November 22, 1981
HOW TO LOSE CHESS- AND A WAR OF NERVES
By ROBERT BYRNE
MERANO, Italy— At its highest levels, the game of chess is always a drama involving wit, skill and psychological strategy. But even by the high theatrical standards established by recent tournaments, the world chess championship that reached its denouement last week was quite a spectacle. Its conflict was mostly provided by Viktor Korchnoi, the 50-year-old challenger who defected from the Soviet Union in 1976 and now lives in Switzerland. After hanging on precariously in the 800,000 Swiss francs purse title match, Korchnoi was defeated by the 30-year-old champion, Anatoly Karpov of the Soviet Union, by 6 wins to 2 in 18 games, including 10 draws. But that was not the challenger’s only defeat. Mr. Korchnoi, a man known for his pugilistic proclivities, insisted on fighting three conflicts simultaneously. He lost them all.
On one front, Mr. Korchnoi’s battle was political. During the match, he held press conferences with the sole object of administering tongue-lashings to the Soviet Union for its continuing detention of his wife Bella and son Igor. This will not win Igor’s release from a Siberian prison, where he is due to complete a twoand-one-half-year term in May for refusing service in the Red Army. Igor decided to dodge the draft because ex-army men have no chance to leave the Soviet Union for 10 years after a tour of duty. Even if Bella were granted an exit visa, she would not depart without her son.
On the psychological front, Korchnoi repeatedly attempted to involve Karpov in a war of personal acrimony. That conflict began three years ago, during their championship match in Baguio City, the Philippines, when Korchnoi started calling Karpov, ”the jailer of my wife and child.” He has persisted in such accusations, although he must surely find it difficult to believe that a chess champion, as important as the game is to the Soviet Union, has the influence to obtain the release of a defector’s family.
But then, Viktor Korchnoi is an unfathomable combination of naivete and sophisticated intelligence, of gullibility and shrewdness, of superstition and clear calculation. It is possible that he really holds the mild-mannered Karpov to be a villain – or at least that part of him does. But it is also possible that his attacks are motivated by pure gamesmanship and are nothing more than cynical attempts to ruffle the champion.
In any case, there is no doubt that Korchnoi adheres to the psychological intimidation school of chess. Conversations with him have made it clear that he has taken Bobby Fischer’s behavior in his 1972 world championship match with Boris Spassky in Iceland as the model for competition. That’s surely why he included among the first row of the spectators in the Kurzentrum playing hall the saffronrobed 35-year-old Victoria Shepherd, an American of the Ananda Marga sect. Miss Shepherd, a yoga expert who supervises Korchnoi’s meditation exercises, does not even know the rules of chess – but she contributed to the circus atmosphere designed to irritate Karpov.
Tactics That Backfired
But Korchnoi probably derived the wrong lessons from the match in Iceland. Fischer’s oddities and complaints – for example about the noise from inaudible television cameras – were not tricks to upset Spassky, but sprang from the genuine eccentricity of an unfortunate genius. And Fischer won the match by brilliant play, not clever ploy. Korchnoi’s tactics seemed more premeditated and less convincing. Every time Karpov offered him a draw, Korchnoi raised frenzied complaints, even if it was clear he had no chance of winning. That was because he insisted that they are not on speaking terms, and since a draw offer involves speech, it should be made through one of the three referees.
Throughout these displays, Karpov tried to keep aloof, at times seeming to shrink into his chair. Indeed, it was the policy of the Karpov camp to ignore Korchnoi as much as possible; during the previous title match, they discovered that the hotter the exchange of personal attacks, the better the challenger played.
Korchnoi’s bouts of wrath distracted him from what should have been his primary task – winning the world chess championship. His performance on the chess board was surely the worst in a championship match for many years, so bad that it obscured what Karpov might be able to do against an opponent in full possession of his powers.
Indecision, manifesting itself in wild swings from overly passive play to excessive unreasoning aggression, gripped Korchnoi from the start. He was also plagued by a loss of memory of the moves that he and his analysis team had worked out beforehand for the various situations in the openings that were played in the match. His overthe-board choices were always inferior.
Perhaps Korchnoi’s confidence was shaken by his erratic performances in tournaments in the half year prior to his match. Nobody else would have continued to enter one competition after another with the all-important championship match approaching. Karpov didn’t. But Korchnoi has always believed that he can drive himself beyond the limits felt by others.
All Karpov needed against a player in this shape was his usual calm rational technique. It worked perfectly, except in the two games he lost, where playing too rapidly cost him the chance for moves that would have extricated him from trouble. In winning the match, he reaffirmed his place as the strongest player in the world.
Source: NY Times