Saturday 8 April 2006

Chess Reviews: 12

My Great Predecessors
Volume 5: Korchnoi & Karpov
By GM Garry Kasparov
Everyman Chess

Kasparov’s series of books is already very well established and chess fans eagerly await each volume. It feels like a long time since volume 4 appeared (just over a year, in fact) but the quality of the current volume makes the wait worthwhile.
There has been criticism in some quarters regarding how much of the earlier volumes were actually written by Kasparov himself, and how much by participant Dmitry Plisetsky. I feel sure that such comments will fall by the wayside now that Kasparov is dealing with subjects he knows so well. Kasparov’s own personality shines through in this volume more than any other to date.

Volume 5 is unique in that one of the ‘cover stars’ is not a World Champion. Yet Viktor Korchnoi’s place as one of the all-time greats of chess history is so secure that he is treated as if he really did scale the dizzy heights and take the ultimate title. The section on ‘Viktor the Terrible’ takes the reader up to page 206. Everything is there; from Korchnoi’s tough childhood during the 1941 siege of Leningrad (in which his Father and other family members lost their lives), through his almost endless battles through so many -often bitter - Candidates’ cycles, culminating in his three extraordinary matches with Karpov (1974, 1978 and 1981). He ran into Kasparov himself in the next cycle and could never quite match the world’s elite from the mid-1980s onwards. His magnificent run of tournament successes never stopped though and continues to this day. How is it possible that Korchnoi could have defied all logic and the advancing years, to outlast all of his talented contemporaries?

The answer seems to lie in Korchnoi’s astounding energy and drive, his unbelievable will to win and his permanent desire for the struggle.

A special section takes a look at Korchnoi’s extraordinary successes against the King’s Indian Defence, of which he has a very low opinion and a big score against.

The second section of the book takes an in-depth look (just under 270 pages!) at ‘Anatoly the 12th’. It must, in a sense, have been a tough task for Kasparov to write objectively about the man who was his greatest rival over such a long period of time (something Korchnoi never managed to do in his own memoirs). Nevertheless, Kasparov was determined to treat his foe with the same respect as all of the other champions and he succeeds admirably, never stinting in his praise for the ex-champion.

Karpov’s rise to power was extremely swift. He dominated Polugaevsky and Spassky in two famous Candidate’s matches, both of which receive considerable attention in this book. Spassky started the match as favourite but, as Kasparov points out, their respective ELO ratings at the time were more or less equal and Karpov was clearly ascending the heights and meeting Spassky on his way down. For the big match, Karpov worked 10-12 hours a day and his opponent’s preparation was shown to be clearly inferior.

The book is especially strong when covering the infamous 1978 World Championship match, giving equal standing to both sides of the story. Amid the well-known highly controversial elements there was also plenty of excellent chess. By and large, in the earlier part of the match, Korchnoi played the better chess but Karpov was much more practical. This culminated in the 17th game. Korchnoi used up valuable clock time at the start of the game trying to sort out a dispute regarding Dr Zukhar (a member of Karpov’s team who was allegedly hypnotising Korchnoi). Then, having built up a winning position, the tables were turned in severe time-trouble when Karpov produced a surprise checkmate, seemingly from thin air.

Korchnoi - Karpov
World Championship 1978
Game 17

With his flag about to fall, Korchnoi defended against the obvious threat with 39 Ra1?? But was shocked by the rejoinder: 39 …Nf3!+ 0-1

Kasparov quotes the winner:

‘My two knights mated the enemy king in the endgame - such a thing had never before happened in a match for the world championship! After signing the score-sheet, Korchnoi went up to the demonstration board and stared at it for several minutes, as if trying to comprehend what exactly had happened!’

Leading 5-2, with the match all but over, Karpov then lost three games. Kasparov ‘s analysis of the Rook ending from game 31 - Korchnoi’s fifth win - stretches over eight pages and he manages to find some significant improvements over previous analysis.

Korchnoi - Karpov
World Championship 1978
Game 31

It’s impossible to present a summary of Kasparov’s remarkable analysis here; you’ll just have to buy the book to see it! It is extremely unusual for a player to put so much effort into analysing the games of other people; further evidence that this excellent series is very much a labour of love for the author.

Luminaries such as Tal, Botvinnik et al are quoted throughout the book to shed more light on the subjects. Of particular interest are the reminisces of the various members of Karpov’s teams from the 1978 and 1981 title matches. For the latter match, Razuvaev tells how he and Geller were locked in a room and ordered to devise some novelties against the Open Variation of the Lopez after Korchnoi’s sensational victory in game 6. The novelties duly appeared over the board and had a decisive effect on the match (after Karpov had marked time in his White games with two draws in the Italian Game and another with 1 c4, presumably waiting for the analytical efforts to be fine-tuned.)

Karpov - Korchnoi
World Championship Match 1981
Game 14

13 Ne4 was the novelty in question. Korchnoi spent 79 minutes on his reply (13...Be7) but couldn’t solve the problems and went on to lose.

Once Korchnoi has worked out a suitable rejoinder - and drawn with it in game 16 - another strong novelty was produced to win the 18th and final game; 13 a4! (found by Polugaevsky).

Kasparov has written a much better account of Karpov’s life and games than the latter ever managed to do for himself. Now there’s irony for you.

A couple of special sections concentrate on how Karpov was able to play the Queen’s Indian (from both sides of the board) and Grunfeld so well.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions but perhaps these celebratory tomes are not the place to investigate them.

For example, at the height of Karpov’s ‘golden boy’ era, it is clear to see that he was able to achieve key victories against his fellow Soviets just when he needed them most (as against Tal at Bugojno 1980 - the only decisive game they ever had in serious encounters - Spassky in the final round of London 1982 and several others). I’m not a subscriber to Fischer’s theory that every move of every match was fixed but I wonder if various pressures were applied from time to time.

I suspect that there is rather more to be said about the 1981 Merano match too. Korchnoy is adamant that a large amount of skulduggery took place behind the scenes. Kasparov does reveal that even he was asked to provide some analysis to help Karpov during the match; one of a number of such revelations in the book that were new to me (and I have read every relevant book on the 1978 and 1981 matches prior to this).

Naturally, there are lots of featured games that do not feature both K’s trying to wipe each other out. Fischer, Tal, Polugaevsky, Portisch, Gligoric and many other superstars also make appearances of considerable importance.

A future volume is going to cover the massive Kasparov v Karpov World Championship battles and it should be absolutely fascinating.

Meanwhile, I think that volume 5 is the best so far, even surpassing volume 4 (on Fischer).


In my opinion, the best volume of the series so far. The first-hand insights into some of the biggest clashes of the 1970s make fascinating reading. The illustrative games are excellently chosen and extremely well annotated. The production values are high too; this, like the earlier volumes, is a very handsome red hardback, complete with dust jacket. One of the ‘must-buys’ of the year without any shadow of a doubt.

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Happy reading!
April 2006

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