Karpov on Fischer, Korchnoi, Kasparov and the chess world today

by ChessBase
2/5/2020 – In a 20-minute interview with Tania Sachdev in Gibraltar, the twelfth undisputed world champion Anatoly Karpov talked about some of his world championship matches, the effect a 6:0 loss might have had on Garry Kasparov in 1984, the current FIDE administration, the use of rapid and blitz to decide the world champion, and much more. We transcribed the interview and added some of the games mentioned by the Russian star. | Photo: Gibraltar Masters YouTube channel

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Interviewed in Gibraltar

Anatoly Karpov was the guest of honour at the 2020 edition of the Gibraltar Masters. The former world champion opened the festival with a simultaneous performance on 29 boards, in which he got 25 wins and 4 draws. The Russian legend also talked with Tania Sachdev. During the 20-minute interview, they went through some of his experiences in world championship matches, paying special attention to the one that did not take place (against Fischer) and his first encounter against Garry Kasparov. Karpov also gave his opinion regarding the FIDE administration and the current world championship cycle.

The full video can be replayed at the end of the transcription.

TS: Anatoly, let's start with what it's like to be in Gibraltar. Your first impressions.

AK: It's an interesting place. I think chess players are delighted to play here, at the corner of Europe. For many years already, Gibraltar has become one of the important chess centres in the world.

You started playing chess when you were 4 years old — it's been a long journey, which continues. I have to ask you what is it that you love the most about the game after all these years.

I was growing up as a chess player, and at the age of 11 I became a Candidate Master in the Soviet Union. Then I was the youngest National Master at the age of 15. I just liked to play chess and to produce some ideas — results became important only much later. First, I just loved to play and to compete with people.

Vasily Panov, José Raúl CapablancaGrowing up, were there masters you idolized? Who had a great impact on you in your growing up years?

I think Capablanca was one of the most important world champions for me. I studied his games, and a good book about Capablanca's games was written by International Master Vasily Panov, a Russian master. There was quite a strong influence of Capablanca's style.

The most exciting is all the world championship matches that you have played, and I want to start with the 1975 match with Fischer, which did not happen. Do you remember the first time you heard about Bobby Fischer? What was your feeling about it then?

Of course I knew his name and his games when I was very young, because I followed the Candidates Tournament in Yugoslavia. At that time, it was a very long competition, 28 games with adjournments, so it was like 45 days, it was very difficult to play [Ed. The tournament ran from September 7th to October 31st, 1959]. Fischer played this Candidates Tournament, and he qualified when he was 15, and at that time he became a grandmaster at the age of 14, very young, the youngest...not in history, but of course the weight of the grandmaster title was much more important than nowadays.  

When Fischer was going to the 1972 match with Boris Spassky, how did you feel the match would turn out? What were your predictions of the match?

Fischer achieved fantastic results in Candidates matches: against Taimanov and Larsen, 6:0 and 6:0, and then against Petrosian with a four-point advantage, which was a great sportive result. Of course, everybody was impressed with those results, as Fischer dominated. He had a very strong personality, and these players I think mostly missed the psychological factor during these games. 

When I had to play Fischer, I prepared [a lot], and I think I had chances. I can't say I had better chances [than him] — I considered it would be a tough match.

Was that a bit disappointing for you after Fischer's demands were not met and the match did not take place? Was it bittersweet to be world champion without a match?

No, I prepared for the match, I was ready to play, but of course I could not force Fischer to play. If he didn't appear, he didn't appear. I wanted to play and to defeat Bobby. It was my personal aim to win that match, but the leaders of my country didn't like the idea. They said, you are world champion, why to take the risk to play Fischer, you are world champion, what else do you want? I said, I want to play the strongest player of the time, I want to beat him, I have chances. And then they asked, are you sure you can win? I said, I have good chances, but it's a sport, how can you be sure that you'll win?

That's why I had problems to negotiate. They said, if you guarantee [a win]. I said, are you crazy? I cannot guarantee I'll win, but I have good chances to beat Fischer.

Talking about good chances, there were a lot of mixed views. Kasparov felt that you probably would have won that match, considering that you were very active — you were at your toughest, you were peaking, while Fischer hadn't actually played for three years, after 1972. On the other hand, Spassky said that maybe Fischer would have won that match, but you would come back and win the next cycle.

