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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Karpov - The Boa Constrictor

     Karpov, the reigning World Champion from 1975 to 1985, was never my favorite player.  At the time considered unbeatable, his style was described as that of a boa constrictor. Famous for minimizing risk, Karpov described his playing style by saying, "Let us say the game may be continued in two ways: one of them is a beautiful tactical blow that gives rise to variations that don't yield to precise calculation; the other is clear positional pressure that leads to an endgame with microscopic chances of victory.... I would choose the latter without thinking twice. If the opponent offers keen play I don't object; but in such cases I get less satisfaction, even if I win, than from a game conducted according to all the rules of strategy with its ruthless logic." 
     Not very appealing! In fact, one time I received a book of Karpov's best games in the mail from a National Master friend with a note that said. "Boring! Maybe you'll like the games." I didn't. 
     Karpov, born on May 23, 1951 in Zlatoust in the Urals region of the former Soviet Union, learned to play chess at the age of four and he was a Candidate Master (2200-2300 Elo today) by age eleven. At twelve, he was accepted into Botvinnik's chess school. At the time Botvinnik said, "The boy does not have a clue about chess and there's no future at all for him in this profession." Karpov acknowledged that his understanding of theory was confused and wrote later that the homework Botvinnik assigned greatly helped him, because it required him to consult chess books and work diligently. As a result, he improved so quickly that he became one of the youngest Soviet National Masters in history at fifteen in 1966, tying the record established by Boris Spassky in 1952. 
     In his day Karpov was considered to be one of the greatest players of all time. Besides a ten year reign as World Champion, over 160 first-place finishes confirms his status as one of the all time greats, but his games...boring!! And, his monumental struggles with Kasparov for the World Championship was one of the most tedious ever. 
     The big question was, how would he have fared in a match against Fischer? When Karpov won the right to challenge Fischer in 1975, Fischer objected to the best of 24 games format that had been used since 1951. His claim was that it encouraged whoever got an early lead to play for draws. Fischer demanded the match winner would be whoever won 10 games, except that if the score reached 9–9 he would remain champion. Eventually FIDE (and just about everybody else) got tired of Fischer's demands and made Karpov the new champion. Fischer went into seclusion until 1992 when he and Spassky played a rematch. By that time, even though the match attracted a lot of media coverage, the general chess public's attitude was, "Who cares?" The idea of two great players on the downhill slide from their prime playing a match for the "World Championship" was ridiculous. 
     The following game between Karpov and Tahl was different than expected. Karpov played like Tahl! 

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