English Grandmaster Michael Stean could only look on with a sense of helplessness at what was happening on the stage of a public auditorium in the northern Italian resort town of Merano last week. Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet defector, was trying for the second time in his life to wrest the title of world chess champion from the Soviet Union's Anatoly Karpov, and making a hash of it. After only eight days of play in a match that was supposed to last from the beginning of October into December, Korchnoi was playing badly, and was about to lose to Karpov for the third time. The best Korchnoi had managed so far was a single draw.
Three years ago, when these two grandmasters met for the championship in Baguio City, Philippines, they drew the first eight games before Karpov finally gained the first victory of the match, and it wasn't until they had played 32 games over a three-month span that Karpov prevailed, 6-5. The first man to win six games is champion, draws don't count and there is no limit on the number of games played. The champion stands to win about $260,000, the loser about $160,000.
"This match should be like Borg and McEnroe," said Stean, who was one of Korchnoi's seconds three years ago and is again. "You know, five sets."
But it was becoming more like Borg versus Mrs. Borg. In the first game, the 50-year-old Korchnoi played the advantageous white pieces sluggishly, without an apparent plan, until he resigned on the 43rd move to the 30-year-old champion, who had done no more than play technically efficient chess. In the second game, Korchnoi carelessly blew a pawn and at adjournment, when Karpov sealed his 42nd move, Korchnoi's fate was sealed, too. He resigned the next day on his 57th move. Depressed, he told one of his aides, "I brought eight suits with me. Maybe you won't see all of them."
Korchnoi got his draw in the third game, but in the fourth, last Thursday, playing black again, he pointlessly advanced his king's rook pawn on the 25th move and was forced to bring over his king's rook to defend it, thus taking a major piece out of the fray. He further weakened his king side by strutting out his king's bishop pawn. "I haven't made that kind of move since I was 13 years old," said American Grandmaster Robert Byrne, who was in the audience.
Emanuel Lasker, one of the greatest chess champions, once said that chess was like war. When Korchnoi sealed his move in Game 2 and left the auditorium, he testified to the aptness of the simile. His position was hopeless, and he appeared dazed. "A bit shell-shocked," said Stean. "He looked like he'd just walked off some battlefield and hadn't figured out yet if he had survived."
Tired and bewildered, Stean and Korchnoi's other second, the 21-year-old U.S. Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan of Seattle, had dinner together at the Palace Hotel and then went to the hotel salon for a cup of cappucino. Finally Seirawan looked over at Byrne, who was nearby, and said, "What's happening? Why can't he play?"
"I just don't know." Byrne replied. "The opening was great. After the 19th move, I loved his position. I loved it." But then Korchnoi's position began deteriorating—Karpov's precise exploitation of it contributed, of course—and it became apparent that Karpov had him in trouble.
"For the first time since I've been Viktor's second," said Stean, "I wanted to stand up and say, 'Stop! Let me play the rest of the game!' I felt everything was going wrong. Every move had something wrong with it. A series of mistakes, and I felt totally helpless. It is so sad, so baffling, so depressing. It's as if someone had put something in his coffee. If Viktor were a horse, he'd be dope-tested. When he was banned from playing chess in the Soviet Union and then defected, it was his way of saying that a professional has a right to pursue his chosen career. This makes it all seem so futile."
Korchnoi resigned the next day, on his 53rd move, signing his scoresheet and contemptuously flipping it over the time clock to Karpov's side of the table. Now he was down 3-0. Korchnoi had come back from three-down in Baguio, from 5-2 to 5-5, but that was after a protracted struggle. What was happening in Merano was more like a blitz. Korchnoi asked for and received a postponement of the fifth game—"To save him from himself," said Stean—and that may have been the soundest move he has made since he came to town to play.
"Korchnoi has to stabilize himself so that he quits losing," said Byrne. "One advantage of this kind of match is that you always have time. Korchnoi could chip away: win one game a week and draw the other two. But that's not his style. He wants to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. I think he's out of his mind."
Thus ended an unlikely opening 10 days to what many chess observers here had thought could be a rerun of the serpentine struggle that the two had waged in the Philippines. More than a few of the main currents and characters that flowed through Baguio City have also swept through Merano.
