Anatoly Karpov, the Soviet Union's 27-year-old world champion, leaned over a mahogany chess table in Baguio City, the Philippines and said politely, in Russian, "I am offering you a draw." Challenger Viktor Korchnoi, 47, a Russian defector now living in Switzerland and the world's most prominent "chessident," did not reply, a minor affront. He merely nodded, signed his notation sheet and thrust it at Karpov, indicating he was accepting the offer. Having thus ended two hours of uninspired textbook chess in Baguio City's new, red-carpeted convention center, the two men rose and left the table.
That was the tense beginning last Tuesday evening to the 13th world chess championship. With victory going to the first man to win six games—draws do not count—the match is expected to be one of the longest and hardest fought in history, hinging on the patience and stamina—emotional as well as physical—of these two very different grand masters. Indeed, it surprised no one that the match had produced only three draws by week's end. To Karpov and Korchnoi the early games amounted to little more than exploratory surgery.
It is a high-stakes competition in almost every respect. First, there is the $350,000 winner's prize (the loser receives $200,000), the highest ever in chess and more than twice Bobby Fischer's over-the-table take from Reykjavik in 1972, when he trounced Boris Spassky to become world champion. Just as important is the political tension that boils like a caldron of borscht below the surface. The Soviets had held the world title for 24 years until Fischer beat Spassky and they had gotten it back in 1975 only when the disputatious Fischer was stripped of the title for refusing to defend it against Karpov, who had defeated Korchnoi in an elimination match the year before. Karpov was proclaimed champion, but the Soviets were unhappy that the man who then marched through the candidates' matches to earn the spot across the table from their loyal comrade was Korchnoi, a recent defector and a grand-masterly embarrassment.
For Korchnoi the showdown with Karpov was plainly more than a mere chess match. "I will beat the little boy," he spouted, "and prove once and for all the Soviet system produces only robots."
July 30, 1978
Karpov replied in kind. "He is strong in every way," he said, referring to Korchnoi's personality as well as chess prowess, "but I do not respect such strength."
The antagonists clash in politics, personality and style. The muscular Korchnoi, a Slavic Vic Tanny with thinning hair and broad, expansive gestures, plays chess as if it were street theater. He is the Stravinsky of chess, fond of emotional counterattacks and Looney Tune openings. Karpov is the game's Bach, passionless at the board, an enigma of classic perfection who builds his game pawn by pawn, imperturbably waiting for an opportunity. His game is pure counterpoint. "At the board Karpov is a boy scout," says one grand master. "He's prepared for anything."
For all their differences, Karpov and Korchnoi could scarcely be more evenly matched. What makes their showdown even more intriguing is that they are playing an "open-ended" match in which there are neither half-points for draws nor the customary fixed number of games. American Grand Master Robert Byrne, who has competed against both Korchnoi and Karpov, says, "No one has played an open-ended match for the championship since 1927 when Capablanca and Alekhine battled 34 games over three months. Ironically, this was the major point Fischer wanted from FIDE [the international chess federation, the game's ruling body], and was unable to get, forfeiting the championship. But these two are so evenly matched, so perfectly capable, that the winner here will not necessarily be the best player, but the one with the superior character."
Ludwig Prins, a longtime Dutch chess analyst, agrees. "One thing that makes this match so exciting is that both players are at the peak of their forms," he says. "In Iceland, Spassky fell apart from the beginning."
Karpov has been busy since assuming the championship, losing only six of 188 games and recently beating Czech Vlastimil Hort in an astonishing 25 moves. And Korchnoi, seemingly energized since he defected in an Amsterdam police station in 1976, waltzed through the candidates' eliminations, defeating former world champions Tigran Petrosian and Spassky and Grand Master Lev Polugaevsky, all Soviets. Against each other, Korchnoi and Karpov have had 22 draws, 19 of them in their candidates' final match in Moscow in 1974. Karpov leads in wins, 7-6, including the crucial game in which he beat Korchnoi in '74.
