Review: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1988-2009

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Review: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1988-2009Ah, they were good back then, weren't they? Reading Kasparov on Modern Chess: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1988-2009 during the final days of the FIDE Presidential campaign made me want to say to the two K's: cheer up guys, who cares about politics when you've got such a track record in chess?

The fourth volume of the monumental Everyman Chess series Kasparov on Modern Chess, dealing with all the games they played against each other after the 1987 match in Sevilla, is arguably the most interesting one from a purely chess-oriented perspective: Kasparov was probably at his peak between 1988 and 1996 and it especially shows in his games with Karpov, who didn't do too badly himself in this period. And they really brought out the best in each other. Remember this from their 1990 New York/Lyon World Championship match?

Kasparov-Karpov New York m (4) 1990

23.Re6! Qxb4! 24.Rb3!

Or what about...

Karpov-Kasparov New York m (11) 1990

13...Rxe3!? 14.Qxe3 Qf8!

Or, of course:

Kasparov-Karpov Lyon m (20) 1990

26.Nxh6! c3 27.Nf5!

OK, this match was so memorable that nobody following it could ever forget these brilliant games. But there's so much more in this book that I can't resist refreshing your memory just a little bit more, touching upon various aspects of Kasparov vs. Karpov: 1988-2009 as we go along.

Kasparov-Karpov Linares 1992

17.Rh5! This outwardly quiet, infiltrating move maintains the tension. The white pieces have as though just woken up, full of attacking energy, and they now turn to the creation of constant threats. Spassky once informed me of the 'Bondarevsky rule': if for ten successive moves you attack the opponent's pieces, on the eleventh he will definitely leave something en prise. (...) After 17.Rh5 the ex-champion stopped to think, and the contented expression on his face changed to one of anxiety. The threat is 18.Nxf7 Qxf7 19.Rxc5 (or if 17...Bd6, then 18.Nxf7 Qxf7 19.Rxd6). Karpov was faced with a serious psychological problem: should he or shouldn't he weaken his position? And he decided to avoid moves which could create long-term weaknesses - in the hope that White's initiative would evaporate and then Black's two bishops and good pawn formation would begin to tell.

This fragment shows that Kasparov, in his book, hasn't yet adopted the forgiving tone towards his eternal opponent that he used during last month's FIDE elections. The book is full of little comments (or should we say: sneers) on Karpov's behaviour, noting his vainness, his opportunism, his privileges. This is the Kasparov that we all love to hate: jealous, proud, egocentric.

But there's also a different Kasparov in the book - and in the above fragment - and I prefer to focus on him in this review instead. It's the Kasparov who analyses his opponent in an objective and actually very interesting way - in a way that often seems quite plausible to me. It is this aspect that his series will, I think, be remembered for mostly. Here, for instance, is how he characterizes Karpov during their 1990 match:

Apparently an analysis of our previous matches had led him to conclude that he would do better not to avoid sharp play, and to join battle as though on my territory. (...) He was also driven by a purely practical motive: being an experienced competitor, Karpov took risks, as in a casino, in the hope that in the great complications I would somehow overstep the mark and fortune would smile on him.

Here's another very insightful analysis of his opponent's style:

After studying these games by Karpov, I hit on a new idea for White with a double fianchetto, noticing that in this case Black's light squared bishop is severely restricted. I also took into account the peculiarities of my opponent's style. Karpov doesn't like to create pawn weaknesses in his position, but here, in order to free himself, he would have to undermine my e5-pawn - and after ...f7-f6 his pawn chain would be broken up, while after ...d7-d6 he would have problems with his a7-pawn and the doubled c-pawns.

The following game is described by Kasparov as 'probably the most crushing defeat in Karpov's career'. Note how Kasparov refrains from attaching a double exclamation mark to his amazing 22nd move, despite the fact that all journalists did it, and that Kasparov himself must have been happy as a hippo playing it.

Karpov-Kasparov Linares 1993

22...c3!? A by no means essential, but spectacular rook sacrifice. 'Kasparov is accustomed to finishing with a flourish, but my modest contribution would be 22...Rb2' (Anand). With the prosaic threat of ...Rxb1, and if 23.Qd4 Black has a whole raft of decisive continuations - 23...Qb6, 23...c3 24.Qxe4 c2, and 23...Nf2 24.Qxb2 Nxh1 25.g3 Nxg3 etc.

In all his books, Kasparov has always been fond of quoting others to illustrate his moves, the atmosphere or the general points he wants to make, but I feel in this volume he has just overdone it. Why is the Anand quote here? At this memorable moment, both in the game and in chess history (for I think it truly was a historical moment) wouldn't readers prefer to hear from Kasparov himself what he has to say, or what he felt? Really, who cares about Anand at this point?

This habit of quoting others is especially distracting in the book's first chapter, about the games K and K played between 1988 and 1990. It's just too full of citations by others that I, frankly, couldn't care less about. There's Nikitin and Zaitsev, among others, being quoted all the time, and I couldn't help feeling Kasparov himself simply wasn't too interested in writing about these games, which is a pity because some of these games were great indeed.

