With the notable exception of Bobby Fischer, who won the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in a memorable Icelandic psychodrama, Soviets have dominated world chess for 30 years. And their reign is not about to end. This week, in the shabby elegance of the Dom Sindikata Theater in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, two Russians, Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, are meeting for the right to play still another Russian, 26-year-old world champion Anatoly Karpov, for the title.
Spassky is now 40, and his figure, which was trim in Reykjavik, is a bit fleshier, his dark hair longer and more styled. But the same calm green eyes study the board, and the same long artistic fingers are placed along his cheekbones. The world champion from 1969 to 1972, Spassky remains the gentlemanly, dignified, poetic grand master, the Dr. Zhivago of chess.
Across the board sits the volatile, daring Korchnoi, 46, the world's No. 2 grand master. In further contrast to Spassky, the formerly chubby Korchnoi has lost a great deal of weight recently. His brown eyes glitter, his shoulders hunch as he lunges forward to advance a bishop into dangerous territory. Korchnoi seeks the dangerous position—in life as well as at the chessboard.
Burt Hochberg, editor of the U.S. Chess Federation's Chess Life & Review, calls the confrontation in Belgrade "the most humanly interesting match since Fischer-Spassky." Contributing factors are the importance of chess in the Soviet Union and the odd coincidence that Korchnoi and Spassky both grew up in Leningrad and have played against each other for 30 years. They lived through the war together as children; they know each other's games, tricks, weaknesses; they are old, old friends. In mid-1976 Korchnoi became a defector; soon thereafter Spassky moved to France to become what Korchnoi calls "a one-legged dissident," an émigré at the pleasure of the Soviet government.
December 12, 1977
After five games at the end of last week, Korchnoi was husbanding a 3½-1½ lead over Spassky, though observers were giving the former champion the edge in "momentum." Playing with uncharacteristic hesitancy in a favorable position, Korchnoi had managed only a draw in the first game. The next two he won outright, leaving him ahead 2½ to½. (The match could go as many as 20 games, with one point for a win and half a point for a draw; the winner thus needs at least 10½ points.) But in the fourth game, against a supposedly reeling Spassky, Korchnoi had to struggle to salvage a draw, and in the fifth Spassky took the initiative away from him; from mid-game, Korchnoi was obviously playing for the draw. Nevertheless, Korchnoi remained confident. "I can lose one game, draw 14 and still win," he said. Spassky was saying nothing.
The contrasts between the two challengers are deep, starting with the fact that Korchnoi is accessible and talkative, while Spassky is neither. Before the match began, Spassky would grant no interviews or pose for photographs either at his home at 38 rue de Belgique in Meudon, a middle-class suburb between Paris and Versailles, or in Belgrade.
His silence, according to Colonel Ed Edmondson, the U.S. Chess Federation representative on the executive committee of FIDE (the world's ruling chess body), was not because he is an aloof man or on account of a cranky dislike of the press. "Spassky doesn't dare speak out on any subject," says Edmondson, who has known the former champion for years. "It doesn't make any difference whether the subject is Korchnoi, the match, his own life or yesterday's weather. He lives in France on a travel visa granted him by the Soviet government, and right now he doesn't want to go back."
Spassky, married (for the third time) to the former Marina Stcherbatcheff, a pert Soviet woman who worked in the French embassy in Moscow, is enjoying the good life too much. "He is happier than I have ever seen him," says Edmondson. In fact, it is said that Spassky has confided to friends that he will not go back, and if so ordered would, like Korchnoi, defect to the West—probably to France.
When he returned to the U.S.S.R. after being badly defeated by Fischer in '72, it was widely reported that Spassky was moved to a smaller apartment, lost his editorship of 64, the powerful Soviet chess publication, was forbidden to play abroad or to write chess reviews and had his generous state salary cut in half. (Soviet authorities, however, deny that any retribution was visited on Spassky.)
