Anatoly Karpov’s Five Favorite Chess Openings

Anatoly Karpov liked playing the following chess openings:

  1. King’s Indian Defense Samisch Variation.
  2. Caro-Kann Defense.
  3. Closed Ruy Lopez 9…Bb7.
  4. Nimzo Indian Defense.
  5. Queen’s Indian Defense.
anatoly karpovs five favorite chess openings featured image

Anatoly Karpov preferred openings that were both solid and positional.

There’s very little reason to doubt the strength of a chess opening played by a World Chess Champion.

New lines might come into fashion and new ways found to play it, but you can trust that any opening played by Anatoly Karpov is fundamentally sound.

Choosing to include any of Anatoly Karpov’s five favorites will provide your repertoire with a solid, positional foundation.

One of the essential components in a chess position is the pawn structure. In the following video Anatoly Karpov shows how you can apply your understanding of the pawn structure to plan an effective opening strategy.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Karpov Favored 1.d4 with White

By his own admission, Karpov liked playing 1.e4 but found his results were better after 1.d4. Of course, it’s very common to face Indian Defenses when you play 1.d4.

After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 Karpov preferred 3.Nf3 over 3.Nc3. Preferring to face the Queen’s Indian Defense instead of the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Against the King’s Indian Defense, Karpov joined an illustrious line of Soviet post-war champions, including Tal, Botvinnik, Kasparov, and Petrosian, and played the Samisch Variation.

i like 1.e4 very much but my results are better with 1.d4 - Anatoly Karpov chose openings that worked rather than ones he would like to play.
Anatoly Karpov chose openings that worked rather than ones he would like to play.

King’s Indian Defense Samisch Variation

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3

kid samisch karpov favorite
The Samisch Variation of the King’s Indian Defense was on of Anatoly Karpov’s Opening choices

The Samisch Variation of the King’s Indian Defense is named after the German GM Fritz Samisch, who also has a variation in the Nimzo-Indian named after him.

White has several ideas in mind with the move 5.f3. The move

  • defends the e4 square,
  • allows the bishop to develop to e3 without being harassed by …Ng4,
  • stabilizes the center and allows white to attack on the kingside with Be3, Qd2 and a pawn storm with g4 and h4.

The most obvious downside to the move is it takes away the f3 square from the knight and makes kingside development awkward.

Although the Samisch isn’t the most popular line it remains a dangerous weapon for white to use against the King’s Indian Defense.

Here is the current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen adding his name to the list of champions who play the Samisch.

Carlsen, M. – Polgar, Ju, 1-0, FIDE World Blitz 2014

How Karpov Defended Against 1.e4

Two of Karpov’s favorite defenses were the Caro-Kann Defense and the Ruy Lopez Flohr System.

Anatoly Karpov played openings with a sound theoretical reputation. He even has a variation of the Caro-Kann named after him.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nd7 is known as the Karpov Variation.

Caro-Kann Defense

Caro-Kann starting position

The Caro-Kann Defense begins 1.e4 c6

The main continuation is 2.d4 but White has two sound alternatives in 2.Nc3 the Two Knights Variation and 2.d3 the King’s Indian Attack.

In the vast majority of games White plays 2.d4. There are almost 60 000 more games with 2.d4 than the second most popular choice 2.Nc3.

Black’s approach in the Caro-Kann is very similar to the French Defense. He stakes a claim in the center with 2…d5 and attacks the undefended e4-pawn.

However, unlike in the French Defense black hasn’t blocked the bishop on c8.

If white plays the e5 advance then black can play …c5. Since the e5 advance doesn’t develop a piece black does not mind the loss of a tempo.

After 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 white’s most popular choices are 3.e5 and 3.Nc3.

3.e5 is the Caro-Kann Advance Variation, which has led to more discoveries than in any other variation of the Caro-Kann Defense.

Take a look at the classical approach adopted by Karpov to defeat Shirov.

Caro-Kann Advance Alexey Shirov – Anatoly Karpov, Las Palmas Spain, 1994, 0-1

The move 3.Nc3 is the Caro-Kann Classical Variation and brings us to the variation of one of of Anatoly Karpov’s favorite openings named after him.

The Karpov Variation begins with the moves 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7

caro kann karpov variation. The Caro-Kann Defense was a favorite Anatoly Karpov opening against 1.e4
The Caro-Kann Defense was a favorite Anatoly Karpov opening against 1.e4

The move 4…Nd7 is played to prevent having to recapture on f6 with a pawn. The immediate 4…Nf6 is playable but involves accepting a pawn weakness after either …gxf6 or …exf6.

After 5.c3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6 Nxf6 Black has prevented the doubling of his pawns and developed a knight on f6. He will develop his bishop to f5 before playing e6.

Here is a game played between Carlsen and Morozevich. Even Carlsen couldn’t find a way to get the better of the Karpov Variation.

Carlsen, Magnus – Morozevich, Alexander, 1/2-1/2, Tal Memorial 8th, 2013

Closed Ruy Lopez 9…Bb7

One of the oldest chess openings is the Ruy Lopez. The opening begins with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5

Starting position of the ruy lopez after 3.Bb5
The Closed Ruy Lopez was used very successfully by Karpov with black.

There are numerous variations within the Ruy Lopez, but they contain similar strategic ideas. White wishes to dominate in the center and starts applying immediate pressure against the defender of the e5-pawn.

Many notable chess players include the Ruy Lopez in their repertoire, including Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Bobby Fischer.

The Ruy Lopez is regarded by many as an opening you must play to improve your understanding of chess. A lot of the positions in this opening are very instructive about chess.

