Reviews | August 26, 2009 16:47

Review: Kasparov vs. Karpov 1986-1987

diagram 1It's easy to become spoiled. In my review of Kasparov's book on his first two matches against Karpov (1984-1985), I expressed the hope that his next books would be as great as the first. But now that Kasparov has written about his 1986-1987 matches, I find myself so used to the level of his books that it seems quite tedious to praise his new book all over again. So in this review, I'll look at some different aspects of the book apart from its obvious quality, also in the light of the upcoming K-K match in Valencia.

Kasparov vs Karpov 1986 - 1987 is the 3rd volume of the "Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess" series published by Everyman Chess. In a way, the second of Kasparov's new match books is even more interesting that the first one, especially because of the '87 match. After all, the 13th World Champion had already written about both his 1984 and 1985 (and 1986) matches with Karpov before, whereas he had (to my knowledge) not written about the '87 match in Sevilla before. In fact, my only reference to this match was a Dutch match book by Hans Böhm that appeared shortly after the match. However silly it may seem, it's interesting to make a comparison between this match book and Kasparov's comments on the match - if only to see how historic perspective has changed in 22 years.

Kasparov's' original match book about the 1986 match, held in London and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), is an acclaimed masterpiece of ultradeep analysis, praised by almost all chess journalists as the most elaborate chess book of all time. What has changed in the more than 20 years since Kasparov's first analysis book appeared? Fortunately, in the new edition Kasparov himself indicates the changes compared to the London-Leningrad Championship Games edition (published by Pergamon in 1986).

The first minor change is the fact that the original Russian text (Dva Matcha) seems to have been translated anew. For instance, in the first game, after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 Kasparov wrote in 1986:

In spite of the change of colour compared with the previous match, in the very first game I again employed an opening which was new for me. This surprise must have been much more stunning to Karpov than my employing of the g2-g3 variation against the Nimzo-Indian Defence throughout the entire 1985 match.

Which in 2009 has become:

Again, as in the previous match, in the very first game I emplyoyed an opening that was new to me. This surprise should have stunned Karpov no less than my employment of the g2-g3 variation in the Nimzo-Indian Defence throughout the 1985 match.

Secondly, Kasparov has greatly extended his opening analysis of the games, often quite revealing.

London m (6) 1986

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Bg4 8.c4 Nf6 9.Nc3 Bxf3 10.Qxf3 Nxd4

diagram 111.Qe3+

In 1986, Kasparov merely wrote: "A new attempt to gain an opening advantage. The path chosen by me a year earlier - 11.Re1+ Be7 12.Qd1 - led to a simplification of the position."

The Kasparov of 2009 has no more novelties to hide, and he writes candidly about the possibilies his team investigated in this position:

An attempt to fight for an opening advantage, which was new for that time. The line chosen by me a year earlier - 11.Re1+ Be7 12.Qd1  Ne6 13.cxd5 Nxd5 14.Bb5+ c6 15.Nxd5 cxb5 16.Qb3 0-0 (...) led to the simplification of the position and a draw. Already in the 21ste century Yuri Dokhoian and I analysed 16.Bf4!? (...) Nxf4 17.Rxe7+ Kf8 18.Re5 Qd6 19.Qd2! but I was not able to employ this bold idea, which a few years later overwhelmed Black in the game Naiditsch-Kramnik, Dortmund 2008. (...) However, before my fourth match with Karpov it transpired thhat the greatest problems are posed by 11.Qh3! dxc4 12.Bxc4 Be7 13.Bg5! (...) But in 1986 the natural move 11.Qh3, strangely enough, was overlooked by both players! We concentrated our analysis on the variations with 11.Qe3+, although at a pre-match training session back in the spring I expressed my scepticism about White's chances: Black retains an extra pawn and a solid enough position. But Dorfman actively tried to persuade me of the promising nature of White's position, putting forward seemingly convincing arguments: the black king is kept in the centre and very unusual play begins.

The book is full of such revelations, often interweaved with intrigue and psychological analysis. Let's have a look at just one of many memorable moments in the 16th match game, the most famous battle of the '86 match and probably one of the most complicated games in the history of chess. It not only shows Kasparov's self-criticism and the new discoveries compared to the 1986 book, but also his attitude towards his old rival.

