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The changing patterns of history can overturn the most established of reputations. Take the case of Anatoly Yevgenevich Karpov. In 1975, at the age of 24, he became world chess champion by default, when the Soviet Chess Federation refused to accept Bobby Fischer's match conditions and the mercurial American reacted by resigning his title. Although Karpov had won his way through to the right to challenge Fischer by eliminating all other candidates, it was not just Americans but the whole of the Western world who regarded his ascent to the ultimate crown as in some way tainted.

This was unfair: Fischer, as later became clear by his complete abandonment of the game as an active player, had simply no desire to put his world title on the line. Moreover, in the succeeding years Karpov became the most successful tournament player of the 20th century, notching up crushing victories against all comers, as if determined to prove wrong all those who continued to claim that he would have lost against Fischer.

Then, in 1978, when Karpov met his first official challenge as world champion, he found himself facing Viktor Korchnoi, who two years earlier had defected from the Soviet Union. Korchnoi had come to believe that Karpov — the impeccably Soviet son of factory workers, and a party member — would be impossible to beat fair and square within the borders of the Soviet Union, and that he would have to mount his challenge elsewhere. Yet when the two met in a mighty clash in the neutral Philippines in 1978, the Soviet authorities still exerted their grip by refusing to let the defector's wife and son join him. As a result, the match descended into extraordinary political and personal bitterness, with Korchnoi declaring Karpov to be "the jailer of my wife and son" and Karpov retaliating by declaring Korchnoi "immoral" for leaving his family behind.

Understandably, the Western media took Korchnoi's side, and portrayed their match as that between a heroic lone individual and the mighty Soviet system. It's certainly true that by squeaking the narrowest of victories in the final game of the match, Karpov saved the Soviet regime from a political humiliation that would have been even greater than that meted out to them when Fischer took the world title from Spassky in 1972.

Yet when, in 1984, Karpov finally faced a challenger from within the Soviet Union, he still ended up as the villain. His opponent was not really Russian, being the half-Jewish, half-Armenian prodigy Garry Kasparov. After an interminable struggle lasting for five months, Karpov appeared on the verge of complete physical collapse. At that point, the then President of FIDE (the world chess federation), Florencio Campomanes, suddenly declared the match to be over, with Karpov retaining his title. To this day, it is not clear whether Karpov had actively conspired in this chicanery, but it certainly had Moscow's approval. Once again, Karpov was seen as world champion in name only.

In the return match a year later, Kasparov took his revenge. Then, seemingly as doomed to eternal conflict as Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, they played three further world title matches, all of them desperately close: over no fewer than 144 games, Kasparov nosed ahead by just 21 wins to 19, with 104 draws. 

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