Over six years and five matches, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov waged the greatest struggle ever for the World Championship.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was hard to believe that anyone could beat Anatoly Karpov, the World Champion. Indeed, hardly anyone ever did. He rang up a streak of nine consecutive wins in elite tournaments and when he did lose, as for example to Anthony Miles of England in a game in 1980, it was a sensation.

But nothing lasts forever, least of all a champion’s reign. While Karpov successfully defended the crown in 1978 and 1981 against Viktor Korchnoi, a brilliant new rival – Garry Kimovich Kasparov – was growing up and growing stronger in Karpov’s backyard. The rivalry between them would become the greatest between any top two players in the 20th century, if not of all time.

Kasparov’s rise was incredibly rapid. He burst on to the international scene as a 16-year-old by winning a strong international tournament in Banja Luka, Yugoslavia, in 1979. Three years later, he won the Moscow Interzonal to qualify for the Candidates matches.

Kasparov won the Candidates series, setting up the first match between him and Karpov. It would become a titanic struggle – the longest match in history and one marred by controversy.

It began in Moscow on Sept. 10, 1984. As in the 1978 and 1981 matches, the victor would be the first player to win six games, draws not counting, with no limit placed on the duration of the contest.

Following two draws, Karpov won Games 3, 6, 7, and 9. After such a fast and dominating start by Karpov, few people expected the match to last much longer.

Kasparov, unaccustomed to such a run of defeats, adopted a new plan of simply playing for draws, offering an early peace whenever he had White. So Game 10 lasted 15 moves, Game 12 was 21 moves and Game 14 was only 16 moves. Karpov accepted these early draws since this conserved his energy and, after all, he had Black in each of them. He must have expected that sooner or later a couple of easy wins would come his way with White.

Although some games (notably Game 15, which went 93 moves) were hard fought, the run of draws continued — 17 in succession — until Game 27, which was played on the 23rd and 24th of November. Karpov finally broke his opponent’s resistance to reach 5-0 – just one victory away from retaining the title.

After two time-outs and three tame short draws, Karpov should have clinched the match in Game 31, but missed several winning lines in the endgame. Then on Dec. 12, more than two months after the match started, Kasparov won his first game – Game 32. Over the next few weeks, there were several postponements and more draws followed, several of them quite brief. The match had lasted for several months, 1984 had become 1985, and fan interest in the match seemed to be waning.

On Jan. 30, 1985, Kasparov won Game 47. Karpov still led 5-2 but it was more than two months since he had won a game.

Finally, on Jan. 30, 1985, Kasparov won Game 47. Karpov still led 5-2 but it was now more than two months since he had won a game.

Organizers then moved the match to the Hotel Sport, on the outskirts of Moscow, because the original venue (the prestigious Hall of Columns) was needed for other purposes. The match was delayed a week to get the new site ready and then resumed on Feb. 8 with Game 48. That game was adjourned and resumed the next day, with Kasparov winning again. The match score was now 5-3.

On Feb. 11, Kasparov took a time-out to prepare for the next game in which he would be Black. In the interim, Florencio Campomanes, the president of the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, flew to Moscow and declared the match temporarily suspended for a “technical time-out.” The president of the Soviet Chess Federation, V. I. Sevastyanov, a retired cosmonaut, then delivered a letter to Campomanes requesting a three-month suspension of the match. Kasparov rejected the request.

At a farcical and hastily called press conference in Moscow on Feb. 15, Campomanes announced that the match was over and that there was no result. Karpov retained his title but Kasparov would be given a second opportunity later that year, resetting both players’ scores to 0. The new match would follow the rules in force between 1951 and 1972, when the matches were best-of-24 games.

Both Karpov and Kasparov publicly denied they had sought to have the match ended, though the decision suited both of them. Karpov was physically exhausted and, had the match continued, Kasparov looked the more likely to win games. On the other hand, Kasparov was only one blunder (or opening preparation failure) from losing and knew what had happened to Korchnoi in 1978 just when the momentum had seemed to be on his side.

Both Karpov and Kasparov publicly denied they had sought to have the match ended, though the decision suited both of them. 

Anyone wishing to read more about the circumstances of the ending of this match, and the rival theories about it, is invited to read Edward Winter’s lengthy and well-sourced compilation article “The Termination.”

Winter wrote: “The truth about the Termination has not been established, and may never be, and thus the only reasonable attitude is agnosticism.” I agree with him that practically nothing said at the time or afterwards by any of the principals in the affair can be taken on trust and that some people may have told outright lies about it.