Leningrad m (16) 1986

diagram 2This is the position after 25...Nbd3?. After this move, Kasparov could have gained the upperhand by means of the move 26.Qc2! but instead he went 26.Ng4? It's interesting to see what Kasparov writes about this emotional moment:

(...) Thus, after spending more than an hour, Karpov made a serious mistake, but I failed to exploit it. (...) According to Karpov, he suddenly discovered that the prepared invasion at d3 was merely a bluff because of 26.Qc2! but, on failing to find anything better, he nevertheless followed this path. But, fortunately, 'Kasparov took him at his word' and missed a winning possibility. I have serious doubts about the sincerity of these words. In a bad position it cannot be denied that bluff is a normal thing, but is Black's position really so hopeless? I cannot believe that during the game Karpov did not consider invading at d3 with the knight from c5. And yet, after 25...Ncd3, as we were able to establish above, White has no advantage. So why did Karpov nevertheless play 25...Nbd3? The answer suggests itself: he overlooked 26.Qc2! and found the move later, after the conclusion of the game. 26.Bxd3 Nxd3 27.Rxd3 cxd3 28.Nd7 leads to the same draw as after 25...Nbd3 but now Black has 26...cxd3... Stop! Isn't there that the riddle is concealed? Perhaps Karpov wanted to avoid a forced draw?

In the book Dva Matcha I even attached an exclamation mark to 26...cxd3, thinking that the advantage was now with Black: 27.Nc6 Rxb2 28.Bxb2 Qxb2 29.Re8(??) d2! 30.Ne7+ Kh7 31.Qh5 Qa1+ 32.Kh2 d1=Q 33.Qf5+ g6 34.Qxf7 Qg7 etc. But after 29.Nb1! Black still has to demonstrate that he has sufficient compensation for the exchange (...) and therefore 27...Ra8 28.b4 Qa1 is safer, with equality. (...) In short, the only really dangerous move for Black was 26.Qc2! and Karpov most probably said that he had seen this move at the board, merely in order, after alluding to his supposedly bad position, to vividly describe his desperate 'heroism', his indomitable fighting spirit.

If you think this sounds quite shall we say 'unfriendly' towards Karpov, you're right, but Kasparov's tone of voice is a lot more mature than in '86, when he wrote about this positions things such as:

Here, to my surprise, Karpov thought for a long time - another point in the game which is difficult to explain. We can hardly expect a candid explanation from the Ex-Champion, and therefore we can only guess at the reasons (...). But fortunately Kasparov took him at his word, and missed a winning possibility... Well now, the question of Kasparov taking him at his word will be considered a little later, but for the moment, my dear Analoty, allow me to question the sincerity of your words...  

Kasparov's description of the London/Leningrad match is still gripping after all those years - filled with emotion, doubt and also pride. People who already own the 1986 book should definitely buy the new version, not only because of its analysis but also because of the detailed documenting of the proceedings and intrigues surrounding the match, about which I have decided not to reveal anything (partly because I can't judge its relevancy, partly because it reads like a good detective novel which shouldn't be spoiled.)

As far as I can tell, what Kasparov writes about the 1987 match in Seville, with its gripping final two games, is mostly new and therefore extremely interesting indeed. Even if we completely ignore the almost heroic efforts of both players in this match and its subsequent drama, candidly evoked by Kasparov, any chess player should be curious what the 13th World Champion has to say about the games themselves.

The first thing I looked up was Kasparov's description of the 11th match game, with Karpov infamously blundering an exchange in a winning position... at least, that's how I thought the evaluation of the position was, based on my only official account of this match (apart from the clippings from Dutch newspapers that I collected during the match), namely the book Wereldtweekamp Schaken '87 in Sevilla by Hans Böhm, containing analyses of several prominent Dutch chess players.

Seville m (11) 1987

diagram 3In the above mentioned match book, GM Sosonko describes how he was commenting this game for the live audience in Seville, saying: 'Karpov is preparing  the move 35.Rc6, a good positional move, increasing the general pressure and ... but wait a minute, that's impossible. Black plays 35...Na5 and the rook has no squares.'

