Karpov on his biggest pleasure in life

by David Llada
7/18/2018 – Today is the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1978 World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in Baguio, the Philippines. To mark the occasion we bring you an epic interview from DAVID LLADA, who spoke to the 12th World Champion following his 184th tournament win in Plato d'Aro, outside of Barcelona, Spain. | Photo: David Llada

Master Class Vol.6: Anatoly Karpov Master Class Vol.6: Anatoly Karpov

On this DVD a team of experts looks closely at the secrets of Karpov's games. In more than 7 hours of video, the authors examine four essential aspects of Karpov's superb play.

More...

"Always stay active"

Platja d’Aro is a coastal resort in the Costa Brava, barely one hour away from Barcelona, but much less crowded than the Catalan capital. Blessed with a two kilometres long beach, it has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, and during its history has transformed from a small fishing settlement to a Roman village, then a medieval town, and finally, in recent times, into a popular resort for villa-owning wealthy Russians and northern Europeans.

Karpov silhouetteVladimir Volkov, a Russian businessman who established himself in Platja fifteen years ago to exploit the real state boom in the province, and Jordi Diaz, a local chess enthusiast, are the main patrons responsible for the Platja d’Aro Festival. This event includes a summer camp for young Russian talents, a chess open (won by the Cuban GM Yasser Quesada) and a “Legends” tournament, with four veterans (Anatoly Karpov, Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Eugenio Torre and Anatoly Vaisser) playing in rapid and blitz format.

Vaisser, who devoted himself to chess when he was already in his thirties, has always been a tough player in rapid chess, and he seemed to be on track for an easy win. After the blitz games he still looked like the main candidate for victory. But in an unexpected turn of events, Karpov won his last three games in a row when we all thought that he was already out of the race, while Vaisser lost his last encounter against Ljubojevic. Even Karpov himself was surprised when he learned that he had surpassed his old friend in the standings table! 

“184”, muttered the old champion a couple of times, like if he was talking to himself rather than to anybody else in the room. He looked at me and he repeated, this time louder, “184!”, with a broad smile, knowing that I would understand the meaning of that figure: he was referring to the number of tournaments he has won throughout his career. The old gladiator had added one more to his collection, and he was visibly delighted.

Legends

(L to R) Torre, Ljubojevic, Karpov, Vaisser, Volkov | Photo: David Llada

Right after his victory, Karpov went for a swim. The sapphire waters of the Mediterranean are merely 20 meters away from the Hotel Aromar, that hosted the players and, this year also served as venue for both the open and the “legends” tournament. I waited for him on the hotel terrace, checking the news: Kirsan Ilymzhinov had just announced that he would not run for FIDE President, and would support Arkady Dvorkovich instead. The night before, on the same terrace, Karpov had been talking until late into the night with Bachar Kouatly, who paid a brief visit to Platja d’Aro. Bachar had just returned from Moscow, and I suppose he was briefing Karpov on the recent developments.

When Karpov came out of the water, he put a shirt on and let me know he was ready. It seemed inevitable to start the interview talking about chess politics.


David Llada: Dvorkovich has just announced he will be running for FIDE President. He has top-level connections, he has organized the current football World Cup -so he has experience in sports management at the highest levels, and he has been head of the Russian Chess Federation in the past. On the paper, he looks like the perfect man for the job. Do you think he would make a good FIDE President?

Anatoly Karpov: We will see, but that’s what I hope. I know I was also optimistic when Kirsan first ran for President, but I don’t think I can make two mistakes in a row (laughs). Of course, I support Dvorkovich and I think he can make a good president. Now he is not in the government, so he has more time to make something good for chess. He has ideas, opportunities, connections… 

DL: I assume he has kept you informed of his intentions…

AK: Yes, we had a meeting. I know him since very young age because I met his father when I was a kid myself: in 1961, when I played my first youth Russian Championship in Borovich (Novgorod Oblast), Vladimir Dvorkovich was an executive secretary there. He gave me my “first category player” diploma, that he wrote himself, and these things you don’t forget. So Arkady Dvorkovich was not even on this planet when I became acquainted with his father.

