Fischer vs. Karpov 1975

| 9 | Chess Players

Hangin weighs in
 on the
1975 Fischer vs. Karpov match

   3/20/2005 -  I saw an interesting video clip  of Kasparov talking about the hypothetical 1975 world championship match between Fischer and Karpov. This match has got to be the biggest what-if story in chess.   Kasparov asserts that Fischer was not prepared to take on Karpov in 1975. Fischer did not know how to beat the leader of the new generation.  In this hypothetical scenario of the 1975 match, Kasparov’s overall opinion was that if Fischer could have survived the first 10-15 games, and not be too badly wounded by Karpov, then Fischer's chances were really good.  But Kasparov claims Bobby Fischer was not stable.  He would not be playing Spassky, who was too much of a gentlemen and too soft.  Fischer would be taking on the soviet machine that backed Karpov, who only cared about winning. Kasparov feels Fischer could crack under the pressure.

           I think before we get into the fictional 1975 Fischer vs. Karpov match, we must address a few issues first. In his DVD series Chess for Life, Victor Kortchnoi gave very interesting answers to the question of what a chess player’s peak years are. He felt that Karpov's peak was in 1984, the first half of the Karpov vs. Kasparov match.  I think the best time for a chess player is in his early to mid thirties. Lets take a look at when the various world champions won their titles. Capablanca was 33 when he became champion by defeating Lasker in 1921. Alekhine was 35 when he became champion by defeating Capablanca in 1927. Euwe was 34 when he became champion by defeating Alekhine in 1935. Botvinnik was 37 when he won the 1948 world championship.  Smyslov was 36 when he became champion by defeating Botvinnik in 1957. Tigran Petrosian was 34 when he became champion by defeating Botvinnik in 1963. Spassky was 32 when he became champion by defeating Petrosian in 1969. Bobby Fischer was 29 when he defeated Spassky for the title in 1972. 

    There have been a few players who became champion in their early 20’s. Emmanuel Lasker was 26 when he became champion by defeating 59-year-old Wilhelm Steinitz. Mikhail Tal was 24 years old when he became champion by defeating 49-year-old Botvinnik. Botvinnik had a habit of losing his title defenses. He had drawn matches with Bronstein in 1950 and Smyslov in 1954. Botvinnik lost matches to Smyslov in 1957, Tal in 1960, and Petrosian in 1963. I think the reason for these failures was that Botvinnik was busy working as a scientist in the engineering and computer fields.  I don’t think he properly prepared for some of these matches. It was only after he lost that he did the proper preparation. He won his rematches against Smyslov in 1958 and against Tal in 1961.

     Garry Kasparov was 22 when he became champion in 1985 by defeating 34-year-old Anatoly Karpov. Garry is a special case; he was able to survive the 1984 aborted-match against Karpov. Garry got off to a horrible start losing 4 out of the first 9 games.  By game 27 he was down 5-0.  Garry was clearly feeling the pressure of his first world championship match. Early in the match, he tried to force things. However, he was able to wear out Karpov and force the match to be aborted after 48 games. After the aborted match, Garry said he didn’t appreciate the pressures of a world championship match. It’s different than a candidate match. Clearly Kasparov felt the pressures of playing in his first world championship match. It takes special character for a young challenger to starve off defeat. Garry learned a great deal during the 1984 match. He made the proper changes to his game and would defeat Karpov in 1985.  It takes special character and talent for a champion to be so young, Kasparov was just 22.    What makes Kasparov’s victory so special is that he defeated Anatoly Karpov, a sitting world champion at the peak of his career. Karpov was a young, experienced title defender. He had two successful defenses against Victor Kortchnoi. So Kasparov becoming a champion at 22 was quite extraordinary.

     We have another example in Vladimir Kramnik who was 25, when he became champion by defeating 37-year-old Garry Kasparov. When you look into this match, I don’t think you can say that Kramnik defeated a peaking Garry Kasparov.  Garry was worn out by having to defend his title 8 times in 15 years against the best of the rest.  Botvinnik said that each world championship match takes a year off your life. Also Kasparov was still reeling from the defeat he suffered at the hands of Deep Blue in 1997. I recall reading a 2000 Chess Life interview with Garry Kasparov before the start of the match with Kramnik. Garry said he could lose this match. He wasn’t very confident. He didn’t bring the ninth pawn with him. During the 2000 match, Garry made some great saves from the black side of the board. However his white game was nonexistent. He was clearly a defeated man at the start of the match.  So as we analyze these matches, I think we see that it’s a very rare event that a challenge in his early 20’s can defeat a sitting champion at the peak of powers.

