Big Think Interview with Anatoly Karpov

6/29/2010 – Big Think is a global forum connecting people and ideas. The site has conducted long video interviews with close to a thousand thought leaders, from Nobel Prize winning scientists to award-winning novelists. Anatoly Karpov is the first chess player to appear on He spoke to our colleague Paul Hoffman. You can watch the interview in full or in parts.

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Big Think Interview with Anatoly Karpov
World Chess Champion 1975-1985

Anatoly Yevgenyevich Karpov was the world chess champion for a decade, from 1975 to 1985. He won the title when Bobby Fischer, the American grandmaster and reigning world champion, failed to show up at the chessboard. Born in 1951 in Zlatoust, a Russian industrial city in the Urals, Karpov is widely considered to be one of the greatest players of all time. He finished first in more than 160 tournaments and occupied the Number 1 spot on the world chess rating list for 90 months, a record surpassed only be the man who dethroned him as world champion, Garry Kasparov. Today, two and half decades after his reign as world champion, Karpov is still an active and strong grandmaster (rated Number 155 in the world, as of June 2010). Karpov is running for president of FIDE, the world chess federation.

The following interview was recorded on May 17, 2010 by Paul Hoffman.

The full interview – 20 min 40 seconds

You can watch the interview with a full transcript here.

A Life Devoted to 64 Squares (3 min 32 sec)

Question: What qualities does it take to play world-class chess?

Anatoly Karpov:  A lot of things.  Chess is a very tough game, and psychologically a tough game.  And of course chess needs a lot of qualities, human qualities.  And so you must have very strong nervous system and then you must be well prepared, you must be able to work a lot. Chess need good preparation and so you must work for hours if you play, let’s say, for world championship.

What’s the appeal of chess?

Anatoly Karpov: So, I like beauty in chess.  I like interesting ideas that could be fantastic combination, but it could be also very deep positional idea, or, or very high level technique in endings.  So, I can feel and I can see beauty in each of this; beauty of chess, but also chess is always competition and so I like to compete and so this is part of my life.

When did you learn to play chess?

Anatoly Karpov: I started to play chess at four years watching my father playing with his friends.

I showed interest quite early and then I started to have lessons in school. I visited chess club and I played my first tournament when I was seven, and then I can’t say that I wanted to be professional and I thought I would be professional until the moment I became strong grandmaster.  When I became the youngest grandmaster at the time, at 19, then I thought maybe it could be my profession. But still I graduated Moscow University and I got profession of economist and in the meantime I made progress in Chess and I became world champion in 1975, when I was 24 years old.

At what age do chess players usually peak?

Anatoly Karpov:  So, in my time, it was from let’s say 25 to 35, now it’s earlier because you have easier information then you have computers and then okay maybe young people changed and so now I think it should be from maybe 18 even, or at least 20 to 30. 

Are we reaching the time when computers might solve the game of chess?

Anatoly Karpov: Theoretically, yes.  Because the number of variations are limited, is limited.  But still even the most powerful computers cannot calculate all possibilities which you have over a chess board.

So you’re not worried about computers ending the game? 

Anatoly Karpov: Who knows. Who knows.  But I don’t think in my life we shall reach that level. 

Will Chess Ever Be as Popular as Poker? (3 min 27 sec)

Question: How popular can chess become?

Anatoly Karpov: First I can say that 20 years ago, chess was much more popular than poker, and so if poker can make such progress we can’t deny that chess could make also progress and become popular as it was before.

Why should children play chess?

Anatoly Karpov: Chess can develop very important characteristics, individual characteristics.  First of all, chess develops logic, memory, and then with chess you can easily understand the necessity of plan.  then you can learn how to make strategy, which is important for normal life, for any profession and that’s why chess is entering school programs in many countries because teachers realize that with help of chess you can give this knowledge much easier than with the help of other subjects.

Why do you want to lead the World Chess Federation?

