Karpov in Retrospect

We have today a world-wide art of efficiency and practicability … Beauty today is magnificent and overpowering, but it means the death of individualism. – Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess

Anatoly Karpov's Best Games (Batsford 1996, ISBN 0 7134 7843 8)

Anatoly Karpov’s Best Games (Batsford 1996, ISBN 0 7134 7843 8)

Today comes the news item claiming, likely hyperbolically, but not implausibly, that Google AI researchers have cracked the game of Go.

I first began studying chess seriously in my 20’s, that is, in the 1970’s. Anatoly Karpov had just become World Champion.  Gary Kasparov was young and rising and the great rivalry was still between Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, “between a young, handsome, blond Russian and and old, fat, balding Jew” as Korchnoi is said to have said.

Karpov and Kasparov were the ultimate (literally) prestige productions of the massive state-sponsored Soviet shool of chess. The era of grandmasters sitting at home and planned their campaigns against the handful of opponents who constituted the elite of world chess competition gave way as the Soviet school ushered in the era of collective training and preparation.

The new era did not eliminate genius, but it armored genius in solid, scientific research and collaborative study. The finest and most massive presentation of the chess endgame until the advent of the tablebases  was prepared by Soviet scholars under the direction of Yuri Averbakh. While Karpov was often perceived in the West as being some kind of in vitro child of the bureaucracy and the acerbic, non-conformist Kasparov as a Fischer-style lone wolf, both were deeply invested in the established system of collective preparation.

I recently purchased a copy of Anatoly Karpov’s Best Games by Karpov himself, a fine volume written 20 years ago and commented by the former world champion in rather a vain tone of voice, but well worth reading; which led to these reflections.

Karpov and Kasparov share this: they were the last World Champions to prepare entirely by dint of the human mind unaided by grandmaster-strength computer programming. This lends a certain poignancy to Karpov’s annotations.

Karpov was certainly the most computer-like of world champions of the 20th century, not given to flashes of intuitive brilliancy, coldly calculating concretely. The BBC “Master Game” series of videos filmed in the early 1980’s featured players verbally streaming their thought processes during the game. While most players narrated in general terms, often quite entertainingly, Karpov droned on citing variations, and at such length that the editors would fade his voice out in mid-phrase.

Yet Karpov’s laborious annotations look thin side-by-side with the data dumps larded into modern commentary. Karpov was cautious by nature and clearly perceived the limitation of even the most dedicated mental gymnastics. Most of the flaws he points out in his own play in the book consist of roads not taken due to the limits of human real-time analysis. “This would have been a faster path” is a recurring, regretful refrain of this human calculating machine who for his opening preparation leaned on a full-time staff of grandmasters, he who wended his way cautiously, even diffidently through the midgame to the endgame horizon, whence he played on with a skill, devotion and insight unmatched by any other 20th century player, perhaps unmatched by any other player ever, yesterday and today.

Chess reached its artistic peak in Karpov and Kasparov. Apres lui, l’ordinateur. We know more about chess now in the Age of the Computer, but we serve Caïssa less personally, taking the sacrament not directly, but mediated by her electronic priesthood.

Jacques Delaguerre