World Chess Hall of Famer Anatoly Karpov was born on this day in 1951 in Zlatoust, a small town in the Urals, and went on to be one of the game’s legendary world champions. He learned to play chess at the age of four and by the age of 12 was accepted into Mikhail Botvinnik’s chess school. But initially, the ex-world champion was sceptical of his student’s prospects and potential, commenting: “The boy does not have a clue about chess.”
But what did the great Soviet patriarch of chess really know anyway?
In 1969, Karpov became the first Soviet player since Boris Spassky to win the World Junior Championship, and not long after made his mark as a potential world champion at the 1971 Alekhine Memorial in Moscow, one of the strongest elite tournaments of its day. Although seeded only 14th he finished unbeaten in equal first place along with Leonid Stein, and above a very strong field that included reigning World Champion Boris Spassky and former champions Smyslov, Tal and Petrosian.
There was no looking back after that. In the rise of Bobby Fischer, Karpov was the future for Soviet chess – and he didn’t disappoint with a successful candidates’ run that was followed by winning the world crown by default in 1975, with Fischer abdicating the title. He then reigned for a decade as champion – stopped only by the rise of Garry Kasparov – and dominated the vast majority of tournaments he played in; though his greatest performance came later with his incredible victory at Linares in 1994 with 11/13 (!), a point ahead of arch-rival Kasparov, his multi-time world championship opponent.
As mentioned earlier, Karpov’s big breakthrough came with winning the ridiculously strong Alekhine Memorial in 1971. One of Karpov’s key games en route to victory was this impressive win over world championship candidate Vlastimil Hort – a game that remains to this day one of Karpov’s all-time favourites.
Photo: Happy B’Day, Anatoly Karpov! | © St. Louis Chess Club
GM Anatoly Karpov – GM Vlastimil Hort
Alekhine Memorial, 1971
Sicilian Scheveningen, Keres Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g4 This very aggressive way to play against the solid Sicilian Scheveningen, is named after the great Estonian player Paul Keres, who pioneered the system. 6…Nc6 7.g5 Nd7 8.f4 a6 9.Be3 Be7 10.Rg1 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 e5 12.Qd2 exf4 13.Bxf4 Ne5 14.Be2 Be6 15.Nd5 Bxd5 16.exd5 The alternative re-capture 16.Qxd5 also had its merits with pressure on the isolated and vulnerable d6-pawn. But Karpov’s rationale here is that his way of recapturing lessened his own pawn weaknesses, but more crucially – with the active bishop-pair – opened lines to Hort’s king. 16…Ng6 17.Be3 h6?! It is very difficult to asses such positions in the heat of battle, but it is likely Hort decided to ‘mix it’ now in order to prevent Karpov from safely castling queenside to connect his rooks. But then again, what else can he do? If 17…0-0 18.0-0-0 White has all the space and time to prepare and launch a kingside attack. Rather than this, Hort takes his chances by making the position more double-edged. 18.gxh6 Bh4+ 19.Kd1 gxh6 20.Bxh6 Bf6 21.c3 Be5 22.Rg4 A strong rook lift, which suddenly makes life difficult for Black, as not only will it be hard to get his king to safety, but now there also the added threat of the h-pawn storming up the board. 22…Qf6 23.h4! The real reason behind Karpov’s rook lift was to support this move. 23…Qf5 The h-pawn is obviously taboo, as 23…Nxh4?? 24.Bg5! and Black suffers a heavy loss of material. 24.Rb4! Bf6 Now we see another dimension to the rook lift. If 24…0-0-0?? 25.Bg4! wins on the spot. So Hort now has to waste more time just trying to get his king to safety. 25.h5 The h-pawn is a big endgame asset – and Hort will soon find himself in dire straits if the pieces start to come off the board now. 25…Ne7 26.Rf4! Karpov’s free-wheeling rook is becoming a major nuisance to Black – and one slip here, and Hort is dead. 26…Qe5 27.Rf3?! You can understand Karpov’s desire to keep open possibilities of Re3 or indeed Rd3 as in the game – but the more clinical rook move was 27.Rf2! and now the threat of Bf4 is going to be hard to meet. Black’s in a bind here, one example being 27…Bh4 (If 27…0-0-0 28.Bf4 Qe4 29.c4 the threat of Bf3 is hard to meet. 29…Qh1+ 30.Rf1 Qg2 31.h6 and the h-pawn continues to push forward.) 28.Bf4! Qxd5 29.Rf1 and White is going to unravel with Kc2 to connect his rooks, leaving Black fighting a lost cause with the h-pawn being the main threat. 27…Nxd5? [With the rare Karpov oversight, Hort misses his best shot to stay in the game with 27…0-0-0! 28.Rd3 Rxh6!? 29.Qxh6 and only now 29…Nxd5 where it will not be easy here for White, what with the disconnect with his king and the undeveloped Ra1, offering Black full compensation for the sacrificed material and realistic chances of saving the game now. 28.Rd3 Rxh6 29.Rxd5 Qe4 30.Rd3! [see diagram] With the major threat being Re3 pinning the queen, Karpov’s free-wheeling rook simply wrecks havoc in the Black position. 30…Qh1+ 31.Kc2 Qxa1 32.Qxh6 Be5 33.Qg5 1-0 Hort resigns, as he can’t get his king to safety (33…Kd7?? 34.Qxe5!) nor stop the h-pawn running up the board.