Anatoly Karpov - The Boa Constrictor

Anatoly Karpov
Anatoly Karpov
Anatoly Karpov (born May 23, 1951), is a Russian Grandmaster and was the 12th World Champion. He reigned for two terms, 1975-85 and 1993-99. He won over 160 top-level tournaments and also set new longevity records at #1. He brought the standard of chess to new heights.

His game drew criticism from former champion Mikhail Botvinnik when Karpov first attended his school as a 12 year old boy. Botvinnik reckoned that Karpov had no chance of a successful chess career. To hear that from someone like Botvinnik would be enough to crush most people.

But in the sort of character that would come to define him, Karpov showed grit, taking Botvinnik's words on the chin. He used them as a spur to drive him on. Through sheer hard work, he became the ultimate positional expert and one of the greatest champions ever. It was a testament to Karpov's tenacity and unwavering determination that he would go on to replace Bobby Fischer as World Champion.

Young Anatoly

Anatoly Karpov attended Mikhail Botvinnik's school from the age of 12.
Anatoly Karpov attended Mikhail Botvinnik's school from the age of 12
Karpov was born on May 23, 1951 in Zlatoust, Russia. He was from the Ural Mountains. Young Anatoly played chess from the age of four. His earliest successes came quickly and he rose to the rank of Candidate Master by the age of 11.

When he won a place in Mikhail Botvinnik's chess school things were looking up. But he got a reality check with Botvinnik's early evaluation: "The boy does not have a clue about chess, and there's no future at all for him in this profession".

Instead of crumbling in the face of such damning criticism he fronted up, took all of the material that Botvinnik handed him and studied hard. He would eventually become the best player in the world.

Quick Ascension to Success

Anatoly Karpov made rapid progress
Anatoly Karpov made rapid progress
Karpov acknowledged that although he was talented he still needed to put in the hours. His knowledge and understanding of chess theory was by his own admission significantly lacking.

He studied chess books like a demon until positional awareness was becoming like second nature to him. His natural chess instinct was now being backed up by a deep reservoir of theoretical knowledge.

Karpov's positional play improved dramatically. So much so that this former weakness became his greatest strength. When he was 15 he equalled Boris Spassky's record as the youngest ever Soviet Master.

International Honors

Anatoly Karpov quickly made a huge impact on world chess.
Anatoly Karpov quickly made a huge impact on world chess
Karpov's first appearance in international competition was in Trinec, Czech Republic in 1966. He won the tournament. He followed that up by capturing the European Junior Championship in Groningen, Holland in 1967.

Karpov moved to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to work with GM Semyon Furman in 1968. He later named Furman as the main driving force behind his development as a world class chess player. In 1969 he won the World Junior Chess Championship in Stockholm, winning 9 and drawing 2 of his 11 games in the final stage.

He became a GM, aged 19, in 1970 when he took 4th place in a strong international field in Caracas, Venezuela. His first major achievement at senior level came in 1971 when he won the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow ahead of the heavyweights of world chess. Karpov had arrived.

Candidate Karpov

Anatoly Karpov won the 1974 Candidates Tournament
Anatoly Karpov won the 1974 Candidates Tournament
Karpov, Tigran Petrosian, Lev Polugaevsky, Gennadi Kuzmin and Viktor Korchnoi shared second in the 1973 USSR Championship, all a single point behind Boris Spassky. He and Korchnoi shared first place at the Leningrad Interzonal Tournament later that year.

This qualified him to compete in the 1974 Candidates Matches for the right to play Bobby Fischer for the World Championship. He beat Lev Polugaevsky +3-0=5 in the Quarter-final.

Karpov then faced a former World Champion. After a slow start he pulled through beating Boris Spassky +4-1=6 in the Semi-final. He beat Korchnoi in a tense Final in Moscow, +3-2=19. He was clear to play the champion Fischer the following year.

Fischer No Show

Anatoly Karpov took the title when Fischer refused to defend it.
Anatoly Karpov took the title when Fischer refused to defend it
Fischer sent a telegram to FIDE outlining three non-negotiable proposals for the match against Karpov. Firstly, the winner would be the first one to reach 10 wins, draws would not count. Secondly, there would be no limit to the number of games played.

They would simply continue playing until one of them reached 10 wins. Finally, in the event of the score going to 9-9, the match would be declared a draw, the match stakes would be split evenly and Fischer would remain the champion.

FIDE accepted the first proposal but rejected the remaining two. In response Fischer sent another telegram informing FIDE that in rejecting his conditions they had effectively ruled him out of the World Championship of 1975. In the same message he formally resigned his tenure as FIDE World Champion.

Dominant Champion

Anatoly Karpov reigned supreme for 10 years
Anatoly Karpov reigned supreme for 10 years
Without a victory over Fischer, Karpov was none the less installed as the new FIDE World Champion. Conscious that his crown did not arrive in the orthodox fashion, he set out to prove his legitimacy as the title holder.

He took part in every major tournament over the following decade, achieving an astonishing record. Fischer had dropped out of world chess and no one else could handle Karpov. Indeed Fischer would probably have had to give way in the end anyway.

Karpov won in Milan in 1975 and the first of his 3 USSR titles in 1976. He set a then record of 9 consecutive 1st place finishes, including a memorable triumph at Las Palmas 1977, around this time. He left the chess world in no doubt as to who reigned supreme.

Karpov vs Korchnoi

Karpov defeated Korchnoi in two successive World Championships.
Anatoly Karpov defeated Viktor Korchnoi in two successive World Championships
Viktor Korchnoi emerged from the 1977 Candidates Tournament to challenge Karpov for the title in 1978. The match was staged in Baguio, Philippines. The winner would be the first to win 6 games.

