s world championship reign: once at St. Petersburg 1896 and twice in the their championship rematch in 1896.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (4). He went Steinitz one better by defeating Lasker 4 times while Lasker was World Champion: twice in 1895 at St. Petersburg, once in 1896 in Nuremberg, and once in 1904 at Cambridge Springs.

Frank Marshall (1). His moment of glory came in Paris in 1900, again with a win over Lasker.

Reuben Fine (2). It was a very long wait until the next American win over a World Champion. Reuben Fine broke the long drought with two wins over Alexander Alekhine at the AVRO tournament in 1938.

Bobby Fischer (7). Our champion World Champion-slayer, thanks to the seven games he won against World Champion Boris Spassky in their 1972 match.

Yasser Seirawan (2). I did not expect to see Yasser on this list. But he beat Karpov in 1982 at Phillips and Drew, and Kasparov in 1986 at the Dubai Olympiad. A fantastic and maybe under-appreciated achievement by one of the two best American players of my generation.

Boris Gulko (1). He defeated Garry Kasparov at Linares in 1990.

Gata Kamsky (1*). Another Soviet emigre who moved to America, he defeated Kasparov at Dortmund in 1992. He also won three games against Anatoly Karpov in their 1996 match for the “FIDE World Championship.” However, like many other chess historians, I do not consider Karpov the bona fide classical World Champion at that time. So I’ve given a Kamsky an asterisk. If you are a Karpov or Kamsky fan, feel free to change the 1 to a 4.

Hikaru Nakamura (4). Now we enter the twenty-first century, and there’s a new complication. Nakamura has tons of wins against Magnus Carlsen, but as far as I can tell, almost all of them have been in rapid or blitz games. As far as I can tell from consulting the database, his only wins at classical chess were three games against Anand (London 2011, Norway 2013, Tal Memorial 2013) and one game against Carlsen (Bilbao 2016). Please correct me if I am wrong!

Fabiano Caruana (2). His total would be higher, but his two wins against Anand (Zurich 2013, Tal Memorial 2013) came when Fabi was still playing under the Italian flag. So his only two wins against World Champions as a player for the United States were against Carlsen (Norway 2015, Norway 2019).

Wesley So (2). He defeated Magnus Carlsen at Norway 2018 and again at Norway 2022.

Hans Niemann (1). That brings us to the newest and most controversial member of this list, and also the youngest. He is the first American teenager ever to defeat a reigning classical World Champion in a classical chess game. What a stupendous accomplishment! I hope that the controversy will not discourage him but will instead motivate him to even greater achievements in the future.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Robinson September 11, 2022 at 6:44 pm

“and see how much work Nielsen must have put in”

Hey Dana. Great article. Probably want to correct that bit.


Macon Shibut September 13, 2022 at 6:38 pm

Samuel Reshevsky beat Botvinnik in a 1955 US vs USSR team match
Arthur Dake beat Alekhine at Pasadena 1932
Your namesake George Mackenzie beat Steinitz in a match game in 1883


admin September 18, 2022 at 1:18 pm

Thanks, Macon! Glad to hear from you! I don’t think that Mackenzie-Steinitz counts (though I would like it to) because Steinitz was not yet the consensus World Champion in 1883. His “reign” begins after the Zukertort match in 1886. However, the first two examples are great! I’m not sure why the Reshevsky-Botvinnik game escaped me.


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