The Greatest World Championships: Karpov vs. Korchnoi, 1978
BySamuel ShanklandOct 07 — 3:00 AM
Image by SPUTNIK / Alamy Stock Photo
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.
Anatoly Karpov, walking, and Viktor Korchnoi during their 1974 Candidates final match in Moscow.
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. c3g6?!This move looks suspicious to me
( 10... Be7Is now a common move in this position in contemporary top-level play 11. Bc2d412. Nb3d313. Bb1Nxb314. axb3And the position is complicated. )
11. Qe2Bg712. 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... Qd7Would have limited the damage. 13. f4O-O14. Bc2White would be a bit better, but the game would not be over or even close to it. )
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. c3d4!?Korchnoi chooses this moment to improve on his play in the
previous game in which he had Black.
( 10... g6Led to a devastating defeat )
11. Ng5This move was all the rage at the time.
( 11. Bxe6Nowadays 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. Qf3O-O-O!13. Bxe6+fxe614. Qxc6Qxe515. b4Qd5!16. Qxd5exd517. bxc5dxc318. Nb3d4Practice has shown that Black is fine in this position. )
12. Nxe6fxe613. bxc3Qd314. Nf3Qxd115. Bxd1Be716. Be3Nd317. Bb3The computer supports this move, but it doesn't seem that effective.
( 17. Nd4Nxd4!18. cxd4c5!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... Ncxe518. Nxe5Nxe519. Bd4Nc420. Bxg7Rg821. Bd4 )
17... Kf7!18. Rad1Ndxe5?!
( 18... Ncxe5This move was more accurate. 19. Nxe5+Nxe520. Bf4Nc4Transposing to the game continuation. )
( 19. Ng5+!This was the best way to proceed. 19... Bxg520. Bxg5The advance f4-f5 will follow soon, and Black would be in trouble. )
19... Nxe520. Bf4Nc421. Bxc4bxc422. Rd4Bd6!23. Be3Rhb824. Rxc4Rb2Black 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. a4Ra226. g3Rb827. Rd1Rbb228. Rdd4Rb1+29. Kg2Rba130. Rh4h631. Bc5e532. Ba7Ke633. Rcg4Be734. Rh5Bf635. Rc4Kd736. Bb8c637. Re4Rxa438. c4Ra539. Bxe5Bxe540. Rhxe5Rxe541. Rxe5Ra442. Re4Ra543. h4h544. 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. Ne2The 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... Nb629. e5Re630. Nf4Black is losing material. )
27... Na8!28. a4bxa4!The only way to get the knight to c4
( 28... a6This would be ideal, but after 29. a5!The knight wouls not reach its destination. )
29. Qxa4Nb630. Qb3Rb831. Nf4Nc4Black got what he wanted, but things are not so simple. Korchnoi outplayed Karpov in the next phase and gained the upper hand. 32. Qa4f5!Karpov does not mind giving up the pawn on a7 in order to get some play on the kingside. 33. gxf5Qxf534. Qxa7Rxb435. Ra2Qc836. Rc1Rb737. Qa4Rf738. Rxc4?!Too rash
( 38. Bf1!This was simple and strong. Black would have been in big trouble. )
38... dxc439. Qxc4Qf540. Nd3White has clear compensation, but the Black rooks can find active roles and so he is not without counter chances. 40... Bg741. Ra7Rf642. Rxf7Rxf743. d5Be544. dxc6Kg745. Be4?
( 45. Bd5And White would be a bit better. )
45... Qg5+46. Kf1Bd6
( 46... Qh4!This
was stronger. The h-pawn is a real problem and Nxe5 is impossible because
of Qxf2 with mate. )
47. Bd5Re748. Bf3h549. Bd1Qf5Black has good counterplay here and Korchnoi was unable to contain it. 50. Ke2Re451. Qc3+Qf652. Qb3
( 52. Qxf6+It might have been time for this move. After that, White should survive. )
52... Qf553. Qb7+Re754. Qb2+Kh755. Qd4Bc7!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. Qc5And 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. f4The only way not to save the queen, but this mortally weakens White's central pawn cover, which was keeping his king safe. 57... Bb6The pawn on e3 will fall and the game is over. 58. Bc2Rxe3+59. Kd2Qa5+60. Kd1Qa1+61. Kd2Re4
World Championship 29th |Baguio City |Round 14 |19 Aug 1978 |ECO: C82 |1-0
Rc629. Rxd5!An ingenious exchange sacrifice. White wins a pawn, and soon after a second one, while Black's pieces become less uncoordinated. 29... exd530. Rxd5When 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... Kf731. Kxf3Ke632. Ke4Was
Not an improvement as the advance f4-f5 cannot be stopped. )
31. Bd4c632. Rc5Rf833. 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... bxa434. bxa4g635. Rxa5Ree836. Ra7Rf737. Ra6Rc738. Bc5!Installing the bishop on d6 38... Rcc839. Bd6Ra840. Rxc6Rxa441. Kxf3White will win easily with the three pawns. The rest requires no comment. 41... h542. gxh5gxh543. c4Ra244. Rb6Kf745. c5Ra446. c6Ke647. c7Kd748. Rb8Rc849. Ke3Rxh450. e6+
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
Ke8Black 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!bxa653. Ka5Kd754. 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. Kxa6Kc7And Black is fine. )
54... b455. d5cxd556. Rxd5+Kc857. Rd3a5?
( 57... Rc4!58. Rg3Rc3!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... Rd4This might have allowed Black to draw, but it's a very hard move to find. 59. Kxa5 )
( 59. Rxb3??Not to be recommended! 59... Rb4+ )
59... Kb860. Rxb3+!White has won Black's b-pawn his source of counterplay. Now White's c-pawn proves to be decisive. 60... Ka7
( 60... Rb461. Rxb4+axb462. Kd7And White wins )
61. Rb7+Ka662. Rb6+Ka763. Kb5Black loses all of his pawns, and the game. 63... a464. Rxf6Rf465. Rxh6a366. Ra6+Kb867. Rxa3Rxf568. Rg3Rf669. Rg8+Kc770. Rg7+Kc871. 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
Qa8Karpov 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+!gxh527. Qg5+Kh828. Qh6f529. Ng5And Black will be mated. )
26. Qxe5Nxd527. Bxb5Black is in huge trouble. He is going to start losing pawns and White's pieces are very menacing and active. 27... Ra728. Nh4
( 28. c4This looks simpler to me. He first should have taken the pawn on c5. )
28... Bc829. Be2
( 29. c4Again, I prefer this move. )
29... Be630. c4!Finally and it's still more than good enough. 30... Nb431. Qxc5Qb832. Bf1White has an extra pawn, and two connected passed pawns on the queenside. The rest is relatively easy. 32... Rc8
( 32... h6Offered more resistance but would probably not have changed the result. )
33. Qg5!Kh834. Rd2Nice 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... Nc635. Qh6!Rg836. Nf3!Threatening Ng5. 36... Qf837. Qe3Kg738. Ng5Bd739. b4!The last finesse. The pawn cannot be taken and the queenside passed pawns will advance and decide the game. 39... Qa8
( 39... Nxb440. Qxa7 )
40. b5Na541. b6Rb7Time 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.
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