The rivalry between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov is unmatched in chess history. They played five World Championship matches from 1984 to 1990 – four in a three-year span — at a time when they were far stronger than everyone else. Their epic battles dominated the chess world’s attention at the time and are still carefully studied and widely admired.
Kasparov was known as a brilliant attacker, an aggressive player who loved the initiative and complications, while Karpov was a more solid player whose skill in maneuvering was unparalleled. Of course, both players were well-rounded enough to win games in the other player’s signature style, but their preferences were clear.
Their first match had lasted five months — from September 1984 to February 1985 – and 48 games because it was to be decided by the first player to win six games. Karpov had raced out to a 4-0 lead after nine games, but by switching to an extremely cautious style, Kasparov had stayed alive and changed the contest into a match of attrition. The match was controversially stopped by the president of the World Chess Federation, Florencio Campomanes, just after Kasparov had won two games.
The second match was held later in 1985 and was a saner best-of-24 contest. It was a tight fight, but Kasparov led 12-11 going into the last game, which meant that Karpov needed to win to retain the title because a tie went to the titleholder. Karpov had White and played very aggressively, but Kasparov handled the complications and the mutual time trouble more successfully, winning the game and becoming the youngest World Champion in history. Though Kasparov had won the match, he had not played in the swashbuckling style that he had relied on in his rise to the top.
Under the rules negotiated before the second contest, Karpov was entitled to a rematch if he lost. So, in 1986, they played again. This time, the Kasparov that chess fans knew and loved was finally able to show himself even against the great Karpov. In Game 8, he produced a spectacular attack:
Later in the match Kasparov, switched from 1.d4 to 1.e4, and Karpov uncorked the Zaitsev Variation in the Ruy Lopez, the brainchild of his long-time second, Igor Zaitsev, one of the most brilliant openings innovators of his time. Kasparov, playing White, won two magnificent games in this variation, Games 14 and 16. The games were extremely sharp and complicated, and while Kasparov’s wins pushed his lead in the match from +1 to +3, both games were up for grabs for a long time. This was particularly true in Game 16, in which both players teetered on the edge of ruin until near the end.
Despite those wins, the match was hardly one-sided. Karpov was a fighter. Down three points after losing Game 16, he could easily have given up and gone through the motions the rest of the way, but he didn’t. Instead, Karpov bounced back by winning three games in a row. Games 17 and 19 were particularly noteworthy:
Now the champion showed his resilience. Kasparov still retained a competitive advantage with draw odds in the match, so the burden remained on Karpov to win one more game. After a short draw with White in Game 20, Kasparov held off Karpov’s attempts to keep the momentum going in Game 21. That game also ended in a draw. By now Kasparov had regained his bearings, and in Game 22 he won the last decisive game of the match, finishing with a beautiful tactical idea.
There were many other beautiful games between the two players, but overall the 1986 match had the greatest concentration of memorable games, at least from Kasparov’s side of the board.
Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.
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