Culture and Civilisations

Unfair to Karpov?

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Unfair to Karpov?

Anatoly Karpov after he became world chess champion.(Getty)

My most recent columns have focused on two dramatic World Championship denouements, both involving the Soviet-era World Champion, Anatoly Karpov. These were his narrowest of narrow match victories against Viktor Korchnoi, in 1978, and the debacle of his halted contest against Garry Kasparov in 1985. Karpov became the only champion to accede to the throne by default, when Bobby Fischer refused to defend in 1975. Nevertheless, he thoroughly vindicated himself in tournament play, and amassed more first prizes than any other player in the history of the game. When time did come to defend the world title in matches, Karpov also proved himself the strongest active player of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Having, over my past two columns, recounted the sensational events surrounding these turbulent clashes, I would not like readers to come away with the false conclusion that Karpov was in any way unworthy of the title he monopolised for a decade. Karpov was undoubtedly a true artist and consummate strategist of the chessboard. His problem was that the strenuous match conditions imposed under the influence of Bobby Fischer, involved a degree of stamina, which Karpov found it hard to muster. From 1951 to 1972, World Championship deciders were limited to 24 games. From 1975 to 1985, under pressure from Fischer, the rules were changed to first past the post, once six wins had been achieved. Given the increasing difficulty of winning against top-level resistance, the new rules increased the possibility of extending World Championship bouts to unreasonable lengths.

World Champions are not just in competition with their contemporaries, they also have to maintain their historical record against their predecessors and successors in the championship. Ever since the days of Alexander Alekhine (who died in possession of the title in 1946), World Champions had rarely triumphed in major tournaments, while, tournaments aside, the majority of champions found it extraordinarily difficult to defend their hard-won championship laurels.

Emanuel Lasker (Champion from 1894-1921) fended off challengers to his title successfully in six matches, Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-1894) in three, Alexander Alekhine (1927-1935 and 1937-1946) and Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1957/ 1958-1960/1961-1963) twice, and Tigran Petrosian (1963-1969) once. The remaining champions pre-Karpov, all lost their title at the first hurdle, with the exception of Fischer, who, lamentably, let his title go by default. Fischer’s reign was, in fact, the most miserable of all, since he played only one game, and this an “exhibition” draw of no importance against President Marcos of the Philippines. Karpov himself lasted for three matches, before losing the title to Garry Kasparov in 1985. Karpov’s best match was his super-fast destruction of the perennial Viktor Korchnoi, in 1981, which went down in chess annals as “The Massacre in Merano.” 

Karpov’s record certainly seems to put most other previous World Champions to shame, but we have to remember that Karpov started with one big advantage as World Champion: he did not have to play a World Championship match to gain his title. This meant that he had huge reserves of untapped energy to expend on tournament successes – reserves which must have been denied to Euwe, for example, who had to contest 30 tough games with Alekhine, or to Spassky, who had to fight two gruelling matches with Petrosian. 

On top of this, there is the question of unsatisfied ambition. The majority of World Champions must surely believe that they have proved themselves and need no further self-justification. There must even be a temptation to relax, having achieved the highest title. But Karpov did not prove himself to be the best player in a clash of mental matadors, instead, Fischer simply failed to turn up. So Karpov had to provide the proof of his valid supremacy himself, in tournaments, by battering all prospective opposition and critics into silence. After his numerous victories in major tournaments, combined with a host of fine performances in lesser events, no one could fairly regard Karpov as a paper tiger, or indeed, as anything less than a worthy and active successor to Fischer’s title.

Here are Karpov’s results in classical time-limit games only against other World Champions:

Karpov’s Score Won Drawn Lost
Smyslov 3 10 1
Tal 1 19 0
Petrosian 1 12 1
Spassky 14 22 1
Kasparov 21 121 28
Kramnik 2 10 2
Anand 5 28 11
Total 47 222 44


This yields a total score of 158 (1 point for a win; ½ a point for a draw; 0 points for a loss) out of a possible total of 313 games. This amounts to a points percentage of 50.48 per cent. To achieve any score over 50 per cent against a field entirely consisting of World Champions is highly praiseworthy. 