The host city lies about 50 miles south of the Austrian ski resort of Innsbruck, in a valley bounded by the Dolomites, which rise starkly to the sky. Before World War I it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a spa regularly visited by European royalty who bathed in its waters and drank its wines. When the empire disintegrated after the war, a region including Merano was ceded to Italy. The countryside is layered with apple orchards and grape arbors, and October is harvest time. Last week men and women were clambering along the hillsides, pushing wheelbarrows and shearing grapes.
It was against this backdrop that Karpov and Korchnoi renewed their bitter rivalry, one that began in earnest seven years ago, in 1974, when they met in Moscow to decide who would play Bobby Fischer for the championship in 1975. When Karpov won by a point—a victory that eventually handed him the title, because Fischer would forfeit it—Korchnoi lashed out at Karpov and the Soviet chess establishment, criticizing him as a player and accusing the establishment of harassment because it didn't want a Jew to win. The Soviets banned Korchnoi from tournament play. He was reinstated in 1976, but he defected that year while playing abroad and shortly thereafter he took up residence in Switzerland. A year later, playing exceptional chess, he marched through the candidates matches to win the right to play Karpov for the title in '78.
That match developed into one of the wildest in chess history. Losing 4-1, Korchnoi went down from the mountains of Baguio to Manila, where he met Victoria Shepherd and Steve Dwyer, American-born members of the Ananda Marga religious movement.
They taught him meditation and his play suddenly came alive. In one span he reeled off the three straight wins that tied the match at 5-5. The Soviets were in a panic. Earlier, Korchnoi had complained that a Karpov aide, a parapsychologist named Vladimir Zoukhar, was sitting in the front row of the hall trying to hypnotize him. Zoukhar was ordered to sit in the back. When Korchnoi tied the score, the Soviets struck back.
The Soviets complained of "security" risks in having "terrorists" around and had Dwyer and Shepherd banned from the hall. They had been convicted of stabbing an Indian Embassy employee in Manila and were out on bail pending an appeal. Zoukhar returned unmolested to a seat nearer to the front. Korchnoi finally suffered his sixth defeat and lost the match. He left the Philippines in despair, saying, "Although Mr. Karpov has retained his paper title, I hope the world will appreciate the moral depths to which his supporters have lowered themselves to maintain his supremacy."
Nothing so tempestuous has occurred in Merano, although there was one preliminary skirmish. The day before play began, the Soviet press published a diatribe against Korchnoi's private life, in a blatant attempt to rattle him. (While his wife and son are still in the Soviet Union, unable to get out, Korchnoi travels with a female companion.)
The schedule calls for three games a week in the town Kurzentrum (German for cure center). Each day they are to play, as it approaches five o'clock, Karpov and Korchnoi are whisked from their hotels—Karpov from the Riz Stefanie, Korchnoi from the Palace, right next door—to the auditorium.
At a few minutes to five, another car pulls up and out steps Victor Baturinsky, the former KGB colonel who became known as the Black Judge during the Stalin era and is the reigning power in Soviet chess, as an administrator rather than a player. A burly man with thick glasses and a stubby cigar forever in his hand, he is affectionately referred to by one English-speaking member of the Soviet delegation as "Cuddles."
"I was no Soviet black colonel," he grumbles. "I am a bull colonel. I like to horse around."
There's no horsing around over the board, however, for the Soviets view a chess championship as a crusade. Which was why, on the night of the first game, they all looked steely-eyed when Victoria Shepherd strolled in accompanied by two other members of Ananda Marga, all three dressed in flowing orange robes. Shepherd said that her conviction had been overturned and Dwyer was free pending an appeal.
"So now he brought her here to try to scare us," said a member of Karpov's entourage.
What she was really there for, Shepherd said, was to strengthen Korchnoi's mind and sharpen his powers of concentration through meditation. A week after she arrived, she said that Korchnoi lost the first two games because "the meditation he was doing made him too calm, too relaxed. It is fine for a Milano businessman with an ulcer, but it is no good for a man trying to win the world chess championship. He learned this from someone else. I am teaching him meditation that energizes, gives concentration, great willpower. When Viktor starts to win again, the Soviets are going to make a tremendous protest. It's going to get heavy here in November."