The tension between Korchnoi and Karpov was evident the moment they arrived in the Philippines the first week in July. Baguio City is the country's "summer capital," a mile-high city of 100,000 some 125 miles north of Manila. It resembles a resort town in the Catskills as much as the Asian one it is. There are cool breezes, daily rains and pine-scented air, and one can also find a Shakey's Pizza Parlor and an Orange Julius stand on Main Street. But along with a Sears outlet and a movie house showing the NBA playoffs, there are native rice and fish stores. With the arrival of the contestants, the town took on the atmosphere of a heavyweight championship fight site.
Korchnoi checked into the Pines, one of Baguio City's two major hotels, with an Ali-like entourage. His delegation leader was Petra Leeuwerik, handsome, vocal and recently separated from her husband. An Austrian despite her Dutch name, she lives in a suburb of Zurich, Korchnoi's present home, and has been his close companion since his defection. Charged with orchestrating Korchnoi's psych war, Leeuwerik brought to the role her own grievances against Soviet authority; she is reported to have spent 10 years in a Soviet prison camp after World War II upon being convicted of spying for the Americans. Korchnoi's seconds were English chess experts Michael Stean and Raymond Keene, friends from their Cambridge University days who quickly became known as Laurel and Hardy for their physiques, Stean being thin and angular, Keene dumpling-like. There was also Yasha Murey, a Soviet-born Israeli who occasionally analyzes games but more frequently acts as Korchnoi's parapsychologist, in which capacity he claims to have once cast a force field of "white light" around the grand master. That was when the sometimes paranoid Korchnoi feared he was being bombarded by Soviet gamma rays during a candidates' final match with Spassky in Belgrade last January that put him into the championship against Karpov.
The Korchnoi delegation brought along an array of James Bond equipment, including a $1,300 leather and molded-wood executive's chair with a hydraulic lift that Korchnoi can raise on whim, elevating him a majestic foot over the shorter Karpov. For game analyses there was a mini-computer dubbed Tolinka, Russian for little Anatoly. Then there was a pen-sized radiation detector, which Korchnoi was to clip on his clothing during games. He also has special eyeglasses for games, apparently designed to gently reflect light, giving him the look of a glowing Darth Vader.
Karpov was staying on the other side of town at the Terraces Hotel, a quick Asian copy of a Hyatt Regency, replete with glass elevator and an atrium still smelling of wet plaster. He arrived in the ample shadow of delegation leader Viktor Baturinsky, a squat, cigar-smoking ex-KGB prosecutor who was known in the Stalin era as the Black Judge and who is now the vice-president—and real power—of the Russian chess federation. Karpov's seconds are Yury Balashov, former world champion Mikhail Tal, ostensibly a reporter for 64, the Russian weekly chess magazine, and the U.S.S.R. chess federation president, Cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov. The stolid and nyet-saying group also included a physician, a psychologist, a chef from Moscow, a trainer, two translators and five joy-boys who were definitely not Disneyland public-relations staff. They had consecutively numbered passports.
With bags barely unpacked, the war of nerves began. Korchnoi issued an open letter to Leonid Brezhnev, demanding that his wife and son be permitted to emigrate to Israel and hinting darkly at "complications" during the match should the "oppressive Soviet regime" deny them visas. The letter went unanswered. On Karpov's behalf, Baturinsky protested Korchnoi's intention of putting a small Swiss flag on the playing table on the grounds that he did not hold a Swiss passport. However, the Soviets would, the colonel indicated, accept a white flag with the word "stateless" printed on it in Russian. In an odd compromise, FIDE decided that neither player could have a flag on the table, but that the Soviet flag would be permitted at the side of the stage. Then Philippine army counterintelligence agents conducted an electronics sweep of Korchnoi's superchair.
