Reviews | January 09, 2009 16:45

Review: Kasparov on Modern Chess Part 2: Kasparov vs. Karpov

Kasparov on Modern Chess Part 2: Kasparov vs Karpov Contrary to what many people will tell you, the "chess match of the 20th century" was not Fischer-Spassky, Reykjavik 1972. It was Karpov-Kasparov, Moscow 1984. No wait, make that Karpov-Kasparov, Moscow 1984 and 1985. Of course, Fischer's brilliancy and eccentricity, as well as the political situation between America and the Soviet Union made the Reykjavik match extremely sensational, but from a "classical drama" point of view, the fight in '72 was really too much of a one-man-show.

In the series Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess, beautifully published by Everyman Chess, Kasparov has finally written about his epic clashes with Karpov in 1984-1985. The second part of the series, Kasparov s. Karpov 1975-1985, discusses all pre-1984 games between the two Ks (including one simul!) and their Moscow matches. (A Russian book by Kasparov about these matches the second match had already been published, but this account had somehow never been translated but not about the first.)

Kasparov is at his best when he's emotionally involved in describing a match - though not in a way that's obvious. In My Great Predecessors Part I, his thrilling account of the Capablanca-Alekhine match is simply great, even though Kasparov is clearly highly critical of Capablanca and equally clearly a great fan of Alekhine.

Many critics have held this attitude against him - unfairly so, in my opinion. I remember that the great Dutch writer Jan Hein Donner once described Kasparov's 1987 autobiography Child of Change (which was essentially about the '84-'85 matches) as 'the work of a madman'. And it's true, Child of Change was an extremely subjective, probably incorrect account of these matches, and yes, it was probably written mostly by a ghost-writer... yet at the same time it was also a highly exciting boys-tale about a genius fighting against forces that are beyond his control.

Kasparov-Karpov Kasparov repeats most of his views on the termination of the first match in his present book - but frankly, I couldn't care less. Perhaps I'm being too easy on Kasparov: I'm biased, no doubt, because I read Child of Change when I was a young, uncritical kid myself and Kasparov was simply my hero. But I just do not want to write a review about the political situation surrounding the controversial first 'unlimited' match between Karpov and Kasparov. In fact, writing a review about these non-chess related issues and completely ignoring the chess part of the book, as Tim Harding recently did on, seems absurd and unfair to me. Because the inescapable fact is, Kasparov vs. Karpov 1975-1985 is one of the best accounts of any world championship clash ever written.

However subjective Kasparov may be from a political point of view, he is very objective when it comes to chess. The only move in the book that gets a double exclamation mark is, of course, the following move made by Kasparov's great opponent:

Moscow 1984 m (9)
Diagram 1

In the introduction, Kasparov writes:

Since I have concluded my chess career and am armed with powerful analytical programs, my commentaries have become both more frank, and far more accurate. But the evaluation of individual moves will still take into account the psychology of the struggle! Since over the months and years of our confrontation we came to sense so keenly each other's condition, psychological motifs often had a serious influence on the decisions taken.

In my view, these observations are what really makes this book so great. And actually, they're surprisingly objective, as the following examples show:

  • "I am convinced that in the most important aspect Karpov and I were not different: we were both convinced that chess is above all a struggle, a duel, in which the opponent must be defeated."
  • "We made a mistake in thinking that Karpov's main weapon would be 1.e4. (...) Of course, at our training sessions we worked on strenghtening the Tarrasch Defence, and we thought that this would be quite sufficient. Alas, defeats in the 7th and 9th games, although not directly connected with the opening, forced me to give up this variation."
  • "But now, looking at analyses with which I arrived for the match, I can only smile condescendingly. Despite a prolonged brainstorm (...) not one of the results of our pre-match analytical work has survived to the present time."

By the way, these quotes are from the first pages on the first match only. And the book has over 400 pages...

One of the 'highlights' of the first match were, of course, the incredible 17 draws in a row when Kasparov was already in a seemingly hopeless position. Endless draws. Much has been said about this: how Kasparov sat in his hotel room for months together with his seconds and his mother Klara, desperately trying to win time and prolongue his execution. Endless draws. Karpov not risking anything to win with the match with a love game. The drama of it all. But also the boringness of it all - for the spectators. However, Kasparov soberly observes:

The drawn games, which were largely unpretentious and disappointing for the spectators, were not in fact so bad: many new opening ideas occured in them, and sometimes a genuinely interesting battle flared up.

Kasparov constantly provides such reflections. Clearly, Kasparov is at his best when he talks chess. The book is filled with moments such as these:

Moscow 1984 m (31)
Diagram 2

I like such moves: potential tension is created on the kingside, and after the probable exchange ... Nxg3 and hxg3 the black knight can be established at g4. It was evident that Karpov had become nervous. And while he was feverishly seeking a simple way of solving the problems which had suddenly arisen (but there no longer was such a way), I took off my jacket and with a confident air I began strolling around on the stage.

Subjective? Perhaps. Great chess writing? You bet.