Whatever his circumstances, in 1973 Spassky won the U.S.S.R. championship, in which Karpov, Korchnoi and three others tied for second, as well as a number of national tournaments. Although he divorced his second wife—a move frowned upon in a country where chess masters are supposed to be paragons of virtue—he was reported to be back in the government's good graces. But two years ago, when he declared that he wished to marry Marina and applied to live abroad with her, the Soviet authorities gave their permission as long as the couple got married in the Soviet Union. The catch was that the date the couple had chosen fell after she was to be transferred back to Paris, creating an impasse that was resolved only when the Soviet authorities agreed to extend her visa. They were married, and Spassky was eventually permitted to go with his wife to France, where he now chooses to stay mute.
Korchnoi, on the other hand, could not be kept quiet with an ICBM. Says one old chess friend, "Since his defection, Viktor has discovered free speech. He's like a kid with a new toy." In fact, it was his free speech that got him into hot borsch in the first place—not free speech on political matters, but free speech at the chessboard, of all places. A few years ago, in a match against Tigran Petrosian, a former world champion and editor of 64, Korchnoi became infuriated because Petrosian was jiggling his leg, disrupting Korchnoi's concentration. Instead of complaining to the match judge, which is the prescribed procedure, Korchnoi leaned over and said to the older grand master, "Stop that, Petrosian. Where do you think you are, in a bazaar?" The resulting flap lasted for days and produced flurries of censure from various authorities. Finally Korchnoi was made to write a public apology.
In a match against Spassky, Korchnoi became infuriated at the spectators in the workers' gallery—the equivalent of the bleachers at Fenway Park—and walked to the edge of the stage, stuck out his imposing chin and yelled, "Shut up, you idiots." Again there was a flurry of editorials critical of Korchnoi's "unprovoked attack on the pride of Russia's working class."
Korchnoi prepared for the Belgrade match with Spassky by retiring to a secluded West German sanitarium overlooking Switzerland's Lake Constance, there to lose weight, quit smoking and study chess. Arriving at Korchnoi's retreat, a long, low Holiday Inn-looking building with a jogging and exercise circuit, a visitor is prepared for Korchnoi, at least the one he has read about. But it turns out that not only is there a Viktor the Loud and a Viktor the Slightly Mad, but there is also a Viktor the Charming, the Gracious, the Funny.
He sat in his room at the spa, spooning up nutritious-looking green soup and reading the International Herald Tribune to improve his quite serviceable English. "Look here," he said, pointing with his spoon to the front page of the paper, "Tito's wife has been put under house arrest for anti-government activities." He smiled, permitting a glimpse of a few gold molars. "I'll bet Tito just has a new girl friend and wanted the old woman out of the way for a while. Don't believe what you read in the papers!" His booming laugh reached a group of pudgy West German businessmen in jogging suits doing pushups on the lawn and they stared up toward his window.
"It is the same in chess," said Korchnoi. "Don't believe the political reasons for things, or even the technical ones. The human element, the human flaw and the human nobility—those are the reasons that chess matches are won or lost. Our humanity is all we really have, eh?"
In part, Korchnoi learned his humanity through suffering. The son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, he remembers his mother as "never having any furniture except vegetable crates and, of course, a piano, for she was a teacher." When his parents' marriage dissolved, he was shuttled among relatives. By the age of 10 he was living in a flat in Leningrad with 13 other families. It was the terrible winter of 1941, when the German army had the city cut off.
"I watched my older relatives die off one by one from complications caused by starvation," he says with a pained shrug. "When one would die, we'd put the body outside to freeze, and then my brother and I would have to drag it on a sled to the burial authorities. We kept the food ration cards, of course. The living have to go on living."
