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The great rivalries of chess

Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov
This rivalry has seen a showdown or two

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Chess is a game that rarely draws a massive amount of attention from the global public, but a rematch between Kasparov and Karpov reminds us that it throws up the occasional great rivalry.

When Garry Kasparov challenged Anatoly Karpov in 1984 for the chess world championship, it was the beginning of a titanic struggle.

The contest lasted five months and featured a series of successive draws of 17 and 15 games. It was controversially ended by the chess authorities over fears for the health of the players, both of whom had lost weight during the struggle. Kasparov had been resurgent at the end, although Karpov still held a lead.

It was a gigantic metaphor for the collapse of a creaking, unviable, introspective, conglomerate empire
Grandmaster Raymond Keene on the Kasparov-Karpov battle

In 1985, Kasparov beat Karpov for the title. They played for it again in 1986 and again Kasparov won. In 1987, Kasparov was one down going into the final game, but recovered to tie the series and therefore retain his crown.

It was a great chess rivalry, but it was more than that to the watching public and pundits.

"It was very symbolic of what was happening to the Soviet Union," says grandmaster Raymond Keene, chess correspondent for the Times. "It was obvious the USSR was going through a period of great turmoil."

And the rivalry was perfect in pitching a brilliant, brooding outsider against the Soviet establishment's main man.

"Kasparov was a southerner, half-Jewish, half-Armenian, much younger, in the vanguard of a change, taking on the golden boy of the old Soviet Union," says Keene.

Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short
This particular rivalry failed to get going

Keene organised the London matches of the third series between the players in 1985, which took place both in the UK and Leningrad. He was surprised by the stark disparity between the Soviet and the Western ways of organising things.

In London, after the matches, a list of moves with annotation was faxed all over the world within 15 minutes of the conclusion. In Leningrad, a sheet bearing only the moves was typed up, a press officer with a minder was taken to the local party HQ where the only photocopier was to be found, the sheet was copied and then manually handed only to the journalists present at the event.

"They were still mired in Soviet bureaucracy and fear of publicity. I thought 'this place is doomed'.

"It was a gigantic metaphor for the collapse of a creaking, unviable, introspective, conglomerate empire."

There had been other rivalries that never succeeded in sparking the imagination. Mikhail Tal against Mikhail Botvinnik in the early 1960s had the same hallmarks of the non-Russian outsider against the Soviet stalwart, but failed to develop into a sustained struggle. And the earlier battle between Vasily Smyslov and Botvinnik is probably one for chess aficionados only.

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov
The pair have played nearly 200 times

The other rivalry that spread outside the world of chess was between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Their famous 1972 world championship match became another symbol of the struggle between civilisations.

Fischer was the Western maverick up against Spassky, the emblem of the powerful Soviet machine. And Fischer won.

"It was about Western individualism, depth of analysis, use of the technology available," says Keene.

And the notion that ideas of a greater struggle would be imposed on chess was an invention of the Stalinist era.

The Communist official Nikolai Krylenko took his board games seriously. He was reported to have said: "We must organise shock brigades of chess players, and begin immediate realisation of a five-year plan for chess."

Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer
Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer was cut short, but resumed in 1992

He might have approved of the great rivalries with an ideological flavour that grew up in the 1970s and 80s. He would have been less delighted that on both occasions the Soviet establishment's representative was bested.

Other sports have individual rivalries. Tennis has had some great ones.

But perhaps only boxing, with its system of champion and challengers, comes close to replicating the way that the protagonists have to study each other's play and personality, even live in each other's skin, during the mind-bogglingly detailed preparations for a world championship series.



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