He has built a nice ticket. Granda is internationally known, and his leadership and influence in the South American Federations will be important; Zhu Chen is a former World Champion, living in Qatar now so she represents the Arab world, but also China… It is a good-looking team.

Dvorkovich and Koatly

Arkady Dvorkovich and Bachar Kouatly at a campaign meeting in Moscow | Photo: Eteri Kublashvili

There were rumours that you would run yourself. Was that really a possibility at some point?

Not really, because of my role in the Russian parliament. Eight years ago, I could make my own decision, but now as a Deputy of the State, the responsibilities are higher and I can’t just step aside, I can’t make such decisions so freely.

How would you rate Kirsan’s long Presidency? 

Kirsan did some positive things, but in general, I think these 23 years was a period of missing opportunities for chess. Just remember in what place chess was in 1994: there were some really nice tournaments, matches were still a big thing, Kasparov was playing… we could even say that chess was one of the leading sports in the world in terms of prestige until 1994. And after Kirsan, a lot of this went lost.

Chess even fell behind other games like backgammon or poker. We could say that poker didn’t really exist as a sport in 1994 and look at the enormous growth it has experienced: now it is on TV, while chess is nowhere. These are the results and everybody can see it; if somebody doesn’t, it is because they don’t remember how important chess was a couple of decades ago.

But I think the internet is good for chess, it is a new era, and chess keeps entering school programs all around the world – mostly as an optional subject, not compulsory. But when you have millions of children playing chess, and people with good ideas on how to channel this mass of players, our game will probably experience the boost it deserves.

It seems that all the three candidates agree on having term limits. After 23 years with the same person in office, it sounds like a sensible idea, don’t you think?

I don’t know… maybe we should do this. I prefer that the limit is not “two periods”, but “two consecutive periods” instead. That way, if you demonstrated you were a good President and you have support, you can take a four-year break, and then run again.

Karpov

(Click or tap to enlarge) | Photo: David Llada


I have always had a very good relationship with Karpov, but we became much closer in 2006 when I was commissioned to write a biography on him to be published in Mexico. I was only given three months to do the job, so I spent the first two reading every book written about him, and every interview he gave; I can’t remember any other summer in which I worked so hard and slept so little. I got to know more about this man than I knew about my own relatives. But only when I was already halfway into the writing, I happened to read by pure chance a piece of news in a Mexican newspaper: “Karpov will attempt to achieve the largest book signing World Guinness Record in Mexico City next September”. Wait, what? That’s what the book I am writing is for?

That was not the only surprise waiting around the corner for me. When the big day arrived, I was taken to a heliport, and I was given the chance to photograph from the air the largest chess simul in history (until then), which was taking place at the same time. But I had just landed when the judge representing the Guinness World Records approached me: “We have a problem with the book signing”, he said, with a concerned look on his face. “The previous record holder signed copies of an autobiography. Here, it is a different case, since you wrote the book and he is doing the signing. I can’t award this record to Karpov alone, I can only grant it as a joint record. Would you accept that?”

And that is how my name ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records along with Karpov’s, something that probably only Kasparov and I can say (I always tell this story to impress visitors). By the way, a certain girl called Katy Perry took the record away from us a few years later.

I have always entertained the possibility of publishing an enlarged, English translation of this little book. So, whenever I have the chance to meet Karpov, I ask a few more questions that could serve this purpose. This time I wanted to delve deeper into certain episodes of his childhood and youth.


DL: Tell me about your parents. As I remember, they met at the factory where they both worked. Tough people, and tough years, I suppose…

Karpov black and whiteAK: They were almost the same age: my father was born in 1918, and my mother in 1920. He started working in a factory as a simple worker, but he was a talented man and he climbed all the way to positions of higher responsibility: he received formation and ended up as an engineer. As for my mother, she was working there as a bookkeeper. They met there, but they had to wait until the end of the war to get married, in 1945, when they were already 25 years old.

