How Foes become Mates

The political situation in Russia transformed the sulphurous relationship between Karpov and Kasparov

Dominic Lawson

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. 

To say that relations between Karpov and Kasparov were sulphurous would be an understatement. Yet in 2007 something happened which not only transformed their relationship, but also the outside world’s view of Karpov as some sort of political stooge of Moscow. Kasparov had by then launched himself as a politician, challenging the presidency of Vladimir Putin, which he bravely denounced as a form of neo-Soviet tyranny. He was then briefly jailed for attending an “unauthorised” opposition rally. To everyone’s astonishment, the only notable figure who attempted to visit him in jail was… Anatoly Karpov. I suspect this was not intended as a statement of political support — Karpov has never disowned the communist past — but was based on the feeling that a fellow former world champion should not be treated so contemptuously.

As a result of that startling gesture, Karpov’s subsequent campaign in 2010 to become FIDE president, against the weird and sinister ruler of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, attracted the whole hearted backing not just of his erstwhile deadliest foe, Kasparov, but also of many Western chess federations including the US. Who would have imagined that in 1975, when Karpov was denounced as a “fake world champion” by the Americans?

I have dined with Karpov on a couple of occasions — in his lethal prime in the mid-1980s — and he was certainly not, even then, the crude homo Sovieticus that some imagined. He was full of curiosity about the West and open to discussion on anything that came up, cultural or political. The last occasion we met was during his 1987 world title match with Kasparov in Seville. Kasparov managed to retain his title only by grinding out a win in the final game, to tie the scores at 12-all: yet Karpov reacted to this devastating disappointment with his usual inscrutable good manners — not, I’m afraid, something Kasparov would have been able to manage in similar circumstances.

Here is the second game of that match, in which Karpov, playing Black, stunned the reigning champion with an extraordinary novelty as early as move 9 — and finished him off with a checkmating attack seemingly out of nowhere. 

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3 Bb4 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 e4 7.Ng5 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Re8 9.f3 e3!? (this pawn sacrifice — most uncharacteristic of the normally ultra-solid Karpov — had a devastating effect on Kasparov: he thought for an hour and 20 minutes over his next move, and as a result became dreadfully short of time) 10.d3 d5 11.Qb3 Na5 12.Qa3 c6 13.cxd5 cxd5 14.f4 Nc6 15.Rb1 Qc7 16.Bb2 Bg4 17.c4 dxc4 18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Ne4 Kg7 20.dxc4 Rad8 21.Rb3 Nd4 22.Rxe3 Qxc4 23.Kh1 Nf5 24.Rd3 Bxe2 25.Rxd8 Rxd8 26.Re1 Re8 27.Qa5 b5 28.Nd2 Qd3 29.Nb3 Bf3! (Kasparov had only a minute left on his clock at this stage; Karpov himself was down to his last three, but that was enough to work out this killer — if Kasparov plays 30.Rxe8, he is immediately mated with 30…Qf1) 30.Bxf3 Qxf3+ 31.Kg1 Rxe1+ 32.Qxe1 Ne3! and a visibly shocked Kasparov resigned: amazingly, despite both sides having only two pieces left, he has no defence against mate.

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