By the end of the war he had become inextricably bound up in chess. His days were spent in the Pioneers' Palace in Leningrad—one of the youth clubs that abound in the U.S.S.R.—where the teacher, grand master V. G. Zak, had recognized his promise. "One day when I was 12 or so, Zak made me sit with my back to the board," Korchnoi recalls. "He played white and called out the moves. I remember that I played the Hungarian defense and I lasted for 20 moves. Zak said, 'Good boy, someday you'll be a master.' "
Zak evidently had a talent for spotting promising youngsters. "I remember when Spassky's parents brought him to Zak," Korchnoi recalls. "Boris must have been 10 or so. Zak played a game with him and immediately put him on the state payroll. Like me, from his earliest days. Spassky's whole life was chess."
"Zak is still alive," says Korchnoi, "old now and lonely, but he taught us so much more than chess—literature, music, a love-of physical sports. Most important, he taught us to be fearless about the truth. He was a good man and gave us a sense of justice that has stuck with both of us, I think. That's why I have defected, and why Boris is having his own troubles with the regime. Justice."
As Korchnoi became a master and, at the age of 25, a grand master, he also began to display the independence that became the despair of the Soviet sports authorities. "A Russian sports champion is supposed to be a perfect model of a Communist man," he says, and at least at the chessboard he was, winning the U.S.S.R. championship four times.
By the early '60s Korchnoi was constantly being censured and reprimanded for doing things like taking a girl to the movies in West Germany or losing a few rubles in the casino at Curacao. But the quality of his play was such that by the early '70s he was a celebrity, known to millions of his countrymen through weekly television programs about chess ("In Russia we show chess problems on TV instead of murders," says Korchnoi). He had a fine apartment, a wife and son, a car, $500 a month and more freedom than most of his countrymen. But he was feeling closed in, stifled by authority.
"There's an old story that illustrates how I felt," says Korchnoi. "There was this Gypsy [Gypsy jokes are the Russian equivalent of Polish jokes here] who had a horse with a big appetite for hay. It was driving him broke. 'Ah,' thinks the Gypsy, 'I'll teach him to go without eating. He's a smart horse.'
"After a few weeks the horse died, of course. The Gypsy just shook his head and said, 'If only he would have hung on for a few more days, I know he'd have learned to get used to it!'
"I could not breathe. I only played where and when I was told. I had no chance to further my own career, to play the tournaments that I thought best." As he began to turn both personally and professionally away from the party line, he demanded openly that "advisers"—he believed them to be KGB men—no longer accompany him outside the country, and he and other masters objected strenuously when the Soviet Chess Federation demanded a share of the money they were winning in international tournaments.
The big rupture came in 1974 during Korchnoi's final Candidates match with Karpov, the same tournament in which he is now playing Spassky. But then there was one big difference. Three years ago it was clear that the moody Fischer, who was still feuding with FIDE, the Soviet Union and almost everyone else, would not come out to defend his world championship. So for all intents and purposes Karpov-Korchnoi was for the title.
Karpov had already proved himself by overwhelming Spassky 4-1 in a semifinal match. According to Korchnoi, just before that match the Russian Chess Federation lured away Spassky's second of many years, grand master Yefim Geller, and installed him as Karpov's second, thus giving the youngster access to much of Spassky's thinking, his strengths and weaknesses.
At the spa Korchnoi recalled the Korchnoi-Karpov match. "Karpov was the official favorite in every respect," he said. "He was obedient; I was a guy who wouldn't shut up. He was young, promising much for the future; I was not. He was very high up in the Communist Party. He was the all-Soviet everything, a working-class kid who, even after he'd lived in Moscow for years, still wore old, heavy peasant suits and spoke with a hick accent. He was the representative of the people.
"And I was an aging half-Jew from Leningrad, a hotbed of the despised intelligentsia. As you say in English, the deck was stacked."
Before the match Korchnoi began claiming to the press that he was more likely to defeat Fischer than Spassky, Petrosian and Karpov put together. He told one paper, "Now I'll have to go to Moscow to beat the little boy."