My own view is that the unprecedented final decision to end the match was probably taken unilaterally by Campomanes, which broke the regulations under which this match was arranged. He was evidently under pressure, but from whom exactly the decisive influence came (one or both of the players, or the Soviet “establishment”) will probably never be clearly proven. As American grandmaster Larry Evans wrote, Kasparov’s apparent outrage at the Termination “may have been a case of crocodile tears.” The same was probably true of Karpov.

On Sept. 3, 1985, the second match began in Moscow. Kasparov was better prepared than before and the contest was very close. He had White in the first game and won to jump out to the lead, but Karpov equalized in Game 4 and then won Game 5 with Black. Kasparov won Game 11, and at the half-way stage the score was 6-6. Kasparov retook the lead in Game 16 and also won Game 19 to increase his margin to two points.

Karpov won Game 22 to reduce the deficit, whereupon Kasparov decided on a safety-first policy with White and drew to bring his score to 12 points with one game left. That made Game 24, played on Nov. 9, the decisive one: Karpov had to play for a win at all costs. Kasparov defended very cleverly in a tense Sicilian and ultimately won after Karpov was obliged to reject a draw by repetition which would have been the logical end to the game if not for the situation in the match. Kasparov thus won the match, 13-11, to become the thirteenth World Chess Champion.

Kasparov won the 1985 match, 13-11, to become the thirteenth World Champion.

Under the terms of the termination agreement, Karpov had the right to a re-match, which was held in the summer of 1986 at two venues. The first twelve games were played in London, starting on July 28.

The match featured an interesting innovation. For the first time, a digitized chess set was used that enabled the moves to be flashed to screens all around the venue as soon as they were made. The games could also be followed at home on the BBC’s Ceefax teletext system: crude by today’s standards of internet coverage, but it meant British chess fans could follow the moves almost in real time instead of waiting for the next morning’s newspaper to find out what happened.

The best game in London was the 11th, a fighting draw, but the eighth was the most dramatic as Kasparov took risks with a pawn sacrifice to exploit his opponent’s time trouble. Trying to find a win, Karpov rejected drawing lines and then blundered. His flag fell with only 30 of the required 40 moves made in his allocated two and a half hours. On leaving London, Kasparov led by one point, having won two games, while Karpov had won one.

The greatest drama occurred in the second half of the match, which resumed in St Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 8. Kasparov increased his lead to two points by winning Game 14 and then to three with another victory in Game 16.

Expectations that the match was all but decided were soon confounded. Karpov won Game 17 after he refuted an opening idea that Kasparov unwisely repeated from a previous game. In Game 18, Kasparov spoiled a winning position and lost again. Karpov then won his third successive game to level the score at 9.5 points apiece.

Kasparov suddenly fired Yevgeniy Vladimirov, one of his team of seconds and helpers, and later accused him of being a spy who had passed secrets from his opening research to Karpov.

In Game 20, Kasparov settled for a short “grandmaster draw” with White to break the run of defeats, and then played ultra-carefully to ensure a draw in Game 21. In Game 22, Kasparov scored a crucial victory, reaching 11.5 points.

After Karpov could only draw Game 23, Kasparov was guaranteed to remain World Champion. The 24th game was also played, in case Karpov could tie the match and share the prize money, but this also was drawn. The final score was 12.5-11.5, in favor of Kasparov.

It was in the fourth match that Karpov came closest to regaining the title. 

It was in their fourth match that Karpov came closest to regaining the title. Having becoming the challenger after winning the Candidates super-final (as explained in an earlier article about the history of the Candidates) he faced Kasparov in Seville, Spain, in another best-of-24 games contest. It soon became clear that Karpov and his seconds had prepared some important opening innovations.

Play began on Oct. 12, 1987 with a wary draw. In Game 2, Karpov had Black and on move 9 he offered a surprising pawn sacrifice that he had found while preparing for his 1981 title match against Korchnoi. Kasparov thought for 83 minutes before replying, a sure sign that he was not at his best. Though Kasparov found the best reply, the time he had spent put him into time trouble and he later made positional misjudgments that led to a bad loss.

Kasparov recovered to win Game 4, but Karpov shocked him again with a novelty in Game 5. On move 12 in what had long been thought an innocuous line against the Grünfeld Defense, he played Bxf7+, winning a pawn. This move would appear several more times in later stages of the match. Again Kasparov took over an hour to reply. Just when he seemed to have everything under control on the board, he ran into time trouble, faltered, blundered and lost.

In Game 8, Kasparov leveled the score and took the lead by winning Game 11. In Game 12, Kasparov proposed a draw very early, which was accepted. So at the half-way mark, he led 6.5-5.5.