"This is just normal, psychopolitical chess," said Edmond Edmondson, former head of the U.S. Chess Federation and one of the three match judges. "Just wait until one of them loses a game, or maybe two. Then it will really hit the fan."
Before the match started, Korchnoi held court for reporters, autograph hounds and casual passers-by in the Pines coffee shop, where he breakfasted on caviar—Iranian, not Russian—and Swiss health bread. His routine in Baguio City also included five hours of chess analysis and a daily run on the verdant grounds of a local country club. One day, after a two-mile lope with Stean, Korchnoi sat on the shaded porch of the club, perspiring and wearing his favorite University of Sussex T shirt. He looked confident and trimmer than he did a few months ago and spoke volubly in his improving English.
"I was a grand master when Karpov was four," he said. "I am half Catholic, half Jewish, and he's pure-blue Soviet. I lived through the siege of Leningrad and saw my relatives die of starvation. You don't forget these things. Karpov? He's a child of peacetime, of the modern world, a little boy who lives for chess. But where is his blood, his tears, his manhood? He's cold and dry and doesn't deserve his championship. He licks the boots of the regime, he concedes to them.
"He has, I suppose, great willpower for chess, but I have the experience. And his style is so safe, so unattractive. I am—how do you say—a sculptor of chess. He is merely a surgeon. He's not the greatest player in the world, like he thinks; Bobby Fischer is. Then me. When Karpov loses here, he'll sing a different tune, learn humility. He'll know then what Spassky went through after Iceland, and myself for speaking out. Maybe then he can be a true world champion, but this time it is me, and I deserve it."
Karpov was generally unavailable to the Western press, although exceptions were made for a West German TV company, whose filmed interview will not be aired until after his first win. Otherwise, he was sealed behind a wall of official silence. "We came to play chess, not hold press conferences," growled Baturinsky. "We must protect him from journalists and girls."
However, while Baturinsky was out manning the battlements, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer and photographer went up an elevator filled with smiling Philippine army guards, past four security checks, during which guards pointed burp guns at them, and up two back staircases. Then a bamboo-sheathed door swung open and—nothing to it—there stood Karpov. His Asian-playboy-style, split-level penthouse commanded a wide, picture-window view of Camp John Hay, the local U.S. Air Force rest and recreation center, and in the distance, Korchnoi's hotel. There was a spiral staircase leading to a second-floor bedroom, thick carpeting and a well-supplied kitchen. There were also keys to cities and bowls of fresh fruit. Karpov said in perfectly passable English, "Please sit down. I just got up and can't talk until I have tea."
Karpov is often depicted as a cold, railthin chess automaton. Yet at 5'7" and 120 pounds he seems healthy enough, with a warm smile and a lively mind behind quick gray eyes. If he is under intense Soviet pressure to crush Korchnoi, he does not betray it. In fact, one senses that Karpov himself is running the show, not Baturinsky.
And a nice show it apparently is. A bachelor, Karpov lives alone in high socialist style with apartments in Moscow and Leningrad, a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz and entrèe to the homes of party bosses. He is an avid stamp collector, and quick to point out the monetary worth of his collection. After receiving a degree in economics at Moscow University, he gave himself over to chess and has written a new book on the game that will soon be published in the U.S.
"I live here in Baguio much as I do at home," he said, speaking Russian now. "I get up about noon, do some chess problems, swim, play tennis. In the winter I cross-country ski. I don't have much time for women, but that's not to say I don't enjoy them."
As he talked, Karpov toyed with a hand-carved Philippine chess set he had received as a gift. "Korchnoi believes that chess is a battleground, a kind of war," he said. "He gets that from Emmanuel Lasker, the old champion. But that view is too limited, too simplistic, like his game. Chess is a battle, but it is also an art, a science and, above all, a game. When we played in 1974, Korchnoi was described as a romantic and me as a realist. But I think that's changing, we are both moving toward the other side. One must grow, and I will concede that Korchnoi, even at his age, is growing.
