Alexander Nikitin, the head coach of world chess champion Garry Kasparov from the time Mr Kasparov was 10 until years after he became the defending champion, died in Moscow on June 5. He was 87.
The International Chess Federation, the governing body of the game, announced his death on its website. No reason was given.
Mr. Nikitin, an international master, met Mr. Kasparov in 1973 by accident. As Mr. Nikitin recalled in an interview published earlier this year on the Russian Chess Federation website, another coach, Anatoly Bykhovsky, was supposed to be working with the young players at a youth tournament in Vilnius, Lithuania. But Mr Bykhovsky left for an international tournament and asked Mr Nikitin, who was already an established coach, to go to Vilnius in his place.
Mr. Nikitin immediately noticed Mr. Kasparov, also because he was only 10 years old and everyone else in his team was six or seven years older.
Mr. Nikitin took Mr. Kasparov as a student, which was not easy; Mr. Kasparov lived in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he was born, and Mr. Nikitin was in Moscow. Mr. Nikitin sent letters and research materials to Mr. Kasparov for study, and somehow the cooperation worked. (Mr. Kasparov eventually moved.)
Mr. Kasparov’s rise was rapid. At 12 he won the Soviet junior championship; won a major international tournament in Yugoslavia at age 15 and catapulted him into the top 20 in the world; and won the 1980 World Junior Championship. At 17 he was a grandmaster.
Mr. Kasparov qualified for the 1982 World Championship cycle. He and Mr. Nikitin were now training full-time. They would go running together to build Mr. Kasparov’s stamina, an exercise that soon paid off in practice.
In September 1984, Mr. Kasparov faced Anatoly Karpov, the reigning champion, in a title match. The winner would be the first player to achieve six wins.
The match proved grueling, spanning five months and 48 games – the longest in history. It started catastrophically for Mr. Kasparov, who lost four of the first nine games due to inexperience, among other things. But he calmed down and started carving out draws.
He came back from a 5-0 deficit and won game 32, then games 47 and 48. At that point, in February 1985, Florencio Campomanes, the president of the International Chess Federation, sat out the game and said he was worried the health of the players.
A new game was later organized in 1985. It would be limited to 24 games. Mr. Kasparov won it with a score of 13-11.
Then he met Mr. Karpov in a second leg in 1986 and clinched a win again, this time by a score of 12.5-11.5. The two faced each other again in 1987, with the match ending in a tie, 12-12 – allowing Mr Kasparov to retain the crown as the ties went to the reigning champion.
During all these matches, Mr. Nikitin was Mr. Kasparov’s main coach. In a Chess News Russia 2020 interview with Mr Nikitin and Mr Kasparov, Mr Kasparov said they were “close friends”. But the stress of the games took its toll.
Mr. Nikitin explained: “All these world championship fights, from the first to the last, are not just a bitter fight between two players. The internal debates between coaches and their players are correspondingly fierce. We tried to prove that our opinion was correct, the player tried to prove his opinion. We were always tense and we gradually burned out.”
Mr. Nikitin and Mr. Kasparov continued to work together until 1989. But when Mr. Kasparov fought Mr. Karpov for the world championship in the fifth and final match in 1990, their paths had parted.
Mr. Nikitin was born on January 27, 1935 in Moscow. Little is known of his immediate family and there has been no word on survivors. He was married and divorced before he met Mr. Kasparov and he never remarried.
Mr. Nikitin discovered chess when he was 7 years old and came across a book by Emanuel Lasker, a former world champion, in his uncle’s study. He was immediately entranced and read the book cover to cover.
He became one of the best young players in the Soviet Union, along with future world champions such as Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian (with whom he later taught) and Boris Spassky.
Despite his obvious talent, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a professional chess player – a viable career in the Soviet Union – so he continued with his regular education. He studied engineering and later worked as a radio technician for 15 years.
In 1959, Mr. Nikitin qualified for the first and only time to participate in the Soviet Union championship, which was then considered one of the strongest tournaments in the world. Although generally satisfied with the quality of his game, he finished last. He realized he couldn’t be a full-time engineer and professional gamer, so he closed that opportunity.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Nikitin was fed up with technology and longed for chess. Luckily there were vacancies for chess coaching, and he had already found that he had a certain aptitude for the job. Shortly after he started coaching full-time, he met Mr. Kasparov.
After working with Mr. Kasparov, Mr. Nikitin continued to train at a high level. He coached Étienne Bacrot, a French prodigy who rose to world No. 9, and Dmitry Jakovenko, a Russian who rose to world No. 5.
Mr. Nikitin also wrote a two-volume history of his years with Mr. Kasparov, “Coaching Kasparov, Year by Year and Move by Move”.
In 1993, while no longer a player, Nikitin was awarded the game’s second-highest title, International Master, by the International Chess Federation.
Mr. Nikitin and Mr. Kasparov remained friendly even after their professional relationship ended. As Mr. Kasparov said in the 2020 interview: “We lived a whole chess life together.”
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