The great Viktor Korchnoi, one of the strongest players
never to become World Champion, would have turned 90 today. On the eve of that
anniversary, the BBC dedicated an episode of the radio broadcast Witness History to the
match that saw Viktor come within a win of claiming the World Championship
title. The clash with Anatoly Karpov in Baguio City in the Philippines is
described as “a surreal experience” by English Grandmaster Michael Stean, who
turned 25 during the match and was working as a second for Viktor.
For most chess legends it’s hard to imagine them actively
battling at the board in their later years, but “Viktor the Terrible” was
different. His passion for the game never dimmed and he was in the Top 100 at
the age of 75 and beat the current world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana at 79. Sadly, he
away in Switzerland five years ago at the age of 85, while his wife Petra
also recently left us.
Viktor Korchnoi won the USSR Junior Championship in 1947 and
followed up by winning the formidable USSR Championship four times, in 1960,
1962, 1964 and 1970. He first played Anatoly Karpov in a match in 1974, losing
narrowly 12.5:11.5. That was the final of the Candidates, but decided the World
Championship title itself when Bobby Fischer refused the proposed conditions for defending
The subject of the radio broadcast (listen to it here on the BBC website)
comes four years later, in Baguio City, the Philippines, when 47-year-old Korchnoi
took on the twenty years younger Karpov in what was the first true World
Championship match for either player. David Edmonds talks to GM Michael Stean,
who at the time was just 24:
I was a young guy, I was maybe three years out of
university, and it was just an adventure, one of these crazy things that
happens at some point in your life and you have the opportunity to participate
in it and you think wow, how remarkable.
You can find amazing footage of Korchnoi, Stean and fellow
second Ray Keene preparing together in the documentary, Chess – A State of
Mind (this is for the 1981 match):
Viktor defected from the Soviet Union in 1976, but still fought his way to a rematch with Karpov. Michael describes his “boss”:
Viktor can only be described as Viktor. He’s his own man, he
is a character, he has an innate genius to play chess, he’s very easy-going,
very friendly, very funny, but he speaks his mind, and he can have quite a
harsh tongue for people who cross him or upset him, and this was his greatest
crime, that he just said what he thinks.
Stean talked about what it meant for Korchnoi to face
Karpov epitomised and represented everything that Viktor
despised about the Soviet system, the Soviet Union. He recognised it was a
conscious decision on Karpov’s part to acquiesce to Soviet dogma. Viktor was a
fighter, and I suppose in a way Viktor viewed Karpov the way say a French
person would have viewed a collaborator during the Second World War.
There was a lot riding on Karpov’s success for the Soviet
Union, with Stean commenting:
It was, I suppose, the cerebral version of landing a man on
the moon. It was to prove the Soviet superiority over the Western systems that
they could produce and control the World Chess Championship.
The tensions were high before the match even began, with the
flags to be placed next to the players already controversial. Viktor had moved
to Switzerland but wasn’t yet a Swiss citizen, so the Soviets objected to the
use of the Swiss flag. Michael explains:
The flag issue was purely symbolic. The Soviets used the
flag issue to demonstrate to Viktor that whoever was nominally in charge of
organising this match, they called the shots. Any logical, informed observer
would say, well, if the Swiss don’t object, who is it for a third party to say
you cannot play under that flag?
You can replay all the games from the match, with modern
computer analysis, using the selector below:
When the match began things only got weirder. Soon Korchnoi’s
delegation complained about a blueberry yoghurt that was delivered to Karpov at
A member of the Soviet delegation would arrive on stage
bearing a tray, bearing a pot, in which there was some yoghurt, and nobody was
allowed to go near this magical pot of yoghurt.
The fear was it might contain some cognitive stimulant or be
a signal for what Karpov should do at the board – for instance, play for a win
or offer a draw.
Viktor had tricks of his own, coming to the board with
Karpov’s camp went further, however, with their team
including a “parapsychologist”, Dr. Zukhar, who was supposed to hypnotise Korchnoi
or otherwise interfere with his thoughts. David Edmonds comments:
Whether the Soviets believed him capable of this dastardly
influence is unclear. He certainly put Korchnoi off, then in Game 8, Karpov
refused a common courtesy, to shake Korchnoi’s hand at the start of the game.
Korchnoi fell to a 28-move defeat, the first decisive game
of the match, and you can hear him comment on the game:
The trick by which Karpov succeeded to win the 8th game was
not parapsychology, it was really a dirty trick and nothing more. It was
stipulated that we should shake hands before each game, and if someone wants to
stop this ceremony he has to let know to the main arbiter, and when I came to
play chess, Karpov didn’t accept my hand, so I was so angry, so out of control,
that I lost this game without play.
Game 17 of the match was a disaster for Viktor. In a position
that was a draw if he gave his king some “luft” with 39.g3 or 39.g4, he played 39.Ra1?
White would be better, if not for 39…Nf3+! and Viktor resigned since it’s mate-in-2: 40.gxf3 Rg6+!
That left Karpov leading by 4 wins to 1, with the match
played as first-to-6. Desperate times called for desperate measures, as Michael
People from this sect called Ananda Marga, who believed in
yoga and meditation and what have you, met up with Viktor and they suggested to
him that they could help him, and it all sounds rather fantastic, but the
bizarre thing was, it worked! When Viktor re-emerged with the Ananda Marga
people in saffron robes sitting in the audience, rather than Viktor being
spooked by Zukhar, the Soviets were spooked by these strange-looking people
wearing saffron robes. So somehow Viktor managed to turn the psychological
tables on the Soviets just through association with these people.
Would they stare at the game?
They would sit there… They were just meditating, they weren’t
staring at anybody!
Viktor managed to win four games from there to tie the match
at 5:5, though Stean notes the quality of the play wasn’t always of the kind we
expect from such a clash.
Judged by the level of World Championship matches, this
match was characterised by a number of mistakes. I wouldn’t say these games
were games of the highest quality, but they were arm wrestles, they were very,
The final, decisive 32nd game saw Korchnoi play the Pirc and
find himself with nothing better than to resign on move 41, with his position
Viktor didn’t stick around for the coronation of the
champion, and neither did his second:
Well, there was no way that Viktor was going to attend the
closing ceremony – the organisation had been so overtly biased in favour of his
opponent. There was no way he was ever going to attend, and personally, there
was no way I was ever going to attend either.
Viktor would once again come back to earn a new match for the
title against Karpov at the age of 50 in 1981, but this time he fell to a 6:2
defeat. In the next World Championship cycle he lost to a young force of
nature, 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov.
The 1978 match in particular will live on, however. When Korchnoi
died in 2016, another World Champion, Vishy Anand, commented:
The chess world loses its greatest fighter. R.I.P. Viktor
Korchnoi. We learnt so much from you. Just being in Baguio where he played
Karpov was the first time being World Champion crossed my mind.