With the notable exception of Bobby Fischer, who won the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in a memorable Icelandic psychodrama, Soviets have dominated world chess for 30 years. And their reign is not about to end. This week, in the shabby elegance of the Dom Sindikata Theater in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, two Russians, Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, are meeting for the right to play still another Russian, 26-year-old world champion Anatoly Karpov, for the title.
Spassky is now 40, and his figure, which was trim in Reykjavik, is a bit fleshier, his dark hair longer and more styled. But the same calm green eyes study the board, and the same long artistic fingers are placed along his cheekbones. The world champion from 1969 to 1972, Spassky remains the gentlemanly, dignified, poetic grand master, the Dr. Zhivago of chess.
Across the board sits the volatile, daring Korchnoi, 46, the world's No. 2 grand master. In further contrast to Spassky, the formerly chubby Korchnoi has lost a great deal of weight recently. His brown eyes glitter, his shoulders hunch as he lunges forward to advance a bishop into dangerous territory. Korchnoi seeks the dangerous position—in life as well as at the chessboard.
Burt Hochberg, editor of the U.S. Chess Federation's Chess Life & Review, calls the confrontation in Belgrade "the most humanly interesting match since Fischer-Spassky." Contributing factors are the importance of chess in the Soviet Union and the odd coincidence that Korchnoi and Spassky both grew up in Leningrad and have played against each other for 30 years. They lived through the war together as children; they know each other's games, tricks, weaknesses; they are old, old friends. In mid-1976 Korchnoi became a defector; soon thereafter Spassky moved to France to become what Korchnoi calls "a one-legged dissident," an �migr� at the pleasure of the Soviet government.
After five games at the end of last week, Korchnoi was husbanding a 3�-1� lead over Spassky, though observers were giving the former champion the edge in "momentum." Playing with uncharacteristic hesitancy in a favorable position, Korchnoi had managed only a draw in the first game. The next two he won outright, leaving him ahead 2� to�. (The match could go as many as 20 games, with one point for a win and half a point for a draw; the winner thus needs at least 10� points.) But in the fourth game, against a supposedly reeling Spassky, Korchnoi had to struggle to salvage a draw, and in the fifth Spassky took the initiative away from him; from mid-game, Korchnoi was obviously playing for the draw. Nevertheless, Korchnoi remained confident. "I can lose one game, draw 14 and still win," he said. Spassky was saying nothing.
The contrasts between the two challengers are deep, starting with the fact that Korchnoi is accessible and talkative, while Spassky is neither. Before the match began, Spassky would grant no interviews or pose for photographs either at his home at 38 rue de Belgique in Meudon, a middle-class suburb between Paris and Versailles, or in Belgrade.
His silence, according to Colonel Ed Edmondson, the U.S. Chess Federation representative on the executive committee of FIDE (the world's ruling chess body), was not because he is an aloof man or on account of a cranky dislike of the press. "Spassky doesn't dare speak out on any subject," says Edmondson, who has known the former champion for years. "It doesn't make any difference whether the subject is Korchnoi, the match, his own life or yesterday's weather. He lives in France on a travel visa granted him by the Soviet government, and right now he doesn't want to go back."
Spassky, married (for the third time) to the former Marina Stcherbatcheff, a pert Soviet woman who worked in the French embassy in Moscow, is enjoying the good life too much. "He is happier than I have ever seen him," says Edmondson. In fact, it is said that Spassky has confided to friends that he will not go back, and if so ordered would, like Korchnoi, defect to the West—probably to France.
When he returned to the U.S.S.R. after being badly defeated by Fischer in '72, it was widely reported that Spassky was moved to a smaller apartment, lost his editorship of 64, the powerful Soviet chess publication, was forbidden to play abroad or to write chess reviews and had his generous state salary cut in half. (Soviet authorities, however, deny that any retribution was visited on Spassky.)
Whatever his circumstances, in 1973 Spassky won the U.S.S.R. championship, in which Karpov, Korchnoi and three others tied for second, as well as a number of national tournaments. Although he divorced his second wife—a move frowned upon in a country where chess masters are supposed to be paragons of virtue—he was reported to be back in the government's good graces. But two years ago, when he declared that he wished to marry Marina and applied to live abroad with her, the Soviet authorities gave their permission as long as the couple got married in the Soviet Union. The catch was that the date the couple had chosen fell after she was to be transferred back to Paris, creating an impasse that was resolved only when the Soviet authorities agreed to extend her visa. They were married, and Spassky was eventually permitted to go with his wife to France, where he now chooses to stay mute.