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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Alternate sports histories are nearly as popular as the sports themselves. Fans love to consider (and argue over) the effects of the ultimate “what ifs” of sports. And chess is no different, with the history of the game full of wished-for matches that never came about. Morphy never got to challenge Staunton on his celebrated trip to Europe. World War I intervened to stop a match between world champion Emanuel Lasker and his strongest rival, Akiba Rubinstein.

But arguably the greatest missed opportunity of all, was when Bobby Fischer, long-time feuding with organizers over the terms of the match, opted to abdicate his crown rather than face his rising 24-year-old Soviet challenger, Anatoly Karpov. But Karpov – the first titleholder by default – went on to prove himself a worthy champion, holding on to the crown for a decade.

Not only that, but Karpov also broke with the practice of many other champions by embarking on a very active playing schedule after winning the crown. It’s thought he did so to establish his bona fides after winning the crown by default – but in doing so, he simply dominated the tournament scene during the pre-Kasparov era, as he compiled arguably one of the greatest tournament records in history.

Although Karpov is now 66 and retired from top elite events, he still plays the odd rapid tournament or exhibition match. His latest was playing the women’s No 1, Hou Yifan, in a six-game China-Russia Chess Champions Match that took place in Harbin, the Russian-influenced and styled capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, and famous for being one of the station-stops for the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Karpov was perhaps perceived as the underdog for this match – but old dogs can still bite, and the former world champion showed flashes of his brilliant past by beating Hou Yifan, 3½-2½, to win the match. And it was vintage Karpov in the opening game, as he rolled back the years to take the early lead – a lead that ultimately proved decisive for the outcome of the match.

Photo: © Official site

GM Anatoly Karpov – GM Hou Yifan
China-Russia Chess Champions Match, (1)
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Ragozin Variation
1.d4 e6 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4 All’s new that’s old in chess, thanks to New in Chess! A throwback to the 1950s, the Ragozin variation – named after the leading Soviet player and opening theorists of his day, Vlacheslav Ragozin (1908-1962) – is a very flexible, solid and a reliable system against the QGD that found a new lease of life following the New in Chess publication of a refreshing new book, The Ragozin Complex, by IM Vladimir Barsky. 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.Qb3 c5 8.cxd5 exd5 9.a3 Bxc3+ 10.Qxc3 b6 11.e3 0-0 12.Be2 Nc6 13.dxc5!N A novelty from Karpov, but one that looks very logical as it leaves Black with the twin targets of the hanging pawns on c5 and d5. Previously played here was 13.Bb5 Ne7 14.dxc5 Qxc3+ 15.bxc3 bxc5 16.Ke2 Be6 17.Rhb1 Rfb8 18.a4 with equality that eventually ended in a draw, in Gajewski,G-Morozevich,A, Dresden 2008. 13…Qxc3+ 14.bxc3 bxc5 15.Rb1 Rd8 16.Rb5! Forcing Black’s next move, which immediately concedes the d4 square and makes an even bigger target of the – now fixed – d5 pawn. 16…c4 17.0-0 Ba6? Hard to imagine what Hou Yifan was thinking here, as the most obvious move was 17…Be6 – but on a6, she soon has to admit that the bishop has no scope here, and is forced into an embarrassing retreat. 18.Rc5 Ne7 Better this than the alternative, I suppose. And I say that because anyone who ever studied Karpov in his pomp back in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, then after 18…Rd6 19.Rd1 Rad8 20.Nd4 Nxd4 21.Rxd4 only leads to the sort of dream position where the former world champion would thrive on, by systematically squeezing – python-like – an opponent to death. 19.Nd4 Rac8 20.Ra5! The squeeze is well and truly on, and Hou Yifan is now learning the hard way all about her haplessly misplaced bishop on a6. 20…Rd6 21.Rb1 Karpov may be advancing in years, but it really is second nature for him here how to tighten the death grip, with the threat being Rb4-a4 and targeting the a7-pawn. 21…Ra8 22.Bf3! The d5-pawn is not just a target, as Karpov also has a winning x-ray attack on Hou’s rook. 22…Kf8 23.Rb4 Bc8 A humiliating retreat from Hou, who with her error of misplacing the bishop on a6, has got her pieces in an awkward mess trying to defend a7. But the damage is done, and it is now too late to escape from Karpov’s python grip. 24.Rxc4! Bg4 Of course, if 24…dxc4 25.Bxa8 Rb6 26.f4 and White has an easy winning position, already pawn up and two added targets on a7 and c4. 25.Rc7 Bxf3 26.gxf3 a6 27.Ra4 What’s not to like here? Karpov has the dominant rooks, the strategically better knight, and Black has pawn weaknesses on d5 and a6 – oh, and Karpov is also a pawn ahead! Back in the day, many better players would even have seriously considered resigning by now. 27…Rc8 28.Rxc8+ Nxc8 29.Ra5 g6 30.f4 Ke7 31.h4 Kd7 32.Kg2 Ne7 33.Ra4 Ng8 There’s no way Hou can even try to activate her rook. If 33…Rb6 34.Rb4 soon stops that option. 34.c4 Karpov picks the moment to enter the next phase of the game. With so few pieces left on the board, Black’s d-pawn is less of a target, so by exchanging it off, Karpov rids himself of his only weak pawn as he sets up the winning plan of Kf3 followed by e4 to push for the win. 34…dxc4 35.Rxc4 Nf6 36.Kf3 Rb6 37.f5 h5 The position is bad, but you have to try to find ways to prolong the game nevertheless, and Hou’s only chance was with 37…g5!? 38.hxg5 hxg5 with the Nf6 and g5 pawn at least – for now – forming a fortress that stops White’s king advancing further. 38.fxg6 fxg6 39.Rc2! [see diagram] Vintage Karpov! It’s the little finesses that make all the difference in such endings – and here, Karpov simply retreats his rook to defend f2, making way for Kf4 to infiltrate deep into Hou’s position, whilst at the same time, his king can also support his passed e-pawn. 39…Ng4 40.Kf4 Rb1 41.f3 Nf6 42.e4 Rd1 43.Rc4 Ke7 44.Nc6+ Ke6 45.Ne5 Rg1 46.Rc6+ Ke7 47.Rxa6 The game is effectively over here; the rest needs no further comment. 47…Rg2 48.a4 Rh2 49.Nxg6+ Kf7 50.Kf5 Ne8 51.Ra7+ Kg8 52.e5 Rg2 53.Ra8 1-0

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