Match in neon limelight

by Eteri Kublashvili
1/11/2022 – A new Russian film, written and directed by Aleksey Sidorov, called “The Champion of the World” was released on December 30. The film tells the story of the bitter rivalry between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, focusing on their memorable match in Baguio. Eteri Kublashvili had access to the shooting and shared a number of remarkable photos and impressions on the website of the Chess Federation of Russia.

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Source: Chess Federation of Russia

The chess world was still mulling over the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match in Dubai, when on December 30, Champion of the World, a feature chess-themed film was released.

Manila, 1978. World champion Anatoly Karpov and pilot-cosmonaut, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Vitaly Sevastyanov — who headed the USSR Chess Federation at the time — head for the final game of the FIBA Basketball World Cup between the USSR and Yugoslavia. To help relieve the mind-boggling tension reigning at the memorable Karpov-Korchnoi match in Baguio, they decided to send the Soviet grandmaster to the basketball match. With Sergey Belov in its line-up, the USSR lost that day, but it takes another film to look into this subject. Meanwhile, Karpov managed to pull together and eventually defeat his opponent, who devoted nearly all his time to preparing. There exists a theory that the Champion managed to turn the tables by living through this loss himself and then showing up for the match with Korchnoi with renewed vigor...

Ivan yankovsky

Ivan Yankovsky as Anatoly Karpov

Overall, the topic of historical chess confrontations and chess as a model of war and a method of manipulation (suffice it to recall House of Cards and Billions) has never ceased to be mind-thrilling to artists and show businesses, especially those in the West. Netflix released the mini-series The Queen’s Gambit at the end of October 2020, which became a real sensation and received superb feedback and high ratings in the press, as well as good reviews from the chess world (which seems incredible). Beth Harmon and company were on everybody’s lips across the professional community. 

It is noteworthy that in yet another part of the world, the chess topic took off at about the same time. The Russian version of the Broadway musical Chess has been a success in Moscow, the premiere of which was a big event. Laconic black-and-white posters with a five-letter word surfaced all over the Russian capital city. At the end of December, the creators of the musical, the Broadway Moscow Theatre Company, the Moscow Metro, the Chess Federation of Russia, and other partners jointly launched the chess-themed train along the red line of the Moscow metro. This train is a sort of connection between the most beautiful and outstanding things in chess and mass culture.  

In turn, Champion of the World has all the makings of a real blockbuster. Its creators, led by director Alexey Sidorov, have abided by a recognized timeline of events while leaving much room for creativity. Professional players will undoubtedly treat some moments as controversial, and being a professional player has influenced my film viewing to a great extent. However, I believe the film will elicit a response from a broad audience, which will be positive. 

Thanks to Dmitry Oleinikov, who served as a chess consultant and even played the role of a TV host, I managed to visit the film shooting site on several occasions, get many impressions and take many pictures. Special thanks to the film crew for their support and for allowing me to come and take pictures any time needed.

In general, chess is known for its fantastic appeal, as it is not infrequent for complete outsiders to get carried away with it well into advanced age. At the film shooting site, one could sometimes see cameramen playing chess, and the positions and moves from the Karpov-Korchnoi games were given a very thorough and serious consideration. The actors needed to commit to memory rather lengthy sequence of moves and get into the habits of chess players to create as natural an environment as possible. In addition, the representative of the famous acting dynasty Ivan Yankovsky, who played Anatoly Karpov, and his colleague and friend Mikhail Troynik, who acted as Yuri Balashov, were very fond of chess and played online regularly. Ivan also worked with Daniil Dubov from time to time.

Konstantin Khabensky

Konstantin Khabensky (as Viktor Korchnoi) is watching the crew members play

The first footage scene I happened to visit was the basketball game described above. The technical aspect of such large-scale scenes is amazing: it does not lend itself to easy describing but is very exciting to watch with your own eyes. Other scenes were not of such large-scale nature. Yet another visit of mine gave me a lucky opportunity to witness the inner workings of the press conference filming (this part of the job relates to me more than that of basketball). It was hard to see the speaking actors clearly across the hall from afar, but I made out a very familiar voice rather quickly. A close view through the viewfinder of the man wearing glasses and a grey Soviet jacket and sitting near the table centre allowed me to make out Viktor Sukhorukov, one of our favourite actors.

Viktor Sukhorukov

Viktor Sukhorukov as Viktor Baturinsky

I already knew that Konstantin Khabensky played the role of Viktor Korchnoi, and one could appreciate the excellent work of costume designers and make-up experts in full when the actor showed up. In my opinion, they managed to recreate external similarity impeccably, while the performance excellence already depends on the actor himself. There is no arguing one thing: to watch great artists in action is a great pleasure.

We managed to witness the magic of cinema in action yet again on the set of Korchnoi’s final games against Petrosian and Polugaevsky as part of the candidate matches. The authors attempted to reproduce the nuances of those battles to the best possible accuracy beginning with the authentic poster, makeup, costumes, scenery and up to actors’ transformations. Present at all game stages, Dmitry Oleinikov ensured that all chess aspects were as true to reality as possible.

Konstantin Khabensky

Konstantin Khabensky as Viktor Korchnoi

Korchnoi and Petrosian were known to hate each other passionately, so they would never shake hands or sign the opponent’s scoresheet. At the same time, Polugaevsky did not leave Korchnoi’s outstretched hand hanging in the air when the latter scored the victory in the semifinal match. However, he did it with caution. 

The famously scandalous match in Baguio was recreated with utmost precision in terms of decorations, scenery, and games. Playing below a massive white billboard, the artists had by that time merged even more with their characters. The strict guidance of Dmitry Oleinikov gave them a confident grasp of the game moves, and they discussed the process with enthusiasm during breaks and rehearsals. The sound of moves and clocks amidst complete silence turned the set into a real chess match environment.

The Champion of the World, film

The match in Baguio

That explosive match of 1978 with 21 draws ended 6:5 in Anatoly Karpov’s favour. The world champion won the final 32nd game to retain the crown.

However, does any match do without seconds? They play a unique role here as well. The impulsive Mikhail Tal, the calm Igor Zaitsev, and the shrewd Yuri Balashov take their rightful place in this large-scale film narrative.

Even with the pandemic incredibly aggravating all aspects of life, this large-scale film has seen the light of day anyway. Of course, I cannot speak for all chess players, however, I have always been looking forward to seeing our sport represented on a big screen not as a fleeting moment or a touch to the protagonist’s portrait, but as an independent entity, which is often everything for the Hero to the exclusion of everything else, which pushes him to fateful deeds, makes enemies of friends or comrades-in-arms of people not known before. After all, there exist no former chess players, and even those who have quit playing long ago sometimes dream of a bitter defeat and recall the games lost; they are carried away with and begin analysing positions set on the board to the extent of leaving all other matters out of their minds.

This material is by no means intended to serve as a review or a call to view, or an attempt to assess the film. Those who decide to watch The Champion of the World will form an opinion of their own. I am simply sharing my experience of being on the set of a really big film featuring great artists and a professional team. I have also attached a few pictures that have been in wait for publication for over a year.

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Eteri Kublashvili is a chessplayer and reports and photographs from all official tournaments for the Russian Chess Federation.

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