A lot has been written about the people who were in the first line in the war, fighting the fascists: more than ten million of our soldiers died fighting Hitler. But we don’t talk enough about the many others who also made tremendous sacrifices working for their country. This was not any less heroic, especially during the hardest years, from 1941 to 1943.

They were working seven days a week, 365 days a year, a minimum of fourteen or fifteen hours each day, producing supplies for defences, defences for their nation. And food was very scarce… The total casualties are estimated to be more than 21 million people, out of a total population of 170 million. That’s why we call this “the great patriotic war” in Russia.

Life only started to get better around 1948. For instance, my sister Larisa was born in 1946, and the family still had a hard time to get appropriate food and clothes for her. But when I was born, in 1951, things were already much easier. Only five years made a huge difference. However, despite the different experiences in our childhood, there is one big similarity: we both are very active. She is already 72 but she is still working, she doesn’t want to retire. She followed in our father’s footsteps and became an engineer.

Your father passed away when you were at the height of your popularity, in 1979. As for your mum, Nina Grigorievna, last time I asked you about her you said she had very good health. Does she still live?

Yes! My mum Nina is still alive. She is 98 now.

I always remember when you told me the story that you got an apartment for her in Moscow, and shortly after you found out that she was neighbours with Klara Kasparova.

Yes, that’s an amazing story. We couldn’t believe it. Their flats are even in the same level, like 15 meters in a straight line. They could see each other from window to window! The place is located in a popular area in Moscow, many personalities live there, but still, more than 10 million souls live in that city. What are the odds? (laughs).

Karpov close-up

"What are the odds?" | Photo: David Llada

Tell me more about your first years in chess. Some of your first chess friends were actually you sister’s classmates, right?

Yes, Sasha Kolishkin and Misha Taranyan. They were five years older, like my sister, and in indeed they were in the same group in school. Some of my first chess games registered were played against Kolishkin. He was an important influence in my life, because he made me interested in collecting things: first, a little bit of everything, and then, stamps.

It was very good that they were older than me, because they had visited the chess club already; since there were no youth categories in my city, they were already playing with adults, and they even advanced from fifth category (the lowest) to fourth. I benefited from their experience.

When I started to go to school, they finally got permission to bring me with them to the Sports Club. At that time, the secretary of the chess section was the only Korean person in the city: Alexei Pack. I remember him well, since he was a very nice person, completely addicted to chess. He worked in the metallurgical plant, and right after his shift, around half past six in the afternoon, he would come immediately to open the club, and distribute boards, chess sets and clocks. He would stay there until 1 o’clock in the night, no matter that he had to be in the factory again at 7 am. And he did this for many years. We liked him a lot.

Are you still in touch with them? 

With Kolishkin I always kept in touch, unfortunately, he passed away already.

At your age, sadly, some of your friends or the important people in your life are already gone. Who do you miss the most?

Of course my father. But from the chess circles, I would say Gligoric, and also Furman. And Tal was a big loss, not only for me but for the chess world. 

Karpov, Furman, Tal, Beliavsky

(Left) Karpov with Semyon Furman; (right) with Tal and Beliavsky | Photos: uncredited | Source: Europe-Echecs

Do you remember where you were when you learnt that Fischer had passed away? How did you feel? 

Of course, because I was at a chess tournament. It was the opening of the Sofia tournament in Bulgaria, I was there as a guest, and we observed a minute of silence [it was January 18th, 2008, so Karpov likely recalls the opening ceremony of the Honorary Group — Timman, Ljubojevic, Korchnoi and Portisch — at the Corus Tournament in Wijk aan Zee. There was a minute of silence before the sixth round of the main tournament. -Ed.]. I was surprised by the news, his death was kind of unexpected. And I thought of the three times I met him, one of them here, in Spain. Those are some vivid memories. 

Much has been said about his “shadow”: even though you didn’t get to play to him, he had a big influence in your life. Maybe even bigger than Korchnoi?

