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Beating Back A Game Challenge
William Nack
October 13, 1986
Anatoly Karpov played valiantly in their Leningrad showdown, but Gary Kasparov outlasted his rival to retain the world chess championship
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October 13, 1986

Beating Back A Game Challenge

Anatoly Karpov played valiantly in their Leningrad showdown, but Gary Kasparov outlasted his rival to retain the world chess championship

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At 5:01 p.m. last Friday, the shiny black Volga sedan raced south on Vyborgskaya Embankment, tailgating a police car with an antler of blue and red lights flashing on its roof. Whipping a quick left at the intersection, the two cars pulled to a sudden halt at a side entrance of the Leningrad Hotel, the one leading directly to the hotel's concert hall. It had been raining off and on all day, and the 300 people who had gathered there behind the iron barricades stood in raincoats, beneath umbrellas. Their hair, wet and matted, blew in the crisp autumn wind that swirled off the Neva River just across the street.

Out of the Volga, wearing a black overcoat that hung on the small doorknobs of his shoulders over a perfectly cut Savile Row suit, stepped Anatoly Karpov. For 10 years, until 1985, this 35-year-old Soviet grand master had reigned as the chess champion of the world. In November of that year he lost his title to a 22-year-old swashbuckler from the Caspian seaport of Baku, Gary Kasparov, who thus became the youngest world champion in the game's history. Going into Friday's game, these two Soviet grand masters had, over the last two years, played an incredible 93 games of chess in the course of three world championship matches. They had each won 12 of the 93, with 69 draws. Counting draws as half a point and victories as one point each, their total score over the two years stood exactly at 46½ to 46½.

"Never in history have we had a situation in which two top competitors, playing for the world title, played so many games in so short a time," said Soviet grand master Eduard Gufeld. "And the results are equal. So who is stronger? They have gone from being chess geniuses to chess gladiators. I have no other word for the situation that has developed between these two men over the last two years. If you see chess as art, as I see it, it is stupid to compare them. It is like saying, 'Who is more of a genius, Mozart or Beethoven?' "

But what had so stirred chess aficionados around the world, and Leningraders in particular, was Karpov's extraordinary comeback in the current 24-game match. As the defender, Kasparov needed 12 points—or six outright victories—to win. Karpov, as the challenger, could also take the match with six wins, but otherwise needed 12½ points to win, and after winning the 16th game, the champion held what appeared to be an insurmountable 9½-6½ lead. The outcome had become so unmistakably clear that a number of visiting grand masters had packed up and left town.

Then suddenly, shockingly, Karpov won three games in a row, evening the score at 9½-9½. "How could this happen?" said Yefim Stoliar, a Soviet chess master and coach. "All the chess players are asking that. How? In an epic moment of the struggle, when he was losing, Karpov found some hidden reserves. All of a sudden the beaten challenger rises from the floor and throws such heavy blows that it is unbelievable."

Mark Taimanov, the brilliant concert pianist and chess grand master, said he could not recall anything quite like what was happening last week in Leningrad. "If you wrote a play and invented such a turn of events," said the 60-year-old Taimanov, "no one would believe it."

And so then, after two draws, the score still level at 10½—it was at that moment that Karpov emerged from his Volga to the embrace of the crowd standing in the rain. Kasparov had arrived moments earlier, to quiet and polite applause and a few cries of "bravo," but there was loud cheering for Karpov as he made his way to the door. Cameras clicked incessantly and one old woman, pressed by the crowd against the yellow barricade, cried out in a chant: "Karpovu pobeda. Karpovu pobeda." "To Karpov, victory."

Karpov nodded, drew a hand across his windblown hair, smiled weakly and strode into the hall. He looked tired. Despite his gallant comeback, the pressure remained on him, for with three games to play, he had to win at least one more game to recapture his title. Then, too, it was not only the match that had worn Karpov down. He was under a great deal of additional stress because he has come to represent the Soviet chess establishment. Conservative, diplomatic, cautious in his choice of words, he has been the model Soviet citizen. Leonid Brezhnev, the late Soviet leader, had awarded him the Order of Lenin. As chess champion, he was treated like royalty. He is a millionaire who owns a dacha and several cars and can travel anywhere in the world that he pleases.

In contrast, Kasparov is brash, outspoken, at times undiplomatic, and he has the swarthy look of a street fighter when he glares across the board at the fine-boned, porcelain-skinned Karpov. The two men do not like each other. Kasparov is not perceived as a model citizen, but he is an extremely popular champion among the masses, in large part because of his aggressive, attacking style of play, which is the opposite of Karpov's more defensive, positional maneuverings over the board.

All over this city of five million, the chess match was the topic of the day. Public interest in the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl had receded, and the release of Nicholas Daniloff and an accused Soviet spy attracted relatively little attention. Actually, the only news to rival the chess match was the announcement that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be meeting President Reagan in a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, the next week. For the millions of chess devotees in this country, that city is associated only with one other summit, for it was in Reykjavik that Bobby Fischer crushed Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in 1972 to win the world title. While the Russians are rooting for Gorbachev in Reykjavik, there is no fear that Reagan will do to the Soviet leader what Bobby did to Boris.

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