English Grandmaster Michael Stean could only look on with a sense of helplessness at what was happening on the stage of a public auditorium in the northern Italian resort town of Merano last week. Viktor Korchnoi, a Soviet defector, was trying for the second time in his life to wrest the title of world chess champion from the Soviet Union's Anatoly Karpov, and making a hash of it. After only eight days of play in a match that was supposed to last from the beginning of October into December, Korchnoi was playing badly, and was about to lose to Karpov for the third time. The best Korchnoi had managed so far was a single draw.
Three years ago, when these two grandmasters met for the championship in Baguio City, Philippines, they drew the first eight games before Karpov finally gained the first victory of the match, and it wasn't until they had played 32 games over a three-month span that Karpov prevailed, 6-5. The first man to win six games is champion, draws don't count and there is no limit on the number of games played. The champion stands to win about $260,000, the loser about $160,000.
"This match should be like Borg and McEnroe," said Stean, who was one of Korchnoi's seconds three years ago and is again. "You know, five sets."
But it was becoming more like Borg versus Mrs. Borg. In the first game, the 50-year-old Korchnoi played the advantageous white pieces sluggishly, without an apparent plan, until he resigned on the 43rd move to the 30-year-old champion, who had done no more than play technically efficient chess. In the second game, Korchnoi carelessly blew a pawn and at adjournment, when Karpov sealed his 42nd move, Korchnoi's fate was sealed, too. He resigned the next day on his 57th move. Depressed, he told one of his aides, "I brought eight suits with me. Maybe you won't see all of them."
Korchnoi got his draw in the third game, but in the fourth, last Thursday, playing black again, he pointlessly advanced his king's rook pawn on the 25th move and was forced to bring over his king's rook to defend it, thus taking a major piece out of the fray. He further weakened his king side by strutting out his king's bishop pawn. "I haven't made that kind of move since I was 13 years old," said American Grandmaster Robert Byrne, who was in the audience.
Emanuel Lasker, one of the greatest chess champions, once said that chess was like war. When Korchnoi sealed his move in Game 2 and left the auditorium, he testified to the aptness of the simile. His position was hopeless, and he appeared dazed. "A bit shell-shocked," said Stean. "He looked like he'd just walked off some battlefield and hadn't figured out yet if he had survived."
Tired and bewildered, Stean and Korchnoi's other second, the 21-year-old U.S. Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan of Seattle, had dinner together at the Palace Hotel and then went to the hotel salon for a cup of cappucino. Finally Seirawan looked over at Byrne, who was nearby, and said, "What's happening? Why can't he play?"
"I just don't know." Byrne replied. "The opening was great. After the 19th move, I loved his position. I loved it." But then Korchnoi's position began deteriorating—Karpov's precise exploitation of it contributed, of course—and it became apparent that Karpov had him in trouble.
"For the first time since I've been Viktor's second," said Stean, "I wanted to stand up and say, 'Stop! Let me play the rest of the game!' I felt everything was going wrong. Every move had something wrong with it. A series of mistakes, and I felt totally helpless. It is so sad, so baffling, so depressing. It's as if someone had put something in his coffee. If Viktor were a horse, he'd be dope-tested. When he was banned from playing chess in the Soviet Union and then defected, it was his way of saying that a professional has a right to pursue his chosen career. This makes it all seem so futile."
Korchnoi resigned the next day, on his 53rd move, signing his scoresheet and contemptuously flipping it over the time clock to Karpov's side of the table. Now he was down 3-0. Korchnoi had come back from three-down in Baguio, from 5-2 to 5-5, but that was after a protracted struggle. What was happening in Merano was more like a blitz. Korchnoi asked for and received a postponement of the fifth game—"To save him from himself," said Stean—and that may have been the soundest move he has made since he came to town to play.