Kasparov's 'Crisis in Seville'


An excerpt from the former chess champion's new book, which applies lessons from his playing career to business and politics

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov released his latest book this month, at the same time he formally entered the race to become President of Russia. The book, How Life Imitates Chess, is Kasparov's effort to examine how the lessons he learned in his chess career can be applied to the worlds of business and politics. As such, it's something of a primer on his political strategy in Russia, where his outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin and Kasparov's presidential aspirations are considered far-fetched at best and dangerous at worst. What follows is the first of two excerpts from the book that will run at BusinessWeek.com. This one describes Kasparov's first defense of his chess championship, which he calls the "Crisis in Seville."

I can look back at my chess career and pick out more than a few crisis points, but only one Mount Everest. I would like to share the tale to investigate the means I used in winning the most important game of my life. After winning the world championship in 1985, I had little time to savor the taste of victory. The traditional cycle called for a title defense every three years. During that time the challenger would be produced by rigorous qualification through regional tournaments, giant "interzonal" tournaments, and finally a series of candidate matches. This was so grueling that a challenger in the final was undoubtedly a worthy contender.

This process was interrupted in my case, however, thanks to the rematch clause, a defunct rule that FIDE (The World Chess Federation, or Federation Internationale des Echecs) resurrected in the Seventies under Soviet pressure to favor Karpov. If the champion lost, he had the right to an automatic rematch a year later with no qualification process. This rule had been abolished after Botvinnik, who had poor scores in world championship matches but was devastating in the rematches, used it to reclaim the title he lost to Smyslov in 1957 and then Tal in 1960.

A Turbulent Start

To avoid the same fate I would have to beat Karpov again in 1986. Bear in mind that we had already played the longest championship match in history in 1984–85, then played another grueling match in 1985, in which I took the title. I narrowly won the rematch in 1986, but the ordeal was still not over. The qualification cycle had started on schedule in 1985 despite our canceled marathon match, the rescheduled match, and the rematch. This meant that I was due to face the scheduled challenger in 1987, exactly a year after beating Karpov. And who would my opponent be this time? Karpov.

Evading the main qualification process, my nemesis had been dropped into a "superfinal" and had duly demolished the leading contender, Andrei Sokolov. In October 1987 we sat down in Seville, Spain, to begin our fourth world championship match in three years. If I had thought I was tired of looking at Karpov back in 1984, I was really sick of him by now. At least this time there were no more tricks. If I won this match, I wouldn't have to see him or any other title challenger for another three years. Apart from the freedom from the exhausting battle of the match itself, this also meant not having to endure the months of intense preparation that always precede such a match.

Perhaps my eagerness to avoid playing another match with Karpov for another three years is what led to such a turbulent start to our match in Seville. Four of the first eight games were decisive, two wins each and four draws. I was disappointed with my uneven play and my inability to put any distance between us. After a terrible Karpov blunder, I won the eleventh game from a dubious position to take the lead for the first time in the match, scheduled for twenty-four games. After four draws Karpov won the sixteenth game to draw even. At this point I began to think only of my title. A 12-12 score—a drawn match—would allow me to retain the championship. Hardly the convincing victory I had hoped for to end our marathon, but beggars cannot be choosers, and, more important, a draw would give me three years of peace. I went into defensive mode and stopped pressing him. A stretch of six quite uneventful draws followed, setting up a showdown in the final two games.

A Must-Win Game 24

I didn't want to push, and Karpov didn't have the energy to do so. Two more draws seemed the most logical result. Members of my analysis team thought so too. They didn't tell me about their side wagers until after the match had ended, but Grandmaster Zurab Azmaiparashvili made a bet against Grandmaster Josef Dorfman on the last two games, giving away phenomenal odds for any outcome other than two more draws. It would have done my heart a great deal of good had Dorfman lost his bet, but unfortunately the string of draws would end at six. After a tough, prolonged defense I suffered one of the worst hallucinations of my career and blundered to a loss in game 23. Suddenly, Karpov was up by a point and was only a draw away from taking back the crown he had lost to me two years earlier. The very next day after this catastrophe, I had to take the white pieces into a must-win game 24.