However, one senses sacrilege in the air when speaking of Karpov and style in the same breath, since Karpov was a near-perfect player, who almost rose above stylistic considerations. Nevertheless, Karpov, at his best, still exhibited certain subtle preferences, there were still operations which he carried out with greater or lesser degrees of dexterity, and he exhibited certain characteristics, which any prospective opponent would examine in detail.

The hallmark of Karpov’s games was fluency and ease. He was the Mozart of the chessboard: he enjoyed Capablanca’s speed of play, the invincibility of Petrosian, and the killer instinct of Fischer. This killer instinct was not expressed by any overt show of tempestuous aggression, but by a machine-like insistence, which gradually wore down the most stubborn of opponents.

The strengths (and possible weakness) of Karpov’s style can be more easily defined under four headings:

Speed of play

If one examines the 24 games played between Karpov and Korchnoi in their 1974 match (which ultimately brought Karpov the World Title) it became obvious that Karpov was by far the more rapid player. Only Capablanca in his prime, and perhaps Anand, played with such consistent celerity in important matches. Very rarely, Karpov’s speed led to superficial decisions, but in a practical struggle his rapid sight of the board usually turned out to be a devastating weapon, which left the opponent floundering in time-trouble.

For example: against Olafsson at Bad Lauterberg 1977, Karpov had used 2¼ hours after two sessions of play, while the Icelandic grandmaster had consumed 5¼ hours. In the New Statesman Tony Miles asked whether the time difference at the end of the game was a record for modern chess.

Later that year, I was playing on top board for England in the European Team Championship in Moscow. During the post-game analysis of my game against Czech Grandmaster, Jan Smejkal, our lucubration was rudely interrupted by an explosion of cheering and shouting in the tournament hall. It transpired that Karpov had crushed the legendary Hungarian Grandmaster Lajos Portisch, and with the normally disadvantageous black pieces. The ululating crowd was registering its admiration. I wandered over to the board and looked at the clock times: Portisch had taken two hours and 10 minutes. If his position had not been bad enough to resign, then he would soon have found himself in time-trouble. I then looked at Karpov’s clock. He had taken just one hour to annihilate a semi-finalist from the Candidates Tournament.

Precision of calculation

At nearly all times Karpov saw his way forwards very clearly. He held the structure of future events in his mind, rather like Michelangelo, who claimed he could see the future shape of his sculptures in the block of marble. Many critics regarded Karpov as an icy calculating machine without nerves, but he exerted an impressive personal power, precisely because he was so calm and controlled.

Virtuoso in space

Ever since the 19th-century days of Dr Siegbert Tarrasch, the Praeceptor Germaniae, any strong player would know how to cramp the opposition with pawns, if given the opportunity. Karpov, however, mastered the difficult art of maintaining, and consistently exploiting, a space advantage in fluid, open positions by piece control alone. This was a particularly striking facet of his style.

Karpov’s weakness

Apart from a slight deficiency in the stamina department, if Karpov had a weakness it was a hesitancy, when faced by unusual openings, often of the old-fashioned classical variety. I explored this in my own game against Karpov from Bad Lauterberg 1977 by playing the virtually unexplored Philidor’s Defence against him. Karpov notched up 7½ points out of 8 with White in that tournament, and my game was the half.

The chess style of Karpov lacked the restless dynamism of Kasparov, but his moves offered an ineffable treat to the connoisseur of gradualism. Karpov has rightly been likened to a poisonous spider, patiently spinning a barely perceptible, yet ultimately lethal web.

As we have seen, Karpov won the World Championship without play, when Fischer defaulted in 1975. He defended it until 1985, when Kasparov defeated him in their second match. There followed three further matches against Kasparov, in none of which could Karpov reinstate himself. Then, in 1993, when Kasparov defended his title against Short outside the jurisdiction of FIDÉ (the World Chess Federation), FIDÉ  declared  Karpov “World Champion“ yet again.

