The Moment Kasparov Broke Karpov

The Moment Kasparov Broke Karpov

NM eltenedor
Sep 12, 2017, 4:58 PM |

The Karpov-Kasparov 1984 World Championship Match is known as the "endless match" because it went on for 48 rounds before FIDE controversially ended the match due to Karpov's exhaustion (he lost 22 pounds or 18 kilos throughout the course of the match).

Karpov notched 3 wins by round 7. Kasparov had none. It was first to 6 wins, draws not counting. This is the format that gave rise to a seemingly endless bout that lasted from Sept. 10, 1984, to Feb 8, 1985, the longest title match in chess history. 

I always advocate that my students study classic games. How can we aspire for greatness if we don't know the methods of the greats? Learning from one of the most famous clashes of the titans is definitely up there on the list. I've studied the 1985 match (where Kasparov soundly won), but hadn't begun studying the 1984 match (which was aborted) until yesterday. 

After studying the decisive games in particular, I feel that Kasparov's second win -- game 47 (!) -- is the critical moment in the match where Kasparov broke Karpov. Kaspy's first win (game 32) was a well deserved win, but it wasn't convincing enough: Karpov was able to draw the next 14 games. Clearly this took a toll on him. But it wasn't until game 47, I think, that Kasparov truly ground Karpov down. And I think the way in which he did so is particularly instructive and worthy of careful study in the art of "grinding down."



The position arising after 19. Rac1 is a rather unassuming one. There is no imbalance of pieces, and the white king seems well placed in the center for the ending. Sure, black has some pressure on the e3 pawn, and black's b4 bishop, sitting on a hole, is superior to white's g5 bishop at the moment. Still, it's quite difficult to imagine black winning this position. 

This is where we insert an important chess ingredient: Will Power. Kasparov possessed the will power to make something of this position -- out of, some would say, "nothing." He could have offered a draw, and Karpov may well have accepted it. But Kasparov sensed Karpov's fatigue (certainly not an irrelevant variable in a chess match) and he sensed that he was gaining ground on Karpov. Kasparov described Karpov as his "teacher" during the match, demonstrating Kasparov's own vulnerabilities so that he could strenghten his own game (I read about this in his book, How Life Imitates Chess, and highly recommend it). It seems that the student, then, was overcoming his teacher. And he was hungrier for victory.

So he pressed on, creating complications that suddenly began to take advantage of black's well centralized pieces, some of the soft spots in white's position (like e3 and b3), and the slightly vulnerable placement of white's king -- usually not a problem when there are only a few pieces left, unless the board is blown wide open. Kaspy turned a rather static situation into a dynamic one with one important move. What was it?



One bold, creative move -- Kaspy had to push beyond a variety of bland moves to imagine what was possible -- and he suddenly generates chances. It shows you that the late middlegame/endgame is certainly not a boring phase (only deceptively so). Karpov's passive response was clearly a concession; still, we are far from victory. Let's see how Kasparov ground him down, ending with a powerful breakthrough:


After this impressive performance, Kasparov went on to win the next game -- this game, "From Russia With Luft," which involved a sacrificial kingside attack that ultimately resulted in a pawn-up rook ending which Kaspy won with ease -- after which the match was cancelled, to the relief of Karpov and to the dismay of Kasparov. As we know, though, Kasparov proved himself six months later in the epic battle that he won 13-11. You can see the games and background of that match here. (You can probably tell that I like; it's fantastic for learning your classics.)

To reiterate some of the main takeaways from the moment Kasparov (in my view) broke Karpov:

1. Will Power is essential. You must be hungry to win. This goes hand-in-hand with putting everything into every game, which I often emphasize. You must be a chess animal and go all out. 

2. In order to effectively exercise that will power over long matches, you must have endurance. Kasparov clearly had this. Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise well. Drink well. Practice self-care (through meditation or yoga or time in nature or whatever works for you) to ensure that you are mentally healthy as well and able to be in the right frame of mind to undergo the overwhelming exhaustion that a chess match/tournament entails. Of course, this is in a league of its own, but the point still stands.

3. Grind your opponent down. Kasparov could have just taken a draw but he found a way to generate some activity in endgame -- to squeeze something out of the position. Then he just heaped the pressure on his fatigued opponent, who simply could not withstand it.