At 5:01 p.m. last Friday, the shiny black Volga sedan raced south on Vyborgskaya Embankment, tailgating a police car with an antler of blue and red lights flashing on its roof. Whipping a quick left at the intersection, the two cars pulled to a sudden halt at a side entrance of the Leningrad Hotel, the one leading directly to the hotel's concert hall. It had been raining off and on all day, and the 300 people who had gathered there behind the iron barricades stood in raincoats, beneath umbrellas. Their hair, wet and matted, blew in the crisp autumn wind that swirled off the Neva River just across the street.
Out of the Volga, wearing a black overcoat that hung on the small doorknobs of his shoulders over a perfectly cut Savile Row suit, stepped Anatoly Karpov. For 10 years, until 1985, this 35-year-old Soviet grand master had reigned as the chess champion of the world. In November of that year he lost his title to a 22-year-old swashbuckler from the Caspian seaport of Baku, Gary Kasparov, who thus became the youngest world champion in the game's history. Going into Friday's game, these two Soviet grand masters had, over the last two years, played an incredible 93 games of chess in the course of three world championship matches. They had each won 12 of the 93, with 69 draws. Counting draws as half a point and victories as one point each, their total score over the two years stood exactly at 46½ to 46½.
"Never in history have we had a situation in which two top competitors, playing for the world title, played so many games in so short a time," said Soviet grand master Eduard Gufeld. "And the results are equal. So who is stronger? They have gone from being chess geniuses to chess gladiators. I have no other word for the situation that has developed between these two men over the last two years. If you see chess as art, as I see it, it is stupid to compare them. It is like saying, 'Who is more of a genius, Mozart or Beethoven?' "
But what had so stirred chess aficionados around the world, and Leningraders in particular, was Karpov's extraordinary comeback in the current 24-game match. As the defender, Kasparov needed 12 points—or six outright victories—to win. Karpov, as the challenger, could also take the match with six wins, but otherwise needed 12½ points to win, and after winning the 16th game, the champion held what appeared to be an insurmountable 9½-6½ lead. The outcome had become so unmistakably clear that a number of visiting grand masters had packed up and left town.
October 12, 1986
Then suddenly, shockingly, Karpov won three games in a row, evening the score at 9½-9½. "How could this happen?" said Yefim Stoliar, a Soviet chess master and coach. "All the chess players are asking that. How? In an epic moment of the struggle, when he was losing, Karpov found some hidden reserves. All of a sudden the beaten challenger rises from the floor and throws such heavy blows that it is unbelievable."
Mark Taimanov, the brilliant concert pianist and chess grand master, said he could not recall anything quite like what was happening last week in Leningrad. "If you wrote a play and invented such a turn of events," said the 60-year-old Taimanov, "no one would believe it."
And so then, after two draws, the score still level at 10½—it was at that moment that Karpov emerged from his Volga to the embrace of the crowd standing in the rain. Kasparov had arrived moments earlier, to quiet and polite applause and a few cries of "bravo," but there was loud cheering for Karpov as he made his way to the door. Cameras clicked incessantly and one old woman, pressed by the crowd against the yellow barricade, cried out in a chant: "Karpovu pobeda. Karpovu pobeda." "To Karpov, victory."
Karpov nodded, drew a hand across his windblown hair, smiled weakly and strode into the hall. He looked tired. Despite his gallant comeback, the pressure remained on him, for with three games to play, he had to win at least one more game to recapture his title. Then, too, it was not only the match that had worn Karpov down. He was under a great deal of additional stress because he has come to represent the Soviet chess establishment. Conservative, diplomatic, cautious in his choice of words, he has been the model Soviet citizen. Leonid Brezhnev, the late Soviet leader, had awarded him the Order of Lenin. As chess champion, he was treated like royalty. He is a millionaire who owns a dacha and several cars and can travel anywhere in the world that he pleases.
In contrast, Kasparov is brash, outspoken, at times undiplomatic, and he has the swarthy look of a street fighter when he glares across the board at the fine-boned, porcelain-skinned Karpov. The two men do not like each other. Kasparov is not perceived as a model citizen, but he is an extremely popular champion among the masses, in large part because of his aggressive, attacking style of play, which is the opposite of Karpov's more defensive, positional maneuverings over the board.
All over this city of five million, the chess match was the topic of the day. Public interest in the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl had receded, and the release of Nicholas Daniloff and an accused Soviet spy attracted relatively little attention. Actually, the only news to rival the chess match was the announcement that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be meeting President Reagan in a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, the next week. For the millions of chess devotees in this country, that city is associated only with one other summit, for it was in Reykjavik that Bobby Fischer crushed Soviet world champion Boris Spassky in 1972 to win the world title. While the Russians are rooting for Gorbachev in Reykjavik, there is no fear that Reagan will do to the Soviet leader what Bobby did to Boris.
"In my mind, I will be happy if we have a draw between the Soviet Union and the United States," said Gufeld. "Every time our two countries play, we must draw."
But it was chess, not world politics, that had this town buzzing last week. Over drinks late one night, two members of the staff of the First Medical Institute in Leningrad were comparing notes. "The patients all have their favorites," said Emile Hersi, a doctor at the institute. "We know which ones support Kasparov and which ones support Karpov. We joke about it in the mornings when we make our rounds. Even among the doctors there are two classes. The class of Karpov and the class of Kasparov. In my clinic, the majority supports Kasparov."
"In our clinic, Karpov," said Mustafa Eldin, a medical student there. "In the world there are many problems, but the most important question here is what is happening in the match." "Am I following the match?" asked Igor Smirnov, a jazz musician. "Every game! Kasparov should have won the match by now. Why is he playing so aggressively? He should be playing for draws. He is an idiot."
