The 1978 World Championship match was a spectacle, as the two competitors really disliked each other. It also produced some great chess.

This is the first article in a series about the greatest World Championships ever. 

A great deal has been written about some World Championship matches – Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky in 1972, the series of five matches between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov from 1984 to 1990 – and I think that it is likely that the first Magnus Carlsen vs. Viswanathan Anand match in 2013 will always have great historical interest because it was the passing of the torch from one great champion to another. But as awe-inspiring and wonderful as those matches were, one of my favorites is none of the above. It is the 1978 clash between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi.

In a way, that match was their second for the title. They had played each other in the Candidates final in 1974, a 24-game match that Karpov narrowly won. That became a de facto World Championship after Fischer refused to defend the title and forfeited it to Karpov. But that 1974 match didn’t feel like the real deal until one of the two players actually was the champion. When the players squared off in 1978, they knew with 100 percent certainty that the World Championship was on the line.

The match itself had a political overtone, though it was not as clear cut as the one between Fischer and Spassky. That match was a westerner against a Soviet, with echos of the Cold War competition played out on a chessboard.

Outwardedly, Karpov vs. Korchnoi was a contest between two players raised under the Iron Curtain. But Korchnoi, 47 at the time of the match, had defected in 1976 and was now a resident of Switzerland. He was literally labelled a traitor in the Soviet Union. Karpov, then 27, was the pride of the Politburo and the pre-eminent representative of the Soviet school of chess. He was the best player it had yet produced. The Soviets felt that everything was at stake in the match: A triumph by Korchnoi would almost be worse than Fischer’s victory six years earlier.

Karpov was given lots of human capital, in the form of strong grandmasters, to help him prepare. It’s difficult to say what would have happened if Karpov did not have such help, but, even on his own, I think he was of a higher class than Korchnoi, who was nicknamed Viktor the Terrible. (The reference was both to his fierce desire to win and also to his temper when he lost.)

The match was to be decided by the first player to win six games. Karpov raced out to a 4 to 1 lead after 17 games (there had been 12 draws), and then was on the cusp of victory after winning Game 27. Though Karpov was 20 years younger than Korchnoi, he was a slight man and physically weaker. Evidently, the stress and strain of the match had taken a toll, and he lost three of the next four games, as Korchnoi pulled even in the score. But, after winning Game 31, Korchnoi made some errors in Game 32, allowing Karpov to finally close out the match and retain the title.

Before I ever looked closely at the games, I expected them to be different than games played today, which have been heavily influenced by computers. I was quite surprised to find that this was not true. The players stuck to openings they had prepared before the competition, only varying to introduce small improvements they found during the match. Ultimately, however, it was critical decisions in the middlegames and endgames that were the deciding factors.

Karpov is largely thought of as the first great practitioner of modern positional/strategic chess whose pieces somehow almost effortlessly ended up on their best squares. But in his match with Korchnoi, he won games in tactical skirmishes just as often as with strategic skill. Take, for example, Game 8, the first decisive game of the match:

Karpov, Anatoly vs. Kortschnoj, Viktor
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 8 | 03 Aug 1978 | ECO: C80 | 1-0
10. c3 g6?! This move looks suspicious to me
10... Be7 Is now a common move in this position in contemporary top-level play
11. Bc2 d4 12. Nb3 d3 13. Bb1 Nxb3 14. axb3 And the position is complicated.  )
11. Qe2 Bg7 12. Nd4! Karpov had a well-deserved reputation for having an uncanny natural ability to sense the right squares for his pieces. But this game shows that he was more than capable of playing in a sharp, attacking style when the position called for it. In this position, White gives up a pawn to gain more activity for his pieces.
12... Nxe5?! This is asking for trouble.
12... Qd7 Would have limited the damage.
13. f4 O-O 14. Bc2 White would be a bit better, but the game would not be over or even close to it.  )
13. f4! Nc4 14. f5! White's pieces quickly join the attack.
14... gxf5 15. Nxf5 Rg8
15... O-O? Would have been even worse.
16. Nxg7 Kxg7 17. Bc2 and Qh5 would quickly bring the game to an end as Black cannot survive.  )
16. Nxc4 dxc4
16... bxc4 Keeping the d-file closed looks more natural to me, but Black would still be in big trouble.  )
17. Bc2 Nd3 18. Bh6! Bf8
18... Bxh6 19. Nxh6 Rg7 Would have been a bit more resilient, but the position would still have been very unpleasant for Black.  )
19. Rad1 Simple and strong. The position opens up and the Black king will be caught in the center.
19... Qd5 20. Bxd3! cxd3 21. Rxd3 Qc6
21... Rxg2+? The counterthrust fails
22. Qxg2 Qxd3 23. Qxa8+  )
22. Bxf8 The rest requires no comment. Black is demolished.
22... Qb6+ 23. Kh1 Kxf8 24. Qf3 Re8 25. Nh6 Rg7 26. Rd7 Rb8 27. Nxf7 Bxd7 28. Nd8+

