The Top Chess Players in the World

GM Anatoly Karpov

Anatoly Karpov
Full name
Anatoly Karpov
May 23, 1951 (age 72)‎
Place of birth
Zlatoust, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union



Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov was the 12th world champion, from 1975 to 1985, and is considered to be one of the greatest players of all time. He was the highest-rated player in the world for over 100 months (a feat only bested by GMs Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen) and regained his FIDE world champion title from 1993-1999. 

Playing Style

Karpov was able to play in almost any style, like any long-term world champion. However, he was at his best when using his boa constrictor style. He was able to positionally strangle his opponents, depriving them of counterplay until they were selecting from only losing moves. Former World Champion Viswanathan Anand said, "Karpov isn't so interested in his own plan, but he will keep on foiling yours!"

Karpov's strangling technical play, and impeccable endgame technique have become topics for countless articles and videos. Here is an example of Karpov torturing former world champion Boris Spassky and his isolated queen's pawn.

Early Career

Anatoly Karpov learned to play chess at the age of four and improved quickly. He was accepted into the chess school of former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik when he was 12 years old, and with Botvinnik’s instruction, he was able to skyrocket into the world’s chess elite. In 1969, at the age of 18, he became an International Master. One year later he earned the title of Grandmaster.

Anatoly Karpov 1967
Karpov in 1967. Photo: Jaq. de Nijs/Dutch National Archive, CC

World Champion

Karpov qualified to play against GM Bobby Fischer for the World Championship in 1975. He did so by tying for first place at the Leningrad 1973 Interzonal and then defeating GMs Lev Polugaevsky, Boris Spassky, and Viktor Korchnoi in the Candidates.

Unfortunately, the match with Fischer never happened because Fischer made demands that were not met. Karpov won the championship by default.

Many people (including Kasparov) believe that Karpov would have won the 1975 match against Fischer, as Fischer had been out of practice for three years and was playing a younger opponent who Fischer knew little about. Ultimately, the world will never actually know what would have happened in this match.

Anatoly Karpov, Viktor Korchnoi
The bitterest of rivals, Karpov and Korchnoi, at their 1981 world championship match. Karpov also defeated Korchnoi in 1974 Candidates final and 1978 World Championship. Korchnoi was a Soviet citizen in 1974, stateless in 1978, and a Swiss citizen in 1981. Photo: Isabel Hund/Wikimedia, CC.

Karpov reigned as the top player in the world for the next decade, in the end winning over 160 total tournaments in his lifetime. He defended his crown against Korchnoi in a very exciting match in 1978 that became the subject of the 2018 documentary Closing Gambit featuring several grandmasters. In the first-to-six-wins format, Karpov took a 5-2 lead after 27 games, but Korchnoi tied the match in game 31 before Karpov prevailed in the 32nd game. Karpov defended against Korchnoi again in 1981, winning 6-2 this time.

In 1984, one of the greatest chess rivalries in history began. Karpov played five consecutive World Championship matches against Garry Kasparov from 1984-1990. Early on, in their first match in 1984, it appeared Karpov would win easily. He led 4-0 after just nine games, then took a 5-0 lead in game 27, featured below, where Karpov dismantles Kasparov from a very dry position—a classic Karpov squeeze:

Unfortunately for Karpov, Kasparov fought back with several draws and three wins in the next 21 games. In perhaps its most controversial move ever, FIDE ended the match at this point. The players started anew in a best-of-24-games format in 1985, where Kasparov prevailed 13-11. Karpov lost narrowly, 12.5-11.5, in a 1986 rematch, and then very nearly reclaimed the title in 1987. He led 12-11 with one game to go, but Kasparov won the 24th game, and the rules of the time let the champion keep his title in a tied match. In their last match in 1990, Karpov was again narrowly defeated, by a 12.5-11.5 margin.

Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Jan Timman
Karpov with Kasparov and Timman in 1987. Photo: Bart Molendijk/Dutch National Archives, CC.

Although Karpov never regained his title from Kasparov (directly; see below), their matches were all extremely close. These two chess legends played a total of 144 games for the world championship, out of which 104 were draws, 21 wins for Kasparov, and 19 wins for Karpov. The games from the Karpov-Kasparov rivalry have produced some of the great classics of all time, but also changed chess history

After these matches, Karpov continued to play at the highest levels of the chess world. In 1993, when Kasparov left FIDE, Karpov regained the FIDE world champion title by defeating GM Jan Timman in a match. Karpov defended this title twice, standing his ground against a new generation of chess stars, GM Gata Kamsky in 1996 and GM Viswanathan Anand in 1998. In 1999, Karpov refused to play for the title after FIDE turned its championship into a large knockout tournament rather than allowing Karpov to defend his position in a match. 

Anatoly Karpov World Champion 1996
World Champion Anatoly Karpov playing in 1996. Photo: Stefan64, CC

Life After The World Championship

At the beginning of the 21st century, Karpov decided to stop playing classical time controls and began focusing on rapid and blitz events.  In 2002, he defeated Kasparov in a rapid exhibition match. In 2012, Karpov won the Cap d'Agde tournament ahead of top-class competition (including then-world #9 Vassily Ivanchuk). 

After his effective retirement, he ran for the office of FIDE President in 2010 and was heavily involved in Russian politics. Karpov remains a source of inspiration for all aspiring positional players, as well as a hero to countless players, including former world champions Vladimir Kramnik and Magnus Carlsen.

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