Well, to say that would be a bit exaggerated. Of course, Fischer’s figure was very important in my life, I did a lot of preparation with him in mind, but with Viktor I got to play three matches. That requires a lot of specific work, much more than the abstract idea of playing Fischer some day. I received the news that Korchnoi had passed away when I was at home, in Moscow, but I had just seen him a couple of months before, in Zurich — you were also there I think. He was in a wheelchair, he could barely speak, but still, he looked full of energy.

In which ways was your childhood was different compared to the other kids?

I was not very healthy in my childhood. Not seriously ill, but still not a healthy kid and I spent a lot of time at home. Sometimes I would miss school for one week, ten days… but fortunately I could learn very easily, so in one day I would catch up with the other kids. I used to say that my year was divided into four parts: three months of summer vacation, three months I was ill, three months I was playing chess, and the remaining three I would go to school.

Furman used to say that you were “much stronger than you looked, but that is a common characteristic of the people from the Urals”.

Yes, that is probably true. When I started to visit Botvinnik school, he insisted on us having a rigorous physical preparation. He told us how tough chess is, how much energy it demands, how important it was to be fit… So from this age, I started to do sports preparation. I was always doing something. I played basketball, tennis, I did a lot of swimming…

Of course, I was skiing a lot, because I was born in the winter sports capital of Russia. We always had ski cross championships and it was amazing. Now, somehow, this tradition has been lost, but then, whole families would spend the weekends skiing on the nearby hills. I remember putting my skies on, and I would go on my own from my house to the lake, and then to the other bank of the lake and the forest. It was a big city, one hundred seventy thousand inhabitants, but in winter we had so much snow that we would move around in our skies. 

You were only 15 when you first had the chance to travel abroad. And it happened by accident: the Russian Chess Federation had received an invitation to send two players to some Christmas tournament in the Czech Republic, and for some reason, they thought it was a junior event. What was your reaction when you realized their mistake?

We had no choice but to play, and the organizers had no choice but to let us play! They had extended invitation for two Soviet players, and all they knew was our names. It is difficult to believe now, but they had no idea that I was only 15, and Kupreichik only 17.

There was a huge snowstorm in Moscow those days, and the airport was closed. So we were supposed to arrive in Prague one day before the start of the tournament, but in the end, we arrived in Trinec three days later, only to find ourselves surrounded by adults, there were no junior players there. Partly because we were the youngest, and partly because of our eventful trip, our hosts welcomed us very warmly and they were especially nice to us. Our delay, however, provoked that during the first three days we had to play six games in total: two per day.

In the first two days, I destroyed the student’s team of Czechoslovakia: Smejkal, Rutka, Sikora… my score against them was 3½ : ½, despite playing two games a day. Actually, I played my best chess in those days, and my final result, 11 points out of 13 games, was very good. This tournament was my first, but by no means last New Year abroad, and Kupreichik and I had the opportunity to do some sightseeing once the tournament was over.

Karpov from behind

"It is difficult to believe now, but they had no idea that I was only 15" | Photo: David Llada

Going back to Furman, he was probably the one who saw your actual potential, and I heard he really insisted that he wanted to be your coach. Did you move to Saint Petersburg to make this happen?

Well, we actually started working together a couple of years earlier, when I changed clubs. In the beginning, I was playing for the metallurgic factory club, the Trud society, which means “labour”. But in 1964 they made a reform and split into two different clubs: Trud and Zenit. Trud remained as the club for the metallurgy workers, while Zenit became the club for the military industry workers. Because of this reform, almost all activities were interrupted for almost two years.

I was then in my last year of school. At that moment the officials from CSKA, the Red Army Sports Club, approached me and offered me a salary. I was offered a “second class sports instructor” position, and after two or three months I was promoted to first “class instructor”, so I was getting a very good salary from the Red Army Club when I was still a schoolboy. I was getting paid more than somebody who had just graduated from engineering schools: they would get between 90 and 110 rubles a month, while my income was already 160 rubles. I became financially independent, which meant that I already had some money to buy my first stamps. (laughs)

Furman was the main trainer of the red Army Chess Club, so that’s how we met, and it just happened that we began to work together.