Caissa, the goddess of chess, had punished me for my conservative play, for betraying my nature. I would not be allowed to hold on to my title without winning a game in the second half of the match. Only once before in chess history had the champion won a final game to retain his title. With his back against the wall, Emanuel Lasker beat Carl Schlechter in the last game of their match in 1910. The win allowed Lasker to draw the match and keep his title for a further eleven years. The Austrian Schlechter had, like Karpov, a reputation as a defensive wizard. In fact, his uncharacteristically aggressive play in the final game against Lasker has led some historians to believe that the rules of that particular match required him to win by two points.

In 1985 the situation had been reversed. I had gone into the final game leading by a point, and Karpov needed to win to tie the match and save the title he had held since 1975. In that decisive game Karpov started out with an all-or-nothing attack. At the critical moment he was betrayed by his own instincts and failed to find the best moves. He had started out the game playing in my direct style only to slow down to his own more cautious approach in midstream, with predictably poor results.

The Secret of My Preparation

When preparing for my turn on the other side of this situation, I recalled that critical encounter. What strategy should I employ with the white pieces in this must-win final game? There was more to think about than game 23 and game 24, of course. These were also games 119 and 120 between us, an extraordinary number of top-level encounters between the same two players, all played in a span of thirty-nine months. It felt like one long match, with this final game in December, 1987, the climax of what we had started in September 1984. My plan for the final game had to consider not only what I would like best but what my opponent would like least. And what could be more annoying for Karpov than my turning the tables and playing like Karpov?

Had I not battled against Karpov for 119 games, I would have been incapable of surviving the all-important 120th. The loss of game 23 itself had the potential to be crushing, and I had less than twenty-four hours to prepare what could be my last game as world chess champion. The secret of my preparation? Playing cards with my team and getting a good five or six hours of sleep.

The aggregate score of our world championship marathon was sixteen wins apiece and eighty-seven draws. Victory in this 120th game would mean not only winning this match but taking the lead in our overall score. So why cards and sleep instead of opening preparation? After 119 games with Karpov there was nothing my team and I were going to uncover in a few hours of anxious analysis. We decided on a basic strategy, nothing more than that. The rest of the time was better spent recovering my nervous and physical energy for the battle ahead. This might sound strange given my typically obsessive preparation, but it was a simple matter of allocation of resources. Here, I would be best served to trade time for quality. The strategy I had chosen would require not explosive energy but a slow burn.

Part Chess, Part Boxing Match

The magnificent Teatro Lope de Vega was packed for game 24. The entire game was shown live on Spanish television. The usual pregame murmur of the audience had been replaced by a low roar. I was later told that the excited Spanish radio and television commentators sounded as if they were covering the final round of a heavyweight boxing match, which in a sense they were.

The arbiter started my clock and I pushed my c-pawn forward two squares, just as I had done eight times previously in the match. The difference would come in the next few moves as I kept my center pawns back and instead developed on the flanks, carefully avoiding a do-or-die battle. I opened slowly, even a little passively, to keep as many pieces as possible on the board. This technique would put psychological pressure on Karpov, despite his expertise in such maneuvers. With no clear, forcing continuations he would constantly be tempted to simplify and exchange pieces even at the cost of a slightly inferior position. Obviously with fewer pieces on the board the level of complexity would drop, reducing the chances of a decisive result, but as long as I could put a sufficiently high-quality price tag on these exchanges, I felt I was getting good value.

My slow-cook method had the additional advantage of getting Karpov into serious time trouble. With the stakes so high he was being extra-cautious, taking valuable minutes to double-check moves he would normally make quickly. As the game progressed, Karpov exchanged half the pieces, but his position was still under uncomfortable pressure. He was so close to equalizing on every move, but he couldn't quite get his head above water; in the meantime his clock was becoming a factor.

