Earlier this month Karpov was in the far northern Russian port city of Murmansk to open the Basamro Youth Chess Tournament. As well as giving a simultaneous display he also gave an in-depth interview to Andrey Kiroshko of the Vecherny Murmansk newspaper.
We’ve included some highlights below, starting with Karpov’s comments on the match against Fischer:
Karpov: In Fischer’s favour was his experience. In 1975 I didn’t have such experience, so from that point of view the advantage was on the side of the American, although I prepared very seriously for our match. But let’s approach the question from the other side. Fischer became a grandmaster in 1958 when he was only 14 years old, and his subsequent successes were also connected to his youth. Older players couldn’t find the key to him, as due to his very youth Fischer’s play was unpredictable, and he became accustomed to that. But in my case it would be the exact opposite! Fischer was eight years older than me, and now he was the one who would have had to think about how to play against a young opponent. Already at the time – 1972-75 – I was developing constantly, changing my style of play every year. So at that point I was unpredictable for Fischer just as he’d been ten years previously for all the other players.
After all FIDE’s attempts to persuade Fischer to hold a match for the chess crown in 1975 collapsed you took the personal initiative to meet with the American and attempt to agree on a match. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, we met on three occasions, and during our last encounter I almost managed to persuade him. We agreed all the most difficult points of the regulations for the upcoming match – all the points of dispute, but one. Fischer insisted on the condition that the match had to be called a “match for the title of absolute World Champion among chess professionals”. But in the mid-70s those in charge of Soviet sport absolutely rejected the concept of a “professional sportsman”. No matter how much I tried to explain to Fischer that they simply wouldn’t allow me to play such a match he remained adamant. In my view Fischer realised that was a point where I couldn’t budge and seized on it in order to say no.
In my opinion the age difference and the result of their previous match for the chess crown predetermine everything. It’s not even a matter of the physical condition of the Indian grandmaster, but his ambitions. He’s won many tournaments, the World Championship and he’s one of the most popular people in his homeland. In short, he’s already got everything. Carlsen, meanwhile, has both ambitions and the desire to be first. Anand now has a calm life and it’ll be hard for him to get in the mood for a fierce fight, but if you can’t get in the mood for a fierce fight you’ve got no business being in a World Championship match.
As a child I wanted to be a pilot. Knowing that, back in 1958 my aunt
gifted me a series of stamps devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Red Army. That’s where it all started. If I do anything I take it seriously,
so I currently have one of the world’s largest stamp collections.
Can we say that if you hadn’t become a chess player you’d have become a stamp collector?
No, you can’t. I became a stamp collector due to chess […] I always took stamp albums with me to serious matches. In the breaks or after a game I’d flick through the pages, examine the stamps and let myself be drawn into another world unconnected to chess.
I read that you possess
a unique collection of Belgium stamps. Is that true?
Yes, I’ve got stamps from Belgium and the Belgium Congo. Besides that, however, I’ve got Olympic stamps and, naturally, chess ones. This year the World Postal Union organised an exhibition in Switzerland devoted to the Winter Olympic Games. Part of my collection was exhibited there, although not the largest part. But the main event for me will take place in Norwegian Tromsø, where the Chess Olympiad is soon going to be held. My collection will be displayed quite fully there – the organisers have booked a whole room in the local museum.
An encounter with Salvador Dali
Karpov mentioned at the start of that interview that back in 1979 such was the popularity of chess in the USSR that he played a radio match against the crew of a nuclear submarine. In the same year he had a no less unusual experience when he met Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. A famous photo resulted, with Karpov giving Dmitry Sokolov of the Russian magazine “Sobesednik” the details of the encounter:
I only saw this photo once, about 10-12 years ago – the fact you came across it is, of course, amazing. It was taken almost by accident by one of the participants of my only encounter with the artist, 35 years ago. I was in New York back then on the way to play a tournament in North America (probably the Montreal 1979 super-tournament, where Karpov finished tied for first with Mikhail Tal), and was making a series of appearances.
The tournament organisers knew about Dali’s interest in chess and when they learned I was also interested in his work… In general, the result was that our paths simply couldn’t fail to cross in one of the downtown restaurants.
But it was Dali and I who benefited. We quickly found we had English in common, as I was already able to express myself in it and he could as well, of course, as he’d lived in the US for a few years.
Despite the fact that I was quite young here – 28 years old – there was no arrogance on his part. We talked as equals. The difference between us, which couldn’t help but strike you, was something else.
Just imagine: Salvador was accompanied by two of his chic female fans, while I had a KGB officer. Such was the norm back then: for example, not long before his death Mikhail Tal said that when he helped me in my clash with the “undesirable” Viktor Korchnoi in Baguio the threat of ending up in jail was hanging over him – that’s how he felt it would all end up if I lost. Of course that seems far-fetched, but there were a lot of such burdens for us to bear in those years.
We argued about painting – my library contained an extensive collection of reproductions of his work, so I knew the subject well.
He, in turn, wasn’t clueless about chess – he knew I’d only just won a World Championship match and asked some purely technical questions. Of course we talked about his life. Dali was an extraordinary person as you can see from his work – and there were a lot of interesting episodes.
I expected him to show an interest in Russia – after all, one of his wives, Gala (Elena Diakonova) was Russian. He asked me where I was from and I replied the Southern Urals. He nodded, but that exhausted his interest in Russia.
By the way, they say in many ways it’s his Russian wife we have to thank for his shocking image in everyday life.
I was ready for anything as I knew a lot of stories about how Salvador had greeted guests in his castle. For example, about how a naked Dali had galloped past the Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian on a mop to the accompaniment of Sabre Dance played loudly. Before that Khachaturian had waited two hours for the artist, but immediately after the dramatic entrance and exit the butler announced the audience was over…
I was lucky that we were in a restaurant where it would be
difficult for him to come up with a way of acting out similar fantasies.
That’s not to say we got by without anything other restaurant patrons couldn’t help but notice. Dali’s group ordered eggs with black caviar, apparently in a graceful nod towards Russia. But when their order was served it turned out there were only three eggs (at a cost of 20 dollars). That didn’t surprise me or my officer, but it sent Dali’s group crazy. The perfumer’s widow was particularly mad – she shouted she’d been robbed. It’s funny that was despite owning luxurious apartments with a view over Central Park – one of the richest zones in New York. I was really surprised back then that people who have money to burn can get so outraged when it seems people are trying to cheat them out of a few dollars.
By the way, the original of that photograph was sold on eBay for more than 600 dollars. It really is a historic moment. At the time I didn’t visit the US often, to put it mildly, and Dali had already stopped travelling around the world. Therefore back then in 1979 was our first and only opportunity to meet.
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