It has been a very eventful year in the chess world. Viswanathan Anand successfully defended his World Chess Championship title for the third consecutive time and he is the only player to win the World Chess Championship in four different formats. Anand has consistently been a top player for many years--he ranked no lower than third on the rating list from 1996 to 2008--and the 43 year old is trying to prove that he can still keep pace with the new generation of rising stars.
Although Anand is the official champion, he is not the strongest player in the world (and he has not been for quite some time); that title belongs to Magnus Carlsen, the "Mozart of Chess," who recently broke Garry Kasparov's record for highest chess rating of all-time. Carlsen's 2861 rating is 10 points higher than Kasparov's standard, which had stood for 13 years; prior to that, Bobby Fischer held the record (2785) from 1972 until 1990, when Kasparov eclipsed Fischer and became the first player to achieve a 2800 rating. While Carlsen's accomplishment is impressive, it is important to remember that the significance of a chess rating is not determined by the raw number but rather by the rating difference between players. When Fischer ranked first on the July 1972 FIDE Rating List, the number two player in the world (former World Champion Boris Spassky, who Fischer defeated 12.5-8.5 in the 1972 World Chess Championship despite losing one game by forfeit) had a 2660 rating; rating classes in chess are separated by 200 point intervals, so Fischer was more than half a rating class ahead of the rest of the world at that time! Only 18 players in the world were within 200 points of Fischer's rating in 1972; that kind of dominance is unparalleled in modern chess history and perhaps only equaled by Paul Morphy's brief run at the top in the 1850s, long before chess ratings existed.
When Kasparov broke the 2800 barrier, he led Anatoly Karpov by 70 points and there were 32 players rated at least 2600; Carlsen is currently joined by two other players in the 2800 rating club plus there are an additional three players rated at least 2780 and there are more than 70 players who are within 200 points of Carlsen. Kasparov was a dominant champion but--at least based on ELO rating differential--he was not as dominant as Fischer, while Carlsen is clearly the best player in the world right now but he has yet to dominate his contemporaries in anything approaching the manner that Fischer and Kasparov stood above their contemporaries. Rating inflation has lifted all boats, so to speak, and Carlsen would have to separate himself from the rest of the fleet by another 70 points or so to match Fischer's Usain Bolt-like lead.
Carlsen won three major events in 2012: the Tal Memorial, the Grand Slam Chess Final and the London Chess Classic (the December tournament during which Carlsen broke Kasparov's rating record). He scored 11 wins, 15 draws and just one loss (18.5/27, an outstanding .685 winning percentage) in those tournaments. Carlsen has won three straight chess Oscars (a prestigious award given to the chess player of the year) and has a good chance to pick up his fourth such honor; only Kasparov (11), Karpov (nine) and Anand (six) have won more chess Oscars than the 22 year old Carlsen, who will likely set the all-time record in this category as well.
In many ways this is a golden age for chess: there are many great players who are playing excellent and exciting games, developments in computer technology have improved preparation/study techniques and elevated the level of play and Carlsen may have the right balance of genius and charisma to attract more sponsorship for chess in countries where the sport is not as popular as it is throughout Europe and Asia. It is unfortunate, though, that chess resembles boxing in the sense that someone who is widely recognized as the best is not officially the champion due to flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the sport; this is a problem that dates back to Fischer's era and continued during Kasparov's reign when several "official" champions were crowned even though Kasparov was clearly the best player in the world. Hopefully, Carlsen will participate in the next World Championship cycle and have the opportunity to join Fischer and Kasparov as official World Champions.