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Two Men And A Bored
Roy Blount Jr.
December 10, 1984
A noted chess analyst and Kremlinologist offers this insider's perspective on the endless battle between Anatoly Karpov (facing camera) and Gary Kasparov
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December 10, 1984

Two Men And A Bored

A noted chess analyst and Kremlinologist offers this insider's perspective on the endless battle between Anatoly Karpov (facing camera) and Gary Kasparov

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Inexorably the bad Russian is grinding down the good Russian. Or, from the Russian point of view, vice versa.

Is that all there is to be said, of a bottom-line nature, about Anatoly Karpov's commanding five-games-to-zero lead over Gary Kasparov after 29 games (24 of them draws) in the world chess championship match, which began in Moscow on Sept. 10 and will end when either Karpov, the cagey 33-year-old titleholder, or Kasparov, the apparently disheartened 21-year-old challenger, has six wins?

Not an easy question.

We must expect no easy answers. But, offhand, I would say no. I would say there is a great deal more to be said.

Consider that Kasparov, although he was favored by many experts (was regarded, in fact, as the next Bobby Fischer), has so far succumbed almost meekly. After losing a game or two through carelessness, he has overlooked openings that could have brought him three wins. Now, in a reversal of his usual form, he seems content to gain as many draws as possible before giving up the ghost.

Consider that in the U.S.S.R., sport is an extension of state policy. Consider that in January, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will sit eyeball-to-eyeball across a table like Karpov and Kasparov as they try to work out guidelines for the ultimate chess game: arms limitations talks.

Consider that signs of a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations have been noted. For instance, when John Denver sang We're All in This Together at the U.S. ambassador's Thanksgiving dinner in Moscow, Soviet ministry official Alexander Bessmertnykh sang along. On the other hand, if the Russians really wanted to be on good speaking terms with us, would they send people named Bessmertnykh to our parties?

Consider that there have been no outrageous insults or accusations traded during this match. In 1978, when Karpov successfully defended his title against Russian defector Viktor Korchnoi in Baguio City, Philippines, Korchnoi complained that he was being hypnotized by a parapsychologist in Karpov's camp and that Karpov was receiving signals from his seconds by means of different flavors of yogurt. Karpov suspected Korchnoi's chair was beaming secret rays at him. Korchnoi cried out to Karpov, "Stop wiggling in your chair, gudyonesh!" (Gudyonesh means something like worm or creep.) When the two met again in 1981, Korchnoi said, "Stop smiling or I'll call you a fascist!" Nothing like that this time. For a world championship match to be devoid of bizarre touches is verrr-ry strange.

Consider that Kasparov's manager is his mother. She is said to be domineering. It is said that she has become very nervous during the title match, which has made Kasparov nervous. Hmmm.

Karpov is the bad Russian because the Kremlin seems to love him so. He is a hard-liner. On or off the chessboard, he avoids risk. He makes his moves with cold, bland precision, waiting patiently until his opponent reveals the slightest weakness, which he usually exploits. He is a solid supporter of the Communist Party, and it is said that other Russian players dislike and fear him: He is tight with the right apparatchiks, and he has a great deal of say-so over who plays in international tournaments. He is pale, thin, haughty-looking. He probably doesn't even want to defect.

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