Karpov at 70: “My great blunder was I agreed to hold the match with Kasparov in the Soviet Union”

Anatoly Karpov, the undisputed World Chess Champion for the decade from 1975 to 1985, today turns 70. In an interview with Sport Express, one of the chess greats answered questions from five grandmasters, including Sergey Karjakin and Rustam Kasimdzhanov. He gives his Top 5 players of all time, talks about the match that never happened with Bobby Fischer and laments the 1984 World Championship match where he led Garry Kasparov 5 wins to 0 but missed 21 “match points” in a row before the event was controversially stopped while he still led 5:3.

The Russian 12th World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov emerged to fill the void left by Bobby Fischer quitting chess and dominated the chess scene for a decade, before six years of intense battle with Garry Kasparov. He may have lost that fight, but unlike his great rival he’s remained active in chess, and would have played a strong classical round-robin event this year if the pandemic hadn’t forced the TePe Sigeman Chess Tournament in Sweden to be postponed.

In the run-up to his birthday he gave a long interview to Alexander Kruzhkov for Sport Express, and below we’ve translated the most interesting first section, where the floor was given to five well-known chess grandmasters to ask Anatoly questions.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Ex-World Champion. On the internet you find various, extremely controversial lists of the strongest chess players of all time. What do you think the Top 5 should look like?

Anatoly Karpov: It’s hard to single out five – we’ve got a lot of great champions. But, as you ask, I’ll name Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. I haven’t ranked them, but put them in chronological order. Perhaps someone will be surprised by the absence of Lasker, who held the chess crown over the course of 27 years. That record still hasn’t been beaten, but due to World War I no matches were held for nine years, and in 1921 he lost to Capablanca – one of the most talented and mysterious chess players in history, from a country where chess wasn’t highly developed.

Alekhine’s great achievements speak for themselves. They include the record for the number of international tournaments won – 76. I overtook him – I have 185 wins. That’s from the moment I became a Master of Sport, not counting children’s and junior tournaments. In general, I hold almost all the chess records. Kasparov also has no lack of brilliant victories.  

Now on Fischer. His path to the World Championship title was impressive. To win 6:0 against Taimanov and Larsen, one of the strongest grandmasters of the 70s, is a fantastic result. And then his confident victory over Spassky. And the Capablanca Memorial in Havana in 1965? Due to sanctions the US State Department prevented Fischer from travelling to Cuba, but he found a way. He played his games by telegraph from New York and he performed brilliantly, only finishing half a point behind Smyslov. Fischer also led at the Sousse Interzonal, though due to a conflict with the organisers he didn’t finish the tournament…

Vladimir Fedoseev, Rapid World Championship runner-up: If a match against Robert Fischer had happened in 1975, how would that have changed chess and your career?

Let’s start by saying that the match would have been a unique event not only in the history of chess but world sport. It’s a pity that it collapsed, although we held long negotiations and met three times. The last time, in Washington, in 1977. We almost shook hands on it there.

We went to the Philippines Consulate. Campomanes, the FIDE President, found a typist who typed out what we’d agreed. We’d already picked up pens to sign the agreement, but at the last moment Fischer refused.

Later negotiations were resumed by Lothar Schmidt, who was the arbiter for the Fischer-Spassky match and maintained warm relations with Bobby since then. I was active in chess, while Fischer watched, but hadn’t played for a long time… Finally I suggested, ok then, let it be your Fischer [Random] Chess. He also didn’t respond.

I don’t want to claim that he was afraid of me, but he was weighed down by some kind of uncertainty. There was too much that was new awaiting him in an encounter with me. When Fischer was on the path to the World Championship he beat opponents who were significantly older, plus everyone was rooting for him. 

Over time that balance changed. I was eight years younger and I had serious support, while Bobby by that point had also spoilt his relationship with the press. He hadn’t played a single official game after the match with Spassky. Yes, Fischer couldn’t imagine life without chess and continued to work, but in home conditions it’s impossible to model a tournament situation, and you can’t train your nervous system. That’s probably why he felt psychologically ill at ease.

