#41) Learning from Geniuses (geeks): Game 16, Move 37

I came across an interesting chess story the other day.  Yes, I realize, for most people, using the words “interesting” and “chess” in the same sentence is contradictory, but this one contains some good teachable moments – even for those outside the chess world.  (And anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love teachable moments).

In 1984, 21-year old Garry Kasparov, the future world champion, was challenging incumbent Anatoly Karpov for the title.  Karpov had been the reigning champ since 1975, when Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title against him.  The rules of the match stated that the first player to win six games took the prize.  Karpov was crushing his young challenger, leading four games to none (with 11 ties).  In the sixteenth game, after 37 moves, Karpov offered Kasparov a draw, which was accepted.  At the time, no one had any idea that this unspectacular activity would be discussed (and blogged about) in the decades to come.

Many experts who have since analyzed the position at the point where Karpov offered a draw have said that he could have easily won the game, taking a commanding 5-0 lead.  It’s easy to assume that, after falling behind so early, Kasparov might have become discouraged and lost the match soon afterward. As it turned out, following the draw, Kasparov started mounting a comeback.  After losing a fifth game, he won three, but following many more ties–40 total–the match was called off.  The two players battled again in 1985 under different rules, and Kasparov won.

Garry Kasparov would go on to make waves both in and out of the chess world.  He defended his title against Karpov in 1987 and 1990, but all the while, he was feuding with FIDE (Federacion Inernationale des Eschecs, or World Chess Federation; pronounced “fee-day”), the governing body of professional chess.  Kasparov formed his own organization, the Professional Chess Association.  In 1993, when he defended his title against Englishman Nigel Short, he did so under the jurisdiction of the P.C.A., not FIDE.  FIDE organized a championship match between Karpov and challenger Jan Timman, which Karpov won.  In 1997, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue, after which he speculated that the machine was being “fed” moves by its inventors.

While Kasparov would retire from chess in 2005, he would remain an active political figure, outspokenly opposed to Gorbachev, Putin and other Soviet leaders.  At one point, Kasparov considered running for the presidency, but withdrew.

As polarizing a figure as Kasparov became, one could make the case that had Karpov not offered him a draw in a game he should have won, none of it would have happened.  The story of Game 16 illustrates some interesting points:

  • You never know when you might be on the threshold of victory.
  • You never know when, or how, an event – as unspectacular as it may seem – might impact the future.
  • Sometimes, geniuses can miss simple details, which are obvious to mere mortals.

To be sure, most peoples’ lives haven’t been deeply affected by whether Karpov or Kasparov was the champion, or whether chess is governed by FIDE or the P.C.A.  But it’s interesting to consider the impact that a seemingly inconspicuous move might have had on the game.  Like the removal of Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp (replaced by Lou Gehrig) or the chance meeting on Church Road in Liverpool between young John Lennon and even younger Paul McCartney, Karpov’s draw offer became part of history in a way that no one who witnessed it could have predicted.

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