Karpov was fond of the move 9…Bb7 in the Closed Ruy Lopez. This is called the Flohr-Zaitsev Variation.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8

ruy lopez zaitsev variation starting position
Ruy Lopez Zaitsev Variation

The Zaitsev is one of Black’s most ambitious tries against the Closed Ruy Lopez.

The mainline 12.a4 is a sharp line leading to very heavily analyzed positions. Nowadays, many players avoid the mainline with 12.d5 or 12.a3.

12.a3 has the advantage of preventing black from playing one of his standard moves 12…Nb4. Against 12.a3, black has the opportunity to transpose to the Smyslov Variation with 12…h6.

Many world champions have understood the value of following in the footsteps of previous champions. Thus, it is hardly surprising you will find Magnus Carlsen frequently playing openings Karpov played.

The following marathon game was played between two of the strongest players in modern chess. Showing the trend of strong players adopting the Ruy Lopez continues today.

Radjabov, T. – Carlsen, M., 1/2-1/2, Vugar Gashimov Mem, 2014

Defending Against 1.d4

Anatoly Karpov chose openings from the hypermodern school to defend against 1.d4. He played both the Nimzo-Indian Defense and Queen’s Indian Defense.

It’s interesting to note when playing white, Karpov would avoid facing the Nimzo-Indian Defense by playing 3.Nf3.

Both the Nimzo-Indian Defense and Queen’s Indian Defense are very positional chess openings. They do share the common opening strategy of controlling the center with pieces.

By learning both these defenses, two favorite Anatoly Karpov openings, you will have an opening to play against either 3.Nc3 or 3.Nf3.

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The Nimzo-Indian Defense

The Nimzo-Indian Defense is named after Aaron Nimzovich and begins with the moves

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4

nimzo indian defense

Black’s strategy is focused on controlling the e4-square. A strategy he began on the first move with 1…Nf6.

3…Bb4 seeks to reinforce this control by pinning the knight, which supports the advance e4. Black is willing to exchange on c3 if he can inflict structural damage on the white pawn structure.

Black believes the knights will find good squares thanks to the doubled pawns, and this will provide adequate compensation for giving white the bishop pair.

However, there are variations when retreating the bishop rather than exchanging on c3 is the better option. This retreat is good for black if he has played …d5, and white has played Ne2.

Developing the knight to e2 prevents black from doubling pawns with …Bxc3. Black can still play …Bxc3 if white defends the knight with 4.Qc2.

nimzo indian defense 4.qc2
Nimzo-Indian defense 4.Qc2

The difference in this variation is after white plays Qxc3; black can occupy the e4-square with a gain of tempo by playing …Ne4. This isn’t possible if white can recapture on c3 with a knight.

Black will often fianchetto his bishop on b7 and play …d5 to add support to the knight on e4 or prevent white from playing the e4 advance.

Here is a game played between the former world chess champion and the current world champion in Moscow back in 2009.

Magnus Carlsen – Anatoly Karpov, World Blitz , Moscow RUS, 2009

Queen’s Indian Defense

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6

queens indian defense

The main reason white plays 3.Nf3 is to avoid the Nimzo-Indian Defense. However, white does give black the chance to play 3…b6.

This move is not possible against 3.Nc3 because white can play 4.e4.

In the following video IM Hans Niemann shows the positional side of the Queen’s Indian with one of his own games against a young Indian Prodigy. He also shares the importance of patience and how practical play is more important than how your position looks.

For a Limited Time Get 50% Off! 80/20 Tactics Multiplier: Queen’s Indian Defense and learn all the tactics and positional ideas of the Queen’s Indian Defense. The Queen’s Indian Defense is known as a flexible system that poses many challenges for white. Included is a video dedicated to how to create an opening repertoire. Only $29.95!

The move 3…b6 signals black’s intention to control the central light squares – d5 and e4. Black will play …Bb7, …d5, and sometimes …f5 to keep a grip on the light squares.

Placing a knight or bishop on e4 is a crucial part of black’s strategy.

Although control of e4 is an essential part of the opening battle, black must also be mindful to prevent white from playing d5.

White can seek to oppose the bishop on b7 by playing g3 and Bg2, or play on the queenside with a3.

After 4.g3 black must choose between 4…Ba6 or 4…Bb7. Developing the bishop to b7 often but not always leads to quieter play.

The Modern Approach with 4…Ba6

4…Ba6 is regarded as the modern approach despite being played by Nimzovitch. Black decides to counter-attack and forces white to defend the c4 pawn.

Here is a game played by Karpov in classical Queen’s Indian Defense with …Bb7, …Be7, and …d5.

J Pavliutin vs A Karpov, Kuybyshev URS, 1970

4.a3 is played with the idea to develop the knight on c3, where it supports the d5 advance. This variation is named after another world chess champion – Petrosian.

A good approach by black is to divert the queen with 4…Ba6 5.Qc2 Bb7 6.Nc3 c5 7.e4 cxd4 8.Nxd4

qid petrosian 8.nxd4

Here black has two reliable moves in 8…Bc5 and 8…Nc6.

8…Bc5 is the move played by strong grandmasters Caruana and Leko.

Safarli, E. – Caruana, F., 1/2-1/2, Vugar Gashimov Mem 2016

8…Nc6 was the move favored by GM Michael Adams. Take a look at his game against Alexander Morozevich.

Morozevich, Alexander – Adams, Michael, 1/2-1/2, Corus, 2002

Final Thoughts on Anatoly Karpov’s Openings

Anatoly Karpov’s five favorite openings are ideal for positional players. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any tactics, or you are without winning chances.

Karpov would never have become a world chess champion if he couldn’t win games. He also enjoyed phenomenal tournament success from 1975-1985.

If these openings were good enough to win tournaments with the world’s best chess players, think how effective they will be for you.

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