Professional chess players waste their talents

Anatoly Evgenyevich Karpov celebrated his sixtieth birthday on May 23 of this year. All world champions are great players, but the twelfth champion has an even better record than most of his colleagues. It's hard to put him into perspective, but in my opinion only Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov were more important players than him. And Karpov's reign from 1975 to 1985 lies exactly between these two. He has set a number of records: Nobody has won more tournaments than he has, nobody played more World Cup matches. His win in Linares in 1994 with an unbelievable eleven points from 13 rounds is still considered the best individual result ever achieved. No world champion has achieved such a clear result in classic games against another incumbent as he did against Boris Spasski (15: 2 wins). He's probably the player who made the most money playing chess. I also believe that no other world champion has given as many interviews as he has. And finally, more chess schools have been named after no chess player than after him.

I consider myself lucky to have written three books about Karpov. 2007 published New In Chess Endgame Virtuoso - Anatoly Karpov I co-authored with Nick Aplin. And in 2011 the two-volume collection of games was published Karpov’s Strategic Wins (see p. 61) at Quality Chess. I have analyzed more than 250 games of Karpov, some very extensively. Many of these parts are so interesting and rich in ideas that their high artistic value brings deep, long-lasting pleasure to every viewer. And Karpov has produced an enormous number of masterpieces in his career.


Anatoly Karpov was born on May 23, 1951 in Slatoust in the Urals. Karpov's mother had a university degree in economics and his father was an engineer who received several awards for his innovations. Because of his success, he rose to head the company. The family must have had a very good standard of living by Soviet standards.

His father wasn't a bad amateur. He taught his son to play chess when he was four years old. A commentator later wrote about a position that Anatoly would not even agree to a draw against his father. Karpov reacted and said that he would have accepted the draw against his father.

Back then, the Soviet Union offered a unique chess environment. The chess culture was very high. There were many good chess columns, chess programs on television, presented by strong players like Kotow or Lilienthal, a mass of very inexpensive chess books and many clubs. Karpov therefore hardly lacked good opponents from whom his talent could develop.

At the age of seven he became Category 3, with nine Category 1 players. His first games in the databases are from 1961, when he was ten. In these early games you can already see signs of his special talent. However, I don't think that he would win a U12 world championship nowadays with his performance at that time. His opening repertoire was too modest compared to today's standards, but his knowledge of the endgame was quite advanced.


At the age of ten, Karpov began to work with Leonid Gratwol, who ran the Pioneer Palace in the regional capital of Chelyabinsk, 100 km away. Gratwol was a strong player, champion of Chelyabinsk several times and a successful youth coach. Seven of his students became grandmasters, including Sveshnikov and Tymoshenko. His strong team was even able to win the Soviet Schoolchildren's Championship. Gratvol worked with Karpov for three and a half years. His very positional style seems to have made a lasting impression on his young student. Karpov will later say: "Gratwol never forced a certain point of view on his students, but tried to work out the peculiarities of all his juniors in order not to waste their specific talent." The work quickly bore fruit, because at eleven Karpov was a candidate for a master's degree.

The Soviet Union spanned two continents. Therefore, there were a number of events for players from far away areas who could develop in these tournaments and win titles. This network enabled professional trainers to quickly discover talent, even from remote regions. Karpov also attracted attention and was invited to the Botvinnik School in 1963. However, the patriarch was not very impressed by the young player from Zlatoust and said: "The boy has absolutely no idea about chess and there is no future for him in this area." Nonetheless, Karpov later wrote that the homework that Botvinnik had given him were a great help because from then on he was occupied with chess books and worked hard.

Like Botvinnik, many of his later opponents too quickly dismissed Karpov as an unspectacular player. Many of his later adversaries paid the price for this misjudgment. Neither Spasski nor Korchnoi or later Kasparov were able to correctly assess his skill level and style right from the start.

In any case, Karpov couldn't have been that bad back then, because in 1964 he played a draw against Botvinnik as part of a watch simultaneity. Karpov lost a pawn, but later Mihail Moisejewitsch hired the queen, but was able to save the draw due to his active pieces.

In those years Karpov's openings were not very modern, e.g. he did not yet play the open Sicilian. On the other hand, some of his games already show his later determination.

In 1965 Karpov's family moved to Tula, just under 200 km from Moscow, where his father worked from then on. The family lived in a hotel room for a year. For the first time, Karpov's games from this period are well documented in the databases. He took part in all Soviet junior championships and achieved respectable results, but without standing out from the crowd. Nevertheless appeared this year in Shakhmatni Bulletin his first published batch.


In 1966 Karpov made further progress. This year the informator presented a game of his for the first time and he beat his first grandmaster. More importantly, he became “champion” at the age of only fifteen, setting the record held by Spasski. In the Leningrad "Masters" versus "Master Candidates" tournament, Karpov was two points above the norm. His result in the Soviet U18 championship was also respectable. He played his first international tournament in Czechoslovakia, where he immediately demonstrated his superiority and won clearly.