After such an opening disaster, Korchnoi was not put off playing the Open Spanish. He came back with some improvements and rather easily held his own in the next game in which he had Black.

Karpov, Anatoly vs. Kortschnoj, Viktor
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 10 | 08 Aug 1978 | ECO: C80 | 1/2-1/2
10. c3 d4!? Korchnoi chooses this moment to improve on his play in the previous game in which he had Black.
10... g6 Led to a devastating defeat  )
11. Ng5 This move was all the rage at the time.
11. Bxe6 Nowadays this is considered the main move, and Black is under some pressure.  )
11... dxc3!? This move was never thought to be very good, but Korchnoi makes a pretty convincing argument that Black should hold without a ton of trouble. This kind of optimism is harder to come by in the era of computers.
11... Qxg5! A move that should equalize
12. Qf3 O-O-O! 13. Bxe6+ fxe6 14. Qxc6 Qxe5 15. b4 Qd5! 16. Qxd5 exd5 17. bxc5 dxc3 18. Nb3 d4 Practice has shown that Black is fine in this position.  )
12. Nxe6 fxe6 13. bxc3 Qd3 14. Nf3 Qxd1 15. Bxd1 Be7 16. Be3 Nd3 17. Bb3 The computer supports this move, but it doesn't seem that effective.
17. Nd4 Nxd4! 18. cxd4 c5! Should give Black enough counterplay to maintain equality. White's center is more fragile than it looks.  )
17. Bc2! I would be very tempted by this move.
17... Ncxe5 18. Nxe5 Nxe5 19. Bd4 Nc4 20. Bxg7 Rg8 21. Bd4  )
17... Kf7! 18. Rad1 Ndxe5?!
18... Ncxe5 This move was more accurate.
19. Nxe5+ Nxe5 20. Bf4 Nc4 Transposing to the game continuation.  )
19. Nxe5+?
19. Ng5+! This was the best way to proceed.
19... Bxg5 20. Bxg5 The advance f4-f5 will follow soon, and Black would be in trouble.  )
19... Nxe5 20. Bf4 Nc4 21. Bxc4 bxc4 22. Rd4 Bd6! 23. Be3 Rhb8 24. Rxc4 Rb2 Black is fine. His pawns are well defended and his pieces are active, so his chances are equal. Not surprisingly, the game is soon drawn.
25. a4 Ra2 26. g3 Rb8 27. Rd1 Rbb2 28. Rdd4 Rb1+ 29. Kg2 Rba1 30. Rh4 h6 31. Bc5 e5 32. Ba7 Ke6 33. Rcg4 Be7 34. Rh5 Bf6 35. Rc4 Kd7 36. Bb8 c6 37. Re4 Rxa4 38. c4 Ra5 39. Bxe5 Bxe5 40. Rhxe5 Rxe5 41. Rxe5 Ra4 42. Re4 Ra5 43. h4 h5 44. Rf4

While the opening battles were important, ultimately it was critical decisions later in the game where Karpov shone brighter than his opponent. Korchnoi equalized the score in Game 11, but was unable to keep it that way for long. Karpov took a firm hold of the match with wins in Games 13 and 14, and both times his legendary feel for positional play led him to evaluate two exchange sacrifices better than his opponent did.

