Controversy in 1984

I grew up watching the Karpov-Kasparov matches in the 1980s. As a kid, I was rooting for Kasparov and I remember the joy I felt when I heard the news that he won the last game in Seville and kept his title.

When I started playing opens around Europe in the 1990s I encountered several players who were part of Karpov and Kasparov’s camps. Being fascinated by those matches, I never tired of listening to their stories. It was inside information I was craving for and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Some of that inside information was controversial.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of information and connected some dots. When Kasparov’s books on his Predecessors and the matches with Karpov came out, I considered that information in a new light.

In this post I will take an in-depth look at their first match in 1984-85.

The match started with a disaster for Kasparov. After game 9 he was already 0-4 down. Luckily for him, in an unlimited match, he could make draws and stay in the match, almost infinitely.

Kasparov started making draws. And some of these draws leave a strange impression. (In what follows I used the information from Kasparov’s own book on his match with Karpov. I have the book in Russian, so any quotations are translated from Russian.)

Being 0-4 down and having lost two games in his beloved Tarrasch Defence, Kasparov wrote that he intended to use the Grunfeld Defence that he prepared with his second Adorjan. I find this very strange, as he wrote that he prepared the Queen’s Gambit Declined as his back-up defence against 1.d4. Going for a sharp Grunfeld while obviously out of form and 0-4 down didn’t sound too sensible to me.

Implying an information leak, Kasparov believed that Karpov knew of his intentions and that was the reason he chose 1.Nf3 starting from game 11 and avoiding 1.d4 (that he played in games 7 and 9 and featured the Tarrasch Defence) for the remainder of the match.

Instead of going for the QGD, Kasparov dabbled with the double fianchetto in the English Opening and the Queen’s Indian in games 11, 13 and 15. He was under pressure in those games but he managed to draw them. From game 17 onwards he relied on the QGD and starting from that game we got a very strange series of draws.

One of the most shocking inside information I got to know from the seconds in both camps was that during the match there were strange phone calls happening. The player (Karpov or Kasparov) would pick the phone up and there would be no words spoken and then they would hang up. What the seconds thought was that these were draw offers and they came in couples, i.e. to draw the next two games.

The following analysis of the games, taking into consideration their content and time spent by the players, does seem to support those claims.

In game 17 they drew in 23 moves, with White (Karpov – he was White in all the odd games) spending 1.28 and Black 1.01.

In game 18 the draw was agreed in 22 moves with White spending 1.58 and Black 1.03.

Game 19 was the only one that lasted longer, 44 moves, but in view of Kasparov’s excellent preparation the draw was obvious already around move 20.

Game 20 saw a draw in 15 moves, White spending 0.34 and Black 1.03.

Game 21, draw in 31 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 22, draw in 20 moves, White 1.36, Black 1.24.

Game 23, draw in 22 moves, White 1.43, Black 1.22.

Game 24, draw in 17 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 25, draw in 21 moves, White 2.05, Black 1.34.

Game 26, draw in 23 moves, White 1.23, Black 1.10.

As you can notice, the games lasted around 3 hours, more or less, and the number of moves was around 20.

Then Karpov won game 27 and the score became 5-0 in his favour.

After the uneventful draw in game 28, more strange things started to happen.

In his book, Kasparov starts to contradict himself. He wrote that he started to feel safe in the QGD when playing Black, because in spite of the loss of game 27 he didn’t really have problems in the opening. So where is the logic of venturing a new opening when one step away from losing the match with the embarrassing score 0-6?

Yet, that is exactly what Kasparov started doing in the next games.

He wrote that he wanted to take advantage of the fact that Karpov wasn’t always confident when meeting a new opening, so he played the sharp Meran in game 29. He wanted to “sharpen the situation in the match” by playing the Meran with Black and playing 1.e4 with White. 

Sharpening the situation in the match when being 0-5 down sounds suicidal to me, but game 29 fell into the category of the above draws, lasting only 13 moves with White spending 1.39 and Black 0.51.

Game 30 saw the Petroff, with a draw in 20 moves, White 1.02, Black 1.19.

