10 reasons the '78 Karpov – Korchnoi chess match was weirdest ever
Viktor Korchnoi died early this month at age 85. He was said to be the best grandmaster never to have won the Chess Championship. He won the Soviet Championship 4 times, the European Championship give times and a couple of Interzonal tournaments and Candidates tournament.
In 1976, “Viktor the Terrible” was the first Russian grandmaster to defect from the Soviet Union and two years later at the age of 47, he earned the right to fight the 27-year-old Anatoly Karpov for the 13th world chess championship title.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos offered the City of Baguio as the site of the championship. This was how Sports Illustrated’s J.D. Reed described Baguio then: "It resembles a resort town in the Catskills as much as the Asian one it is. There are cool breezes 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 Sear outlet and a movie house showing the NBA playoffs, there are native rice and fish stories. With the arrival of the contestants, the town took on the atmosphere of a heavyweight championship fight site.”
Not everyone agreed. The UK's Independent titled the article by Raymund Keene, Korchoi’s second, as “Chess in a Ghost Town.” He said that millions of people were following the matches but no one dared go to Baguio. But still, like Thrilla in Manila, the championship made Baguio memorable to chess addicts. These are the top 10 reasons why:
1.) The prize money. The winner took home $350,000 while the loser got $200,000. At that time, it was the highest ever in chess. Fischer’s pot in 1972 was half that of the Baguio victor. Marcos, of course, bankrolled almost all of it. Korchnoi and his team stayed at the grand old Pines Hotel while Karpov and his All-Soviet entourage stayed at Hyatt Terraces Baguio. Then there are the chess journalists. The championship went on till October so it was safe to say it was your parents who paid for all these.
2.) Which brings us to the Baguio Convention Center. Some local papers would tell you that BCC was constructed in 1974 by GSIS and you would see it repeated over and over. The truth is, like the Cultural Center and the Manila Film Palace, the BCC was rushed for the event. More than 300 workers constructed what the New York Times called a pyramid-like building (actually it was based on the traditional Cordillera grain storehouse called agamang) just in time for its inauguration on July 17, 1978. It can seat 1,000 people comfortably and it was described by chess journalists as the best chess room they have ever seen. It was sound-proofed, air conditioned and well-lighted. The cost: US$4 million in 1978 dollars.
3.) The bragging rights. The Soviets wanted to win this championship which they held for 24 years (until Fischer got it in 1972 and then decided not to defend it) and now they have to fight a defector. They were evenly matched; Karpov won seven and lost six in their matches prior to Baguio. Karpov‘s FIDE rating then was 2725 while Korchnoi had 2665. “He was only four when I became grandmaster,” Korchnoi boasted. “I will beat the little boy,” he said later, “and prove once and for all the Soviet System produces only robots.” Mikhael Tal, one of Karpov’s seconds later told Korchnoi, “There, in Baguio, we were all afraid of you – if you had won the match, you could have been physically eliminated. Everything had been prepared for this.”
4.) The promoter. There was nobody like Florencio Campomanes. There was no one else who promoted chess in the Philippines more than him. His connection with Marcos served him well. He was able to bring Fischer to the Philippines but when he was sane until he was not. The world chess championship was held in Manila in 1975 with $5 million prize fund and then the Chess Olympiad in 1992. He held the FIDE chairmanship for so long (1982 to 1995) that he was even accused as a KGB asset. It was a pity that his chess memorabilia were all burned in Baguio Country Club (except some saved by his friend Des Bautista) in 1990. Campomanes died in 2010.
5.) Flags. After defecting from the Soviet Union, Korchnoi was a man without a country. During the 1977 Candidates semifinal match, he asked to play under the Dutch flag as he was living in the Netherlands and recently won the national championship. The organizer denied the request as Korchnoi had not been living in the Netherlands for a full year. In September of the same year, Korchnoi was granted permission to live in Switzerland. A month before the title match, Korchnoi indicated that if he could not play under the Swiss flag, he wanted a white flag marked "Stateless." The Soviets objected to the Swiss flag, but agreed to a white flag marked 'Stateless'. The jury decided that no flags would be allowed on the playing table, but that flags of the USSR, the Philippines, and FIDE would be present on the stage.
6.) Sunglasses. Chess players love to outstare their opponents and Karpov is one of the best in that department. Korchnoi wore mirror sunglasses throughout the games. for the first game and continued to wear them during some of the following games. Karpov wrote, '[The sunglasses] were like two mirrors, and whenever Korchnoi raised his head the light from the numerous lamps on the stage was reflected into my eyes.’