Fischer had a big supporter in Spassky. Probably because of this admiration Spassky missed his chances to play more successfully against Fischer in the match. If you analyse that match, Fischer won with a big gap, but in the middle of the match they both lost energy, so they were playing like boxers fighting in the last round of the battle. From game 11 or 12, I think for six games both sides could win, so the match could have continued in a different direction. In game 13, Spassky was winning almost by force, and he missed it, in the middle of the game. Actually, I got a lot of respect among our top players, when I showed — during the game — Petrosian and Keres how Spassky could win the game.

Were you at the venue at that time?

No, we were preparing for the Chess Olympiad in Skopje. We were together, and I just analysed and showed that Spassky missed a clear advantage, almost winning. And then he lost that game. It was an Alekhine Defence. He missed chances and lost opportunities to win.

All 21 games from the Fischer v Spassky match from 1972


After you became world champion, you went on to play many tournaments, you were a very active world champion. Was there some sort of motivation to prove that even though the match did not happen you were the best in the world?

I always played a lot, but not too much. I normally played around 80 games a year, but I played of course much more than any other world champion. Probably because I accumulated a lot of energy and my preparation was very serious for the match with Fischer — so I could play almost without preparation any tournament with any list of players.

You wanted to make the most of that preparation so it wouldn't go to waste?  

Yes, I used all my preparation of course.

You played these matches with Korchnoi, then with Kasparov, and even the ones you played later with Kasparov were very close matches — 11½ to 11½, they were very tough fights. Which World Championship match you think had the biggest impact on you?

I don't know. But Korchnoi reached his peak in '77-'78, which I didn't expect, but I was sure I had better chances in the match. In '78, it was almost a repetition of our match in '74. I won three out of eighteen games and Korchnoi didn't succeed to win even one, so it was a huge advantage: three points before the end and we needed to play six more games. And then, suddenly, I lost two games almost in a row — I lost game 19 and game 21. Suddenly Korchnoi recovered, and it was a big competition in the last three games, but I had two Whites and one Black, so I succeeded to get three draws. Even the last game was completely winning for me, but of course Korchnoi had to win to equalize the score, so he played a little bit risky, and then I offered him a draw in a winning position. I needed just a draw, and I didn't make the mistake to try to win, because I didn't need it. Then Korchnoi realized he was losing when I offered a draw and he didn't take the chance to lose another one. 

The last title I won was against Anand. It was a very exciting match.

All 24 games from the Karpov v Korchnoi match from 1974


Anatoly Karpov, Viktor Korchnoi

The feature documentary "Closing Gambit" reviewed the major rivalry between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi | Photo: Screenbound Pictures

For the chess world, it was a big moment for how rich these world championship matches were — the match with Korchnoi, and then in '84 the match with Kasparov, which you were leading after 48 games and it was stopped...

We both lost. We waited...but still we had to continue according to the regulations. There was a big pressure by Kasparov's supporters. At that time, they took very high positions in the Soviet Union, so Campomanes could not resist. He made a crazy decision, which separated the world in two parts.

Actually, if I would have won that match — especially if I got a 6:0...I got chances — Kasparov would have never become world champion. He would have been completely destroyed, psychologically destroyed, because he's very emotional, so I don't think he would have become the strongest player in the world. 

Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov

Would have Garry Kasparov won the world championship after a 6:0 loss in his first match against Karpov | Photo: Owen Williams, The Kasparov Agency

Everybody who studies games, whether from the world championship matches, or the Alekhine Memorial which you won, or the Linares tournament, you want to see the games again to see what really happened, and your opponents had this feeling of helplessness. Recently, I think it was Yannick Pelletier who said he was playing against you many years ago, and he has never felt so helpless in his life. How would you describe your style of play? What was it that left your opponents so helpless? 

I was playing for a win the whole game. Even when I had problems, figuring out how to defend, I was still looking how to defend and how to counterattack. I could find additional possibilities to create problems to my opponents.

But also a very strong positional style, it was an aggressive positional style.

