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The clock ran out on Viktor
Spencer Reiss
October 30, 1978
It was mystics vs. realpolitik plus a race against time as Korchnoi's bid failed
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October 30, 1978

The Clock Ran Out On Viktor

It was mystics vs. realpolitik plus a race against time as Korchnoi's bid failed

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Between Games 31 and 32 of the longest world championship chess match in history, something got to Viktor Korchnoi—pressure, perhaps, or several varieties of harassment. Maybe even the encroachments of age made the 47-year-old challenger increasingly vulnerable to the deadly squeeze of his clock. At the end of the 31st game in Baguio City, north of Manila in the Philippines, Korchnoi had seemed on the verge of accomplishing a stunning upset over Anatoly Karpov, 27, the world champion. Less than three weeks before, Karpov had had Korchnoi down five games to two in a match in which the first to win six would be champion. But then the doughty Korchnoi had rallied—and how he had rallied!

Draws (which counted for nothing) had predominated in the match, but almost miraculously Korchnoi won two games in a row, drew one and then won another. All of a sudden the match was 5-5 and into sudden death.

But as Korchnoi's extraordinary resurgence developed, the Soviet apparat got busy. And with good reason. Karpov's world title may have been slightly flawed—he won it in 1975 when Bobby Fischer, the champion at the time, defaulted following a dispute over regulations governing their title match. But against Korchnoi, Karpov was the 100% solid good-guy Soviet hero, whereas Korchnoi, who had also once been a ranking 100% good-guy Soviet chess player, was a lousy defector. After playing a match in Europe in 1976, Korchnoi declined to go back to Russia. He went to live in Switzerland and began taking potshots at the Soviet government in general and the Soviet chess hierarchy in particular. He singled out Karpov, who had beaten him in a bitter challenge-round match four years earlier. "He is...a little boy who lives for chess," Korchnoi said in July at the beginning of play in Baguio. "But where is his blood, his tears, his manhood? He licks the boots of the regime."

Korchnoi's comeback actually had begun early in September, when he was down 4-1 and, as an aide conceded, in terrible mental shape. He went off to Manila for a few days and returned with salvation in the unlikely form of two American mystics, Steven Dwyer and Victoria Sheppard, both in their 30s and both members of an India-based meditative sect called Ananda Marga. In Baguio they seemed mild as mild but it turned out they had each been sentenced to 10 to 17 years for stabbing an Indian embassy official on a Manila street and, at the time of Korchnoi's need, were free on bail pending appeal.

The Margiis' effect on Korchnoi's play in the championship was astounding. "Even at my age," he said, "I'm understanding how I can strengthen my mental powers." Over a nine-game span beginning with Game 18, the once-distraught challenger won one game and had eight draws, including several near-miraculous recoveries from apparently lost positions. The Soviets immediately began protesting loudly about the danger to "security" posed by the two "terrorists" and managed to have them banned from the playing hall. Meanwhile Korchnoi continued to work out with them daily at the villa where he was staying.

In Game 27 Karpov broke the Margiis' spell, catching Korchnoi in characteristic time trouble and winning for the first time in nearly a month. That brought the champion's advantage to a seemingly insuperable 5-2.

Hanging by a thread, Korchnoi calmly declined his seconds' advice to ask for another postponement. "Now I will just play to save my face," he told them. And whether it was a paradoxical lack of pressure in the circumstances or simply what a grandmaster who was present called "a terrible courage," Korchnoi played on—amazing the chess world and driving the Soviets to near distraction with three victories in the next four games. In the 28th game, with Karpov on white, Korchnoi turned the tables on the champion's attempted "blitz" with the kind of technical precision that is more Karpov's forte. The 29th was a Korchnoi romp topped with a perfectly administered coup de grace. In the 30th, he tried a risky defense from black and settled for a draw. Then Game 31, with risks, errors and a saving free-form end game: 5-all. For Anatoly Karpov, who had lost only six of the 188 games he had played in his three years as "paper champion," three straight losses must have been shattering.

But while Korchnoi smiled—and invited the press in for a display of head-standing yoga—the Soviet delegation's political wheels went into high gear. Holland's Dr. Max Euwe, president of FIDE, the ruling body of chess and the ultimate authority over championship matches, chose this time to leave Baguio. Almost immediately, Karpov's chief second submitted an official letter to the match jury members still present, reiterating the complaints against the Margiis and calling for a FIDE jury meeting the following morning, five hours before Game 32 was scheduled to start.

At a closed-door session, Soviet delegation head Viktor Baturinsky, himself a member of the jury, demanded that the Margiis be ordered to leave Baguio immediately and that a motion of censure be passed against Korchnoi for his continued association with "terroristic criminals." In the short time since Euwe departed, the FIDE board had been packed with an East European substitute and a hastily flown-in pro-Karpov Third-Worlder from Singapore. To no one's surprise, the Soviet motion carried.

As Game 32 began, yet another unpleasant surprise was in store for Korchnoi. Early in the match he had complained that one of Karpov's aides, a parapsychologist named Vladimir Zoukhar, was trying to hypnotize him from a seat in the front of the hall. Dr. Zoukhar had been ordered to sit in the back. Now he was in front again, staring intently at Korchnoi—and nobody would do anything to remove him.

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