Karpov did play 35.Rc6?? after which Kasparov showed his incredulous face to the world and played the winning knight move.


Well, according to Sosonko, Karpov was close to winning in this position, and Kasparov's powerless king moves probably even annoyed Karpov to the point of thinking 'I'm gonna finish him off!'. Perhaps, Sosonko muses, that's how this blunder was born. I've always assumed that Sosonko's interpretation must have been quite close to the truth, and the whole episode has become something of a historical mini-tragedy in my mind. Amazingly, Kasparov paints a completely different picture in his new book. After 34...Bb6, he writes:

Black has at last carried out his long-planned regrouping (with the idea of 35.Bxb6 axb6!) and he can breathe a sigh of relief... There was no severe time-trouble that day: we each had about 14 minutes left.

35.Rc6??  Blundering the exchange. I had a strange premonition that this move would be played, and Karpov made it very confidently! Thus the rook, with the distinctive shape of the ancient Seville tower, played a particular role in the Seville match. (...) 'Of course, 35.Bf2 was essential, still retaining some advantage for White' (Taimanov). But 35...Rf8 36.Rxf8 Kxf8 37.Bxb6 Nxb6 would have led to a drawn knight ending (...).

Here are a couple of possible conclusions from the above quote:

  • During the game, the players didn't think the position was winning for White
  • The correct evaluation of the position after 34...Bb6 is a draw
  • Kasparov's face pulling was triggered not by Karpov's blunder but by the fact that his premonition suddenly came true

Kasparov's account of his bad form and personal problems during the match, and how he conquered them in the end, were a revelation to me, too. (For one, you didn't hear much about this in the newspapers at the time.) In the second half of the book, it's interesting to note that Kasparov praises his eternal opponent a lot, and is especially critical towards his own attitude in this period of his life. Note the difference with the first part: apparently, some things from the '86 match still bother Kasparov, making him still emotional after all those years, even though he's trying real hard to be more objective and less sarcastic now. It will be interesting to see the two lions going at it again in Valencia, Spain, where they will play an exhibition match this september. After reading Kasparov's book, I finally have more understanding for J.H. Donner's statement in the same Dutch match book) when he wrote:

Karpov is probably the best player, but Kasparov is meaner. So it's not that strange that he's the official world champion. But what does that mean, now that we really have two of them?

I must admit I was too much of a Kasparov fan at the time to see any truth in this statement, but now I'm thinking it really was Karpov's match more than it was Kasparov's. It's almost unbelievable he pulled it off in the 24th game, but then again, you would that expect that from the best player in the world, wouldn't you? Read the amazing story of  a modern-day resurrection in Seville for yourself - you're sure to be gripped by it, whether you already knew it or not.

Kasparov vs. Karpov 1986 - 1987 is an instant classic, of course. It contains the highest possible level of chess annotations (Kasparov has been analysing these positions for decades!), always connected to present-day opening theory, and intriguing psychological analysis. Of course, there are moments where Kasparov is a bit annoying, weirdly superstitious or simply arrogant, but who wouldn't forgive such an author for these trifles? I just felt that all I could do was give a few examples of why this book is so fascinating. So if you'll excuse me, I'll now go back to my chess set, where the position of the 16th game of the 1986 match is still on the board. You see, I've been trying to understand this position for 23 years now without any result, but I finally feel I might actually succeed...



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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Noam's picture

You forgot to mention the wonderful book by David Bronstein on the 1987 Seville match, which contains all the games with his annotations.

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks, Noam. There are several match books on the Seville match, but I didn't know there was one by Bronstein. I have never seen it in print in The Netherlands but I'm sure that doesn't say much. It's also interesting that Kasparov doesn't mention Bronstein's book at all, as far as I know. I wonder if he was aware of this book when he wrote his own annotations.

Noam's picture

Whether Kasparov was aware of it or not I cannot tell. As you probably know from the Candidates 1953 book, Bronstein's analyses touch on psychological aspects of human decision making in chess, and he is very understanding and sympathetic of both players and their mistakes in every game he covers. At the same time, he's not interested in long analytic variations. So, although it's wonderful to read, I don't think there's much in there that Kasparov would need.
The cover of the Bronstein book on the Seville match looks like that:

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