      I think we are ready to discuss the hypothetical Fischer vs. Karpov match. Garry Kasparov is making the case that 32-year-old Bobby Fischer would have lost his 1975 match with 24-year-old Anatoly Karpov. Garry says that Fischer would have trouble with Karpov because he wasn’t the gentleman that Spassky was. With the backing of the soviet machine, Karpov’s will to win would have decided the match. Kasparov seems to believe that Spassky’s gentleman manners led to his defeat. I am not so sure that’s the reason Spassky lost in 1972.

    The soviet machine was in full force prior to the 1972 match. All top Soviet grandmasters had to prepare a report on Bobby Fischer. There is no question the soviet chess machine was geared up to defeat Fischer. Bobby defeated the soviet machine, once. I don’t see why he couldn’t do it again. However, having the soviet chess machine behind you can be both a blessing and a curse. Sure it can help you prepare for a match and it can help you become a stronger player. However it can be a giant albatross around your neck. It can weigh you down during a match.

   I think that there were many factors affecting Spassky during the 1972 match.  Playing in a world championship match is stressful enough. There is no question; it’s a stressful sporting event. However it takes on more pressure when the match is a political war game used for worldwide propaganda purposes. The soviet government used chess to show the world that their system and people were superior to the west. Both Taimanov and Petrosian were punished for losing to Fischer. The Soviet Government funded chess and paid their players. If you embarrassed the soviet state by losing to a westerner, you got punished.

     I don’t think Spassky loss was due to Bobby’s match-antics. I think it goes deeper than that. So I think Spassky failure was due to the pressure of playing in a world championship sporting event, dealing with the soviet albatross around his neck, and playing against Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time. Spassky made a very telling comment after he lost to Fischer in 1972. Right after the match, Spassky said, I lost a chess match, nothing more.  He knew what was coming. He also was punished and was prevented from traveling abroad. I think the soviet albatross caused Spassky to fall out of love with the game.

     I think this soviet albatross played a role in Anatoly Karpov’s near collapse to Victor Kortchnoi in 1978. The stakes were really high there. Kortchnoi had defected to the west in 1976. He was a traitor to the Soviet State and peoples. So Karpov had to deal with the pressure of a world championship match, the soviet albatross, and the tough competitor named Victor Kortchnoi who was a traitor to the soviet system. Lets not forget Karpov was the hero to the soviet people. He had to defeat Victor Kortchnoi, who was the traitor to the soviet people. This added pressure of the soviet machinery almost cost Karpov the match.

        Garry talks about the 1975 match; he says that the key thing would be if Fischer could survive the first 10-15 games. Garry says, that if Bobby could survive the first 10 games, he could beat Karpov.  I think Garry is inappropriately applying his own tough experience at the hands of Karpov in 1984.  It was a very young Garry Kasparov vs. the experience Anatoly Karpov, who was at his peak. It was a badly wounded Garry who survived the first 10 games of the 1984 match.  It was Garry’s inexperience that cost him 4 losses in the first 9 games.   I think history would have changed if only Karpov had tried to force things to  end the 1984 match earlier. I think Karpov rejected this notion, because he tried it against Kortchnoi in 1978. By game 21 of that match, the score was 4-1 in Karpov's favor. Karpov need two more wins. So Karpov tried to force things. This nearly cost him the match. Karpov was tired after playing 20 tough games. He nearly lost the match, when Kortchnoi railed to tie it with a 5-5 score by game 31. However, Karpov hung on and won the 32nd game and retained his title.

     In 1984, Karpov was only 10 games into the match, it was early, and Karpov could have tried to force things. I think that strategy would have worked. However, Karpov was holding out for a Fischer type 6-0 score.

    But now lets consider the 1975 scenario. I think the roles would be reversed. I think that it’s a question of whether or not Karpov could survive the first 10 games. In 1975, Fischer is the champion at the peak of his powers. The challenger is a young, inexperienced Anatoly Karpov at 24 years of age. I think Karpov is feeling the pressure of his first world championship match, the pressure of the soviet albatross around his neck, and the pressure of having to play the great World Champion Bobby Fischer.

     History tells us that top players fell under the Fischer spell, they all played under their strengths. There is a long list of players who melted under this pressure, Taimanov, Larsen, Petrosian, and Spassky. GM Andy Soltis said that when you are playing Fischer and winning, you know you are going to lose.

    Lets not forget this would have been Karpov’s first title challenge. Would he also not appreciate the pressures of a world championship match as Kasparov failed to do? Bobby Fischer also failed to appreciate the pressures of his first title challenge in 1972. He tried to win a completely drawn first game of his 1972 match. Bobby lost game one and failed show up and play the 2nd game. He dug himself a huge hole, but like Kasparov, Fischer dug his way out. But unlike Kasparov, Fischer dug himself out quickly and had a commanding lead by game 10 with a score of 6.5 – 3.5. 