Besides that, he saw that I was making rapid progress. After becoming World Champion I immediately won a very strong tournament in Milan, and then, for the next six years, I completely dominated, winning everything in a row. It was only against Korchnoi in Baguio that I suffered a little. In total, I performed at the highest level for 25 years, which, among chess players, is a great rarity. 

Sergey Karjakin, World Championship runner-up: You had great chances of winning the first match against Garry Kasparov in 1984, since you were leading 5:0. If you had made a clean sweep, would Kasparov have been able to make a comeback and ever become World Champion?

No! 100%! For him it would have been a terrible blow, which Kasparov, as an emotional man, wouldn’t have been able to handle. As it was he only barely managed to recover. Well, and he got 48 free lessons from me. And then, as a result of the scandalous decision of Campomanes, he received the undue right to play against the World Champion. 

My great blunder was that I agreed to hold the match with Kasparov in the Soviet Union. It’s unlikely that anywhere else would have seen such a disregard for the rules and responsibilities on the part of the organisers. When I drew his attention to it, Gramov, the Minister of Sport and a total idiot, exclaimed: “What protests? I don’t even want to hear about them! You’re Soviet people. Whatever we say, that’s what you do!”

All that led to a completely unforgivable twisting of the match. I think it was on the initiative of Heydar Aliyev, who was then the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Campomanes resisted to the end, realising what the reaction of the world would be.  

I demanded that the match continued. Kasparov took to the hills and didn’t want to have contact with anyone. The logic was understandable – he’d received the right to start a new match from scratch. Even with the score at 5:3, Kasparov was still hanging by a thread. But they saved him.

Campomanes was forced to send Gramov an ultimatum: if Kasparov doesn’t make a clear decision the match will continue. Demichev, the Chairman of the Organising Committee, was of course unable to stand up to Aliyev. Nevertheless, he did his job, informing Camponanes that the Organising Committee was ready to resume work at any moment, if the match continued. As soon as that became known, Kasparov immediately showed up. He said that he was categorically against.

But even after that the FIDE President hesitated. We parted with him in Gramov’s office. Campomanes got in a car and went to the press conference at which he was supposed to announce that the match would continue. I know for certain that he was intercepted by a telephone call and he changed his decision and stopped the match. It was Gavrilin, Gramov’s deputy, who called. By order of Aliyev.

Emil Sutovsky, FIDE General Director, Ex-European Champion: A unique gift allowed you not only to become World Champion but to fight on a level footing with the leaders of the next two generations. It’s hard to get away from the impression, however, that you almost never studied as seriously as your opponents. Do you regret that? Or, on the contrary, do you think that the relatively little work you did on openings allowed you to maintain your practical playing skills?

A good question. If I had stuck to a more fundamental approach then it’s possible I would have dried up, like Anand. Instead, over the course of long years, I kept my freshness, endurance, resistance. I don’t have the habit that Kasparov had – if his home advantage didn’t transfer to the board he immediately ran back to his room to analyse and then demonstrate where he had an advantage. A small advantage or an equal position suited me just fine. It’s been like that from my childhood on.

Anand, meanwhile, lost his bold style with the development of computers. He became dry, predictable. He’s got a friend in Germany, Frederic Friedel, one of the creators of the program Fritz. A weak chess player, but at international tournaments he easily guessed Anand’s moves. Once we were sitting together, discussing Vishy’s position. Suddenly Friedel says, “No, he won’t do that, but this! I know…” “How?” “Because that’s the move Fritz would make. Since Vishy works with it he’ll choose the variation Fritz suggests”. He was completely right!   

Rauf Mamedov, 5-time European Champion: You still play blitz well. Do you think the current speed of progress means we’ll reach a moment when there won’t be rapid or classical chess, but only official 3-minute games?

I hope it won’t come to that! Blitz is intuition and fast calculation. A lot of emotion, and spectators love it. But! There’s no depth or possibility to show the beauty of chess as an art. If only blitz is preserved then chess will become primitive and uninteresting. Pure sport will come to the fore. As in athletics: if you jump a centimetre further or higher – well done! But in chess, apart from the result of the game we also value the thought itself and the psychological struggle. That’s absent in blitz. 

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