In the 1974 Candidates' matches, Spassky first defeated American Robert Byrne and so advanced to the semi-finals where his opponent was the rising star, Anatoly Karpov. Before the start of the semi-finals everybody was making predictions with most experts preferring the chances of Petrosian and Spassky, both former champions. Korchnoi and Karpov had both had recent successes but most people gave a lot of weight to the two former champions because neither seemed to have lost any of their strength and they had tremendous match experience at the highest level. But most experts were wrong.
The most sensational victory was Karpov’s crushing defeat of Spassky in Leningrad, despite Spassky’s winning the first game; the final result was a +1 −4 =6 loss for Spassky.
Paul Keres wrote in the August 1974 issue of Chess Life: "I have the feeling that Spassky lost this match mainly for psychological reasons. I do not know why, but he apparently felt rather unsure in the handling of certain opening setups, and some strategical problems. Some games give me the strong impression that Spassky has lost faith in his own abilities, with a consequent reduction in his usual fighting spirit. Psychological disadvantages are sometimes sufficient to decide the issue in an encounter between equal opponents."
Mikhail Botvinnik wrote in the preface to his book Anatoly Karpov, His Road to the World Championship: "In the second game, Spassky, who had won the first game did not play for a win with White, and on the seventeenth move - agreed to a draw. It is now clear that this decision of Spassky's was symptomatic. It was typical of the present-day Spassky, who wants to win with the minimum of extertion, and does not press himself. And when in the subsequent games Karpov forced him into a stern and uncompromising battle, Spassky suffered four defeats in 9 games."
Karpov had developed a style that was very unusual for a young player. Instead of preferring complicated positions rife with tactical possibilities, Karpov preferred quiet positional play and ‘boring’ endgames. The result was he rarely lost. Karpov, mostly as a result of his association with one of the world’s leading opening theoreticians, Semyon Furman, had superb opening preparation.
Keres thought Karpov had a weakness though in in handling of complicated strategic problems especially when good defensive technique was required. Spassky, on the other hand, had suffered a serious setback when he lost the title to Booby Fischer. In his loss to Karpov, Keres felt that Spassky’s defeat was a result of his own uncertainty and lack of fighting spirit. In some of the games Spassky was unable to exploit his chances and in game 6 he totally misjudged the position. He also had opening problems as White in handling the Car-Kann. As Black he made several dubious opening experiments and ended up in Keres’ words, “…not playing his own game.” He felt unsure handling openings and in some games gave the impression that he was unsure of himself.
The following (game 3) was a beautiful performance by Karpov.