    Recently Peter Leko also felt the pressure of being in his first world championship match. He also over pressed and tried to win a completely drawn endgame. Peter lost game one of his match, a loss that prevented him from becoming the 15th world champion.  I think Karpov also would have tried to force things. That would have spelled disaster against Fischer.  Bobby was a great match player. He knew how to hold a lead, He pitched  6-0 shut outs against Taimanov and Larsen. Bobby easily defeated Petrosian, who was tough defensive minded player, by a score of 6.5-2.5. Bobby knew how to get himself out of a hole. He recovered quickly against Spassky in the 1972 match after trailing by two games. 

      Kasparov also asserts that Bobby’s 3-year lay off would have hurt him. Well Bobby had a history of withdrawing from competition, only to come back renewed and much stronger.  Bobby Fischer also showed that he could leave his outside issues behind, when he was at the board.  Karpov also had the disadvantage of not knowing what Bobby was playing. Fischer stop playing official games after 1972. Fischer also expanded his opening repertoire during the 1972 match.  Bobby Fischer had the advantage of having Karpov’s most recent games. In fact Bobby went over a game of Karpov’s in 1974. Fischer wrote to Chess Life's Larry Evans about a missed win by Karpov. So evidence shows Bobby was still involved in chess and keeping tabs on Karpov.

     Lets not forget the 1975  match would been decided by the first to win 10 games. Not sure if Karpov would be able to hold out in a long match. Karpov seems to tire in the later stages. He allowed Kortchnoi to close in during the 1974 final candidate match. This also occurred in the 1978 match against Kortchnoi. We already discussed that Kortchnoi after trailing 4-1 was able to tie the match 5-5 in the 31st game. Karpov faded in the 1984 match against Kasparov. After 27 games and a 5-0 lead, Karpov allowed the match to drag on for another 21 games. Karpov would not win another game and would collapse by losing games 32, 47, and 48. FIDE step in and stopped the match with Karpov leading 5-3. So I think no question, an unlimited match did not favor Karpov.

     Lets also consider what Karpov said about his chances in a match against Fischer. In his video on Bobby Fischer’s games with Ron Henley, Karpov estimated his chances of defeating Fischer at 40% in 1975 and 50% by 1978.  The issue isn’t whether Fischer can defeat the leader of the new generation, as Kasparov asserts. The real issue is whether or not the leader of the new generation can defeat the leader of the old generation. I think that all conditions favored Fischer in 1975.  All signs indicate that Karpov would have had a tough time with Bobby in 1975. However one thing is certain, we will never get the answer to the question of who would have won the 1975 Fischer vs. Karpov match? Unfortunately the match never occurred.

    Anyways, Bobby Fischer retired after the 1972 match.  Chess had to move on. Anatoly Karpov became the 12th World Champion.  Karpov showed he was the best of the rest. Karpov was an active champion. He defended his title four times against the best of the rest. He held his title for 10 years. In 1994 Karpov equaled Bobby Fischer’s top rating of 2780. Karpov remained one of the best players for over 20 years.  He played and won a lot of tournaments. Karpov is a great Ambassador to the game. This fictional account doesn’t diminish Karpov’s title.

    Nor does the fact that Karpov never defeated Fischer, diminish Kasparov’s title. Garry Kasparov was also forged to steel by the same world championship process.  He was the greatest world champion in chess history. Garry held the title for 15 years.  He successfully defended his title numerous times against the best of the rest. Kasparov also was an active champion and played and won many tournaments. Kasparov broke the 2800 plateau in 1992 and he remains above it today. He is without question this games greatest ambassador. Garry remains the best player in the world, a position he has held now for over 20 years.  Garry Kasparov recently announced his retirement from professional chess. This was brought about by FIDE's ineptness.

       As far as Bobby Fischer is concerned, he was a nonfactor as a world champion. He didn’t play an official game until 1992, when he gave Boris Spassky a rematch in Yugoslavia. Fischer played this match in defiance of a Presidential decree.  Bobby won the rematch and quickly disappeared again.  He lived as a fugitive overseas. He popped recently and did some very bizarre, hate filled interviews on a Philippine radio station in 2000 and 2001. Fischer's anti-American and anti-Semitic comments caused the US government to renew its interest in Fischer’s legal problems. His passport was revoked in Japan in August of 2004. He was arrested in Japan and has been fighting extradition to the United States ever since. Iceland has also renewed its interest in Fischer. They have issued Fischer a passport and Icelandic citizenship.  This just might be what Fischer needs to be released from prison. Bobby Fisher is a hero in Iceland. It is the place where he achieved his life long goal of becoming a world champion.  Despite his hate filled beliefs, the chess world is better for having him as champion then not having him as champion. Bobby Fischer energized the game of chess like no other player before or since.

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