In the 1970s and early 1980s, a series of matches between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi for the World Championship was stoked by their intense dislike for each other.

In the fall of 1972, the chess world was aglow. It had a new champion, Bobby Fischer, and he was American – the first non-Soviet since Alexander Alekhine had died in 1946.

The euphoria would not last, however. Over the next two years, as the cycle to select a new challenger for the World Championship unfolded, Fischer was nowhere to be found, at least competitively. After beating Boris Spassky in Game 21 of their match, he had not played a single tournament game. Worse, it was beginning to look as if he would not defend his crown.

The seeds of the trouble had perhaps been laid in 1971, even before the Fischer-Spassky match, when the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, had decided to end the fixed duration of World Championship matches. Up to then, matches had been a maximum of 24 games. The potential problem was that once a player gained the lead, he could simply try to play for draws.

(Though no one would ever have accused Fischer of employing such a tactic, in the 1972 match, after he took a 3-point lead by winning Game 13, the next seven games were draws, until Fischer won the final game to clinch the match.)

At its 1971 meeting, FIDE had voted that World Championship matches starting in 1975 should be decided by the first player to win six games, draws not counting, similar to the terms for many earlier matches, including Alexander Alekhine versus José Raúl Capablanca in 1927.

Fischer actually seemed to have no problem with this concept. Indeed, he took it further by advocating for matches to be decided in favour of the first player to win ten games. The first world championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort was in fact played under such rules. But there were clearly hazards. It had taken 34 games before Alekhine won the required six games against Capablanca. And as chess had continued to evolve, and defensive technique had improved, draws had become more frequent. A match for ten games had the potential to last for months.

But that was not the real problem in the negotiations between Fischer and the federation over the match rules. The stumbling block was Fischer’s demand that if a match reached the score of 9 wins each, it should end in a draw, with the prize money shared, as had happened in 1890 between Isidor Gunsberg and Mikhail Chigorin. But that was not a match for the title. The objection to Fischer’s terms was that the challenger would have to win the match by at least two points. Should the score reach 8-8, the champion would have a big advantage. (Never mind that such a score was improbable and gave the champion no greater advantage than the system then in place which allowed the champion to retain the title in a 24-game match if it ended in a tie.)

Such was the general desire to see Fischer in action again, a vote of delegates at the 1974 FIDE Congress in Nice, France, had narrowly voted in favor of changing the rule to ten wins. However, when it rejected his 9-9 draw demand, also setting a 36-game limit to the match, Fischer sent a telegram resigning his “FIDE world champion title.”

A match between Karpov and Fischer could never have ended normally. Either Karpov would have ended up in a hospital or Fischer would have had a nervous breakdown.

FIDE gave him three months to reconsider and convened an extraordinary congress at Osterbek, the Netherlands, early in 1975 to try to save the match. The Soviet delegation, partly because they feared for the health of the challenger, the slightly built Anatoly Karpov, if a match should go on too long, opposed the 9-9 draw option and said Karpov would not play if it was accepted. Eventually, the Osterbek meeting deleted the 36-game limit and rejected the 9-9 draw clause. The players were asked to confirm by April 1st that they would play the match. Karpov accepted, Fischer did not.

Historians and chess-lovers may argue forever about the rights and wrongs of this matter. Most likely Fischer never intended to play and so made demands that he knew would not be accepted. He had not moved a pawn in public since defeating Spassky and his chances of beating Karpov after three years absence from play were poor. Both sides knew that a 9-9 situation was unlikely to arise in practice. The book “Russians Versus Fischer” quotes Karpov as saying that a match between them could never have ended normally. Either he would have ended up in a hospital or Fischer would have had a nervous breakdown.

By the summer of 1974, it was becoming more and more unlikely that Fischer would defend the title. That meant that the Candidates final had the potential to be the de facto World Championship match in all but name. There were doubts about whether the chess world would accept as new champion somebody who had not “won his spurs” in a full-scale contest against his closest rival. Accordingly, FIDE and the Soviet Chess Federation agreed to play the final of the 1974 Candidates series on conditions similar to all the previous FIDE World Championship matches, namely a 24-game match.

The two contestants were the very experienced grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi (born in 1931) who had been one of the world’s top players for more than a decade already, and Karpov, who was twenty years his junior. Karpov had won the World Junior Championship in 1969 and began his rapid rise in senior events in 1971. He had shared first place with Korchnoi in the 1972 interzonal tournament.

The competition between Karpov and Korchnoi would become the defining epic of the decade. The 1974 Candidates final was played in Moscow and began on Sept. 16. Karpov struck quickly by winning Game 2, his first with the White pieces. In a sign of how well prepared he was, he employed a new idea to counter Korchnoi’s Dragon Sicilian. In Game 6, Karpov won again, after which there was a series of ten draws. Game 17 effectively decided the match when Korchnoi, after building up a very strong position, made a series of mistakes in time trouble and lost. Although Korchnoi eventually scored two consolation wins, it was too late to save the situation and Karpov won 3-2 with 19 draws.

On April 3, two days after FIDE’s deadline to accept the match terms expired, Karpov was declared to be World Champion. Then on April 24, at a ceremony in Moscow, FIDE President Max Euwe formally “crowned” Karpov champion by placing a laurel wreath around his shoulders. It was the only time except for the 1948 World Championship tournament (held after Alekhine had died) that the new champion had not been required to dethrone his predecessor in actual play.

