The Victory of Soviet Chess

The most exciting chess tournament took place 25 years ago

One of the most dramatic matches in the history of chess was over twenty-five years ago, on October 21 1978. The event took place in Bagio City, the Philippines. Anatoly Karpov defeated Viktor Korchnoy and was proclaimed the best chess player in the world for the second time.

The match lasted 93 days, making it was the longest chess tournament ever held for the world champion title. The competition also had a political profile. In 1976, Viktor Korchnoy refused to return to the USSR after the international tournament in Amsterdam. The chess player asked for political asylum in Holland. In return, the Soviet government deprived Viktor Korchnoy of all his Soviet sports titles. Moreover, the Soviet Chess Federation demanded the World Chess Federation should not allow Korchnoy to participate in the world championship. The Federation ignored the demand, Korchnoy won three preliminary matches and obtained the right to play against Anatoly Karpov.

It became clear that the 27-year-old chess player (Karpov) would have to put up a great struggle. It was a psychological challenge for him because the opponent had become a political dissident, so the game of chess would become a fierce political fight.

Korchnoy was known in the USSR as a strong chess player who had been successful in chess for 25 years. In addition, the player was known as a man of difficult temper, an acrimonious, envious and scandalous person.

Viktor Korchnoy appeared in the world of chess around the same time with such brilliant players as Tigran Petrosyan, Boris Spassky, and Mikhail Tal. Despite his ambitious character, he did not manage to catch up with their accomplishments - his competitors were more talented. 

There was a moment when Bobby Fischer, the world champion of 1972, left the chess world together with Tal, Petrosyan and Spassky. Viktor Korchnoy believed that it was a good moment for him to return to his champion ambitions. At the age of 43 he decisively attempted to win the right to play a game of chess with the world champion. However, that was the time when another chess star, Anatoly Karpov, started rising. Viktor Korchnoy's hopes were not justified - it was too hard for him to struggle with the young talented Karpov. In the foreign press, Korchnoy harshly attacked his opponent, accused Soviet authorities of supporting Karpov. The Soviet sports authorities sympathized with Karpov indeed, perceiving him as the hope for the USSR to win the title of the world chess champion. Viktor Korchnoy made up his mind to leave the Soviet Union: he believed that his chess career had been jeopardized there.

The match in Bagio in 1978 was not supposed to be a hardship for Anatoly Karpov from the chess point of view. Karpov was a lot stronger and more talented than his opponent, he was 20 years his junior. However, Korchnoy was a very experienced player. 

There is no point to dwell upon the scandals that accompanied the match in the country of 7107 islands. Korchnoy attacked Karpov's psychologist, Viktor Zukhar, doctor of medical sciences. Korchnoy represented the doctor as a hypnotist who ruined the game for him. He called his own psychologist from Israel, but it did not help much. Even his yoga classes could not help him win. However, Anatoly Karpov was physically exhausted at the end of the match and he let the competitor catch up with him. The Soviet delegation in the Philippines was extremely concerned about the result of the game. Mikhail Tal from Anatoly Karpov's headquarters said ten years later: "We could not even imagine the consequences if the anti-Soviet chess player had become the world champion. Chess would have been probably pronounced the pseudo-science."

It did not happen. Karpov won the match with the score 6:5. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a congratulating telegram to Karpov and personally decorated him with the Labor Red Banner medal later on.

A lot of things have happened since that time. After the match in Bagio, Karpov handed over the champion title to Gary Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik became the world chess champion three years later. Viktor Korchnoy still takes part in chess tournaments, although he is not very successful at the age of 72. He failed to become the world champion, but he still wants to become a part of the chess history as an example of a long career in the sport. He will probably succeed in the endeavor. The game of chess in Bagio still remains one of the most exciting matches in the history of chess.

Valery Asriyan

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Author`s name Olga Savka