The greatest rivalry the sport has seen as yet
October 22, 2013
Updated: October 22, 2013 01:07 IST

Nothing spices up sport like a bitter rivalry. Many a sweet memory in sport has been provided by two bitter enemies, gifted and determined.

When Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met in the boxing ring, you could expect the deadliest blows imaginable. When Martina Navratilova saw Chris Evert on the other side of a tennis court, her serves had more venom than usual. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna always drove each other wild when their paths crossed on a Formula One track.

On a track of a different kind, the sight of Sebastian Coe was enough to make Steve Ovett produce the run of his life, every time.

In chess, the gentlest of all sports, there have been bitter rivalries too, right from the first ever World championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort in 1886. But there has never been a greater rivalry than the one between the two mighty Russians, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov.

It was a rivalry that lasted over a couple of decades and five World championships.

The first of those championship matches was held in 1984-85 in Moscow. Karpov, 33 then, was the defending champion and Kasparov, 21, the pretender.

Karpov had been the World champion since winning the title without playing a game in 1975, when the temperamental Bobby Fischer refused to defend his crown. With consecutive victories over Victor Korchnoi at the World championship in 1978 and 1981, he had proved that he was the best player in the world.

He may not have been a prodigy, but he was a remarkably steady player with a cautious, solid style. He was very difficult to beat.

Kasparov was aggressive, imaginative and hardworking. He had earned the right to take on the reigning champion by scoring convincing wins in the Candidates tournament against Alexander Beliavsky (6-3), Korchnoi (7-4) and Vasily Smyslov (8.5-4.5). The expectations around the 1984 match were high. But nobody expected the match would last five months and still produce no result. In the longest World championship match ever, 48 games were played.

It was Karpov who drew first blood, winning the third game, after the first two were drawn.

He looked in great form as he won the sixth and the seventh games too. After a draw in the next game, he won the ninth.

He was 4-0 up from just nine games, and all he needed was two more wins to keep the crown (the player who wins six games was to be the champion).

Now it looked like Karpov would seal the match without much trouble. The next 17 games were drawn, though, as the younger man resisted stoutly.

Then, Karpov won the 27th game, and all that stood between him and the title was just one victory.

Kasparov was not prepared to give him that as he staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of any sport. From the brink of defeat, which was just one loss away, he fought back. After drawing the next four games, he finally tasted victory in the 32nd.

Shift in momentum

More draws followed until Kasparov won games 47 and 48. He may still have been trailing 3-5, but it was his rival who looked in trouble. The momentum had shifted.

FIDE, the World chess governing body, intervened and stopped the match, saying both players were too tired. Kasparov, understandably, was stunned, and made his displeasure public at a press conference. He had reasons to feel let down.

Karpov had always been the favourite of the establishment, be it FIDE or the government, and Kasparov was the rebel.

But the rebel struck back when the match resumed in Moscow seven months later. This time, it would be a best-of-24-games affair, and Karpov would be the champion in the event of a tie.

Kasparov began with a victory in the new match. But Karpov came back with successive wins in the fourth and fifth games. Kasparov, however, equalised by winning the 11th game, and the score was 6-6 at the half-way mark.

He went ahead following a brilliant win in the 16th game. Three games later he won again to increase his lead to two points. He, however, erred in the 22nd game and lost. The next game was drawn, and that left him needing a draw to be the youngest World champion in history, at 22. Karpov could still retain the title with a win in the final game.

But Kasparov went on to claim the crown in style by winning the game. He had wrapped up the match 13-11. A new superstar in chess was born. The two giants met in three more World championships, in 1986, 1987 and 1990, with Kasparov winning every one of them. Over five World championships, they played 144 games. Kasparov won 21 games and Karpov 19. There were 104 draws.

It is difficult to imagine such a rivalry in chess in the near future.


Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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