As I said, I won't go into details about the conclusion of the first match and the so-called '49th game'; I will leave this to the historians. The second match, which followed amazingly soon after the first one ended, was no doubt one of the greatest in the history of chess, or even all competitive events. Even though it lacked some of the crazy stuff of the first match, I like it even better from a chess point of view. Here's another historical pawn advance in the middle-game:

Moscow 1985 m (16)
Diagram 3

The advance of this modest pawn finally tips the scale in Black's favour. In a normal situation such a pawn thrust, weakening the King's position, would be anti-positional, but here, on the contrary, it contains a profound positional point: 22.Nb2? is no longer possible because of the loss of a piece - 22...Nxb2 23.Qxb2 g4 (24.Be2 Rc2), and this means that for the moment White is unable to get rid of the knight on d3 (22.Be2? Ne4!)

The night before the final all-deciding 24th match game, Botvinnik and Tal phone Kasparov to wish him luck. Yes, such anecdotes are also in the book, but they offer more than just a 'light note': they shed light on the relations between ex-world world champions. Tal reminds Kasparov that the day of the decisive game is his birthday, and that he expects a 'nice present':

'Bear in mind, Gary,' he added, 'that such "games of your life" may begin with any opening, only there should be something new there, although not necessarily anything stunning.

It transpires this is not just an anecdote - it's a very useful advice for all chess students: in important games, do not just rely on routine, but try to create something special. As it happened, it was Karpov himself who failed to follow this principle:

Moscow 1985 m (24)
Diagram 4

White has concentrated a great amount of force on the kingside and he must find a way of decisively strengthening his attack. The most obvious way is to make use of the resource f4-f5.


Here Karpov thought for just three minutes (!) and remained true to himself: he does not hurry to force events, but prefers consistently to strenghten his position - he takes aim at the weak b6-pawn and creates the unpleasant threat of Bd4 (...) Meanwhile, the immediate 23.f5 was far stronger.

Kasparov then explains in great details why this move was so much stronger. He thereby improves on his old analysis in the book (only published in Russian) Dva Matcha. He concludes his analysis with the following words, which is worthy quoting in full:

As we see, in many variations Black is saved by the typical Sicilian break ...b6-b5, opening the a7-g1 diagonal for his queen. After the match, Karpov stated in the magazine 64 that by 23.f5! he could have won the game and retained the champion's title, but he did not given [sic] any proof! I had to publish the defence I had found.

Then Karpov declared that even this complicated analysis showed how difficult it would have been for Black to solve his problems at the board. It seems to me that this is no argument - chess is in general a difficult game! As is known, at the board all your feelings are heightened, and I could well have found the defence (...). But the main thing is that, to judge by the speed with which my opponent played 23.Be3, he did not even delve into the details of the complications arising after 23.f5. This move suggested itself, but here a mass of unclear variations would have had to be calculated. Tal would certainly have gone 23.f5 (...), whereas Karpov evaluated the situation on the basis of his concepts. Even at critical moments he was unable to change his character, and he always aimed to play in 'Karpov-style' - to strenghten the position, but not to seek a denouement.

It is probable that in the depths of his heart he was not convinced about the correctness of the attack on the kingside and therefore he was unable to conduct it boldly and firmly. (...) Considering that only a win would do for Karpov, his pressurising, strictly positional move with the bishop looks very logical and strong. (...) But after a long think I was able to find an unusual and, it would seem, the only defence. I am sure that if I had not found it and I had lost this game, everyone would have attached two exclamation marks to 23.Be3 as being a 'brilliant, typical Karpov move'! Black's next move and the idea associated with it still remains an object of my pride.


An original manoeuvre, which for the moment has a very modest aim - to defend the f7-point in advance. In essence, this is the most difficult move of the game, after which White's attack begins to peter out. Who could then have thought that in time the manoeuvre Re8-e7 would become a typical idea in such positions?

The rest is history: Kasparov won the game and the match, and become the new World Champion - after months of facing the same opponent over and over again, he had finally matured enough to take Karpov over. As is well known, the rivalry between the two Ks had only just started. But somehow I can't help feeling that Kasparov owes his status as the best player of all time to these two matches with Karpov.

It is only fitting, then, that Kasparov, in writing how Karpov tried - in vain - to visit him when he was in jail last year, states that Karpov's 'goodwill gesture outweighed all the negative factors which had accumulated during our long years of confrontation'. And after reading this book, one wonders: how could he not be thankful to Karpov? As a friend of mine remarked after reading this book: 'whatever you may think about Kasparov, he is a great and generous man.'

Let's hope his next books will be as great and generous as this one!

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


evanhaut's picture

Arne, you really know how to write a book review. Verrry nicely done!

Jan's picture

I agree with Arne. This is a great book. I couldn't stop reading!

Redmar's picture

Thank you for the great review Arne, I really look forward to buying this book now.

By the way, in his account on the Capablanca-Alekhine match, Kasparov clearly is a supporter of Alekhine, but he is still objective, stating at several instances that it could have gone differently if Capablanca had seized his chances.

Ken's picture

Great review!!!!
You're absolutely correct in saying that Kasparov is a great chess writer!!
I definitely want to get this book :)

Richard DeCredico's picture

One of the better reviews I've read.

Kasparov's unique communicative stylings are always worthwhile reading.

