Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1

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Because I started to play chess in the mid-eighties, when Kasparov was increasingly (if marginally) showing his superiority over Karpov in their famous World Championship matches, I never seriously studied Karpov's earlier masterpieces. Whilst reading Karpov's Strategic Wins 1, written by Tibor Karolyi, I realized how much I had missed.The first in a two-part series, Karpov's Strategic Wins 1: The Making of a Champion 1961-1985, published by Quality Chess, is a valuable contribution to modern chess history writing. In his introduction, Tibor Karolyi, who is the co-author of the acclaimed Endgame Virtuoso: Anatoly Karpov (2007), states he intended a deep study of "how Karpov outplayed his opponents by strategic means." Since Karolyi includes many relatively unknown games from Karpov's early years, the book offers an excellent introduction to Karpov's many qualities (and few weaknesses). The following fragment is a good example:

Korotaev-Karpov Zlatoust 1963 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 20...Re7! Karpov improves his position. He could have won a pawn with 20...Nxf2?! 21.Kxf2 Re4, but White's pieces would come to life: 22.Bb2! Rxf4+ 23.Kg1 Ne6 24.Qd2 Black is better, but converting his extra pawn will not be easy. 21.Bb2 Rec7 22.Bd3?! (...) 22...Ne6 23.Qh5? g6 24.Qh6 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 24...Nxd4! Black has such domination in the centre that he can afford to open the long diagonal. 25.Nd1 White keeps his dark-squared bishop, but Black has so much force in the centre that White cannot even create a threat on the long diagonal. If 25.Rd1 Ne2+ or 25.Tb1 Nd2 wins. 25...Nc5 26.Bc2 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 26...Nce6?! Karpov wants to simplify into an endgame. It should be good enough, but Black could have won instantly with 26...Re8!. At this early age he had not acquired the ability to seize upon almost any chance to go after the opponent's king.

For me, this game, played at the age of twelve, illustrates at least three well-known stereotypes about Karpov:

  • He's a master at prophylaxis and nipping the opponent's chances in the bud (20...Re7)
  • He shows lethal precision and is not afraid of complications when he has a positionally superior position
  • He tends to go for preservation of his current advantage where the win is almost up for grabs.

Though Karolyi is surely right that Karpov later corrected this latter flaw, he gives plenty of examples where this tendency to play it safe can be seen. This one's from Karpov's first year as World Champion:

Karpov-Sofrevski Skopje 1976 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 9...Qb6?! In the more common position with the white knight on f3 instead of e2, this is considered the main line, but in the present position it does not work so well. 9...Re8 is better. 10.d5!? Karpov goes for safety - a typical reaction for him when he faces a new problem in the opening. Even in the event that the opponent had analyzed this move in advance, he could not have prepared anything shocking in the closed position that arises. 10.Be3! scores better and is objectively the stronger move, as 10...Qxb2? 11.a3! traps the queen and 10...exd4 11.Bxd4 is better for White.

Karolyi's selection of games is simply superb in that it offers plenty of opportunity to study patterns of Karpov's mastery. Though the author doesn't always explicitly point out similarities between games, it's hard not to notice recurring manoeuvres and ideas in the games presented in this volume. Here's just one such similarity that I myself found rather instructive.

Karpov-Miles Las Palmas 1977 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 10.Bc4! Karpov strengthens the d5-pawn, securing his space advantage.
Karpov-Korchnoi World Championship Baguio City (32) 1978 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 11.Bc4! (...) Karpov defends the d5-pawn in order to carry out the advance of the e-pawn. For the moment he saves time by omitting h2-h3.

In his book, Karolyi wisely chooses to concentrate on Karpov's chess and ignore most of the politics around it. Thus, his description of the 1978 match in Baguio merely touches on the infamous incidents and political implications:

Karpov showed great fortitude in recovering from his losing streak near the end of the match. Nevertheless, the overall quality of his play was well below par. This is partially attributable to the loss of Furman, but mainly due to the overwhelming tension surrounding the match. Karpov was the golden boy of Soviet chess, and one can only imagine the pressure on his shoulders to beat - and preferably humiliate - the despised defector. Karpov and Korchnoi had to concern themselves not only with the moves occurring on the board, but also with the numerous antics that took place off the board. Both of the players and their support teams became embroiled in a game of psychological warfare, replete with covert agents, parapsychologists, propaganda and the infamous "yogurt pot" protest.

Though somewhat puzzlingly subtitled 'The Making of a Champion', many of the book's best games stem from the period in which Karpov reigned supreme as World Champion. Karpov himself has written several books on this period, not always lacking in subjectivity, and in my view Karolyi does a better job in presenting this material objectively (and with up-to-date analysis). The following game is a textbook example of fighting against the IQP:

Karpov-Spassky Montreal 1979 Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 16.Ne5! Be6 17.Nxc6! Karpov adheres to the well known principle that the side playing against the isolated pawn should endeavour to exchange the minor pieces. It was well timed, as Black cannot recapture with the b-pawn due to the reply 18.Ba6, winning an exchange. Apart from these general considerations, the removal of the f3-knight also makes way for White's bishop to attack the d-pawn from that square. (...) Review: Karpov's Strategic Wins 1 25.Qd1! The rooks go in front and the queen goes behind. If it was the other way around then Black would be able to defend more easily.

Inevitably, the book culminates in Karpov's epic clashes with Kasparov in 1984 and 1985. In these chapters, I got the impression Karolyi draws heavily from Kasparov's book Kasparov vs. Karpov 1975-1985. To his credit, he attributes many ideas and moves to Kasparov, but for me, this section somehow felt like an incomplete afterthought to the rest of the book. It was weird to see, for instance, only wins by Karpov from the second 1985 match. In my view, these games cannot really be described properly without taking into account the entire context of the matches. Karolyi, however, does make a few very original and thought-provoking observations about Karpov's development in general and his performance in the first two matches against Kasparov in particular. His theory, interestingly, involves Fischer as well. According to Karolyi, Fischer, by refusing to defend his title in 1975, denied Karpov the opportunity to gain experience against an exceptional genius like Kasparov later on:

When Karpov became World Champion, he was head and shoulders above his nearest rivals. In the great majority of his tournaments, all he needed to do was reach playable positions in each of his games, after which his tremendous middlegame and endgame skill would ensure that he would win enough games to finish at the top. (...) But for nine years, Karpov lacked a serious rival who would push him towards the limits of his potential. Had the Fischer-Karpov match taken place, there is no question that Karpov would have become a stronger player, both in the openings and his overall game. One can only speculate about how the hypothetical Fischer-Karpov match(es) would have affected the outcome of the various "K-K" matches. Kasparov possessed such phenomenal talent and skill that he would surely have won the title eventually, but I estimate that it would have taken him until approximately 1990 to accomplish it.

Thus, Karpov's Strategic Wins 1, too, doesn't entirely shake off the disturbing thought that Karpov's legacy will forever be connected to Fischer and Kasparov. What Karolyi's book does show is that Karpov truly was one of the greatest of all time, and that his games will always serve as examples of superior strategical insight and technique. I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel.


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