Karpov was born in Zlatoust, Russia and started off his playing career by annexing the World Junior Chess Championship in 1969 (not won by a Russian since Boris Spassky), everything sky-rocketed from there.
After the Junior world championship, Karpov was a "mere" grandmaster, but in the following year there was a "quantum leap" in his playing strength. The first Candidates cycle (1974) he participated in was the one to find a challenger for the then World Champion, Bobby Fischer. Karpov beat Robert Byrne in the first Candidates match to face the ex-World Champion Boris Spassky in the next round. Karpov was on record to say that it would be Spassky that would win the Candidates cycle to face Fischer, but Karpov would win the following Candidates cycle (1977).
The Spassky-Karpov match was a spectacle. Tenacious and aggressive play from Karpov secured him a memorable win (an exquisite Sicilian Scheveningen was probably the game of the match). The Candidates final match was against fellow Russian Viktor Korchnoi, a notable fighting player. Intense games were fought, one "opening laboratory" win against the Sicilian Dragon, and Karpov had achieved the right to challenge Fischer for the World Championship.
For a variety of reasons, Fischer refused to defend his title, and resigned it when his list of demands were not met. This thrust the young Karpov into the role of World Champion without beating the reigning one. There was always the thought that Karpov was just a paper world champion - it was given to him.
Karpov's reply to that was to create the most phenomenal streak of tournament wins against the strongest players in the world over the next ten years. This tournament success eclipsed the pre-war tournament record of Alexander Alekhine, and was thought to be unmatchable in today's tournament standards.
Karpov's playing style was solid positionally based, taking no risks but reacting mercilessly to any tiny errors made by his opponents. People believed Karpov's style was bland, but looking at games such as Torre-Karpov, Bad Lautenberg 1976 shows Karpov provoking his opponent then counterattacking through the centre with a pawn sacrifice. Karpov's mastery of the ending was unparallelled, although he kept his openings repertoire relatively narrow, his middlegame was always solid.
One of the first pinnacles of Karpov's tournament career was the exceptional Montreal "Super-Grandmaster" tournament in 1979, where he ended joint first with Mikhail Tal ahead of a field of superb grandmasters (Jan Timman, Ljubojevic, Boris Spassky, Kavalek).
Karpov's first title defence in 1978 was against Viktor Korchnoi, the opponent he beat in the previous Candidates tournament. The situation was vastly different to the previous match. In the intervening years Korchnoi had defected from the Soviet Union. The match was played in Bagiuo in the Philippines, and a vast array of psychological tricks were used during the match, from Karpov's Dr Zukhov who attempted to hypnotise Korchnoi during the game, to Korchnoi's mirror glasses to ward off the hypnotic stare, Korchnoi not being allowed to play under the Swiss flag (his adopted country) so offering to play under the Jolly Roger flag, to Karpov's yogurt being used to send him secret messages, to Korchnoi inviting two local cult members (on trial for attempted murder) into the hall as members of his team.
The off board antics are better remembered than the actual chess on it, which is saddening. Karpov took an early lead, but Korchnoi staged an amazing comeback very late in the match, and came close to winning. Karpov narrowly won the last game to take the match 6-5.
Three years later Korchnoi re-emerged as the Candidates winner against German finalist Dr. Robert Huebner to challenge Karpov in Merano, Italy. This time the psychological trick was the arrest of Korchnoi's son for evading conscription. Again the politics off the board overshadowed the games, but Karpov easily won what is remembered to be the "Massacre of Merano".
Karpov had cemented his position as the World's best player, and real world champion when Kasparov arrived on the scene. After the aborted first match, Karpov lost his title - a ten year tenure was over.
Karpov remained a formidable opponent for most of the eighties, fighting Kasparov in over five arduous World Championship matches, all of them were close.
It came as a surprise that Karpov lost a Candidates Match against Nigel Short in 1992, but Nigel's success was richly deserved. But Karpov reacquired the FIDE World title when Kasparov and Short split from FIDE in 1993 by overwhelming Jan Timman - the loser of the Candidates match against Short.
The nineties showed the gradual decline of Karpov's playing strength - apart from one strong performance against the World's best players in Linares in 1994. Karpov won the tournament, which included Kasparov by a large margin, which put his tournament performance way over 3000 ELO. As of this date (March, 2003) this is still the highest performance rating of any chess player in a tournament in chess history.
Karpov's serious tournament play has been seriously limited since 1999, preferring to be more involved in politics of his home country of Russia.