Computers Have Changed the Game

Seeing a chance to play for an attack, I moved my knight to the central e5 square, offering a pawn. Karpov took the bait and grabbed the pawn, a temptation that could have led to disaster. And he had to play quickly now, as it was still a long way to move 40, when, by the rules then in force, the game would be adjourned and more time added before continuation the next day. (Today, mostly due to the players using computers to help them analyze, such adjournments are obsolete.)

I exchanged rooks, leaving me with queen, knight, and bishop against his queen and two knights. He had an extra pawn, but I had seen a tactical possibility that would give me a powerful attack. His pieces were dangerously uncoordinated, and his king was vulnerable. If I could penetrate into his position with my queen, I could exploit both of these factors at the same time. The question was where to move my queen on move 33. Karpov could only wait, knowing he would have to reply almost immediately or he wouldn't have enough time to make the next eight moves without losing on time.

Lost in thought, I was startled by a tap on my shoulder. The Dutch arbiter leaned over and said, "Mr. Kasparov, you have to write the moves." I had become so wrapped up in the game that I had forgotten to make note of the last two moves on my score sheet as required by the rules. The arbiter was of course correct to remind me of the regulations, but what a moment to be strict!

Title Still Up In the Air

Distracted, I played my queen to the wrong square. I missed a subtlety and failed to see why a different move with the same idea would have been stronger. My move gave Karpov a clever defense, and suddenly he was one move from reclaiming his title. But under pressure from the clock, he missed the best move (though our exchange of errors would not be discovered until well after the game), and the momentum was still with me.

Karpov's best opportunity to defend had passed, and my forces surrounded the black king. I regained my sacrificed pawn with interest, and by the time we reached move 40, ending the time scramble, my position was clearly superior. The game was adjourned until the next day with the title still up in the air. It was going to be a long night.

Getting a good night's sleep before the game had been wise, but now there was work to do. Thirteen pieces were still on the board, including queens, too much material for definitive endgame analysis. I had an extra pawn, but with such limited material, Karpov had definite chances of a draw. A lot of chess was still ahead. We spent the night investigating possible defensives and how to break them down. Before the game I gave my chances as 50-50: 50% chance of a win, 50% chance of a draw.

Wearing Down the Opponent

The best news was that I could play this position forever, maneuvering around to provoke a mistake by my opponent. Black would be tied down on defense the entire time, and Karpov knew it. The prospect of such prolonged torture took its toll; I could see it in his eyes when he walked on the stage a few minutes after I did. His fatalistic expression told me that he had already lost the game psychologically, which boosted my confidence.

The maneuvering began. I remember being surprised when early on Karpov made a pawn push that my team and I had established as bad for black's defensive chances. Apparently Karpov and his team disagreed with our analysis, or perhaps it was a psychological error. Sometimes the hardest thing to do in a pressure situation is to allow the tension to persist. The temptation is to make a decision, any decision, even if it is an inferior choice. And Karpov's move made the position more concrete, reducing the level of uncertainty. But in my favor, his structure was now fixed, presenting me with clearer targets. Convinced of the quality of our analysis, I took Karpov's significant deviation from it as a mistake, not a potential improvement, further increasing my confidence.

After another ten moves of steady squeezing, I began to feel the win was in the bag. Karpov's pieces were pinned up against the wall, and a little more maneuvering would lead to decisive material gain. Later I heard that FIDE President Florencio Campomanes was busy calling a special meeting in another room to decide how to handle the closing ceremony, which was scheduled to be held on the same day. But it still looked as if this game could last forever; what was to be done? Two crises were averted at once when someone ran into the meeting room to announce, "Karpov resigned!"

It was without question the loudest and longest standing ovation I had ever received outside my native country. The theater thundered as Spanish television cut from fútbol to broadcast the conclusion of the match. I had done what Karpov had failed to do in 1985: won the final game and drawn the match to retain my title. This time I would have a good, long time to enjoy it.


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