Karpov was crowned champion in April 1975. It was only the second time a new champion had not had to dethrone his predecessor.

Korchnoi, according to his book “Chess is My Life,” had already started to think about defecting to the West in 1975, partly because he had been punished in the Soviet Union for public statements critical of Karpov and supportive of Fischer. In August 1976, Korchnoi seized his chance and sought political asylum in the Netherlands after playing in a tournament in Amsterdam. His reasons and the circumstances are described in his autobiography He eventually settled in Switzerland.

Korchnoi won the 1977 Candidates match series defeating the Soviet grandmasters Tigran Petrosian (the former World Champion) and Lev Polugaevsky, and then Spassky, who by then had emigrated to France, in the final. Korchnoi thus became Karpov’s first official challenger for the World Championship.

The conditions for the 1978 World Championship match were radically different from its predecessors. Instead of the best-of-24 game format used in all previous contests, the match had rules similar to the ones that Fischer had demanded. Instead of having to win ten games, the title would go to the first player to win six games, draws not counting. It was a return to pre-war rules before FIDE controlled the world title.

The site for the match was Baguio City, the Philippines, a remote provincial capital known for its mild climate due to its elevation. Florençio Campomanes, a supporter and friend of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, was instrumental in having the match held there. Campomanes would later become president of FIDE, from 1982 to 1995.

The match would last for three months and become an all-out psychological and physical battle of wills. It began on July 18, 1975, and can be divided into three distinct phases. In the first half of the match Karpov was impressive and built a 4-1 lead by the 17th game – a game in which Korchnoi spoiled a great position in time trouble and blundered into a three-move checkmate.

It was now Aug. 26 and the physical stamina of the relatively frail champion was gradually being sapped by the nervous strain, and perhaps also by the climate. The struggle in the next ten games was more even, as Korchnoi won Game 21 but Karpov won Game 27 on Sept. 28, bringing him within one victory of retaining the title.

During the match, strange events and behind the scenes machinations attracted huge publicity in the world press as chess lovers everywhere followed what was widely billed as a struggle between the Soviet system and western democracy.

In the 1978 title match, Korchnoi complained that Karpov was receiving coded advice in the form of various coloured yogurts delivered to him during the games.

The Korchnoi camp complained that Karpov was receiving coded advice in the form of various coloured yogurts delivered to him during the games, and filed complaints about the Russian team hiring parapsychologist Vladimir Zukhar, who sat near the front of the audience glaring at Korchnoi. To counter Zukhar’s supposed attempts to hypnotise Korchnoi, his girlfriend, Petra Leeuwerik, brought in two saffron-robed members of the fanatical Ananda Marga cult, who were on bail on a murder charge. The international press lapped up these bizarre distractions from the actual chess moves, which only a minority of their readers could understand.

In the dramatic third phase of the match there were four decisive results in five games. In Game 28 Korchnoi made an unexpected, but inferior sealed move, in a favourable endgame. Karpov’s seconds did not analyse the correct defense overnight and gave him bad advice and he lost when the game was continued. The score was now 5-3. After two postponements, Game 29 was eventually played on Oct. 7 and 8 and Korchnoi won again, in 79 moves. Game 30 was drawn and then Korchnoi won Game 31 (Oct. 12 and 13) to level the match at 5-5.

The next decisive game would decide the World Championship. The rapid reversal of fortunes looked promising for Korchnoi so Karpov took a time-out and went to relax in Manila.

Game 32 was played on Oct. 17. Unfortunately for Korchnoi, he had Black and chose a poor defense. Karpov rose to the occasion and adjourned in a winning position. The next day, Korchnoi resigned without resuming the game. Karpov thus retained the title by a 6-5 margin with 21 draws. It had been the longest world title match since Alekhine’s defeat of Capablanca in 1927.

In the next Candidates match cycle, played in 1980, Korchnoi was victorious once more, so in 1981 the two men met in their third head-to-head match — the second officially for the title. The rules were the same time as in 1978 – the victor would be the first one to win six games.

This time the venue was Merano (also known as Meran), Italy, a spa town in the South Tyrol, which had been Austrian but had been ceded to Italy after the First World War. A complicated line of the Queen’s Gambit, the Meran Variation, is named after a tournament played there in 1924.

The title of Raymond Keene’s book on the 1981 contest, “Massacre in Merano,” succinctly summarizes what happened in this match. Korchnoi was unable to find his form and Karpov romped home in what is arguably the least interesting of all the World Championship matches that have so far been played under the auspices of FIDE.

Play began on Oct. 1 and was over by Nov. 19. In the first game, which set the tone for the contest, Korchnoi had White but went wrong at moves 23 and 24, indecisive about whether he should be playing for a win or a draw. Karpov also won both his first two games with White which brought the score to 3-0 with one draw after only four games. Korchnoi won Game 6, but lost Game 9. He came back to win Game 13, but then promptly lost Game 14. The match was over after only 18 games – Karpov won 6-2, with 10 draws.

Karpov had beaten back Korchnoi for a third time and would retain the title for another three years. He did not yet know it, but he was about to face his greatest challenge – a young opponent from his own country who would become, arguably, the strongest human player the world has ever seen.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.