Yes, so probably this is the part of my style...it was not only positional, because Petrosian played positional chess, but this was different. Let's say, he played the Caro-Kann Defence just to make a draw, and I played the Caro-Kann Defence to win, so there's a big difference — it's a very passive opening, but you play it for a win. And I won many games. Who discovered what I did was Kamsky: playing with Black, I made the move ♚e8-e7 without castling in the middle of the game, with the queens and all the pieces on the board. It was a big surprise, and all the players of the tournament in Dortmund were coming, looking, asking what happened. 

Kamsky v Karpov - Dortmund, 1993


How do you assess the work of this FIDE under Mr. Arkady Dvorkovich?

I consider this to be a positive change. He's working a lot and he succeeded to organize already many top level official events, and he saved the situation with Saudi Arabia, he moved that championship to Saint Petersburg and then the past year to Moscow. He made a decision to decrease the possibility of corruption in chess politics, because they decided in the Congress to exclude proxies, a big part of the corrupted system which Campomanes and Ilyumzhinov created in the chess world.

So I consider this change as a very important change, and very positive.

You're also involved with a lot of work in Russia as a member of Parliament. Can I ask about that? That must take a lot of your time.

Yes, it's a full-time job, so that's why I'm playing less and less. Now I play only rapid chess or blitz tournaments, very seldom classical chess, because classical tournaments require more time. But even now I'm playing quite good in blitz. For instance, Karjakin, who became world champion in blitz two years ago [Ed. Karjakin got the title in 2016], before that tournament I was almost equal with him playing blitz privately. We are friends, so we play from time to time privately. Before that, let's say six years ago, I was stronger than him.

So you're a specialist in shorter time controls.

Yes, since a young age I play all this blitz. Even now I play quite strong in blitz.

You're also part of the organizing committee for the Candidates Tournament that is coming up. Tell us about that involvement as an organizer. What expertise will you be bringing in?

I gave them advices about how to organize things, and I believe this will be a well-organized Candidates Tournament, probably one of the best, because we have a top level hotel, and we signed an agreement already with the owners of the hotel, so participants will stay there and will play in the tournament hall, in the hotel. With the climate, [transportation] is not so easy, but if they don't want they don't have to leave the hotel. They can stay there, and of course they have a fitness centre, so they can stay there without any problems. Fortunately, we have a governor who supports chess, and I know him for a long time, so we have his support. His deputy is the chairman of the organizing committee. I'm sure it will be very well organized. 

The chess world is really looking forward to it. One of the stories around the Candidates recently was the Alekseenko wildcard. In fact, Alekseenko will be here at the Gibraltar Masters. You think that in the world championship cycle there should be a wildcard? 

It was a difficult decision, because we had Vachier-Lagrave, who was the main candidate for this place, but at that time Russia didn't have even one...I don't think I'm in favour of having a wildcard for Candidates Tournament, but I can hardly see organizers without their representative in the Candidates Tournament, so that's why it was a difficult decision for FIDE, but at that time Russia didn't have representatives.

And then they had two already.

At the last moment we got another two.

Anatoly, you have played so many different formats of the world championship. The one that currently exists, the world championship cycle as it is right now, do you think it's ideal, do you think there is room for improvement?

I don't like the decisions about changing the time control, I'm not in favour of this — it brings classical chess closer to rapid chess, and then I don't see the reason why we have two championships. Make one.

Still, I believe the world championship match should last 16 games.

Also, many times the world championship match is going into tiebreaks, which is then decided in rapid and blitz actually. 

I'm strictly against this, because you can't combine classical chess and blitz. The world championship title is so important that you cannot decide it with blitz games.

But what do you do if the match is a tie? How do you go forward? Let's say, if it's even 16 games and it's 8:8, how do you...?

To play until the first win.

(Laughs) Simple. For the classical world championship, it should be classical chess. 

Yes, yes.

No conversation about the world championship match is complete until I ask you this question: who do you think will challenge Magnus Carlsen in the 2020 match?

This time I think Ding has better chances. He showed his strength last year, and I believe he's the favourite. But still, I believe Carlsen will continue to be world champion at least one more time.

It was an absolute pleasure to have you here with us. Thank you so much for your time, and thank you for inspiring us.

Thank you. Good luck.

Full interview in video format


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