Anatoly Karpov: So this is a unique opportunity now to change the, change the situation. And chess is in danger as profession and so federation which is lacking now in leadership and so they made many mistakes and so now we have feeling that professional chess players have difficulties in financing and such prizes going down and then it’s difficult to keep this profession.  And, internationally, we have a very good situation now because we have grandmaster, Magus Carson from Norway who is one of the best chess players and most probably he will be next world champion, and then we have, we have American player, Hikaru Nakamura, who is also on the top, and then we have Sergey Karjakin in Russia, and then we have good players in China, in Holland, in India, and so it... and then Indian grandmaster, Vishy Anand, he just defended his title in match in Sofia against Bulgarian player, Topalov, and so he’s world champion for many years already and then this is very international view.  And chess, from a time it was just privilege of mostly Soviet players, and later Russian players, but now it became very international so it gives a lot of opportunities.  And these opportunities could be used with new team and I will have top professional team representing, of course different parts of the world.

Mental Toughness in Chess—and Life (4 min 14 sec)

Question: How would you describe your playing style?

Anatoly Karpov: So, I was, and I am, how to say—a positional player, but active positional player.  So, we had purely positional player who was Tigran Petrosian, world champion for six years.  But I have active positional style and so I played quite strongly endings.  So this was my advantage also and then I could defend difficult positions, which is quite seldom in modern chess.  So, and I could resist in positions where other players probably would resign.  And I was finding interesting ideas how to defend difficult positions and I could save many games.  So, I never gave up.  I was... okay, I was stubborn as a chess player, and so I tried to defend even very bad positions, and in many cases succeeded.

So you played on in bad positions?

Anatoly Karpov: Yeah, so as a personality, I’m fighter, you know.  And I don’t give up and if I believe I’m correct, I’m right, then I work and I fight.  Okay, this could be over chess board, this could be in life and so I defend my principles.  And in chess, okay, this is a special, how to say, characteristic when you, when you try to find the best move whatever the position is, because many people they say, okay, this is bad and then they lose will to fight.  I never lost will to fight.

How do remain calm after you realize you’ve made a poor move?

Anatoly Karpov: No, this is a very important and this is good question because many people would call back the situation, they missed chances, and then of course it will spoil the rest of the game.  But it is concerning not only special situation during the game, but also the bad result of previous game for the next game you play.  So, in my life, I tried and I succeeded in many cases to forget everything that was in the past.  So, of course you need to make some analysis and not to repeat mistakes, but it’s extremely important to accept situation like it is, the real situation, not with thoughts of regrets of what you missed and okay, two moves ago you had winning position now, you have to defend a difficult position and probably you might lose the game.  So, this thought shouldn’t be when you play chess game.  And so later on maybe you analyze and then you will, how to say, make some conclusions.  But during the game... and this is also very important part for chess education because chess is getting ideas how to accept the real situation and how to be objective.  To be objective and to meet unexpected situations and to adapt to this immediately and to start to think and to solve the problems.

You have to develop this.  I don’t think it comes from your childhood or with birth. 

Karpov’s Chess Confession (1 min 33 sec)

Question: What are your weaknesses as a player?

Anatoly Karpov: Weaknesses?  So, I didn’t know so well chess theory, the theory of chess openings.  And so, of course I knew the theory, but not on the level of the best players, so this was my... this was always my weakness.  But this is you know, this is weakness and this is advantage because if I would know Chess theory so well, so probably I would not work out this style to defend difficult positions because from my childhood I could receive difficult positions against even weaker players, but okay nothing happened, so I was continuing to fight.  And so this is weakness, this is positive thing, but still more this is weakness.  It is better to know Chess Theory and not to get in difficult positions from the beginning. 

Why didn’t you study chess openings?

Anatoly Karpov: So, it was boring to study this, so people consider that it is boring to study end games, but for me it was more boring to study openings and then also I didn’t want to play when I know everything till almost 25 or 30. I wanted to create something over the board.

Garry Kasparov Hates It When You Mess With His King (54 seconds)

Question: What are Kasparov’s strengths and weaknesses?