According to Korchnoi, the two grand masters that he requested as his analysts for the match were mysteriously sent away from Moscow to play in other tournaments. The man who was finally assigned, Korchnoi thought untrustworthy. "I was a man obsessed," Korchnoi says. "During the match I received threatening letters from so-called workers, telling me that if I beat Karpov by some miracle, I would suffer." Complaining that Karpov stared at him excessively, Korchnoi engaged in gamesmanship of his own by wearing dark glasses during the games and fingering worry beads; he believed the clicking irritated Karpov.
Still, the match had some lighter moments. "I had a sports psychologist working with me," says Korchnoi, smiling at the memory. "He was mostly advising me on biorhythms, concentration and so on. But Karpov believed that the doctor was working some evil influence on him. So the Soviet chess people got the top psychiatrist in the country—the man who worked with the Cosmonauts—to help Karpov. The two doctors stood in a corridor outside the hall where we played, staring at each other, each trying to nullify the other's effects.
"The pressures were terrible; the broken confidences, the veiled threats—I truly thought that if I won, something would happen to me, like an 'accident' in the street."
Scoffs one old friend, "Viktor was always dramatic, he sees KGB men behind every bush." Counters Korchnoi, "When you live in the Soviet Union the line between paranoia and reality is often blurred. Ask Solzhenitsyn. Ask Spassky." In what one observer called "the longest, hardest-fought, closest major match in modern chess history," after nine weeks and 24 games Korchnoi lost 3-2.
After that he really blew his cork. He told a Yugoslav reporter that Karpov couldn't beat Fischer, and that, although he respected Karpov's chess play, he resented the machinations of the authorities. And he made the unforgivable error of saying that he thought Bobby Fischer the best chess player in history.
For his ill-advised interview, Korchnoi believes he suffered a familiar fate—smaller apartment, smaller salary, no foreign travel, no television appearances, orders to play tournaments in places like Estonia. "I was becoming a non-person," says Korchnoi. "They even told my son at school that he would have a rough time growing up with a father like me." Following his comments on Karpov, Korchnoi was cited by Petrosian for bad sportsmanship, poor patriotism, egotism and bad manners in a statement published in Soviet Sport. After Korchnoi defected, another castigating letter was signed by 31 Soviet chess masters. Notably absent were the signature of Boris Spassky and those of six other grand masters.
When he was allowed to travel again in 1976, Korchnoi played a match in Holland and then walked into an Amsterdam police station and asked for—and was given—a residence permit. He lives now in Switzerland, has found a West German backer and hopes to coach the West German entry in the chess Olympics.
After lunch Korchnoi proposed a trip to the nearby village of Meersburg, where he wanted to shop for some smaller shirts—he has lost 30 pounds and no longer resembles a Soviet tractor-factory foreman all dressed up for Saturday night. Walking through the winding streets of Meersburg, Korchnoi talked about chess. His style resembles his personality—he is most dangerous when attacked, when threatened and under pressure. He thrives on extending his material, tempting opponents to attack, from which position he can bring into play his defensive acumen to force a win. As a result, he has much better luck playing black than white.
"My weakness is the middle game," Korchnoi said, "and although I work hard on it, I usually find myself in trouble then. And the middle game, unfortunately for me, is Spassky's forte.
"I try to discipline myself," he said loudly. He was waving his arms in front of a shop window and attracting confused stares from the villagers. "I try to play patiently, tactically and logically. But then the old fire gets in me, and I can't stand it. I explode and start extending myself. I don't like draws.
"My favorite grand master was Emanuel Lasker, the 'German Tiger,' who was world champion from 1894 to 1921. Lasker said that chess wasn't a gentleman's game; it wasn't a science or an art or a nice exercise in strategy. Chess, Lasker believed, was a damn rough sport. It is the ultimate battle of will and ego, the best that man has ever devised. It is the thing that nature most loves—a fight!" Korchnoi was practically shouting now. His chin jutted out, and the villagers cut a wide arc around him.
