Karpov-Korchnoi: 40 years after

by Macauley Peterson
10/17/2018 – Today 40 years ago, on October 17th, 1978, a battle of nerves, which lasted over four months and 32 games, ended in Baguio City, the Philippines. The Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi fought against the Soviet loyalist World Champion Anatoly Karpov for the chess world's highest title. We take a look at a few more details of the match, with photos and discussion of the new feature documentary "Closing Gambit" with producer Alan Byron. | Photos: Screenbound Pictures

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"Nobody is black or white, everybody has shades of grey"

Alan Byron was an English junior chess player, a contemporary of grandmasters Daniel King, Peter Wells and Julian Hodgson. Like so many others of his generation, Bryon became interested in chess as a result of the Fischer vs Spassky match. At his peak, he was a 2300-rated player, but he's been inactive for about 25 years (other than a lone 2008 tournament in Switzerland). Instead, he pursued a career in the music and film business — his previous film was "Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World", and he's currently working on a documentary about The Beatles called "Made on Merseyside".

Byron remembers Korchnoi vs Karpov as an amazing political event. "It was fascinating", he notes, and the drama of Korchnoi's comeback after being far behind in the match, plus the interesting personalities, was key to getting his latest film "Closing Gambit" off the ground. "To non-chess players, it's not actually a 'chess story' — it's actually a very personal story".

Watch the first three minutes:

Screenbound Pictures YouTube Channel

The lead up to this match began four years earlier in Moscow, when the rising young star of Soviet chess, Anatoly Karpov, met the final candidate for the World Championship Viktor Korchnoi — already 43 years old but in dazzling form. Korchnoi knew Karpov as a youth when he played against him in a 1961 simultaneous exhibition. For an older player, to face someone he previously considered young and inexperienced but who's suddenly surpassing him is a particular sort of challenge.

Karpov won the candidate's final and qualified to challenge World Champion Bobby Fischer. Of course, the American did not compete in the scheduled 1975 match and so Karpov became the 12th World Champion without a fight.

Korchnoi felt he had been treated unfairly by the Soviet chess authorities and was outspoken about it. The resulting state of pressure led him to decide to defect from the Soviet Union. He was not the first player to do so, but he was the most prominent, and from then on Korchnoi was a dissident in the eyes of the Soviet leadership, which forced USSR players to boycott events in which Korchnoi participated. That was not an option for official FIDE tournaments that were part of the World Championship cycle, however.


Korchnoi in 1978 | "Closing Gambit" frame courtesy Screenbound Pictures

As a candidate finalist from 1974, Korchnoi was automatically qualified for the next candidates tournament in the following cycle. In 1977, he first defeated Tigran Petrosian in the quarterfinals, then he beat Lev Polugajevsky in the semifinal, before facing Boris Spassky in the final. The two former friends from Leningrad fought a veritable war of psychology. Korchnoi believed that members of the Soviet's team "irradiated" him from the auditorium and opted to play with mirrored sunglasses. Spassky felt blinded by the reflections of light and eventually came to the stage armed with diving goggles. The whole competition was not one likely to improve the reputation of chess grandmasters in the rest of the world. Korchnoi earned the nickname "Victor the Terrible", but beat Spassky 10½:7½ in 18 games.

The psychological machinations between Spassky and Korchnoi were child's play, however, compared to what was to come. Knowing that Korchnoi believed in things like parapsychology, Karpov hired his own expert, Vladimir Suchar, who sat in the auditorium during matches and stared at Korchnoi, driving him mad. To neutralize the psychological attack, Korchnoi took on a pair of Indian gurus.

Korchnoi with gurus

Korchnoi with his gurus  | "Closing Gambit" frame courtesy Screenbound Pictures

At that time the game was still played according to the old "Fischer-rule" with the winner to be the first player to win six games with no predefined game limit. After an initial string of seven draws, Karpov struck first with a win in the eighth game. Korchnoi equalised with a win of his own in game eleven but Karpov proceeded to build up a large lead with victories in the 13th, 14th and 17th games. The 21st game went to Korchnoi, but the 27th to Karpov, who led 5:2 and was one win away from defending his title. 

But then Korchnoi went on a tear, winning the 28th, 29th and 31st games to even the score. FIDE officials were getting nervous — no one had expected the match to go on this long and the beginning of the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires was imminent.

For the 32nd game, played on October 17, 1978, Korchnoi had Black and prepared an opening surprise: 6...c5 in the Pirc Defence. Karpov, however, was unfazed and played quickly. Soon it was Korchnoi who was under pressure. The tension had reached the boiling point — with the match tied 5:5, the one who would win the next game would be World Champion.


Karpov celebrates a win

Karpov won Game 32 and remained World Champion | "Closing Gambit" frame courtesy Screenbound Pictures

Beating a World Champion

"Karpov is a very nice, warm, friendly [and] interesting person to talk to", says Bryon, who interviewed the former World Champion for the film (Korchnoi, unfortunately, died prior to the project being "greenlit" for production). As a young man in 1982, Byron played in a simul against Karpov and beat him! We had him dig up the game for posterity:


Byron news clippings

It's not every day you get to play (and win!) against a reigning World Champ!

Byron says chess training has helped him throughout his life being able to keep a lot of material in mind at once and seeing how things fit together. He remains a 2100-rated player.

The film has already been released in some territories; it was out in July in the USA, September in Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). In November, it will make its debut in the UK and some Baltic states. The USA's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is due to broadcast the documentary later this year and there will be various digital launches in various countries. You might also encounter the film on an airline entertainment system one day soon! So the film is doing well.

"I think [Magnus (the 2016 documentary)] started to break the mould", Byron observes, adding that peaking the interest of non-chess players is one of his goals. And "for chess players, there has never been a more interesting time for content".

Bryon and Sosonko

Alan Byron with GM Genna Sosonko (interviewed in the film) in Cannes earlier this year

Andre Schulz contributed to this story.


Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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