Game 31 saw a return go the QGD for Kasparov (he writes that he decided to postpone the use of the Meran after seeing the “fighting look of his opponent.” All this makes very little sense to me – it implies he got scared of some preparation, so he switched to the QGD, and yet in the next games he returned to the Meran!). The game gave Karpov excellent winning chances, but he spoilt them and there was another draw.

Game 32 was Kasparov’s first win. In spite of his decision to start playing 1.e4 (“to sharpen the situation in the match”) he chose 1.d4 and in the Queen’s Indian he won a very nice game.

Game 33 saw a return to the Meran (Karpov chose the Semi-Slav development) and a draw in 20 moves, White 1.37, Black 1.10.

Game 34, draw in 20 moves, White 1.20, Black 0.59.

In game 35 Karpov decided to return to the move 1.e4.

Kasparov writes that they prepared the Classical Sicilian already for game 7, strangely not going for his back-up the Najdorf, that served him well for an easy draw in game 5. Again we get a new opening for Kasparov and again, miraculously, the Classical Sicilian (with the Rauzer chosen by Karpov) giving him easy draws in the two games he used it.

Game 35 was drawn in 17 moves, White 1.45, Black 1.22.

Game 36 saw a big fight, where both players could win.

Game 37 was another Rauzer with another quick draw, 15 moves, White 1.36, Black 0.37.

These were amazing results with both the Slav and the Classical Sicilian, easy and quick draws with new openings that he didn’t prepare for the match. So why didn’t Kasparov continue to use them?

Game 38 and 39 saw identical play until move 22 but didn’t offer any chances to either player.

Game 40 gave Kasparov winning chances, but he missed them.

Game 41 was a special one. 

Kasparov writes that he lost confidence in the Rauzer (why?) and was in panic about what to play against 1.e4. He writes that he didn’t “fully trust” the Najdorf (strange admission coming from Kasparov – the only time he used it was in game 5 which was an easy draw for him, so no reasons to really complain about it)  so he decided to go for his opponent’s favourite defence, the Petroff. He toyed with the idea of playing the Ruy Lopez (something that he looked at from the black side in his pre-match preparation) but he writes “with the score 1-5 playing a complex opening without proper preparation was scary.”

This is an obvious contradiction in Kasparov’s writing. He did prepare the Ruy Lopez before the match, unlike the Classical Sicilian and the Slav, but he never mentions being scary playing those two openings while being one loss away from losing the match. But now, all of a sudden it was scary to play the Lopez.

Eventually he decided to rely on the Petroff, another opening he didn’t prepare before the match, but he didn’t have any ideas against with with White, so he thought it was safe. The opening went well for Kasparov, but he misplayed it on move 15 and Karpov obtained great winning chances. However, he missed them on move 33 and Kasparov held the draw.

Game 42 was a draw in 26 moves, White 1.31, Black 1.21

Game 43 was a draw, notable that Kasparov (finally) played the Najdorf. It lasted 21 moves, White 1.43, Black 0.45.

Games 44-46 were real fights with mutual chances, game 45 featuring the Najdorf and games 44 and 46 were Ruy Lopezes, Karpov deviating from the Petroff.

Game 47 was another peculiar game.

Karpov returned to 1.Nf3 and Kasparov again played the Semi-Slav. He writes that he felt confident trying it again. Karpov went for the sharpest option 5.Bg5, inviting the Botvinnik Variation, but Kasparov, surprised by the sharp choice, dodged it by going for the Cambridge-Springs. On move 11 (!) Kasparov offered a draw, but Karpov refused even though Black already had no problems. Karpov’s refusal of “it’s too early” showed some insecurity and he played the game very badly, losing in 32 moves. 

Kasparov won a very good 48th game in the Petroff and the match was then stopped, with Karpov still leading 5-3.