After school, I started to study Mathematics at the Moscow University, but after a couple of years, in 1969, I changed universities and moved to Saint Petersburg. Furman and I were already working seriously, he was living in Saint Petersburg and he didn’t want to move, so I joined Saint Petersburg University, then known as “Leningrad University”.

Furman must have been a really important person in your life.

Yes, of course. We were very close and for many years we spent a lot of time together. He had fantastic knowledge in chess, everybody acknowledges that. Grandmaster Librezon used to refer to him as "the world champion when playing with the white pieces". And it was a well-deserved nickname because with white he played really fantastic, but with black, he always struggled. He was not very “sportive”, so to speak, but actually he got his best results when we played together in some tournaments: Madrid 1973, Ljubljana-Portoroz 1975, and Bad Lauterberg in 1977. I won these tournaments but he also did very well, so out training sessions worked in both directions. 

Please, tell me more about your first chess trips. Your first travel abroad was to Trinec, but your first trip somewhere outside the Soviet orbit was to Sweden, right?

Yes, apart from my trip to Czechoslovakia, Stockholm was the first foreign city I visited, and there is where I first met Ulf Andersson, for instance. There was this nice traditional tournament, in which the Soviet Union Juniors would play a match against junior players from the Scandinavian countries: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. We won very easily in 1967, but the next year, in Tallin (Estonia) it was much more tough. I was not in good form and played very badly. 

Which country made a bigger impression on the young Karpov?

Well, Sweden was indeed a very interesting experience, and so was the Netherlands. I went to Groningen in 1967, that’s where I first met Jan Timman, and also Max Euwe, who at that moment he was running for FIDE President.

Euwe was guest of honour at the tournament, and he was asked to make the first move in one of the games. For some reason he came to my board, I don’t know why because I was relatively unknown at the time, but I felt honoured and since then we became kind of friends: despite the age difference, we got along very well. I was happy to see that he was so famous in Holland, he was a very charming person.

With Timman, I got to play two games: one in the classification, that I won, and the other one in the final, which I drew. The tournament was not easy for me, because it was the first time I travelled alone. I don’t know how this happened, because on every tournament before and after this one, we were always accompanied by at least one coach. And it was a long trip to get to Groningen, because there were no direct connections. Not so easy to get there on my own…

Euwe meets Karpov

Max Euwe greets Karpov in 1976 | Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, via Wikimedia Commons

How was your English back then?

It was really very poor. Before travelling there, somebody from the Ministry of Sports informed the Soviet embassy in the Netherlands about my trip, and the embassy was supposed to send somebody to pick me up and take care of me — but I wasn’t given train timetables, schedules, or anything. So I also contacted the organizers, and they suggested to me to take a different route and change trains at Amersfoort…

I was a bit confused about what to do, but luckily a few days before my departure I happened to meet Boris Spassky at the Central Chess Club in Moscow, and I asked him his opinion. Boris gave me a valuable advice: “in my life, I tend to trust more organizers than embassies”.

Thanks to him I made the right choice: in Amersfoort, I got off the train with many other passengers; little by little, as the people left the platform, I could see somebody standing there, holding a chess board. He was the organizer of some chess simuls in the Netherlands, MR Berry Withuis, who had a dog named “Fide”. We stayed in the station cantina for a while, having coffee, and he made sure I took the right train to Groningen.

In Groningen, the intention was to repeat the same trick: it was the last station, so everybody left the train. I waited for the crowd to dissipate, and I was hoping to see somebody with a chess board, but I found myself completely alone in the platform. I waited and waited, and I was starting to panic: I didn’t even know where the tournament would be played or in which hotel I would be staying, so I felt lost.

When it seemed clear to me that nobody would pick me up, I decided to leave the station and then I found out that my hosts were indeed waiting for me, but they had to wait behind the turnstiles, they couldn’t go into the platform without a valid ticket. I was lucky because they had reached the conclusion that I had gotten off the train at the wrong station and they were about to leave.

What is your best memory from those years? I mean, aside from chess. Maybe the Student Teams Olympiad, in 1971?