7.) Chairs also contributed to the match tension. In pre-match discussions, Korchnoi declared his intention to bring his own chair, a dark green Stollgiroflex worth $1,300 with a hydraulic lift that would make him higher than Karpov, and stipulated that the chairs "may not turn but may move only to the front and back." Karpov's chair was furnished by the organizers. He needed a small cushion to raise him to Korchnoi's level. Karpov requested that Korchnoi's chair be examined for 'extraneous objects or prohibited devices'. A few days before the first game, the chair was dismantled, X-rayed at the Baguio General Hospital, and cleared. During Game 14 Korchnoi complained that Karpov was swiveling in his chair. Karpov swiveled again during Game 15 and Korchnoi complained. Karpov said, "I'll stop swiveling if he takes off his glasses." The jury decided the next day that "swiveling of one's chair or standing behind it is not to be allowed." Karpov stopped swiveling during Korchnoi's move for Game 16. Later in 1981, Korchnoi again warned Karpov, “get off me you, detestable worm,” when he swiveled his chair.
8.) Yogurt. The “Korchnoi’s complaint” started on the 25th move of Game 2 when a waiter delivered a tray with a glass of violet-colored yogurt to Karpov. Korchnoi’s team complained: "It is clear that a cunningly arranged distribution of edible items to one player during the game, emanating from one delegation or the other, could convey a kind of code message." The organizers decided that yogurt can be brought anytime, as long as it is violet or blueberry.
9.) Zukhar, Dada and Didi. Both grandmasters brought their own parapsychologists but no one was as menacing as Karpov’s Vladimir Zukhar “with eyes supposedly like burning coals, and planted him in the first few rows of spectators,” as New York Times’s Robert Byrne described him. “ What powers this Dracula-clone was supposed to possess never came to light, but he drove Korchnoi into a rage. Just knowing that Karpov had put Zukhar there to upset him was enough to set Korchnoi off,” Byrne said.
According to some reports, Korchnoi felt these thoughts entering his brain: You should not fight Karpov. You are a traitor to the Soviet Union and you must lose now.”
Gari Kasparov in his new book, How Life Imitates Chess, said that this whole paranormal thing can be cased under the lesson, Don’t Get Distracted While Trying to Distract.
“I often wonder how much better Korchnoi would have done if he haven’t invested so much energy responding to Karpov’s provocations,” Kasparov said.
We also wondered about it but Korchnoi instead brought in his own “mind bogglers.”
10.) He got Steven Dwyer and Victoria Shepherd, two Ananda Marga members who were actually wanted for stabbing an Indian diplomat in the country that February. The duo, renamed as Dada and Didi, started attending the 18th game and disturbing Zukhar. They also taught Korchnoi transcendental meditation. It was the Soviet’s turn to panic, asking Campomanes to let the couple in white garments and saffron robes to get near them. Didi and Dada clearly rattled Karpov as the match was leveled 5-5 after leading by 5-2. In the 32nd match, which turned out to be the last, Zukhar was on the first row and Didi and Dada were not around.
The match was played three times a week but it turned out to be the longest championship ever. The fifth game at 124 moves was the longest in chess championship history. But it was Karpov who rattled Korchnoi in the 8th game when he refused to shake Korchnoi’s hand, even exclaiming “Never!” Karpov got the first point.
He surged to an early lead, 5-2, and needed only one victory to clinch the championship. But Karpov suffered a near collapse and by Game 28, Korchnoi clawed back (like a lion, as Kasparov described it) and was able to level, 5-5.
Korchnoi was actually playing a more interesting game but was beset with time constraints and committed more blunders. Karpov, one of the best endgame players, was more calculating. As far as the quality of the games, many experts were unimpressed, saying that the action outside the board must have consumed the two grandmasters.
Game 32 was the clincher; it was adjourned, with Korchnoi at a clear disadvantage.
“I don't resume the 32nd game but I am not going to sign the score sheet of the game because it has been played under absolutely illegal conditions. I don't consider the game valid. The match is not finished. I reserve the right to complain to FIDE on the intolerable Soviets' behavior, a hostility of the organizers, a lack of activity of the arbiters,” Korchnoi wrote to Campomanes the next day.
He left Baguio without getting his consolation money. Campomanes said that he can encash it if he acknowledges that the match is finished.
Korchnoi never did. – Rappler.com
The extra mile
We are passionate about sports. Whether its a university, local, or international event, we aim to always to go above and beyond with our news, features, and analysis.
However, reader support powers our content. We ask you to take on the extra mile with us.
By joining Rappler PLUS, you will receive special editorial newsletters, industry reports, and invites to exclusive briefings.
But more than that, you will enable us to continue telling more stories.
Make your move now. Join Rappler PLUS.