Skip to main content
Original Issue


As their battles continue, Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov have become the best of enemies

Don't touch me! Don't question me! Don't speak to me! Stay with me!
—Gogo to Didi in Waiting for Godot

Feuding and bickering like the tramps in Samuel Beckett's play, Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov are once again on a bare stage, two existential actors locked in a seemingly endless struggle for supremacy in the chess world. They are comrades in limbo who can't live with or without each other. "Kasparov-Karpov, Karpov-Kasparov," mutters Kasparov, the reigning world champion. "Who knows which came first? Who knows which is which? In the public's mind we are one person, bound together forever."

The K&K boys have a genuine distaste for each other, perhaps because they know each other so well. Talk about intimate combat: By playing 140 exquisitely plotted games in five world championship matches over the last six years, these two Soviets have swept up the most obscure corners of each other's brains. "We've played so many times that it's all become one big game to me," Kasparov says. "I cannot separate our matches. It's like 140 impulses from the past. It's a lifetime."

Few contests reveal the limits of ego and courage so nakedly as world championship chess. After so many games against each other, Kasparov and Karpov are as vulnerable as prizefighters in the confines of the boxing ring. In the recesses of the mind, you can run, but you can't hide. "You cannot shield your emotions when you spend 700 hours opposite a person," says Kasparov. "I can feel Karpov's moves."

The final moves of their latest confrontation, which will go a maximum of 24 games, are unfolding now in Lyons, France. As of Sunday, Kasparov held an almost insurmountable 11-9 lead after 10 weeks of play. (Kasparov received a point for each of his four wins, no points for his two losses and half a point for each of the 14 draws.) He needed only to win one or draw two of the remaining four games to retain his title.

Karpov, 39, and Kasparov, 27, have dominated chess for a decade and a half. Karpov inherited the world title in 1975, when Bobby Fischer of the U.S. defaulted, but had the bad luck to have Kasparov, a player of equal dimension, pop up during his reign. After an abortive first K&K match in 1984-85, which was called off with Karpov leading 5-3, Kasparov wrung the crown from Karpov in an emotionally wrenching series later that year. Karpov has not been able to recapture the title since then, though Kasparov has maintained his superiority by the slimmest of margins, winning three more games (21-18 with 101 draws) than Karpov in their long, long war of attrition.

Fourteen months ago, Kasparov became the highest-rated chess player ever, surpassing Fischer's 2,785 points. He has since soared to 2,800 points and looked to be a lock over Karpov, who has been holding at 2,730, in the current match. Indeed, Karpov has struggled lately, losing the final three rounds of last year's Rotterdam World Cup and barely scraping by Artur Yusupov in the Candidates Semifinal Matches. After beating Yusupov, Karpov then had to beat Jan Timman for the right to meet Kasparov. "It doesn't matter that Karpov has been faltering," says Kasparov. "Against me he always rises to new levels. I am, after all, Kasparov."

The two K's clash in style, personality and ideology. Kasparov is a swashbuckling player, slashing and adventurous. Karpov is a master-.of positional chess, a defensive specialist whose delicate maneuvers rely on cool, unflustered calculation. Kasparov is a wired and self-aggrandizing person; Karpov, a mild, crafty one. "Kasparov will tell you what time he wants you to think it is," says Lev Alburt, the highest-rated American player. "Karpov will tell you what time he thinks you want to think it is."

Kasparov lives in Moscow and is a model capitalist who admires Thatcherism and holds Gorbachev in such disdain that he played the first three games of the current series under the flag of Czarist Russia. Karpov is a People's Deputy who has faithfully supported the Communist Party for years. Kasparov calls Karpov a bloodless apparatchik. Still, some see this contrast as more style than substance. "The difference between them is not very significant," says Viktor Korchnoi, the Soviet grand master who challenged Karpov for the title in 1978 and '81. "Kasparov is younger and perhaps more sincere; Karpov is older and more cynical. Both are motivated by one thing: money." The motivation this go-around is $3 million, with a very un-socialist $1.7 million going to the winner.

The grudge is mainly Kasparov's. "Definitely, I don't like him," he says of Karpov. "I look at Karpov and see everything I've had to fight to get to where I am. He's not a human being. He's the system itself, the warhead to the Communist missile."

"What can I say?" says Karpov. "Kasparov is no longer young, but he's still immature. How can you dislike a child?" Karpov won't even acknowledge his archrival's genius. "Sure, Kasparov is an interesting player," he allows, "but there are many interesting players."

Unlike Godot, which premiered in Paris before eventually moving to New York, this production opened on Broadway, at Manhattan's Hotel Macklowe, on Oct. 8 and then after 12 games moved to Lyons on Nov. 24. From the opening act, Kasparov paced and grimaced and provoked wild, tactical melees. His victories were marked by innovative combinations—the one in Game 2 was so astounding that kibitzers gave him a standing ovation. His losses were marred by reckless attacks; he was smartly smashed in Game 7 after blundering into a tactical position that led to double attacks on his major pieces and the loss of a vital pawn.

Karpov's tenacity has thrown Kasparov into fits of frustration, consternation and puzzlement. The champ wanted to blow Karpov off the board, but whenever Kasparov looked to shoot out ahead, Karpov tightened his defenses. Chagrined and embarrassed by the 6-6 score at the end of the New York leg, Kasparov skipped the halftime press conference.

Kasparov settled down by Game 16, outlasting Karpov in a 12-hour, 102-move marathon in which he took time out to consult a computer and his analysts—an accepted practice in tournament play these days—and plot the winning combination of moves. The ever-resilient Karpov needed only 40 moves to win the next game and retie the match, at 8½, but he found himself in an untenable position in Game 18. Karpov tried to postpone the continuation of the game after an adjournment—to buy time for his own computer analysis—by claiming he was snowed in at his hillside villa. But in perhaps the most daring gambit of the match, chief arbiter Gert Gijssen climbed into his rental car, braved the treacherous roads and captured Karpov, who made a delayed and sheepish appearance at the Palais de Congrès in Lyons, where, half an hour later, he resigned the game.

Karpov has also squandered winning positions in more than a half-dozen games. "At times he seemed afraid of Kasparov and every one of his pieces," says grand master Ljubomir Ljubojevic of Yugoslavia. "He didn't play to win, only to survive." Last Saturday, with the match fading away, Karpov played to win in Game 20—and lost. "He and Kasparov are overdosed with each other," said Ljubojevic. "At any moment, either one is likely to collapse."

Like their theatrical counterparts, K&K wait anxiously for a resolution. Kasparov is convinced Karpov will be supplanted in the next world championship by a younger Soviet player, Boris Gelfand or Vassily Ivanchuk. Karpov still bravely insists he'll win this match, thereby ending his "permanent" rival's career. "Kasparov will never play for the championship again," Karpov says stoutly. "His nervous system is not so stable. It won't be a nervous breakdown, but his nerves will breakdown."

Most everyone else thinks the two K's will continue to square off in a sort of perpetual endgame, which, of course, is the name of another Beckett tragicomedy.



Karpov, the former champion, is a crafty defensive specialist.



At week's end, the champ, Kasparov, held a daunting 11-9 lead.



No matter who—or what—his competition may be, Karpov moves at a turtle's pace.