Anatoly Yevgenyevich Karpov has turned 70.
On one hand, it is much easier to write about a person you have rubbed shoulders with. On the other hand, it is much harder. Which interactions with this person, that include a myriad of tiny details, to make public, keeping in mind you will most likely interact in the future? As the great champion encapsulates three entities: a chess player, a person, and a public figure, how to honour each one?
Let me start with chess. Karpov is simply the greatest intuitive chess player in history. Maybe Capablanca and Carlsen are in the same league, but for me, there is no doubt – Karpov is the best. The magic of his moves fascinates, and not just in his best games. He has never been a great opening expert. He has never been famous for his deep and precise calculation. Even his excellent technique has never been legendary. First and foremost Karpov is a brilliant intuitive player and an incredibly tenacious defender.
Photo: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo)
Before Karpov, even the best players in the world often meekly fell apart in unpleasant positions. But Karpov brought a completely unprecedented component to chess: the art of defending and intercepting the initiative – which was virtually non-existent in the early 1970s. He is a genius player who always feels the rhythm of the game. I haven't seen anyone else with such a great sense of the turning point. The position looks completely equal, or you are even putting pressure on him, but one inaccuracy and Karpov immediately snatches the initiative and in most cases finishes you off. You should never relax facing Karpov. This, incidentally, is something that Kasparov underestimated in their first duel – that’s why this match nearly ended in Kasparov losing it without winning even a game. We'll never know how chess history would have turned out had Karpov won the match 6-0, or at least 6-1. In which case, Anatoly Yevgenyevich would have undoubtedly cemented his place in the top-5 of the greatest chess players in history.
And yet he is somewhat underrated, especially when comparing with Fischer. But it’s hard to compare: Fischer had only three amazing years – but look at Karpov's record over a quarter of a century against the strongest chess players of FOUR GENERATIONS! He did not just beat them – he crushed such titans as Spassky, Larsen, Stein, Polugaevsky, Portisch. Even Korchnoi, although he put up a real fight in Baguio, had a terrible head-to-head record against Karpov in the end. But come on, you might say, they were all in their forties, or even older, when these games were played. But Karpov was also absolutely ruthless with the players of his own generation. Beljavsky, Ljubojevic, Hübner, Timman, Andersson – he has an overwhelming head-to-head record against them.
Next comes Kasparov's generation. And even here Karpov is up to the mark – what can I add, if Garry Kasparov’s matches with Karpov were his hardest test. And the others – Jussupow, Sokolov, Seirawan, were regularly beaten by Karpov, despite the age difference. And the most surprising thing is his score against Anand's generation. Yes, Vishy himself is the only one, apart from Kasparov, who has a life-time plus score record against Karpov – although it is probably more important that Anatoly Yevgenyevich won both matches they played. Let’s have a look at the entire cast: he has a plus head-to-head score against Ivanchuk, Gelfand and Topalov, an overwhelming record against Kamsky and Shirov, and an even score with Kramnik. We are talking about dozens of games with everyone, the games that were played when Karpov was in his forties. Fischer never managed anything like that.
Nobody did, maybe except for Lasker, but the sample size back then was too small. Anatoly Yevgenyevich won more games and tournaments than anyone else. Partly Karpov achieved this record because he was fighting with the shadow of Fischer, who had not got in the ring in 1975. In part, it was because he simply loved playing and winning. The question of how the match would have ended in 1975 is one of the most popular "what ifs" in the chess world. I think at the time of the match Karpov was already the favourite. He shot up almost overnight, soaring above the competition thanks to his phenomenal talent and wise mentoring by Furman. The way he routed Spassky in the 1974 Candidates was probably more convincing than Fischer's victory over the tenth World Champion in 1972 – but it is probably more important that Fischer had been away from chess all these years. I think Fischer was well aware of that when he decided not to compete in 1975.
Photo: Dmitryi Donskoy/Sputnik
What would have happened if Fischer had continued to play from 1972 to 1975? Then he probably would have been the favorite, but not a clear favorite. And that would have been one of the most interesting matches in history. But in general, Karpov is often underrated partly because no other chess player in history has received such massive support from the state. He had super team coaches and seconds – Furman, and later Tal, Polugaevsky and Zaitsev – analyzing all the openings for him, which Botvinnik often spoke bluntly about. Karpov even had personal congratulation from Brezhnev. All that happened. But all this, in my opinion, does not detract a bit from Karpov's achievements.
Karpov is absolutely great but at the same time a simple enough person. It's probably hard to believe this – but I have very often heard and seen the amazement of organizers and fans alike when meeting him – Karpov was and remains easy-going and unpretentious when interacting with people. Always friendly, always ready to take a picture with a fan or give an autograph, quickly getting along with people at any official dinner.
Karpov is one of our best chess ambassadors. I have personally seen it with my own eyes so many times. But I've also seen Karpov at home – I've played several hundred blitz games with him, most often in his house. I won't give you any details – I am only going to say that even there he is very casual and simple. On the other hand, Karpov played our blitz matches with passion and a burning desire to win. Until he beats you or at least catches up with you on the scoreboard, you can't leave his house. He'll play some more, and you start getting tired after 10, 15, 20 blitz games. You lose steam (although we were playing at the time when I was 30-35, and he was in his 60s) but he just gets better and better. Only Korchnoi was like that.
Photo: John Saunders
When together, I would ask him a question about his games – how he was going to react had the opponent moved here or there? How did he prepare for this or that game? I have to disclose a secret – not only I, but many of those who grew up reading Karpov’s books, remember his games better than Anatoly Evgenievich himself.
Of course, we discussed various topics, not only chess. He knows and remembers a lot of things well. Countries, cities, economics, ecology, history, politics – it's interesting to talk about all that with Karpov, even if our opinions often differ. And sometimes it seems that many of his ideas and concepts stem from the Soviet era.
But still – he is the Great One. I don't know how to explain it. Karpov is great, even though I don't support and often oppose most of his statements on socio-political topics. And when he talks about the future of chess, measuring it by the standards of the past, it sounds strange to me. Perhaps his deprived childhood in post-war Zlatoust (his native city located in Ural) still has an impact on the materialistic attitude to the life of this wealthy and accomplished man.
And still – he is a great chess player and a perfect ambassador for our game. Like any true champion, Karpov has some flaws, but at the same time, contrary to what some people think, he has a lot of human merits. I wish him good health and am looking forward to meeting him again soon.
Emil Sutovsky, FIDE Director General