Kortschnoj, Viktor vs. Karpov, Anatoly
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 13 | 17 Aug 1978 | ECO: D53 | 0-1
26. Ne2 The position is pretty level. Black doesn't have much difficulty defending his one weakness -- the pawn on c6 -- and White's loosened kingside is not really an issue either. But Karpov always had a great sense of how to place his pieces, and in this game he came up with a very strong maneuver to take the upper hand.
26... b5!? This move is probably not best, but the idea is good. Black's worst placed piece is the knight on c7, which now has a path to superstardom by following the path Ne8-d6-c4.
27. Qb3? This allows Black to execute his plan
27. Rfc1! Was a very strong move. It doubles the rooks on the open c-file to pressure the backward c-pawn. It prevents the rooks from becoming useless once Black reroutes his knight to c4, as he does in the game. But after 27. Rfc1, Black can no longer do that.
27... Na8? 28. e4! The pawn on c6 is in trouble.
28... Nb6 29. e5 Re6 30. Nf4 Black is losing material.  )
27... Na8! 28. a4 bxa4! The only way to get the knight to c4
28... a6 This would be ideal, but after
29. a5! The knight wouls not reach its destination.  )
29. Qxa4 Nb6 30. Qb3 Rb8 31. Nf4 Nc4 Black got what he wanted, but things are not so simple. Korchnoi outplayed Karpov in the next phase and gained the upper hand.
32. Qa4 f5! Karpov does not mind giving up the pawn on a7 in order to get some play on the kingside.
33. gxf5 Qxf5 34. Qxa7 Rxb4 35. Ra2 Qc8 36. Rc1 Rb7 37. Qa4 Rf7 38. Rxc4?! Too rash
38. Bf1! This was simple and strong. Black would have been in big trouble.  )
38... dxc4 39. Qxc4 Qf5 40. Nd3 White has clear compensation, but the Black rooks can find active roles and so he is not without counter chances.
40... Bg7 41. Ra7 Rf6 42. Rxf7 Rxf7 43. d5 Be5 44. dxc6 Kg7 45. Be4?
45. Bd5 And White would be a bit better.  )
45... Qg5+ 46. Kf1 Bd6
46... Qh4! This was stronger. The h-pawn is a real problem and Nxe5 is impossible because of Qxf2 with mate.  )
47. Bd5 Re7 48. Bf3 h5 49. Bd1 Qf5 Black has good counterplay here and Korchnoi was unable to contain it.
50. Ke2 Re4 51. Qc3+ Qf6 52. Qb3
52. Qxf6+ It might have been time for this move. After that, White should survive.  )
52... Qf5 53. Qb7+ Re7 54. Qb2+ Kh7 55. Qd4 Bc7! 56. Qh4? White was fine until this point, but his position was hard to play. His last move was a mistake that is almost immediately decisive.
56. Qc5 And White should have been fine. I would still prefer Black's position, but the game would go on and would likely be drawn.  )
56... Re4! The queen is trapped on h4.
57. f4 The only way not to save the queen, but this mortally weakens White's central pawn cover, which was keeping his king safe.
57... Bb6 The pawn on e3 will fall and the game is over.
58. Bc2 Rxe3+ 59. Kd2 Qa5+ 60. Kd1 Qa1+ 61. Kd2 Re4
Karpov, Anatoly vs. Kortschnoj, Viktor
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 14 | 19 Aug 1978 | ECO: C82 | 1-0
Rc6 29. Rxd5! An ingenious exchange sacrifice. White wins a pawn, and soon after a second one, while Black's pieces become less uncoordinated.
29... exd5 30. Rxd5 When one player is up an exchange, he should try to trade a pair of rooks. But it will be very difficult for Black to achieve this.
30... Rce6
30... Kf7 31. Kxf3 Ke6 32. Ke4 Was Not an improvement as the advance f4-f5 cannot be stopped.  )
31. Bd4 c6 32. Rc5 Rf8 33. a4! A final strong move seals Black's fate. He must lose a pawn on the queenside and his rooks remain highly ineffective. Note that every single point in White's position is very well defended while Black has many pawn weaknesses.
33... bxa4 34. bxa4 g6 35. Rxa5 Ree8 36. Ra7 Rf7 37. Ra6 Rc7 38. Bc5! Installing the bishop on d6
38... Rcc8 39. Bd6 Ra8 40. Rxc6 Rxa4 41. Kxf3 White will win easily with the three pawns. The rest requires no comment.
41... h5 42. gxh5 gxh5 43. c4 Ra2 44. Rb6 Kf7 45. c5 Ra4 46. c6 Ke6 47. c7 Kd7 48. Rb8 Rc8 49. Ke3 Rxh4 50. e6+

Even the best players have huge lapses that squander half points. That is what happened to Korchnoi in Game 17.