Korchnoi has been playing brilliantly of late. Last spring he beat his arch enemy Petrosian in the first round of the Candidates' Selection 6½-5½ and this summer demolished Lev Polugayevsky 8½-4½. Yet he still worries about his reputation as a counterattacker. "I try to get away from it," he said. "To sit there waiting to get attacked—it's too much a female fate." He winked.
In the Dom Sindikata Theater, Korchnoi will not have an easy time of it with the former world champion, his old friend and political half-ally Boris Spas-sky. Although Spassky didn't get to the final round of eight among the candidates in the elimination leading up to the title match (he was ranked ninth and won a seat only because, as expected, Fischer declined to play), and although he had a great deal of trouble beating first the Czech grand master, Vlastimil Hort, 8½-7½, and then squeaking by the tough Hungarian, Lajos Portisch, 8½-6½, he is hardly a pushover.
His main fault, according to American grand master Robert Byrne, "is a certain sterility in his thinking at the board. Spassky occasionally has to do something daring, like an early queen sacrifice. That seems to clean out his brain, and he can settle down for the match."
Korchnoi himself measures Spassky as much in political as chess-oriented terms. "I know of no man more capable of perfection than Boris," he says. "From an average member of Soviet society—featureless, unreasoning, submissive—he has become an independent, discerning thinker.
"As a player, Boris has the imaginative ability to sacrifice material for gaining the initiative in a game. He is very strong in the middle game, where I am weak." Korchnoi shrugs and then smiles. "But other than that he is a quite ordinary grand master."
Says Colonel Edmondson, "Spassky is at the top of his form psychologically, but on the other hand, Korchnoi has been playing brilliantly. Although Viktor can irritate opponents with his wild play, nothing much unnerves Spassky. He's seen Viktor's game for 30 years now and he's not likely to fall into some trap. I wouldn't put any bets on this one."
And Korchnoi, in turn, must watch out. "Spassky starts a game lazily, lulling an opponent into a false sense of security," says Byrne. "Then he pounces."
If Spassky should win, the Soviet Chess Federation—under FIDE rules—would have the right to select the site for the world championship, because both Karpov and Spassky are Soviet citizens. The Soviets would certainly pick a city in the U.S.S.R., which would be to Spassky's disadvantage, for there is speculation that if he indeed agreed to go, he might not get back out again. A Korchnoi victory would be to the Soviets' disadvantage. It is unlikely that the match would occur in the U.S.S.R. and, furthermore, how can someone regarded as a non-person actually play against Karpov? It would tax even the experts at Tass to report the match without mentioning Karpov's opponent.
At the recent FIDE meetings in Venezuela, however, there was an indication that the Soviets might be loosening up a little on their usual non-negotiable demands about the world championship format and their paranoiac protection of Karpov. "I had time to talk a bit with Karpov," says Edmondson. "He's 26 now, and he's beginning to see the light about international competition.
"First, against the wishes of the Soviets, he argued for and got what Fischer always wanted—a world championship match in which draws do not count. The first player to win six games outright, no matter how many they have to play or how many draws, will be the winner. The Soviets have always been against this, figuring that their well-schooled players are finely tuned enough to last through any number of half-point draws and finally win after gaining an early advantage. But Karpov managed to argue them out of it. He wants a more exciting final match, and I think, too, since he's the champion only because of Fischer's default in 1975, he feels that he has to prove something.
"Secondly, Karpov got FIDE to promise him a rematch if he should lose 6-5 in the championship. He's not so dumb. That's prize money twice and greater world interest. Like Korchnoi and Spassky, Karpov is learning the wicked ways of the Western business world. He even told me that he'd like the match to be in Iran, perhaps thinking of the big oil-money purse."
As the two old friends from the Pioneers' Palace in Leningrad play chess in Belgrade, championship rule changes and big purses are far from their minds. They are concentrating on 64 title squares and the hand-carved wooden figures that occupy them.