Karpov has been declared “World Champion” twice by FIDE, in both cases by default. In spite of this somewhat ludicrous state of affairs, we should not let this blind us to the fact that Karpov is a very great player. This he proved once again, even after his championship aspirations had gone the way of Villon’s neiges d’autan, by his shattering victory at the Linares tournament of 1994, when he finished ahead, not just of Kasparov, but also of Shirov, Anand, Kramnik, Kamsky, Ivanchuk, Gelfand and Judit Polgar — indeed virtually every title contender of the day.

It is interesting to observe the judgement of Karpov’s great predecessor as World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, the Red Czar of the Soviet chess imperium and a true son of Lenin, in a tone which reminds me of Ted Heath on Mrs Thatcher, Theresa May on Boris Johnson, or Alexander Pope on Addison “… Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, and, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer…” 

Botvinnik on Karpov: “He is a universal player. He figures out variations with fantastic ease. Like Capablanca, he has also a built-in sense for positions. Of course I consider Capablanca a greater player, a bigger talent, but still they are alike. Like Capablanca, Karpov also did not pay attention to theoretical research, saying that it belonged to the time of “stagecoaches“ and is not needed now. That was his mistake and the main reason he did not preserve his talent. There are many talents, even great ones, but to keep one shining and lasting you have to polish it regularly. You have to work, to look after yourself not only as a chess player but also as a human being. But Karpov had no competition and his position was not threatened. He was lucky, because until Kasparov came along there was no real danger. Look at the competition I had, a force of great players – Karpov did not have that and it put him to sleep. He was, of course, sure of winning the first match against Kasparov. He was sure of the second one as well, but I believe he was not sure of the third one.

One is also reminded that Kasparov was Botvinnik’s pupil. Karpov was not.

Discouraged by his fourth consecutive failure in 1990/91 against Kasparov, his perpetual rival, Karpov was eliminated from the following cycle by our own Nigel Short — the first match he had ever lost except to Kasparov. The split in world chess caused by the subsequent Kasparov/Short breakaway from the World Chess Federation in 1993 (in which our Editor Daniel Johnson, played an heroic role, in persuading the Times and the Murdoch empire to sponsor Short’s challenge) gave Karpov fresh perspectives. FIDÉ resolved to organise their own parallel championship, precisely as they had done in the days of Alekhine and Capablanca. Karpov won this ersatz version of the World Title in 1993 (defeating Jan Timman); he won again in 1996 against Kamsky, and for a third time in 1997, defeating Anand in Lausanne.

This was a powerful and impressive match record, reinforced by Karpov’s victory at the tournament of Linares 1994, one of the supreme performances of all time. He finished 2.5 points ahead of the field, without losing once.

Karpov’s result at Linares has fuelled considerable speculation as to whether it was the greatest ever single tournament performance. Two other events, San Remo 1930, dominated by Alekhine, and the US Championship of 1963/64, won by Fischer with a 100 per cent score, also come into contention for this particular laurel.

Alekhine’s result came against the greatest players of his day, apart from Lasker and Capablanca. But it should be noted that many of Alekhine’s opponents, though rated the world’s best at that time, were ageing grandmasters, not far from retirement. The new generation of Euwe, Botvinnik, Keres, Reshevsky and Fine was on the horizon but had not yet made its mark.

Fischer’s 100 per cent performance came only in a national championship, but a particularly strong one, one that included no fewer than three players (Benkö, Byrne and Reshevsky) who had competed at Candidates’ level. I would rate Karpov’s performance as better than Alekhine’s, but I still find the 100 per cent of the mercurial and unpredictable Bobby Fischer, in the championship of the land of e Pluribus Unum, as utterly miraculous

This week’s game (Karpov vs. Kasparov, Game 9, World Championship Moscow 1984) features what might well be the greatest endgame ever conducted at world championship level. In particular, Karpov’s 47th move is a conception of staggering genius.


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Member ratings
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  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
51 ratings - view all

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