Chess is a deceptively passionate game. Its championships arouse emotions as violent as those engendered by a Super Bowl. It is a game without mercy, for there is no release from the passion—you're not supposed to break the chessboard over your opponent's crown—and there are few lucky breaks at the highest level of play. To the uninitiated, chess players often appear driven to the brink of madness; aficionados merely recognize intensity of purpose.
When two great careers collide, as they did in recent weeks in Belgrade in the final Candidates match between Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, the stakes and passions are magnified. The winner, Korchnoi, goes on to meet world champion Anatoly Karpov next summer—a political challenge as well as a personal one, for Korchnoi defected from his native Leningrad to the West two years ago, and partly blamed Karpov, the darling of the Russian chess world, for his despair over life in the U.S.S.R. Spassky, the former world champion, goes home to France, where he lives now by choice, his hopes for a comeback after five years in the wilderness apparently in ruins. He, too, may never return to Leningrad again.
As chess, the Candidates was a bit disappointing. It was billed as a perfect test of two brilliant, evenly matched players of widely different styles. It never reached that height. Spassky simply came unprepared, and after several disastrous early defeats he turned to psychological warfare, at which he is an acknowledged master. Only three or four of the 18 games will be remembered in the annals of chess; what will be recalled are the long, loony squabbles over where Spassky could place his Soviet flag, whether Korchnoi was making gratuitous grimaces and whether Spassky tried to fix the match with microwaves, mental telepathy or death rays installed by the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
"I have never had such a match in my life," said a slightly dazed Korchnoi after Spassky abruptly resigned the 18th and deciding game to give Korchnoi the match 10�-7�. "Never have I been so nervous. I completely outplayed him in chess but I lost in the psychological warfare."
Actually, Korchnoi also outlasted Spassky in the latter as well, though not before some anxious moments. The jittery defector lost his nerve in the struggle over, among other things, non-existent rays, dropped four games in a row and gave up nearly all of an almost unbeatable lead. The real drama of the match was Korchnoi's battle to regain his steadiness. Once he did. Spassky was lost.
When the best-of-20 match opened in Belgrade's socialist-seedy trade union hall in mid-November, Dr. Max Euwe, the long-suffering Dutch grand master who runs the International Chess Federation (FIDE), noted with satisfaction that there had been no pre-match disputes—obviously recalling the Spassky-Bobby Fischer championship in Iceland, which Fischer had threatened to blow up before the first pawn was advanced.
The first game in Belgrade was cautiously played and ended in a draw. But Korchnoi, a master of defense and counterattack, had smelled out a Spassky weakness and pounced in Games 2 and 3. In Game 2 he used a favorite variation of the French defense that Spassky could have foreseen, but the former champion failed to come up with a strong response, and Korchnoi won easily. Korchnoi won Game 3 handily with an English opening. Score: Korchnoi 2� points (two wins plus one half-point draw), Spassky �. Needed to win: 10�.
Spassky struggled to his feet in Games 4, 5 and 6, battling to draws with newly thought-out lines of play. He lost the seventh when Korchnoi set a clever trap for him. He was on the verge of drawing Game 8 when he made an unaccountable error, advancing the wrong pawn in the 51st move. The mistake was so clear it drew gasps from spectators in the hall. Score: Korchnoi 6, Spassky 2.
The match appeared to be turning into a rout, and some grand masters predicted that Spassky, his concentration apparently shattered, would soon withdraw. They failed to reckon with his long experience in psychological warfare. Korchnoi was besting him on the chessboard, but Spassky knew his old colleague from a Leningrad chess club well. Since his defection in 1976, Korchnoi has feared the KGB. He told friends in Belgrade he was sure several of Spassky's brawnier "seconds" were actually members of the secret police. Already in the early games, Spassky had baited Korchnoi by surreptitiously nudging his Soviet flag toward the defector's side of the table. Korchnoi, who lives in Switzerland but is stateless and plays under no flag, complained to the referee, who moved the red flag back.
After Game 9, which ended in a draw, Spassky quietly opened his psychological offensive. Instead of staying at the chessboard in Game 10 and studying the positions there, he went off to a wing of the stage and sat in one of two small booths that had been provided for the players to rest in. When he decided on a move, he would saunter out, like an actor making a silent entrance in a Samuel Beckett play, move a piece and then return to his booth.