But for now, despite Shepherd, the Soviets could hardly be more confident. Korchnoi's listless performance has tended to draw attention away from the smooth, precise play that has characterized Karpov's games. Sitting in his hotel room one day last week, his fine-boned hands folded in his lap, he conveyed the calm of a man in control of things.
Karpov, in fact, has been in control for some time now, at least over the chessboard; he learned to play the game at the age of four. He was born in 1951, in the industrial city of Zlatoust, in the Urals, the son of an engineer. "A very intelligent man," Karpov said. "He was chief engineer at least 15 years. Only one pity: He had a lot of jobs and he spent only a small amount of time with the family. He taught me how to play. He was a great amateur player. I first beat him when I was seven. When I was 10 we stopped playing together. I became very strong."
It wasn't long before his reputation spread to Moscow. "We heard there was a little genius in the Urals," says Alexander Roshal, Karpov's press attachè, a chess master and teacher at the time of Karpov's discovery. "He was a chess master at 15. So we brought him to Moscow and we played. I lost one game, two, three. I said, 'I'm not playing too well—let's play tomorrow.' The next day, same thing. Karpov never said a word the whole time. I couldn't figure it out. Then he said, 'Couldn't it be that I'm just a better player?' "
At the time Karpov was so small that he had to stand up to play at a table. "We had to get a pillow for him," Roshal says.
One of Karpov's first teachers was Mikhail Botvinnik, a former world champion who played chess as if it were a science. He was the opposite of Mikhail Tal, yet another Soviet former world champ, master of attack. "I didn't know chess theories at the time," Karpov says. "And Botvinnik taught me that chess was a hard job. Chess, to me, is a combination of sports, mathematics and art. Possibly to somebody like Botvinnik, the scientific game is most important. With others it is the flights of fancy, the artistic, that is most important. To me the competition, the sport, is most important. I would say I have a universal style. I have had some good games that were attacking games and some that were positional games. I want to be a universal player because I want to play a Tal like Botvinnik and a Botvinnik like Tal. That way I can change the tempo of a game, change the style, change my personality as a player." Although Karpov is the world champion, there are those who regard Fischer as the most capable of all, perhaps the best that ever lived.
After he forfeited the 1975 championship match to Karpov, in a dispute over playing conditions, Fischer dropped out of view. He hasn't played a match in public since he defeated Boris Spassky for the world title in Iceland in 1972. Occasional sightings of Fischer are reported. Karpov says he has seen him twice. In 1977, while passing through Tokyo, he had lunch with Fischer in the Tokyo airport. "We talked about the possibility of a match," Karpov says, "but we had no success. We couldn't agree in full because he wanted to play till 10 wins. I didn't want that because 10 wins is a very long match. I wanted to play six wins." They met again later that year outside Cordova, Spain, where Karpov was playing a tournament. Again they could reach no agreement. Money was no problem. "We had a $3 million guarantee," Karpov says. Nor did they play chess. Not even a casual game, but they talked chess strategy, and at one point in Tokyo they pulled out pocket chess sets and analyzed parts of a Capablanca game.
"It's a pity he left chess," Karpov says. "I respect him very much as a chess player, a very great chess player, and I'd like him to come back. It would be very interesting chess. I have met every grandmaster playing today except Fischer." But Karpov thinks he will not return.
"I think he was afraid to start new games because he was afraid of himself," he says. "He has an image of invincibility. I think he is afraid he would make a mistake and lose a game. Through all his career you could see he was nervous to begin competition. This is a very hard moment for each chess player. You don't know what form you're in now. The first game is very important. You have no way of measuring yourself. You can't run a mile in 3:58 and say, 'I'm in good shape.' You can only feel it at the chess table, during a match. During the first game. He was always late for games. He didn't even start interzonal games on time. This is very complicated. Each player has a fear of losing, but...."
But he plays. Just as Korchnoi plays against Karpov now. Karpov perceives in Korchnoi's play a sense of doubt and fear. Stean admits that Korchnoi may have lost a bit of self-confidence in the first 10 days of the match, but says he has no fear of losing, and certainly no fear of Karpov. Before their first match in Baguio, when asked if he feared Karpov, Korchnoi replied, "I fear nobody but the dentist."
Says Stean, "That is still true."