Karpov and Old Age

There is no need to introduce Karpov. It is probably the only name, together with Kasparov’s, that people far from chess can still recognise.

I would like to touch upon the subject of playing on after certain age. Karpov recently played in two events and played one Bundesliga game in between.

At the beginning of October in Murmansk there was a match between Karpov and Timman. Karpov has beaten Timman throughout their careers mercilessly. The Candidates final in 1990 (6.5-2.5) and their World Championship match in 1993 (12.5-8.5) showed Karpov’s dominance. Timman always seemed to have problems playing Karpov and the match in Murmansk looked to be one more match victory for Karpov – even though both players are past their prime (both were born in 1951) I thought that Timman being Karpov’s “customer” will play the decisive role.

Karpov is very busy nowadays, among other things he is also a member of the Russian Parliament. He never quit chess officially, but he plays very rarely and doesn’t prepare or work on chess at all. Unlike Kasparov, who after officially retiring in 2005 kept working on chess and preserved his strength, as shown in his rare outings, Karpov just loves the process of playing and cannot seem to resist the urge to sit at the board from time to time for an official game or two.

Timman is more active than Karpov, he plays often, writes for New In Chess and composes studies. I am sure he prepared for the match in Murmansk.

The course of the match showed the dangers of relying only on one’s talent even if that talent is enormous. Karpov was rusty and lack of training and practice cost him the match – in the only decisive game Karpov blundered badly:

In the last game of the match Karpov couldn’t do anything with black and he lost the match – for the first time in his life he lost to Timman in an official match.

I don’t know how it feels for such a great champion to fall so low and lose games like the one above. Spassky once said that he realised it was time to stop when he looked at his old games and saw how strong he was, while his last games had been very bad and he just couldn’t play on his usual level anymore. The realisation that you cannot do the same things you used to do before is probably one of the major disappointments of old age.

After the match Karpov played in the Bundesliga against GM Kempinski. Karpov always needed time to warm up and the match with Timman at least served that purpose. The game was a vintage Karpov win.

The game was decided by an elementary blunder by Kempinski, Karpov’s merit was in keeping the pressure.

One of the tournaments Karpov plays every year is the rapid tournament that bears his name, played in Cap d’Agde, France. It’s a rapid tournament where 4 male and 4 female players play a double-round-robin and then the first 4 players play matches of two games (with tie-breakers if needed), a semi-final and then a final. Karpov won his own tournament in 2012, but has found the going tougher ever since.

He started with a win over GM Sebag and a loss to Bacrot. In Round 3 he faced the lowest rated player, WGM Sabrina Vega, rated 2414.

I have always felt uneasy witnessing great champions tarnish their reputation with ugly losses like this one.

Karpov seemed to pick up the pace after this loss and went on to score 9.5/14 and finish one point behind Bacrot, who scored 10.5/14. It seemed that he finally got his form back and could look with optimism to the semi-final against GM Edouard, who scored two full points less.

The semi-final turned out to be one-sided. The result between a great and unprepared champion against a young and heavily prepared GM was 0-2.

In game 1, playing with black Karpov lost a pawn on move 14 and went on to lose. Game 2 was the most telling.

A very painful (not to say humiliating) defeat with white in a must-win situation. Again, my feeling of uneasiness seeing Karpov play and lose like this was difficult to conceal.

The game with Kempinski showed that Karpov is still capable of an occasional glimpse of his former glory. But let us not forget that it was played against a 2600-rated player and Karpov’s own rating is somewhere in this range, meaning that his current strength is approximately of a 2600-rated player.

Chess has changed dramatically since Karpov’s heyday, the young players calculate like machines and are prepared excellently: the computers raised the level of human calculation and their help in the preparation process cannot be overstated. Karpov was never a very hard worker off the board (unlike Kasparov) as he relied on his playing strength and talent. With age the talent remains, but the strength diminishes, primarily because of the imprecise calculations. Karpov was famous for his precise calculation of short lines but that is not the case anymore, as the increased number of blunders in his games show. Chess is a concrete game and if you cannot calculate well you simply don’t play well.

I have learned a lot from Karpov’s games and I always admired him for his fighting abilities. Seeing him lose games because of elementary blunders makes me a bit sad. Karpov’s legacy is eternal, but his present-day games will not make it to his future best games collections.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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