And there was the young student from Baku, an ardent follower of Kasparov, who stood in the chilling wind outside the Leningrad Hotel with a dozen others, their breath clouding the glass as they peered through the hotel window to follow the game as it was reported, move by move, on a large screen inside the lobby. It was impossible to buy tickets, and guards at the hotel door were turning back all those who had no business there. So there was Nezami Davedov, a forestry student, scribbling the moves into a notebook with a shivering hand. "Chess is a sickness with me," he said. "I am a Kasparov fan. All the young people in the Soviet Union are Kasparov fans. It is very exciting, but I was really suffering for him when he lost those three games."
Suffering is not an uncommon word when people talk about chess in these latitudes. Those who have played the game—those who know the physical, emotional and intellectual drain that the game exacts on players at this level of competition—sympathized with the champion and challenger over what they had been going through week after week. Tell Nikoli Samarin, a cab driver, that you are here to see the chess match, and he asks, quite seriously, "And who are you suffering for?"
Chess may be merely a game—albeit, the most challenging in the world—but in the Soviet Union it is the national pastime. It was no accident that the two men sitting across the board from each other in the concert hall were Soviet grand masters. Nor is it mere coincidence that as the match was going on two other Soviet grand masters, Artur Yusupov and Andrei Sokolov, were playing in Riga to determine who might next get a chance to play for the world title. Kasparov and Karpov may be worlds apart in their lifestyles and their approaches to the game, but they shared a common experience as children and young adults as they rose through the chess establishment.
Like the homegrown dancers of the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets, both Kasparov and Karpov were members of the Young Pioneers, an organization for which there is no equivalent in the United States. There are hundreds of Young Pioneers clubs around the Soviet Union, where, after school, youths from 6 to 18 voluntarily attend special classes in everything from dancing and acting to sewing and sailing—and, of course, chess.
The Russians have a venerable chess tradition, but it was not until after World War II that they took such a firm grip on the world title. And no wonder. There are more than a dozen Young Pioneers clubs in Leningrad alone, but in every major Soviet city there is a "central palace," the main club where only the most gifted and promising youngsters go for study. Last week, in Leningrad's central palace, hundreds of children moved about a complex of buildings once inhabited by Czarist royalty.
Some of the rooms were devoted to the study of chess. The chess section's senior coach, Alexi Unieev, said that there are 450 chess students at the palace studying under 11 full-time coaches. There are four whole rooms set aside for the study of chess theory. In one room, 11 children snapped to attention at the approach of visitors. They had been taking notes as an instructor lectured them in front of a large demonstration chess board. Though only 12 and 13 years old, they were following the championship match closely, they said, studying all the games as they were played.
"I like Kasparov," said Mikhail Veselov, 12. "He's aggresive."
Outside the lecture room, the hallway was hung with boards depicting the history of the chess club. They revealed that the palace had produced eight grand masters, and the honor role included the names of Taimanov and Spassky. Notably absent from the role was a ninth grand master who had studied there as a child—Viktor Korchnoi, who twice challenged Karpov for the world title. But he defected to the West in 1976 and for that he has been condemned in the Soviet Union to the status of "nonperson" and thus stricken from official memory.
"Not a good example for children," said a Soviet press attachè.
Not so in Taimanov's case. "The Young Pioneers determined my chess life," said Taimanov, who studied as a young man at the palace under three-time world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. "Botvinnik gave impetus to his students.... When I became a grand master I tried to pay this back. I taught at the club after the war. Spassky was one of my pupils. He was about 10 years old when he started, a chess genius. So I can say, 'One generation gives to another generation.' Lenin had a good definition of chess. It is the key to understanding the game's role in the Soviet Union. He said, 'Chess is the gymnastics of the mind.' " Lenin was a chess buff and encouraged it after the revolution.
Korchnoi might be unremembered, but Bobby Fischer certainly is not. The American is regarded with awe by Soviet chess fans. At the palace, in fact, Fischer's picture appears with those of a host of Soviet world champions. Next to his picture, he is quoted as saying, "Chess is a struggle in which the expenditure of strength can only be justified by victory."
Still, the struggle between Karpov and Kasparov will be remembered in no small part because of Karpov's remarkable resurgence. In the 17th game, playing black, Kasparov had resorted to the Gruenfeld Defense, his old reliable since the beginning of the match. By now, he was coasting on his big lead, 9½-6½, and yet it was also obvious to those watching that Karpov and his seconds had solved the puzzle of the Gruenfeld and that Kasparov had grown lackadaisical. He resigned without a fight.
Game 18 was especially memorable. Kasparov played well early in the game but got into time trouble and found himself with just seven minutes left for 13 moves. As if to underscore his tenacity, Kasparov rose from his chair and took off his coat after his 29th move, obviously telling Karpov that the fight had just begun. No matter. Kasparov blundered three times after that, turning a winning position into a losing one, and Karpov won again to draw within a point.
In contrast, Karpov won the third game in a row, not because of Kasparov's mistakes, but rather by his own sheer excellence of play. "A fantastic game by Karpov," said Gert Ligterink, a Dutch international master. "It was perfect. This game was like a symphony; it was Karpov's best of the match. Kasparov was completely outplayed, obviously dejected by the two losses that had preceded it."
But then, after the two draws had made the score 10½-10½, Kasparov at last composed himself and regained the offensive. In the long 22nd game, the second day's play opened with Kasparov's sealed move—a knight's attack on Karpov's king—that was so bold and brilliant that after the referee announced the move, the crowd, utterly silent in anticipation, rose and cheered. They realized at that instant that the game—and certainly, too—the match, was Kasparov's. Sure enough, on Monday, Kasparov, working carefully for the draw, played the challenger even to gain the final half point and assure the defense of his title. The struggle was over at last, but this time, even without victory, the strength that Karpov had put into the match had certainly been justified.