Moreover, he almost exclusively quotes from Russian sources only - the Anand quote is a rare exception. (Update: I should mention that it's particularly strange that Kasparov never quotes from Seirawan and Tisdall's magnificent match book Five Crowns, a book which was in fact highly appreciated by Bobby Fischer himself.) I was a live witness to the following dramatic encounter:

Kasparov-Karpov Amsterdam 1988

16.Nxe6?! fxe6 17.Qxe6+ Kf8! 18.Bxh7!

The moves in this game (and others from the same tournament) are accompanied by lengthy quotes from various authors, but they somehow fail to convey the thrill of the audience seeing all this happening before their eyes. I remember sitting in the audience and being 100% sure that Kasparov would win this game in crushing style, but Kasparov shows that the truth was rather different: in fact, Karpov defended very well until throwing the game away in time trouble. Kasparov concludes:

A unique tragi-comedy of mutual mistakes by the champions! In this history of encounters between the two K's this game stands apart. Perhaps it was not a very deserved win for me, but it was important in the psychological sense - a kind of store for establishing my future tournament relations with Karpov.

Apart from dozens of chess games (as usual, excellently analyzed) - some of the best and most exciting ever played in history - Kasparov devotes a lot of space to the political developments of those days: the internal struggles within the Soviet (later: Russian) Chess Federation, the rise and fall of the GMA, the PCA scandal, the many, many troubles with FIDE...

It's interesting to read some of this stuff with the recent pact between the two K's in mind. Kasparov's initial enthusiasm for the Grand Masters Association - which constisted of more than 143 grandmasters is clearly felt on these pages. Other political episodes, such as disappointment with his former teacher Botvinnik, are a bit confusing or one-sided, but Kasparov's emotions are always present:

For me and those close to me, 1990 was a critical year and virtually the most difficult in my life. It began with some tragic, extraordinary events. After returning from my lengthy foreign wanderings to Baku, I ended up at the very epicentre of an 'international conflict': everywhere Armenian pogroms were taking place. My mother and I had to travel to Zagulba, to my training base (...) But there too it was not safe. In Moscow a headquarters was set up to save the 'Kasparov group', directed by Popov, the chairman of the USSR Chess Federation. The government allowed a special plane to be sent to Baku, and on 17 January 1990, abandoning our flats and nearly all our possessions, we left our native land forever.

Yes, those were tumultuous times for Russia and the former Soviet states, and during all those years Karpov and Kasparov were engaged in an everlasting fight against each other. Reading some of the passages of Kasparov's book, I'm not surprised he still feels so passionate about chess and politics. Karpov, on the other hand, is accused by Kasparov on many occasions of choosing the path of least resistance, going not where it's right to go, but where it's most profitable to go.

To be honest, I do think there's a lot of truth in this, but we shoudn't forget that Kasparov himself was no stranger to reasoning in his own favour either. It's weird to hear him complain about time-outs being 'to Karpov's advantage' during the 1990 match, when just a few pages before he writes how useful a particular time out-was for him. On a political level, it's even easier to find examples of opportunism Kasparov's side - playing Kramnik instead of Shirov in 2000 is one thing that comes to mind - and I maintain my opinion that in general the parts dealing with politics are the least interesting of the book.

Karpov and Kasparov played their last official tournament game in Linares in 2001: it was their 167th. It was a relatively eventless draw which was nevertheless characteristic of many of their games. After that, they faced each other only in rapid and blitz games, the last time in Valencia in 2009, an exhibition match where ChessVibes was present. Kasparov dominated like he did in the last years of their dual reign in the chess world, but if you looked at the players only, it was almost as though you were back in the golden days, in 1990. True, Kasparov's hair had turned grey and Karpov's suit had grown a few sizes. But the tension, the will-power and the rivalry were still there.

There was one game that I was particularly curious about in this book: the infamous 19th game of the 1990 match. In this game, Kasparov offered a draw in an apparently overwhelming position:

Karpov-Kasparov Lyon m (19) 1990

Here, Black offered a draw. I recall how Bobby Fischer, among others, accused Karpov and Kasparov of 'fixing' the match, pointing to this 'suspicious' draw in particular. I myself was perplexed when I read about Black's draw offer in the papers the next day. It has always remained a mystery to me why Kasparov had offered it. What would he write in his book? Now we finally know:

Before the time control at move 40 I was so exhausted, that I could no longer delve into the subtleties of the position, and I was desperate to relieve the burden of the intense pressure as soon as possible. The very thought of the forthcoming adjournment, an endless night of analysis and playing on the following day was unbearable for me. My brain was demanding a rest.

Yes, they seemed from another planet, but they were human after all. Kasparov writes about the many ups and downs of the 1990 match with great honesty and passion. It is one of the best chapters of Kasparov on Modern Chess IV: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1988-2009 and, in my opinion, of the entire series.

And what a wonderful match it was. I had only just started to seriously play chess then, and I still remember the spell I was under for days. Of course, it was especially Kasparov's play that captured my imagination, so I'm always a little surprised the final match result looks like such a close call. In the third game, Kasparov sacrificed a queen in what almost was an endgame already. And he got away with it. It was unbelievable. And even though later on Black's idea was more or less refuted, for me this game will always be magical.

Karpov-Kasparov New York m (3) 1990

(Position after 17...Bxd7)

Thanks to games like these, I understood the depth and beauty of the game of chess like never before. If only Kasparov's series continues to inspire people to study and play chess, I think his project is a success already.


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