Interviews Mar 23, 2021 | 11:58 AMby Colin McGourty

‘The dirtiest chess match in history’: Stean on Karpov-Korchnoi, 1978

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.

Michael Stean talked to David Edmonds for the BBC's Witness History | image: BBC

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 passed 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 his title.

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:

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 the board.

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 reflective sunglasses.

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.

Viktor may have been angry, but it was Anatoly who got to land the blows

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+! 41.Kh1 Nf2#

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 Stean explains:

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, very competitive.

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 in ruins.

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.   

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