In 1966, Karpov decided more than half of his games in his favor. However, it was already evident that, in contrast to Fischer or

Kasparov was quite ready to weave in some quick draws if it seemed useful to him in the tournament. This can mainly be explained by his physical constitution, because Karpov was small and weak.

In 1967 he could not qualify for the Junior World Championship, but won his first international title at the European Junior Championship.


1969 was a significant year for Karpov's chess career. He qualified for the Junior World Championship. Shortly before the start of the tournament, the cooperation with Semjon Furman began. Karpov worked with many coaches, but no one was as influential as Furman. Not only was he an exceptional coach, but he was also an extremely strong player. He has participated in many Soviet championships and can boast victories against almost all great players of his time.

To deepen the contact, Karpov moved to Leningrad, where Furman lived. Furman's chess influence can hardly be overestimated. But as an educated senior mentor, he may also have had a cultural influence on his young student.

The collaboration immediately bore fruit. The USSR was the dominant chess nation at the time, but since Spasski won the junior world championship in 1955, there has been no more success in this area. In 1969 Karpov ended this dry spell. After a mixed preliminary round, he won convincingly. To qualify for the final round, however, it took a Herculean effort to hold a two-pawn final against Torre. In the seventies, when he was already world champion, he described this game in an interview as the toughest and most important of his career.


After Karpov was able to convince in 1970 at the Russian championship and in a GM tournament in Caracas, FIDE awarded the nineteen-year-old the grandmaster title. At that time he was the youngest title holder in the world. He passed the acid test a little later when he played his first final of the Soviet championship. His 12/21 meant the 5th-7th Place and showed that Karpov had matured from junior to adult player.

A year later he improved his result and got 13/21, where he was able to beat great personalities like Taimanow and Stein. His first encounter with a world champion ended in defeat against Smyslow, but the second against Tal he held a draw. His fourth place was an excellent result, but in 1971 not his best.


Together with Stein he won his first world class tournament in Leningrad with 11/17. This result left no doubt that a new top player had entered the tournament arena. At the end of the year he shared first place in Hastings with Korchnoi, who defeated him in the last round.

These great successes of Karpov were overshadowed, however. The chess public looked less at him than at Bobby Fischer, who was just laying down one of the most fascinating series of victories in chess history. He won twenty games in a row. Many of his victims were world class players. The American had become a serious threat to Soviet hegemony after his devastating victories in the competitions against Taimanov (6-0), Larsen (6-0) and Petrosyan (6.5: 2.5). All the great Soviet players of the time were around forty. The Soviets desperately needed a newcomer who had the potential to stand up to Fischer in the near future. Karpov seemed the most promising candidate, which is why those responsible spared no effort to support the future champion with all means.

In 1972 Karpov was able to defeat a world champion for the first time with Smyslow. In Skopje he took part in an Olympics for the first time. His debut was impressive. With 13 points from 15 games, he was not only one of the guarantors for the gold medal of the USSR, but also won the board award.

Karpov finished the year at the extremely busy tournament in San Antonio. He remained unbeaten and shared the tournament victory with Petrosjan and Portisch with 10.5 / 14. On this occasion Karpow met Bobby Fischer for the first time, who, as the newly crowned world champion, paid a visit to the tournament.


Karpov played his first tournament in Budapest in 1973 not badly, but not outstandingly either. Here in Hungary there is a rumor that Geller met the Soviet ambassador after the tournament and proudly announced that he had won. The ambassador then cursed him and said that Karpov should have won the tournament. I don't know if the story is true, but it shows how much the Soviets were looking for an adequate opponent for Fischer.

When the search for the next World Cup challenger began, Karpov said - presumably to deny the enormous pressure - that this would not be his cycle yet. Realistically, however, he must have calculated quite a bit, because he was already second in the world rankings.

For the interzonal tournament in Leningrad, Karpov seconded Furman as well as Razuvayev and Balashov. With 13.5 points from 17 games, he triumphed unbeaten in the end, together with Korchnoi. However, the co-winner mentioned in one of his books that Tal had "not done his best" against Karpov with one quality more. It's hard to tell what happened. Perhaps Tal had simply lost interest in the position, or perhaps the officials urged Tal not to jeopardize the qualification of their most hopeful player. We will never know how many agreed games there were in the Soviet Union. Kasparov wrote almost nothing about it either, perhaps out of loyalty to his colleagues. I know a very strong grandmaster who was serving in the army at the time and whom those in charge once “asked” to lose to Karpov. To what extent Karpov was involved and how often something like this happened can no longer be determined. But even when that happened a few times, Karpov kept demonstrating that he has what it takes to be a great player. Incidentally, if you haven't lived in the Soviet Union, it's easy to condemn such behavior.

In any case, Karpov confirmed his performance with a shared 2nd-5th. Place at the USSR championship. In 1973 Karpov took a big step forward and was the favorite for many in the upcoming candidate matches.

(The article is reproduced in part.
You can read the entire text in KARL 3/11.)