"Many people in the West think I'm a cold player, but that's not true. But particularly with Korchnoi, if one remains calm, he can't stand it. It is an act to get him to blow up. Maybe in this match he'll be calm and I'll go crazy."
Karpov was asked why he had entered so many tournaments since becoming world champion. He replied, "The first two tournaments I played to prove to the world that I was worthy. I didn't have the chance to play Fischer, and I felt a little guilty about it. I would still love to play him someday, to prove finally that I am the best in the world. And then I found that I love chess too much to stop. Perhaps I had so much energy because I didn't play Bobby, I just had to play a lot or blow up."
Karpov turned to the present match. "It favors Korchnoi in one respect," he said. "There are no draws. I like draws and a limit on games. It helps me plan strategy for a match. In 1974 that was Korchnoi's downfall, and he's never forgotten it. After 18 games in the 24-game match, I'd won three and Korchnoi none. Then I slipped and he won two quickly. We continued drawing, my tactic of course, until he offered me a draw in the last game. Korchnoi nearly always offers a draw if he's got a bad position. I was perhaps a pawn ahead and accepted just to get the match over with. That's when Korchnoi began going crazy, shouting that he could beat me, that it wasn't fair, all the anti-Soviet stuff. If I had known, I would have refused the draw and beaten him to win four games to two instead of three to two. It would have saved us both much grief.
"One thing I am very sure of is that the one who wins here is the one who can endure the longest. It is as simple as that. Or as complicated as that. Now, excuse me, I must play tennis at your Air Force base."
The morning line in Baguio City gave a slight edge to the champion. "Karpov's quiet determination, his great drawing strength and his steadiness put him. I think, at about a 6-5 favorite," said Byrne. "But God only knows what will happen. These things often blow up in your face."
Increasing the uncertainty, Korchnoi's seconds were at work honing his game. As Stean explained, "Viktor likes eccentric openings, but they aren't so effective against Karpov, so we're getting him away from that." Keene added, "Viktor loves this match because he's emotionally incapable of playing for draws. If we can keep him out of time trouble, which is his major vice, he'll go for the killer games and simply trounce Karpov."
And so they sat down Tuesday in the air-conditioned $4 million convention center, whose soundproofed and well-lighted auditorium was lauded by many of the experts on hand as the best room for chess they had ever seen. Korchnoi's English opening in the first game quickly turned into a textbook Queen's Gambit by Karpov. When Korchnoi failed to make an innovative queen move on his 12th move, Argentinian Grand Master Miguel Najdorf said wryly, "This is very dangerous chess. There's a great danger the players will fall asleep." Thus draw No. 1.
On Thursday, Karpov played his favorite Ruy Lopez opening only to be stymied by Korchnoi's unusual defense. A difficult and exciting end game followed, and when Karpov offered Korchnoi a draw after the 29th move, the challenger accepted.
Although happy with the outcome—"It feels good to stop Karpov's favorite opening this early in the match," said Stean—Korchnoi's camp nevertheless protested the fact that the champion had been handed a cup of yogurt during the game, claiming it had been a secret signal. "A yogurt after 20 moves could signify, 'We instruct you to decline a draw,' " Korchnoi said in a prepared statement, "or a dish of marinated quail's eggs could mean 'Play knight to knight five at once.' " A papaya slice or a piece of mango, the statement added, might also mean something. The objection was promptly dismissed, and Keene admitted, "Of course, we weren't serious. This is just to keep things going."
The third game, on Saturday, was the best so far, and Korchnoi, playing White, sensed victory. But he got into time trouble and his attack collapsed. After 30 moves—and four hours and 50 minutes of grueling chess—he offered a draw, and Karpov, with little time left on his clock, too, was pleased to accept.
Whatever the outcome, it may be a long time a coming. As one Yugoslavian journalist moaned, "Should I buy a house? Get married here? At least there are pines for a Christmas tree."