Chess legend Anatoly Karpov has “many memories” of the Philippines, including what is regarded as the most entertaining, if not bizarre, World Chess Championship match in history that was held in Baguio City 45 years ago.
The match that took three months—July 18-Oct. 18, 1978—was between Karpov, then the 27-year-old titleholder from the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and his challenger and former mentor, 46-year-old Viktor Korchnoi, who was stateless at the time, having defected from the Soviet Union in 1976.
For Korchnoi, it was a grudge match, an opportunity to avenge himself on the Soviet government in general and the Soviet chess hierarchy in particular. For Karpov, it was a chance to prove himself worthy. He had, after all, merely “inherited” the championship after the International Chess Federation (FIDE) stripped the American Bobby Fischer of the title in 1975 because of his refusal to play over differences in regulations that would govern their title match.
The hosting of the World Chess Championship was a coup for the Philippines that put it on the world map.
Now 71, Karpov has just concluded a 3-day visit to the country to mark the 45th anniversary of the match. Part of the welcome ceremonies for him was a program at Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Manila on Jan. 31. Among those present was the Philippines’ Eugene Torre, Asia’s first grandmaster and member of the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Speaking of the Karpov-Korchnoi match, Torre said: “I believe we should all thank the late Florencio Campomanes as there was no one else who promoted the game in the Philippines more than him. He was not yet FIDE president, and in his capacity as national delegate, he actively campaigned to bring chess’ biggest spectacle here.”
Karpov was accompanied to the event by Russian Ambassador Marat Pavlov and was welcomed by top sports authorities led by Philippine Sports Commission chair Richard Bachmann and commissioners Olivia “Bong” Coo and Walter Torres.
His group made a quick drive to Baguio the next day to finally meet with Mayor Benjamin Magalong, and to visit the Baguio Convention Center where the monthslong chess match was held. (Magalong had invited Karpov to visit the city on Nov. 4, 2021, but the trip did not materialize due to pandemic restrictions.)
In his remarks, Torre said he first broached the idea of the visit to Karpov in 2018, when they both competed in the 6th Vila de Platja D’ Aro International Chess Festival Battle of Legends in Spain. “I’m just glad it pushed through this time,” he said.
Related: Looking for the next Eugene Torre
“I have many memories of the Philippines,” recalled Karpov, now a member of Russia’s parliament. “My first visit here was in 1976, when I competed [as a newly crowned World Chess champion] in the double round-robin Marlboro-Loyola Kings Challenge. I was joined by GMs Ljubomir Ljubojevic from Yugoslavia and Walter Shawn Browne from the United States. Completing the four-person tournament was Eugene Torre, the first GM from Asia, whom I met for the first time.”
As it turned out, Karpov would never forget Torre: The Filipino not only defeated him in the second round of the tournament but also went on to claim the title, finishing ahead of him, 4 1/2 vs 3. Torre’s feat was nothing short of amazing as no one had yet defeated the then reigning world champion Karpov in a game. Torre’s success captivated the Filipinos and made him a household name synonymous with chess.
“What followed was an unprecedented explosion of interest in the game.” Torre said in his remarks. “Sales of chess sets and books about the game boomed, and almost everyone was playing chess—in [public transport] terminals, in front of sari-sari stores, and even under footbridges. By the time Karpov returned here for his first title defense, chess was so popular, tournaments were already plenty and so were the sponsors and prize money.”
The event at Rizal Memorial Coliseum was attended by hundreds of students, members of school chess clubs, as well as some of the Philippines’ chess prodigies.
Karpov noted how the country had been pivotal in popularizing chess in Asia. “The Philippines has contributed significantly to the world of chess. My friend here [Torre] has paved the way for major chess progress in the country. I hope to see more young players succeeding internationally,” he said.
Karpov recalled that he did not expect the 1978 World Chess Championship to be held in Baguio. He said his first choice—from several venues that placed their bids—was Tilburg in the Netherlands, the site of a tournament he won in the 1977 Interpolis International. Baguio was only his second choice.
Korchnoi’s choices, in order, were Graz in Austria, then Baguio, and Tilburg.
“In those days, most tournaments were held in European cities, and Baguio City was a first [among Asian countries],” remembered Karpov.
Tilburg made the highest bid, offering a prize fund of more than $600,000 to be divided between the two players. Baguio offered over $550,000, and other venues that joined the bidding, including Hamburg, West Germany, and Graz offered $500,000 each.
In the end, Dr. Max Euwe, then president of FIDE, the ruling body of chess and the ultimate authority over championship matches, decided for Baguio as it was the two players’ common choice.
The match was held in the newly built P29.5-million Baguio Convention Center. Karpov and his all-Soviet entourage stayed at the Hyatt Terraces Baguio and Korchnoi and his team stayed at the Pines Hotel. Sadly, these two structures are no longer standing: Pines Hotel was razed in a 1984 fire, and Hyatt Terraces Baguio was destroyed by the 1990 Luzon earthquake.
“As you know, the World Chess Championship was not played in just one game but a series of matches,” Karpov said, adding that the 24-game format that was followed since 1951 was replaced by an unlimited-game format in which the first player to win six games (draws counted for nothing) was declared champion.