The above analysis points out several questionable moments in the match. The first is the “coupling” of the draws, short both in the time spent and the number of moves played. Second is Kasparov’s choice of openings at different moments in the match. If it is true that such “coupling” of draws took place (as the seconds I spoke with thought) then it’s not really surprising that Kasparov chose different openings, as he knew the game would end in a draw and was risking nothing. At the same time he wasn’t showing his ideas in his main openings and was “testing” the ideas that he had in the Slav and the Rauzer. Third is Kasparov’s contradictory reasoning when choosing his opening for game 41, also going contrary to the logic of choosing the mentioned Slav and Classical Sicilian.

Only the main protagonists know the truth and I don’t think they will ever speak out about these questions. However, these questions certainly raise some doubts about some games of this historic match.

There are questions about their other matches as well.

I have heard that the match in Seville was “decided” to be drawn after Karpov equalised the score in game 16. 

Before that game there were two games that fell along the lines of the above draws.

Kasparov’s toothless treatment of the Caro-Kann in games 10 and 14, draws in 20 and 21 moves, 1.35-1.30 and 1.34-1.14, respectively. Even more strange is his choice to switch to 1.e4 in game 10 after winning a crushing game 8 with the English Opening when he himself writes that Karpov had obvious problems in the English. So why change the favourable opening and give away an easy draw and the match initiative?

Game 14 was agreed drawn in a position where Kasparov had a safe and stable advantage.

After a very bad game 16, which he lost with White, with the result in the match tied Kasparov chose the most surprising opening in his game 17. He writes that he was out of form in Seville and that he was lacking fighting spirit and just wanted to end the match. The Grunfeld was serving him well and I find his explanations to choose the King’s Indian (!) in such a delicate match situation – to mobilise his inner reserves – a bit far fetched. Karpov chose 1.Nf3 in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld (for a first time in the match!) and instead of the rock-solid QGD  or a variation in the English he had prepared, Kasparov went for the sharpest Mar del Plata variation! A curious selection of firsts by both players.

Similar to the games in the first match mentioned above, Kasparov again showed “courage” with his opening choice in a critical match situation. 

The next two games, 18 and 19, were QGDs, Kasparov returning to 1.c4 and Karpov replying 1…e6 and Karpov repeating 1.Nf3 but Kasparov this time going for 1…d5.

In game 21 Karpov returned to 1.d4 and Kasparov writes that he “understood that returning to the Grunfeld in such a critical moment was risky.” I just wonder why he didn’t consider the KID risky earlier, in game 17. Additionally, he didn’t consider the Grunfeld risky for game 23, when he offered a transposition to it, but Karpov declined it.

The last two games entered history as the most exciting finish in a World Championship match. I have heard that they were also part of an agreed “double,” but I leave it to the readers to believe what they wish.

The matches between Karpov and Kasparov had many situations that never made it to the public. In their last match in 1990, during the first part in New York, Karpov urgently had to fly back to Moscow. What could have been so important for Karpov to abandon a World Championship match and fly back to Moscow, changing time zones and completely messing up his regime and routine? The person who told me this didn’t know the answer.

Another curious information was that Karpov thoroughly prepared the Caro-Kann for the match in 1990, but he never used it then. The seconds and trainers working on it were puzzled by this choice. Karpov lost the match because of the sensitive losses in the Ruy Lopez in games 18 and 20. However, he used all that work on the Caro-Kann in his next tournaments and achieved great results in that opening. Does this mean that he saved all the work for after the match and didn’t consider the match “worthy” to show his preparation? Karpov was obviously under pressure in the Ruy Lopez, so it made perfect sense to change the opening, but the only time he did so was using the Petroff (giving him an easy draw!) in game 10. Why he didn’t repeat the Petroff, when it was such a success, is another question left unanswered.

In this lengthy analysis I posed the questions that I found logical and to which I couldn’t find the answers to. These were interspersed with bits of information that I have gathered throughout the years. I doubt that I will ever receive answers, but at least I put the questions out in the public. Who knows, maybe the truth will come out at some point.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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1 Comment
  • all this is very interesting
    Apr 14,2023 at 10:31 pm

    All this is very interesting, thanks for sharing.

    Makes one wonder if after all Fischer was spot on when he spoke of prearranged games between the two Ks.

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