Kortschnoj, Viktor vs. Karpov, Anatoly
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 17 | 26 Aug 1978 | ECO: E47 | 0-1
Rc6 39. Ra1??
39. g3 This would have held easily. Black should be able to force a draw right away or else the pawns could become a real problem.
39... Nf3+ 40. Kg2 Ne1+  )
39... Nf3+! White will be checkmated. Korchnoi resigned immediately instead of allowing the game to end after 40. gxf3 Rg6+ 41. Kh1 Nf2, mate.

Korchnoi came back to level the score by winning long, drawn-out games in which Karpov clearly tired. Perhaps the most interesting was the end of Game 31, when Korchnoi undertook a remarkable maneuver in a level rook-and-pawn ending.

Kortschnoj, Viktor vs. Karpov, Anatoly
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 31 | 12 Oct 1978 | ECO: D36 | 1-0
Ke8 Black looks fine in this endgame - his pawns are reasonably well defended and his rook is quite active. It looks like White's king is contained, but Korchnoi has an idea.
52. a6! bxa6 53. Ka5 Kd7 54. Kb6! White does not fret about pawns. He wants to break through the center with d5 followed by c6. Amusingly, his king is immune from any harassment because the Black pawns cover him so well.
54. Kxa6 Kc7 And Black is fine.  )
54... b4 55. d5 cxd5 56. Rxd5+ Kc8 57. Rd3 a5?
57... Rc4! 58. Rg3 Rc3! Black should be able to draw as his b-pawn gives him a lot of counterplay.  )
58. Rg3! b3? This looks very natural Black plans to play Rb4 next. But it fails to:
58... Rd4 This might have allowed Black to draw, but it's a very hard move to find.
59. Kxa5  )
59. Kc6!
59. Rxb3?? Not to be recommended!
59... Rb4+  )
59... Kb8 60. Rxb3+! White has won Black's b-pawn his source of counterplay. Now White's c-pawn proves to be decisive.
60... Ka7
60... Rb4 61. Rxb4+ axb4 62. Kd7 And White wins  )
61. Rb7+ Ka6 62. Rb6+ Ka7 63. Kb5 Black loses all of his pawns, and the game.
63... a4 64. Rxf6 Rf4 65. Rxh6 a3 66. Ra6+ Kb8 67. Rxa3 Rxf5 68. Rg3 Rf6 69. Rg8+ Kc7 70. Rg7+ Kc8 71. Rh7

Korchnoi’s rally came up short as, in the very next game, Karpov regained his form and slowly ground Korchnoi down.

Karpov, Anatoly vs. Kortschnoj, Viktor
World Championship 29th | Baguio City | Round 32 | 17 Oct 1978 | ECO: A43 | 1-0
Qa8 Karpov had largely let the match get away from him, but when it mattered most, he really delivered. White is a bit better at this point, but there's only one way to exploit his edge:
25. e5! Well calculated
25... dxe5
25... Nfxd5? 26. Nh5+! gxh5 27. Qg5+ Kh8 28. Qh6 f5 29. Ng5 And Black will be mated.  )
26. Qxe5 Nxd5 27. Bxb5 Black is in huge trouble. He is going to start losing pawns and White's pieces are very menacing and active.
27... Ra7 28. Nh4
28. c4 This looks simpler to me. He first should have taken the pawn on c5.  )
28... Bc8 29. Be2
29. c4 Again, I prefer this move.  )
29... Be6 30. c4! Finally and it's still more than good enough.
30... Nb4 31. Qxc5 Qb8 32. Bf1 White has an extra pawn, and two connected passed pawns on the queenside. The rest is relatively easy.
32... Rc8
32... h6 Offered more resistance but would probably not have changed the result.  )
33. Qg5! Kh8 34. Rd2 Nice and easy. White had better ways to win but I really like the simplicity of Karpov's plan he just keeps everything protected. He is in no rush.
34... Nc6 35. Qh6! Rg8 36. Nf3! Threatening Ng5.
36... Qf8 37. Qe3 Kg7 38. Ng5 Bd7 39. b4! The last finesse. The pawn cannot be taken and the queenside passed pawns will advance and decide the game.
39... Qa8
39... Nxb4 40. Qxa7  )
40. b5 Na5 41. b6 Rb7 Time control had been reached and Korchnoi had seen enough


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 4 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.