“So this tournament involved a lot of preparation on my part, stamina and patience,” he said. He then went on to introduce to the audience a 2021 Russian film titled “Champion of the World,” which tells the story of his rivalry with Korchnoi.
“I believe this film tells the true account of what really happened in 1978,” Karpov said.
The film visualizes the 1978 match down to the finest details. The set designers painstakingly reproduced the Baguio-venue interiors using old film footage and photographs. They were able to replicate the chess table, the players’ chairs including the one Korchnoi requested as his own, and even the chess clock. (On the request of Karpov’s party, the actual chair he used was dismantled and x-rayed at Baguio General Hospital, and cleared for extraneous objects and prohibited devices.)
Karpov learned to play chess at the early age of 4. At 11, he was already a candidate for the master’s degree, for which he enrolled at 12 in a chess school run by Mikhail Botvinnik, the sixth World Chess champion. From there, Karpov considerably improved his knowledge and skills in chess to win the title of national master in 1966 (at age 15), beating the record set by former World Chess champion Boris Spassky.
Korchnoi, one of the USSR’s top grandmasters for over 20 years, won the Soviet Championship on four occasions and twice reached the Candidates final which determines the challenger to play the world champion. When he made his dramatic defection to the Netherlands in 1976, and beat Spassky in the 1977 Candidates final, he set the stage for one of the most epic world chess championship events.
The Soviets saw in Karpov a champion who could bring back the glory. They could not imagine a defector winning the world title, not after losing their 24-year dominance to Fischer, an American, five years earlier.
At the Baguio tournament, the two men bitterly fought on and off the board. Before the match even began, the stateless Korchnoi had issue on which flag to use. The jury decided that no flags would be allowed on the playing table, but that flags of the Philippines, USSR, and FIDE would be present on the stage.
During Game 2, Korchnoi’s seconds formally protested the delivery of a cup of blueberry yogurt to Karpov at the 24th move, fearing it might contain some cognitive stimulant or serve as a signal for what Karpov should do at the board.
Korchnoi had been bothered by Karpov’s habit of staring at his opponent, so that in Baguio, he decided to wear sunglasses to hide his eyes. But these were mirrored ones, so that whenever Korchnoi raised his head, Karpov protested that the light from the numerous lamps on the stage hit his own eyes.
Korchnoi also complained about a Soviet parapsychologist he identified as Vladimir Zukhar, who always sat near the front row and supposedly stared at him during the games. Korchnoi believed that the Soviets had put Zukhar there to hypnotize him.
But for all that, the World Chess Championship in 1978 was among the most exciting games played. The match was played three times a week, turning out to be one of the longest championships ever at 93 days.
The first five games ended in draw but by Game 15, Karpov had taken a comfortable 4-1 lead. By Game 17, he had a commanding 5-2 lead, needing only one more to retain his title.
But Karpov had trouble putting the match away as Korchnoi came roaring back early in October, winning Games 28, 30, and 31 to tie the match, 5-5. Korchnoi would attribute his resurgence to his decision to visit Manila early in September. He returned to the game refreshed and accompanied by two American mystics, Steven Dwyer and Victoria Sheppard, both members of the India-based meditative sect Ananda Marga.
Wearing white and saffron garments, the two attended the 18th game with Dwyer spending much of it in meditation and Sheppard concentrating on Zukhar and the players (as though to counter the “hypnotist”). During breaks between games, Dwyer and Sheppard were seen giving lessons in transcendental meditation to Korchnoi. It turned out that the couple had each been sentenced to 10-17 years for stabbing an Indian embassy official on a Manila street and, at the time Korchnoi needed their help, were free on bail pending appeal.
Karpov’s team protested their presence, and by Game 32, the two had left Baguio. That game also proved pivotal for Karpov as Korchnoi had problems with his clock after taking two hours and 24 minutes to make his first 28 moves. This left him with just six minutes to complete the ensuing crucial 12 moves—or face automatic defeat with time running out.
At the adjournment, Korchnoi sealed a move from a position regarded by many as hopeless. He would never return to finish the match or even sign his scorecard in formal resignation.
He died in 2016 at 85.
After his successful defense, Karpov held on to his world title until 1985, became a three-time FIDE champion in 1993, 1996 and 1998, and won the World Chess championship twice as a member of the USSR team in 1985 and 1989.
Waning interest in chess
“There’s no question that that historic match was one of the most gruelling, and with so many twists and controversies,” said Torre. “Sadly, after that event, interest in chess in the Philippines gradually waned as tournaments became few and sponsors went to other sports disciplines.”
He said it was only recently that he saw a “resurgence,” and expressed hope that Karpov’s visit would “rekindle public interest in chess.”
When asked by one of the young students for advice on how to become like him, Karpov said: “Chess at the highest level demands preparation, a lot of hard work and determination. You must study a lot: Learn the moves and read books, especially the old ones published in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. For me, it’s more important to have a good knowledge of endgames as it helps shape your middle game.”
“And just like in life,” Karpov added, “always play with a plan.”