Learn from Karpov - Prophylaxis, Strategy, Coordination
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There is no better way to explain the perspective I wrote this article from than mention that Anatoly Evgenievich Karpov has been reigning as World champion and strongest tournament player during my whole teen age. I clearly remember my first contact with Karpov's games, sometime around the age of 11. Worried about my slight reluctance to study chess on my own, my father wrote down in my notebook two Karpov games, assigning me the task to study them before he returned from his job. I am sure that the Spanish Opening was played in both, and to all probability, the opponent was Unzicker each time. And there I was sitting and looking at the chessboard and the notebook, asking myself: How on earth could I understand anything from the thoughts of such a strong player? Even before that, I was slightly confused about what "strategy" meant. But little by little, I started to understand that things are not that complicated. "He is also moving in turns" I realized, so before understanding what the game was all about I could at least decypher individual moves. And strategy does not need a definition, you have to take it as something natural and concrete. And this is how the learning process started... Later, when I started having doubts that my personal favourite Kortschnoj would ever defeat Karpov in a match, I became more and more interested in studying his games and annotations. I believe that this was a decisive period for my chess education, and even though I had been programmed to be a tactician in my early childhood, I can also consider myself a pupil of the "Karpov school".
The current database is divided into the following sections: Karpov's Philosophy, Weak Squares, Restrict Mobility of Pieces, Prophylaxis, Modest Manoeuvres, Time Wasting Manoeuvres, Commando, Advanced or Central King, Domination, Global Coordination, Strategy - Attack, Complex Endgames.
During the years I played over Karpov's games with his own comments, there are were a few things I discovered to be typical for his play.
1) An experienced trainer told me at that time that for Karpov, the "global piece cooperation" was essential. I would re-formulate this now as "harmony". His inner instinct (or native talent backed up by accumulated experience and knowledge) allowed him to maintain his position's harmony during the long strategic manoeuvring phases. Many times, this element alone was enough for a win, causing his play to seem effortless (and, at a superficial glance, even boring).
2) This is a continuation of the idea expressed above. Chess is a strategic, but also a concrete game. Karpov could not avoid (and he did not even try) to reach moments when his plan would clash with his opponent's. It was in such situations when it became clear that apart from a fine positional feel, he also had excellent calculating skills. With his army more harmoniously displayed than the enemy one, Karpov used to find the tactical (or attacking) solution to prove his advantage. Apart from the games examined in this database I also recommend the excellent examples Karpov-Spassky Moscow 1973 (used as a test in my attacking trilogy published earlier by Modern Chess) and Karpov-Topalov Linares 1994 (in the main database of the same article series). Sometimes tactics remained behind the scene, when they were having a strong influence over the strategic battle. This was the case in Karpov-Gligoric Leningrad interzonal 1973, from the same series of databases.
3) Karpov was also an expert in what we call domination. His pieces would occupy key squares, keeping the enemy army under control, restricting its activity or even paralysing it completely. It feels almost like he was playing alone, at least in some extreme cases.
4) For Karpov, the three main phases of the game (opening, middlegame, ending) were tightly connected. His endgame technique was dreaded by his opponents, but I will not focus on this particular aspect.
I mainly intend to reveal his ability to maintain the global tension until deep in the endgame, until the opponent would eventually collapse in basically equal positions. If played over quickly, these games give the impression of being a logical whole, with the three different phases looking like parts of the same plan.
As a teenager, I could learn from Karpov's wins and comments that the game of chess should be treated as a logical whole or unique sequence, with strategy and tactics going hand in hand together all the way. Tactics can offer the needed means to cash in the positional advantage while building an advantage cannot be done without using certain concrete tactical nuances on the way. In this database, you will find more categories than just these. Karpov's prophylactic thinking was marvellous for instance and he used to implement his global strategy with the help of a series of basic elements mentioned later.
Below, I provide two of the games illustrating Karpov's chess philosophy.
