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:
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.
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.
Even the best players have huge lapses that squander half points. That is what happened to Korchnoi in Game 17.
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.
Korchnoi’s rally came up short as, in the very next game, Karpov regained his form and slowly ground Korchnoi down.
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.
Check your mailbox to activate your account