Karpov’s Ruy Lopez

Anatoly Karpov always had a classical opening repertoire. Against 1.e4 it was either 1…e5 or 1…c6, while against 1.d4 the Nimzo/QID complex or the QGD. The deviations from these choices were rare.

The Ruy Lopez is an opening Karpov played all his life. It served him tremendously until his matches with Garry Kasparov.

As I wrote in a previous post about both Kasparov’s and Short’s motivations for choosing certain openings, one may wonder why Karpov persisted with the Ruy Lopez when things stopped being favourable.

When facing Kasparov, Karpov was constantly under pressure in the games when the Ruy Lopez was played. He won just one, Game 5 of the match in 1985, and lost 4, two in each of the next two matches – the London/Leningrad in 1986 and New York/Lyon in 1990. It was not only about the losses of these games, they also turned out to be the decisive ones for Kasparov’s victory in both matches.

I had a chance to speak to one of Karpov’s seconds for the New York/Lyon match and he told me that in preparation for that match they worked very hard and prepared the Caro-Kann. Karpov worked independently on the Ruy Lopez with Portisch. He was surprised why Karpov didn’t play the Caro-Kann in the match even once.

With Kasparov’s emergence the treatment of the Ruy Lopez from the white side evolved in a more dynamic direction. I think this is the main reason why Karpov started having problems with his favourite opening. However, when playing his great rival Karpov realised that he couldn’t hope to win only with White, as Kasparov’s opening preparation rarely allowed him promising positions. Therefore he willingly entered the complications from the Zaitsev Variation in order to create winning chances with Black as well. Unfortunately for him, after that Game 5 he never managed to win a game, even though he was winning on more than one ocassion. That just wasn’t his type of game.

After the matches with Kasparov, Karpov slowly started to move away from the Ruy Lopez and switched to the Caro-Kann. In the 1990s he was playing the Caro-Kann on a regular basis.

Even though Karpov never abandoned the Ruy Lopez completely, the effect of increased dynamism in the Lopez that started with the matches with Kasparov forced Karpov to change his primary opening against 1.e4 in favour of the Caro-Kann. This was a positive change and it helped him maintain his competitiveness for almost another decade.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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  • Apr 15,2020 at 10:11 pm

    Excellent article, as always, Alex! My only comment is that everything is relative. Karpov played the spanish very well , but lost the ‘Spanish match’ 5 to 1. Fair enough, but what about the Grunfeld match? Karpov won it 6 to 2! Conclusion; The spanish did no worse than the grunfeld. That is why the match was so even…Keep up the good work!

    • Apr 27,2020 at 9:31 pm

      Thanks Kevin! Yes, it’s relative, I was only looking at the Spanish without comparison to other opening duels.

  • jon
    Apr 14,2020 at 11:47 pm

    Thank you, This was very interresting!

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