In the second half of the match, Karpov came back strongly, winning Game 16. A run of five draws followed, most of them hard-fought. In Game 22, Kasparov offered a quick draw, implying he was satisfied to retain his title in a tied match.

Game 23 seemed headed to a draw after a tense struggle. But, after an adjournment and the resumption of play on the second day, Kasparov played an incorrect sacrifice, forgetting the refutation he had already found in his adjournment analysis, and went down to defeat. To tie the match and retain the title, Kasparov had to win the final game with White.

Kasparov chose a subtle strategy for the decisive game. Remembering how Karpov’s direct assault in the last game of their 1985 match had basically forced him to find good defensive moves, Kasparov instead played a slow closed opening, avoiding exchanges and hoping that his opponent’s anxiety would lead him to make some inferior decisions. Karpov got into time trouble and Kasparov suddenly offered a sharp pawn sacrifice. Karpov failed to find the best defense, but as both players ran short of time, Kasparov missed a win before Karpov failed to find a forced draw.

The game was adjourned in a very favorable position for Kasparov. After play resumed, Karpov made another error, which cost him the game and allowed Kasparov to tie the match and retain the crown. .

Since Karpov won the next Candidates series also, he and Kasparov faced off for a fifth and final time. The first half of the match was in New York City, the second half in Lyon, France.

In their epic championship rivalry, Kasparov achieved a superiority of just two wins over Karpov (21 to 19) with 104 draws.

Play began on Monday, Oct. 8, 1990, with Kasparov employing the King’s Indian Defense as Black to earn a comfortable draw. He hoped to implement a “blitzkrieg” strategy in an attempt to overwhelm Karpov in the early stages. In Game 2, Kasparov’s first with the White pieces, he was able to do what he wanted and take the lead. He unleashed a prepared novelty at move 19 followed by a brilliant sacrificial attack.

But Kasparov spoiled promising positions in a succession of games which ended in draws. He could not put distance between himself and Karpov. Then in Game 7, Kasparov blundered a pawn and Karpov leveled the score. Kasparov’s bad form continued in Game 8, but after losing a pawn he fought hard and saved the draw in a grueling second playing session after the adjournment. There were no further decisive games in New York, although Game 11 was memorable for an exchange sacrifice by Kasparov, prepared in advance, which led to a short draw because Karpov played it safe.

The match moved to Lyon with the score knotted at 6-6. When play resumed on Nov. 24, the run of draws continued, though not without incident. In Game 15, weak opening play by Kasparov, who was Black, presented Karpov with a near-winning position which he failed to cash in. In Game 16, it was Kasparov’s turn to squander a large advantage, but he managed to adjourn the game with a slight edge and outplay his opponent next day. The game was adjourned for a second time and when it was resumed Kasparov played the winning sequence (moves 90-102) in only four or five minutes.

Kasparov’s lead evaporated in the very next game. Weak play in the early middle game led to his defeat and the score was again level at 8.5 points each.

In Game 18, Karpov, playing Black, uncorked a novelty at move 13. Kasparov thought for three-quarters of an hour and found a strong plan, whereupon Karpov spent 63 minutes on his 23rd move, only to commit an error. Despite some inaccuracies Kasparov brought home the point in 57 moves.

That proved to be the turning point in the match. Kasparov strengthened his hold on the crown by also winning Game 20 and successfully defending with Black in two games in which Karpov made great efforts.

Only in Game 23, when the score was already 12-10, so that Kasparov was certain to retain the title, did he relax and Karpov scored a consolation win. Once again a 24th game was necessary to see if the match would end in a tie. On Dec. 31, Kasparov, having achieved a completely winning position, offered a draw, which Karpov accepted. The final score was 12.5-11.5.

In their epic World Championship rivalry over the course of five matches and six years, Kasparov achieved a superiority of just two wins over Karpov (21 to 19) with 104 games ending in draws.

The series of games included a few “grandmaster draws” and some blunders, but overall the contests were of very high quality. They represented the highest achievements of the human mind in chess at a time when it was unaided by computers. Karpov was one of the greatest strategists the chess world has ever seen, in the tradition of José Raúl Capablanca and Akiba Rubinstein. Kasparov was not only physically and perhaps psychologically the stronger, he proved to have the greater imagination and calculating power in complex tactical situations. They were two supreme artists at the heights of their powers and the games remain wonderful study material for players who wish to improve their understanding of chess.

At the conclusion of the five matches, Kasparov had survived and grown. He was still young (27) and it seemed that it would be many years before there was anyone who could really challenge him for the throne. Little did he or anyone else know that, partly by his actions, the chess world would be torn asunder within three years. 


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.