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Anatoly Karpov filled the vacuum left by Bobby Fischer’s retirement and was the undisputed World Champion from 1975-1985. His quiet but relentless positional style saw him dominate his contemporaries until the emergence of his great rival Garry Kasparov.
Karpov was a model Soviet child, born in the difficult post-war years in Zlatoust in the Ural Mountains, where his father worked as an engineer in the armaments industry. He learned to play chess at four and by the age of 12 was accepted into Mikhail Botvinnik’s chess school. Although the “patriarch of Soviet chess” was apparently sceptical of the youth’s unsystematic talent Karpov made rapid progress, especially when he teamed up with opening expert GM Semyon Furman. He became the first Soviet player since Spassky to win the World Junior Championship and truly announced his arrival at age 20 at the 1971 Alekhine Memorial. Although seeded only 14th he finished unbeaten in first place along with Leonid Stein, above a field that included reigning World Champion Boris Spassky and former champions Smyslov, Tal and Petrosian.
Karpov famously stated he wasn’t ready to challenge for the World Championship in the coming cycle, but proved himself wrong, defeating Lev Polugaevsky (5.5-2.5), Spassky (7-4) and finally Viktor Korchnoi (12.5-11.5) to qualify for a match against Bobby Fischer. The full chess resources of the Soviet Union were thrown into preparing the frail Russian to take back the chess crown, but the 23-year-old Karpov won the title without pushing another pawn after Fischer rejected the match conditions.
Karpov dispelled criticism over the legitimacy of his title by taking part in all the top tournaments that followed and dominating his rivals. He also defended his title in two more matches against Korchnoi. In 1978 he survived his opponent’s late fight back to win 16.5-15.5, while in 1981 Karpov started with three wins in the first four games before cruising to an 11-7 victory.
The mid-to-late 80s were dominated by Karpov’s clashes with Garry Kasparov. In 1984 it seemed as though the reigning champion was going to deliver a harsh lesson to the young challenger, as Karpov raced to four wins in the first nine games. Kasparov then dug in, but after a record series of 17 draws it was Karpov who claimed the next win, to move to within a single win of the six required for overall victory. In the remaining 21 games, however, he failed to cross the finish line while Kasparov scored three wins before the then FIDE President Florencio Campomanes aborted the match, to the protests of both players.
Kasparov won the rematch a year later and held on to the title in further matches in 1986, 1987 and 1990. All of them were extremely close, with Karpov losing when he only needed to draw in the final game of the 1987 match. In 1992 the saga was ended when Karpov lost the final Candidates Match to Nigel Short, though after Short and Kasparov split from FIDE he was able to claim the less prestigious FIDE World Championship title by defeating Jan Timman in 1993. He later retained that title against Gata Kamsky in 1996 and Viswanathan Anand in 1998, but gave it up when the format was changed to a knockout in 1999.
Karpov remained at the very top of world chess
in the early 90s, and scored one of the most impressive tournament victories
ever when he won the 1994 Linares tournament with an incredible 11/13,
finishing a full 2.5 points ahead of Kasparov and Alexei Shirov in second
place. His play has subsequently deteriorated, although he continues to make rare
appearances in team and rapid events. As well as playing chess Karpov has
always been an extremely competitive card player and a fanatical stamp
collector, with a collection valued somewhere in the region of $15 million. When
he turned 60 in 2011 Karpov embarked on a new career path, and is currently a
Deputy in the Russian Parliament.
Photo: Georgios Souleidis