The Weirdest Chess World Championship

Tuesday, 07 May 2019 Coach Steve No Comments

Chess is above all a mind game, and players sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to psych out their opponents. But for sheer insanity, the World Championship showdown between Viktor Korchnoi (pictured left) and Anatoly Karpov (pictured right) takes the cake.

The two grand masters were intense rivals. Karpov was a member of the Communist Party and a model of the “Soviet New Man.” Like every chess player who brought honors to the Soviet state, Karpov was rewarded with a Mercedes, a chauffeur, a Moscow apartment, and a country dacha. Korchnoi, on the other hand, was a rebel who defected to the Netherlands in 1976 and constantly criticized the Soviet system. To the Soviets, the Jewish Korchnoi was a diseased and immoral character.

The 1972 title match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky proved that the Cold War could be fought as intensely on a chessboard as on an actual battlefield. In 1978, Fischer had forfeited his title, and the free world was now represented by Korchnoi. His showdown with Karpov, the ice-cold calculator from behind the Iron Curtain, took place in Baguio, Philippines.

For their first game, Korchnoi wore mirrored sunglasses to hide his eyes from Karpov’s stare, which had bothered him in a previous match. Karpov complained that the mirrors reflected the light into his eyes. Karpov also requested that Korchnoi’s chair be examined for “prohibited devices” (presumably the mind-zapping kind) and distracted his opponent by swiveling in his own chair during games.

Korchnoi’s camp then objected to the yogurt delivered to Karpov during games, suggesting that the color might be some sort of coded message. Perhaps a strawberry yogurt signified one move and raspberry another. Korchnoi was also bothered by a member of the Soviet entourage named Vladimir Zukhar, a parapsychologist who would sit in the front row and stare malevolently at him. Korchnoi suspected that Zukhar was hypnotizing him and interfering with his brain waves. Thanks to the “psychic,” Korchnoi was a nervous wreck by the seventh game.

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To counteract Zukhar, Korchnoi brought in Dada and Didi, two members of an Indian sect called Ananda Marga. Zukhar had the two mystics teach him yoga and transcendental meditation. It was now the Soviet delegation’s turn to be unsettled when Dada and Didi hovered around them during the games.

Revived, Korchnoi came back from being three games behind to leveling the score at five to five. Whoever won the next game would become the champion. There was an unsubstantiated claim that the KGB was ready to poison Korchnoi. If true, his life was probably spared when he lost the tiebreaker. After failing to beat Karpov in their grudge match, Korchnoi said he would bring along the CIA next time around. Moscow simply laughed him off.

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