Playing on weak squares, blocking enemy pawns or entire structures, carrying out pawn breaks, all these are very familiar notions. Whenever great champions play in this style, I cannot avoid the feeling of "simplicity". This is sometimes the case with Karpov's games on this theme, too, but in the game selection below, the process usually has a global character, involving different board sectors.
Restrict Mobility of Pieces
Long ago, Tarrasch stated that one poorly placed piece means the whole position is bad. Karpov knew how to restrict the enemy pieces or exploit the unfavourable placement of one of the opponent's pieces, as part of his domination strategy.
Before Karpov, Petrosian was considered a true expert on prophylaxis, but Anatolyi Evgenievich was by no means weaker on this territory. A long time ago I read one of Karpov's comments, saying something like "as long as I do not see how I lose by force, I am not inclined to accept a draw offer". While he may not have been completely serious, I think it can serve as a basis to explain one of his principles. When having an advantage (big or small, real or symbolical), he would not be concerned about winning quickly. His focus would be on keeping the situation as it was, depriving the opponent of counterplay, attempts at equalizing or freeing himself. I would re-issue the quote above to "As long as the opponent has not equalised completely, I am still better!" When there is no clear active plan in sight, anticipating the opponent's intentions and crossing them is essential to perpetuate the status quo until a more favourable moment for concrete action.
Here is a typical game featuring Karpov's prophylactic thinking.
One of the elements that made Karpov such a dangerous opponent was the impossibility to anticipate or understand his regroupings before it was too late. Many times, the process involved apparently modest moves, piece retreats to the back rank or surprising piece trajectories far from what could seem the main theatre of operations. But when the decisive phase arrived, Karpov's initial intentions suddenly became clear, only that it was too late to change anything.
Time Wasting Manoeuvres
This section is closely related to the previous one. While manoeuvring, Karpov often gave the impression that he was just wasting time. One or two of his pieces would move around for a while, just to return to their earlier positions. In some extreme cases, his position would be identical (or almost identical) to that from an earlier phase, but a closer look would reveal that the opponent's position had deteriorated a bit as a result of Karpov's confusing manoeuvres. This apparent waste of time is tightly connected to understand the concrete requirements of the position on each move. At some point, a piece may be needed on a certain square, but then it would do a better job on its previous square.
Even though the main characteristic of Karpov's play was global harmony, I could not avoid noticing that in some games the cooperation was obvious only between a small group in an area far away from "home". Most typically, it looks like a commando group acting with devastating effects for a short while. But these games are not exceptions to the rule if we go into it more deeply. Such operations are usually sustained from afar by a "general", most typically the queen. And to ensure the success of such an operation without losing part of the commando fighters and without endangering other areas (such as the king's position), these pieces needed the ability to return home quickly after achieving their aim.
Advanced or Central King
One of Steinitz' favourite theorems measured the strength of the king as a fighting unit. He advocated the idea that the king would be safe and useful in the centre and even in an advanced position. Of course, this sounds exaggerated, but there is some truth in it. And I would add that from a practical point of view it is not easy to create a mating net, no matter how exposed the king is. There are games where Karpov illustrated these aspects and some of them are part of modern opening theory already (in the a2-a3 Queen's Indian or the Caro Kann for instance).
Domination has also been an issue in several examples above. In this section, we will examine two extreme cases of domination against opponents of completely different generations.
In this section, I try to illustrate to which extent the coordination of his pieces served Karpov as a move by move guide, in equal, better and worse positions.
You can try to solve the following test position:
Black has chronical kingside weaknesses but in the centre and on the queenside things look promising for him. Karpov found a very effective plan yielding him at least a small, but stable advantage.
Strategy - Attack
This is doubtlessly one of the most spectacular sections. It would have been richer if I hadn't used the aforementioned games in my attacking trilogy.
In this section, we will exemplify the idea written earlier about the flowing character of the game from the opening until deep in the endgame.