Chess players all know who Viswanathan Anand of India is: the current world chess champion. But whether you play chess or not, no introduction seems necessary for former champions Anatoly Karpov, 58, and Garry Kasparov, 46.
These two chess giants are in Valencia, Spain, this week for an eight-game match, kicking off a tour to commemorate their first epic encounter 25 years ago at the 1984 world championships in Moscow. Kicking off a rivalry unparalleled before or since, that first of six battles (if we include a short match in New York in 2002) turned into a marathon so gruelling, it had to be interrupted after 48 games, with Karpov, skeletal from a 22-pound weight loss, one win away from victory, but one step away from physical breakdown.
A return match less than a year later settled matters. Sort of.
Another match was set up. And another. And another. The title never switched hands af ter the second match, and was Kasparov’s to keep. But Karpov continued to breathe down his neck for more than five years as a “vice-world champion,” in the words of grandmaster Miguel Najdorf, the uber-rival whose immense talent only confirmed Kasparov’s.
Yet we only know these names today because of one man: Bobby Fischer.
Before Fischer, chess in America was an intensive care unit patient on IV. The title of world chess champion belonged to the Soviets. Then Fischer rose to prominence in the Sixties, and with incredible ease dispatched all candidates to become, in 1972, official challenger to titleholder Boris Spassky.
I rooted for Spassky. I was never politically very savvy, but it was clear that Spassky was under a very great bur den from his country. Russia had lost the moon race; it would not, in Cold War times, go gently into that good night over a matter so symbolically related to political worth and personal gentility. But Fischer won. And chess blossomed in America. Not to mention in little St. Hyacinthe, Que., population 4,000, where I myself, then a rather awkward adolescent, attained such chess heights as this hamlet could permit.
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