Declan's picture

Seems like a great book, full of that legendary Kasparov's force. 17 draws in a row... how could he endure that? months... And most players stumble with a single game.

paul's picture

Nice and good review Arne,although you praise Kasparov to much in saying he's generous. Sure Kasparov is the greatest... and maybe he even would have beat Karpov if the match in 84 was continued.. on the other hand i think Karpov would have been a tougher "nut" to crack than Kasparov if playing Fischer.
Besides this I'm looking forward to a pointed view of you aboutrating-inflation..e.g. Timman was the best of the rest in the 80's but when you play his games over whith Fritz it seems to be that he got that title by lack of realy strong oponents (except Karpov) playing only guys like Ljubo, Hubner, Portisch, Hort and Kortsnoi. It seems to me that guys rated 2700 nowadays are a lot stronger than Timman ever was. It's only worse for them that the were born in the East as Timman was highly payed for matches from the KRO and the fake match against Karpov.

Scuse me for not being a native speaker (writer)

Arne Moll's picture

@paul, what you are talking about is not rating-inflation, but something I would call 'historical inflation': the idea that players of the past were objectively 'weaker' than current top players. Well, you really can't compare the two, just like you can't say that Newton was less of a scientist than Einstein because he didn't 'figure out' relativity. Knowledge is always progressive, and of course in Timman's day there was less knowledge about chess than now, if only because there were no computers to assist with opening preparation and detection of hidden resources (to give the most obvious example). Kasparov himself has said some things about the comparison of strengths between former World Champions. His point is that all Wch's contributed something to the collective knowledge of the game. This implies that before Botwinnik, certain things in chess simply were not known, hence the general level was objectively lower in Lasker's days. But you can't really speak of 'inflation' in this case, unless you mean to imply that everything in the past (music, literature, art, science, sports, etc.) was 'lower rated' than it is nowadays. Which is a rather unproductive way of reasoning, in my opinion.

Arne Moll's picture

Paul, indeed I seem to have mixed up different books, authors and translations :-) I've corrected it in the text. Thanks!

Paul Janse's picture

You are right, Arne, Dva Matcha is about the Moscow ‘85 and LL-‘86 matches, but that was exactly my point, because in your review you wrote that it has not been translated, whereas I think (though I may be wrong) that its content is more or less the same as that of the two English language books together.
You wrote that 'this account [by Kasparov of the Moscow matches] had somehow never been translated', but maybe you meant the book by Taimanov and Averbakh - which indeed has not been translated - extensively quoted by Kasparov in his current volume. There has previously been no book by Kasparov on Moscow '84.
To sum up the situation before the current Kasparov book:
English: Keene on Moscow '84, two seperate books by Kasparov on Moscow '85 and LL '86.
Russian: Taimanov and Averbakh on Moscow '84 and '85 (one volume), Kasparov (Dva matcha) on Moscow '85 and LL '86.

Paul Janse's picture

I liked your review, Arne! I have a few remarks, though:
- It would be interesting to really compare 'Child of Change' and its updated version 'Unlimited Challenge' with the chapter on the '49th game', though I can understand that you prefer to leave this to the historians. It seemed to me that in the current book Kasparov really tries to be objective, while also describing his own point of view. I do not think you are being too easy on Kasparov here. Too harsh, if anything, because there is a suggestion that the current chapter about the '49th game' is still a bit 'the work of a madman'.
- The Russian book 'Dva macha' has not been translated as such, but of course there are English language books by Kasparov on these matches: 'World Chess Championship Match: Moscow, 1985' and 'London-Leningrad Championship Games'. I am not sure, because I own only the Russian version, but I think the content of these two books is more or less the same as that of 'dva macha'.
- It is a pity that you do not give examples of the changed chess insights about the games. They are in some cases very interesting. For instance about the 27th game of the first match (Karpov's 5th win), which Karpov himself considered one of his best games ever at the time, but in which Kasparov shows a few rather large mistakes by both sides.

Arne Moll's picture

Hi Paul J, thanks for your remarks.
I must admit I had completely forgotten about 'Unlimited Challenge'. Many parts of the '49th game' chapter looked very similar to what Kasparov wrote about it in CoC and UC, but I would have to re-read these old books to really compare them in detail. Perhaps you're right and Kasparov has indeed changed his mind on crucial issues. I'm curious what you think of Tim Harding's 'review' (mentioned above).
I'm confused about Dva Matcha, because I always thought that 'Dva Matcha' was about the '85 and '86 matches, not about the '84 one. I do know the English books you mention (although I only have the London-Leningrad one at hand - it's one of my favourite chess books of all time), but I do not know of any English book by Kasparov about the '84 match. Perhaps I'm mistaken, though.
As for the examples, yes, it would be great to include some, but then, I had to make some choices and in the end I prefered to focus on these famous moves and games and leave the more complicated examples to the potential readers of the book.

Wim Nijenhuis's picture

A good review,
I hope though someone will take the trouble to make the very interesting comparisings with former analyses from Kasparov.
Apart from Keene, there was a good book from Tisdall -as reporter- and analyses from Speelman on the 1984 match.-called Moscow Marathon-

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