It was even early on with the first 7 games ending in draws. Karpov landed the first blow in Game 8 and led 5-2 after 27 games. Korchnoi staged a late rally to equalize but Karpov edged it +6-5=21 to retain the title. Karpov would share 1st place at the 1979 Tournament of Stars in Montreal with Mikhail Tal.

In 1981, Korchnoi was again the challenger and faced Karpov in Meran, Italy. Unlike the previous encounter, this one would not go down to the wire. Karpov won +6-2=10 in what became known as the Massacre in Meran. It would be Korchnoi's last tilt at the title.

Karpov won his 2nd USSR Championship in 1983 and would share his 3rd USSR Championship in 1988 with Garry Kasparov.

Karpov vs Kasparov

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov fought an epic 6 year battle for supremacy in the chess world.
Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov fought an epic 6 year battle for supremacy in the chess world
Karpov was now the undisputed kingpin. But inevitably a new challenger always appears on the horizon to upset the world order. In Karpov's case it would be Garry Kasparov from Baku, Azerbaijan.

It would be the defining rivalry of Karpov's career. They would fight for the title a staggering 5 times. The first one took place in 1984 on the same format as the matches with Korchnoi, first to 6 wins. Karpov built up a seemingly unassailable 4-0 lead after 9 games and later even led 5-0, apparently destined for an easy defense. But Kasparov fought hard and clawed it back to +5-3=40 in Karpov's favor. Karpov couldn't close out the match. A rematch was set for the Autumn of 1985.

FIDE returned to the old 24 game format to avoid a repeat of the Marathon Match. Karpov lost a close encounter in '85, falling in the last game, +3-5=16. Karpov subsequently challenged Kasparov 3 times for the World Championship. The matches were very close: +4-5=15 in London (1986), +4-4=16 in Seville (1987) (as champion, Kasparov retained the title) and +3-4=17 in New York and Lyon (1990).

FIDE Champion Again

In 1993 Anatoly Karpov was FIDE World Chess Champion once more.
In 1993 Anatoly Karpov was FIDE World Chess Champion once more
Karpov beat Anand in Candidates Tournament Quarter-final in 1991. He lost in the Semi-final to Nigel Short and it looked like he would never again be World Champion.

Kasparov held the FIDE World Championship until 1993 when he broke away from the organization following a dispute. He set up a rival organization and FIDE organized a World Championship for their vacant title.

Karpov and Jan Timman were the top contenders in the FIDE organization when Kasparov and Short left. They played for the championship in 1993. Karpov won the match +6-2=13. A year later he achieved perhaps the most stunning tournament victory of his career at Linares 1994, destroying one of the strongest fields in chess history. He surged to a 2.5 point winning margin over 2nd place pair Kasparov and Shirov.

Karpov beat Boris Gelfand in the 1995 Candidates Tournament Final. In 1996 he retained the FIDE World Championship beating Gata Kamsky +6-3=9. 1998 saw him defeat Vishy Anand +2-2=2 followed by a rapid tie-break 2-0 win.

Karpov Resigns

Anatoly Karpov resigned the World Championship in 1999.
Anatoly Karpov resigned the World Championship in 1999
The 1998 World Championship was the first to use a short match format. It was a tournament involving the world's strongest players. Karpov as champion was seeded straight through to the final.

FIDE introduced another change for subsequent World Championships that meant that reigning World Champions would have to compete in the tournament along with everyone else. For the first time the champion would have to qualify to play in the final. Karpov disagreed with this new departure and refused to participate in protest.

Anand did not take part either and Kasparov was also still absent. Alexander Khalifman won the tournament to become FIDE World Champion.

Winding Down

Anatoly Karpov began winding down in the 21st Century
Anatoly Karpov began winding down in the 21st Century
Karpov has been winding down on chess in the 21st century. He no longer plays high level classical chess tournaments but sometimes participates in blitz competitions. He has become a strong blitz player.

He and his great rival Kasparov commemorated their famous Marathon Match in 1984 by starting a mixed blitz/rapid match 25 years to the day after the infamous 48 game odyssey. Kasparov won the 2009 Blitz/Rapid encounter +8-2=2.

Today Karpov is politically active, pursuing humanitarian goals. He also gives lectures at chess camps.

Legacy of Karpov

Anatoly Karpov believed very strongly in the logic of slow-burning positional strategy over razor-sharp tactical thrillers
Anatoly Karpov believed very strongly in the logic of slow-burning positional strategy over razor-sharp tactical thrillers
Anatoly Karpov was most definitely a strictly positional player. He believed in the uncompromising science of positional play over tactical tongue-twisters. Lasker for example played moves that he knew not to be objectively the strongest. But he played these moves because he thought they were more likely to induce mistakes from his opponents.

Karpov on the contrary, like Smyslov, always strived to find the most accurate move in any position. He summed up his chess philosophy in the following quote:

Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory.... I would choose the latter without thinking twice.

If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic.

Moving On

Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov
Anatoly Karpov raised the bar at the highest level of world chess. He was the first in a long line of chess professionals. Professionalism not just in terms of gaining monetary rewards for his exploits, but in the sheer dedication he devoted to chess. He spent his life studying the game as a science.

After Karpov, all future champions who would climb the mountain to reach the summit of world chess would need more than merely a remarkable aptitude for chess. They could only hope to succeed by absorbing an ocean of chess theory. This would serve as a necessary underlay to natural instinct and talent fostered by experience gained in the bear-pit of international competition.

The first of this new breed of chess player molded by the environment that Karpov helped to form would be the one to depose him as champion. That player was Garry Kasparov.