Search

A Dubious Gambit In Moscow

Feb. 25, 1985
Feb. 25, 1985

Table of Contents
Feb. 25, 1985

Bramble-Mancini
Daytona 500
USFL '85
Pat Bradley
College Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Dubious Gambit In Moscow

Just when chess champion Anatoly Karpov seemed to be weakening, the challenger was abruptly checkmated

By William Oscar Johnson

When it all began so very long ago in Moscow, on Sept. 10, 1984, everyone expected one of the most electrifying world chess championships in history. The champion was Anatoly Karpov, 33, thin and wan, an icy, technical player with the Order of Lenin, an award for special service to the regime, an estimated $1 million in hard currency and a very valuable stamp collection to show for his 10-year reign. The challenger was Gary Kasparov, a darkly handsome, athletic fellow with a reputation for swaggering, aggressive play. At 21, he was also the youngest man ever to compete for the world title.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 1985 issue Original Layout

A brilliant contest of opposites was predicted: experience versus youth, tight control versus wild imagination, establishment hero versus ebullient outsider. And what happened?

Like a lightning bolt, Karpov struck and won four of the first nine games. It seemed clear this would be the shortest championship ever. He needed only six victories to remain champion. Kasparov patched himself together after that slaughter and countered with a mean-minded defensive game, attempting only to deadlock the play, never to win. After 17 straight draws, Karpov won again and led 5-0. Kasparov dug in for more "bunker chess," as scornful experts called it. He won the 32nd game and drew another 14. And then, gaining strength and confidence, he won the 47th and 48th games, the latter on Feb. 9. This had become the longest championship of all—and one of the least electrifying. However, the score was 5-3 and Karpov was reeling.

The stage was set for the ultimate epic melodrama, in which youthful underdog prince fights comeback-from-oblivion battle against arrogant older king to win rightful place on throne. But in one of the most bizarre episodes in a game riddled with bizarre episodes, the match was suddenly canceled last week, declared null and void and rescheduled to begin again in September under what will almost certainly be a new set of ground rules. Although most people guessed otherwise, the ruling was ostensibly made—alone and without external influence—by Florencio Campomanes, a Philippine businessman who is president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). He declared the match over at a remarkably (for Moscow) unruly press conference. Reporters listened in disbelief. It took no chess wizardry to realize that this decision was enormously favorable to the failing Karpov.

Was it a fix? Campomanes insisted to reporters that Karpov had begged him not to cancel the match. Did Campomanes' well-known friendship with Karpov have any bearing on the decision? Campomanes said, "I am a very good friend of Mr. Karpov. That's right, but it has nothing to do with what I feel is best for chess in this world." The FIDE leader told reporters that he had not actually decided for certain to call off the competition until he began speaking to them. Yet even before he spoke, Tass, the Soviet press agency, was sending out a story about his announcement.

It was all very fishy. When a Western reporter asked about rumors concerning Karpov's mental and physical deterioration, Campomanes noted that the champion had fortuitously just entered the hall and would speak for himself. On that cue, Karpov walked on stage and declared, "As we say in Russia, rumors of my death are somewhat exaggerated." (That, of course, was a saying coined by the great Russian humorist, Mark Twainovitchski.) Karpov then insisted that he wanted to continue and was in great shape.

At this point, Kasparov was seething in a seat at the rear of the room, surrounded by Western reporters who coaxed him to respond. He did, striding to the stage and seizing the microphone. "Mr. President," he said to Campomanes, "what is all the show about? You know I also object to ending the match. Why must we end it then?" Campomanes then agreed to reconsider his decision if the two players would meet with him backstage.

After more than an hour and a half, Campomanes reappeared with an acquiescent Karpov. "The world champion accepts the decision of the president and the challenger abides by the decision of the president," Campomanes declared. The difference between "accepts" and "abides by" was made abundantly clear by Kasparov a few moments later in a hurly-burly impromptu press conference outside the auditorium. Furious and frustrated at the turn of events, he cried, "So, we see Karpov gets what he wants! He remains world champion. This was a well-prepared spectacle in which everyone played his role. Why play chess if the president can take these decisions at any moment?" Under FIDE laws, Campomanes' decision can be challenged by an appeals committee but Campomanes doesn't have to abide by its decision.

Steve Doyle, president of the U.S. Chess Federation, said, "It's not at all fair. It has tainted the International Chess Federation and chess in general." And U.S. champion Lev Alburt, who defected from the U.S.S.R. in 1979, said passionately, "This was just against all rules. It's incredible. But this match was never so much chess as it was a fight between two cliques in the Soviet Union—something like Mafia against Mafia, you know?" That the debacle has its roots in a morass of internal intrigue in the Soviet chess establishment and Communist Party is widely believed by chess experts and Kremlin experts alike.

Karpov is, as a Swiss newspaper editorialized last week, "the archetype of the homo Sovieticus." He represents the chess and party establishment. Kasparov is half-Jewish and even though he, too, is a party member in good standing, his ebullient manner and non-establishment background make him the odd man out among Soviet chess powers. Thus, few people doubt that the outrageously ill-timed decision to cancel the match was a product of pressure and manipulation of Campomanes by pro-Karpov Soviet chess officials who feared their adored archetype was about to be defeated.

The September championship will probably have a 24-game limit. That limit had been a rule of long standing before Bobby Fischer of the U.S. won the world title in 1972 and demanded open-ended competitions. Karpov is expected to press to have the match begin 2-0 in his favor because of the two-game lead he held at the end. If he is given that advantage, Kasparov's odds will be long indeed. Yet both men have been changed enormously by the ordeal they have just endured. And when they reconvene, the world will be anticipating one of the most brilliant championships in history—which, of course, is what everyone was anticipating on Sept. 10, 1984.

PHOTOKarpov (far left) thought he'd written young Kasparov off when the score reached 5-0.TWO PHOTOSCampomanes (far left) insisted his friendship with Karpov hadn't influenced his decision, but Kasparov wasn't convinced.