Monday, November 21, 2011

WwwK XXI: When we Stopped Being Kings

Thirty years ago today, a golden age ended ...

WwwK Index

The Times
Saturday November 21, 1981
Page 1

Masterful Karpov retain chess title
By Harry Golombek

Viktor Korchnoi resigned the eighteenth game of the world chess championship match at Merano yesterday without resuming play, and this meant that Anatoly Karpov won the match 6-2, retaining his title in the most convincing and crushing manner since the present system of world championship contests was instituted after the Second World War.

The decisive game was probably the best of the match and an excellent illustration of one of Karpov’s chief virtues as a player: his power of seizing the initiative and increasing it move by move until the pressure is too great for his opponent to bear.

The win was all the more creditable in that the opening, a Ruy Lopez in which Korchnoi used the open defence, was a speciality of the challenger. In fact, the relevant section in the Encyclopedia of the Openings, a modern standard work, was written by Korchnoi.

Even so, Karpov was able to surprise him with a new move that made the variation Korchnoi employed almost unplayable. It was a tactical move that, by weakening Korchnoi’s Queenside position, also affected his position in the centre. There was a flicker of resistance on the challenger’s part when he tried a counter-attack six moves later. But it was soon extinguished and the remainder of the game was a copy-book example on Karpov’s part of how to take advantage of the greater command of space.

Karpov’s match victory gained him a prize of 500,000 Swiss francs (about £144,000) while Korchoi had to be content with 300,000 Swiss francs. But the contingent rewards of retaining the title are more considerable.

Moscow: Karpov sent a telegram reporting “mission accomplished” to President Brezhnev of the Soviet Union yesterday.

“I and all the members of the Soviet delegation have felt your daily support, the concern and interest of our dear country,” he wrote – AFP.
Game by game, page 4
Leading article, page 7

The Times
Saturday November 21, 1981
Leading Article, Page 7

The other pawns in the game

The World Chess Championship, which was won yesterday by Mr Anatoly Karpov, very much as expected, has left a rather sour taste. The quality of the chess, according to the experts, was poor. Mr Viktor Korchnoi, the embattled challenger, did not do himself justice. His place in the history of chess is secure. But his fate, on the three (sic) separate occasions when he has challenged for the title of the world champion, has been to be number two.

On this third, and presumably final, tilt, Mr Korchnoi’s age was clearly against him. Chess at this level is only superficially a sedentary game. It requires great stamina, concentration and physical fitness. The twenty years which the challenger was giving to the Soviet champion was too heavy a handicap. That is the most likely explanation for the weaknesses in Mr Korchnoi’s play – not just the blunders to which grand masters, like ordinary mortals, are sometimes prone, but a certain flatness and stereotyped quality in his opening play, and a lack of bite in most of his games.

Mr Karpov, though he has attracted some criticism for his somewhat conformist attitude to chess which is, after all, a very political game in the Soviet Union, is a worthy champion. He is one of the greatest positional players the game has ever seen. There is nothing flashy about his game. His results in international tournaments have been most impressive. The games which he loses in the course of a year can be counted on one hand. The margin by which he defended his title on this occasion, six games to two, draws not counting, was in chess terms over-whelming.

But as all enthusiasts of the game know, the challenger was struggling under a more baleful handicap than merely a difference in years. Mr Korchnoi is an exile from the Soviet Union. He left, as have so many distinguished performers in other fields, because he could not stand what he regarded as the oppressive system. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his particular case, he has shown great courage in fighting for his beliefs and making a new life for himself; and he has earned the vilification of the Soviet establishment as a result.

Moreover, he has left behind him in the Soviet Union a wife and a son. The Soviet authorities will not let them go. Mr Korchnoi has bitterly denounced the authorities, on many occasions, for this ungenerous and indeed senseless refusal. The circumstances of his marriage are his own affair. What is not in doubt is that he wants his wife and son to be allowed to go to the West. He has even said, putting the matter into chess terms, that their continued detention in the Soviet Union means that he started every game in the championship two pieces down. That may be a funny way of expressing it, but his psychological handicap is obvious enough.

Now that the championship is over and the coveted title remains in the Soviet Union, it is surely time for the Soviet authorities to do the decent thing and let Mr Korchnoi’s family go. The World Chess Federation has, from time to time, made representations on Mr Korchnoi’s behalf, seemingly to no avail. As usual, politics and sport do not mix very easily. It might be too much to expect that Mr Karpov himself could put a word in the right place. But the Soviet authorities would be doing one of the great players of the game, and themselves, a small service if they could now relent.


Anonymous said...

Why does Merano mark the end of a Golden Age? In publicity terms, there was still Kasparov to follow.

Jonathan B said...

Well, as I said in WwwK XX the mainstream press was already starting to lose interest in chess before Merano, but the position of the game in popular culture afterwards simply doesn't compare.

The difference? The end of Korcnoi's challenge for the World Championship meant the end of the East-West dynamic. The coverage of the Kasparov matches with Karpov is nothing like what it had been from 1970 onwards.

(PS: Yes, I know there was a load of argy-bargy at the end of the first match)

ejh said...

Can anybody remember if the two Korchnoi matches were on telly? For some reason I can't recall anything.

Jonathan B said...

I'm pretty sure the answer to that is yes (and that RDK was one of the panel for the 1981 match), but I will check when I get a moment.

Which may not be soon.

Jonathan Rogers said...

If it is any yardstick, the BBC covered the start of the match as part of the Nine O'Clock News. I am trying to remember when they stopped doing that. I am not sure whether Seville 1987 made the main news at any point, nor New York 1990. Obviously 1993 made the mainstream news (!) but since then nothing, though I think that London (!) 2000 may have got a mention at the end, on the basis that "kasparov loses" was a story even though "Kasparov plays" appparently wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Both the Karpov/Korchnoi matches were covered by the BBC in regular programmes - IIRC by the same team who produced the "Master Game".

This remained the case until at least the 1986 KvK match - not sure about the following year.
1990 got little if any coverage.

Fischer's comeback in 1992 got a few news bulletins at the start until interest dwindled when it became clear he was nowhere near as good as he had been.

I think the last specialised BBC chess coverage of any kind was of the 1995 Gazza/Anand match.

ejh said...

I do vividly recall hearing about the last game of the 1978 match on the radio in my mother's car just when we got home. It might even have been the first headline on the PM Programme.