Anatoly Karpov: So, opposite to me he knows chess theory, even now very well.  And he was always big expert in Chess openings, and then probably he is not so good in positional play, but he is fantastic in the positions where he has initiative. And so he can he sacrifice material to get initiative and so he, in active positions, he is very strong.  Maybe he’s less strong in boring positions, and then maybe his weakness was, of course now he is not playing so active like before, so he was not so strong when his king was in danger.

Close Encounters With Bobby Fischer (5 min 04 sec)

Question: How did you feel when Fischer defaulted on his world title?

Anatoly Karpov: So I wasn’t very happy that Fischer didn’t appear for the match and I made many efforts to play another match.  Okay, even it could be not official match for world title, but I wanted to play Fischer and I met him for several times, but I believe he had psychological problems at that moment.  And so first of all he couldn’t accept to lose even one game.  And so you could feel it when we had discussions.  He thought that when he became world champion he had no right to make one mistake or especially to lose chess game. And with such approach it is very difficult to play chess because when you meet a player who is on the same level and very strong, you can’t avoid losing game.  Even one game.  You can win a match, but not playing without losing the game. It’s almost impossible. 
Did you ever meet Fischer?

Anatoly Karpov: Yes I met Fischer a couple of times and the first time, I mean in this set because we met first in San Antonio in 1972 just after he became world champion, after he beat Spasky in Reykjavik.  I played in San Antonio in 1972 and then Fischer was invited by organizers.  He was guest of honor now for the closing ceremony and the final round.  That time I met him for the first time and then we had set of meetings in 1976 and 1977.  And so 1977, it was last time and we met here in the United States.  It was in Washington D.C.

What did you think of Fischer as a person?

Anatoly Karpov: I must say that we had full respect of each other and so it was nice to talk to him.  And what I could realize, he had no patience to listen to his partner or opponent, and if he could find out any ideas, he should express this immediately even he could interrupt the other person.  He couldn’t wait.  He was very impulsive in this way.  But I have good memory of these meetings and I must say I had not any problems to contact him and to talk to him.

Do you think Fischer was crazy?

Anatoly Karpov: Well Fischer was always thinking that he belongs to planet and he’s not a member, or citizen of one country or another and he thought, okay, of course he was great star and also great player, one of the greats in the history of chess, so he considered that he belongs to the planet. And then he was very independent and so he expressed these feelings, sometimes with very sharp sentences which I would not support, but this was his character.

Wasn’t Paul Morphy, the only other American to become world champion, also crazy?

[0 0:29:01.00] Paul Morphy had another story and so he got mad because he wasn’t well accepted.  If we recall the history of Paul Morphy, he made fantastic tour through Europe and he beat the strongest players of that time, the strongest part of the world in chess. He beat Europeans and he became unofficial world champion.  But then he came back to the United States and it was time of the problems between North and South, and it was Civil War and then Morphy was well accepted, accepted with triumph in lots of United States but then he came back to his area, and he was from South, so people there didn’t appreciate his victories.  And so it created a lot of personal problems and he ended his life I think in the hospital.

Do you have to be crazy to play great chess?

Anatoly Karpov: No.  Absolutely not.

Chess in Russia Is Like Baseball in America (2 min 08 sec)

Question: Why has Russia dominated the chess world?

Anatoly Karpov: Because of long time traditions and chess was... chess was part of intellectual life in Russian Empire.  And so big writers, great writers they were playing chess and so this was privilege in part of top society, in top society people. And then after the revolution, new power, they saw in chess the tool of bringing knowledge and education because it was easy, it was cheap and if you recall the time when revolution happened, most of educated people and top society people they left the country.  And so new power should work out something to make new intelligencia and new intellectual people. And so they believed that with the help of chess they could do it, and especially it’s very cheap compared to any other things.  I don’t talk even about sport, but about other subjects and sciences.  And that’s why it was supported and even during civil war, when we had civil war in 1920, first championship for Soviet Russia took place.  And later it became part of education system, before World War II. And after all chess became national game.  Like you have here in America, you have baseball, and so Russia had chess. is a global forum connecting people and ideas. It may be a cliché to say that knowledge is power, but that doesn’t make the statement any less true. We know that there are just 24 hours in a day, that you are bombarded with information, and that the bombardment will only escalate.

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