Oh, yes, Puerto Rico was fun. I am sure you ask because you heard the anecdote: all the Soviet team took a car, we went to the beach, and we got completely sunburnt. But probably my best memories are from my first visit to Caracas, Venezuela, where I also achieved my Grandmaster norm. Venezuela was not so well developed back then, until 1957 they had a military regime, and only in 1958 they had a freely elected president. I think it was 1968 when the Soviet Union established diplomatic relationships with their government, and at the time we had an ambassador in Venezuela, but no embassy. Also, Venezuela had no embassy in the Soviet Union, so Stein and I had to go to Paris to get our visa there.

Caracas was already a big city. They had discovered oil in Maracaibo lake, which is now one of the biggest reservoirs in the world, and the country had just started to develop. I remember during the rest day our hosts invited us to a German village, 35km from the capital, but already in the middle of the jungle. It was a very curious place, founded by German migrants, where they would speak some old dialect of German, and they dressed like the German did in the XIX century. They were only some two thousand people in that village, and my hosts told me that they had been living in almost total isolation for nearly a century. In fact, no one knew about this colony until it was “discovered” in 1965 or 66. 

Let's talk about chess literature. Have you read all the books written about you? 

Definitely not: there are too many! In fact, I read only a few. The ones by Guik and Tibor Karolyi I found them very interesting, these are good books. I also had a look at Kasparov’s books, I analyzed some games… they are good books, but there is too much work done by computers. I don’t like that. I liked it more when we, Grandmasters, would analyze a game on our own, offering our own thoughts and ideas during the game. Analysis with computer assistance, I found them to be a bit “insincere”.

Nowadays, I barely play chess at all, but I have to say that going through your games in these books is one of my biggest pleasures when I have some free time. What is for you the biggest pleasure in life?

The biggest pleasure in life? To stay always active!


My next and last question was going to be if he had plans to retire someday, but he killed it with his answer. True to his word, the next morning Karpov embarked on a trip to Iran, and only a few days later, he was in Kyrgyzstan for the “Karpov Youth Cup”. Where will I see next? I don’t know (most likely, at the Chess Olympiad in September), but Karpov is already making plans to return to Platja d’Aro in 2019, to keep enlarging his legend.Karpov and kids

Inspiring youth in Plato d'Aro | Photo: David Llada


Master Class Vol.6: Anatoly Karpov

On this DVD a team of experts looks closely at the secrets of Karpov's games. In more than 7 hours of video, the authors examine four essential aspects of Karpov's superb play.

More...


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David Llada was born in Asturias, north of Spain. On his website he describes himself as "journalist, enterpreneur, book worm, fixer, photographer, chess addict, gambler, media consultant".
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turok turok 7/24/2018 01:47
@Rama Oh I totally understand it was not his fault. I agree he wouldd have been a much stronger player but it still must just haunt him I would think to think what if...but I do remember him saying that he played in so many tournaments because he was dead set to show he was the best. I do believe if Fischer was on his game he would have held title a very long time and back then would have exiled 3000 and who knows. I have grown to like Karpov tho because his chess is more like mine so I can relate to how tough he was/is
Rational Rational 7/20/2018 09:58
Interesting that Karpov mentions Gligoric as someone he misses.
Jarman Jarman 7/19/2018 06:29
A very interesting interview. Kudos to the interviewer - clearly knowledgeable about Karpov - who asked him quite a few relevant questions not covered anywhere else.
Antonio Gude Antonio Gude 7/19/2018 12:21
More tan excellent! Fantastic. Vivid impressions and good questions to one of our legends...! Congratulations to David.
Rama Rama 7/19/2018 05:34
@turok
Karpov has said before that he regretted not being able to play Fischer and that that match would have helped improve as a player. And I would say that it's not his fault that Fischer chose to quit.
turok turok 7/19/2018 02:12
so what has he said concerning Fisher and being handed the championship instead of playing and does he regret never being able to test his mettle against the best around or at least to many of us-
Babysplitz Babysplitz 7/19/2018 12:29
Very nice well written article.
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