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Original Issue

A case of beauty before age

Two Russians are meeting to see who will take on Bobby Fischer, and the younger man has the edge

Almost from the start of the long process of determining the next challenger for the chess championship of the world, it seemed likely that Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi would meet to see which of them would face Bobby Fischer in 1975. And so indeed they are deciding the matter now, over the board at the Trade Union House in Moscow—just as predicted except for one niggling detail. The joker is that Fischer is no longer the world champion. Or says he isn't, at least, having resigned the title in June. And the idea of competing for a shot at the premier title in chess with the greatest chess talent in the world no longer on the scene is so very bleak that the two would-be challengers prefer not to think about it. They assume, probably correctly, that Fischer's resignation was simply a tactical move in his running dispute with FIDE, the governing body of world chess, and that he will emerge, in due time, to do battle with the winner.

Both Karpov and Korchnoi are Russian and both are brilliant chess players—and there the similarities end. Korchnoi is 43, a stocky, muscular bear of a man with a peasant's physique and bonhomie. Karpov is only 23, slender, anemic and gold-toothed. But Karpov was the favorite, and as the early going has proved, understandably so. In the first three games—whoever wins five is the winner—Karpov won one with the advantageous white pieces and drew two with the black, a distinct edge. A tournament player at nine, a master at 15, world junior champion and international master at 18 and a grandmaster a year later (there are fewer grandmasters of chess than there are cardinals in the Catholic Church), Karpov—or "Tolya," as he is called by friends—is the hope of the Russian Chess Federation to retrieve the crown from terrible Bobby.

This year opened auspiciously for Karpov. In January it was announced that the International Association of Chess Journalists had awarded him the chess "Oscar" of 1973, a trophy that goes to the player with the best overall score in all his match and tournament play in the preceding year. Karpov deserved the award. Before, during and after the Leningrad Interzonal, which helped to reduce the field of possible Fischer challengers to eight and in which he tied for first with Korchnoi, he played brilliant chess. In the next round, the quarterfinals, he faced the venerable Grandmaster Lev Polugayevsky and won 3-0 with five draws. In the semis he met Boris Spas-sky, who had made a comeback to take the Soviet national championship by a clear margin. Perhaps overconfident, Karpov dropped the first game, drew in the second and only managed to even the score in the third. There were two more draws in quick succession, then in the sixth game Karpov reversed a disadvantageous position and managed a win. He won crushingly, however, in the ninth game and finally took the match 4-1 with a victory in the 11th round. It was a fine triumph, though everyone, even Karpov himself, agreed that Spassky had not played the best chess of his career.

Korchnoi has been unhappy that nobody, including his own countrymen, made much fuss over his record since Leningrad, "where everyone forgets I shared the first prize." If Karpov played well against Polugayevsky in his quarterfinal round, Korchnoi was just as impressive against an even tougher opponent, Henrique Mecking, nailing the 22-year-old Brazilian ace decisively, 3-1. He then went on to face Tigran Petrosian, who is not only one of the finest players in chess but one of the masters of the draw game. After five rounds Korchnoi had racked up an extraordinary three victories, one loss and, almost unbelievably, only one draw. At that point Petrosian resigned the match in "poor health."

If Korchnoi's record in tournaments and matches leading to the current confrontation was highly honorable and Karpov's was remarkable, it still helps to keep their performances in perspective. During and after the Leningrad Interzonal Korchnoi had 17 victories, 15 draws and three losses in a total of 35 games. Karpov's record was 17, 18 and one in 36 games. But on his way to challenging then-champion Spassky three years ago, Fischer's record was something else. He won the Palma de Majorca Interzonal tournament of 1970 with the unheard-of score of 18½ to 4½. He proceeded to flatten Mark Taimanov, the Russian grandmaster, 6-0, no draws. In the semifinals he met Bent Larsen, the best chess player, except for Fischer, outside the Soviet Union. The Dane, too, was beaten in six straight games. At that point—which is where Karpov and Korchnoi were at the start of their match—Fischer had 19 straight victories in grandmaster chess. He was on the crest of his miracle wave. By comparison the two current challengers are mere mortals.

Karpov has been talked about a great deal; talked about but not talked to. As chess pundit and Olympic Referee Isaac Kashdan has noted, the Russians are doing their best to maintain an aura of mystery and inaccessibility around "their Fischer." While Korchnoi received almost no notice from Russian officials, Karpov was handled like a secret weapon.

Korchnoi has not been amused by the gambit. He has been a major figure on the chess scene for more than two decades and has been in contention for the world title on several occasions, though never this close before. The bromide has it that chess players begin in their teens, peak in the decade between 25 and 35, plateau for another 10 years or so and then gradually decline. So at 43 Korchnoi is nearly over the hill in international competition. For this reason and because he is a far more likable fellow than the sullen, often Fischer-like Karpov, Korchnoi started the match carrying the hopes and sympathies of most of the current grandmasters. But that did not make him any less the underdog. "I must beat that little boy," Korchnoi said this summer, "to show people how wrong they are in underestimating me. I am not like Spassky and Petrosian, who reached their peaks a while back and are now fighting just to stay afloat. I am now at the height of my powers as a chess player."

Understandably, Korchnoi lays great emphasis on a chess master's physical strength and stamina, his own condition standing in strong contrast to that of the angular, wan Karpov whose slight frame breathes of insufficiency. Karpov himself admits his greatest weakness "is my physical condition. I have been trying to make myself stronger by exercises, but I still have to work on it." Yuri Averbakh, president of the Soviet Chess Federation and himself a grandmaster, does not agree. "Karpov has a good nervous condition for chess," he says. "He knows how to be emotionless and patient. Emotions can disturb a good player. Korchnoi, for example, is emotional. But Tolya knows how to sit quietly, like a good angler. He waits patiently for the fish to take his bait. He knows when to set the hook and how to fight the fish." In truth neither of them is what could be called an "antsy" chess player. Korchnoi hunkers down over a board with his thick neck and double chin, like some placid Buddha. Similarly, Karpov displays all the tension and feeling of an IBM Mark VI computer.

For his part, Karpov feels no special animosity toward Korchnoi, and before the match was thinking more about Fischer than about his fellow Russian. Karpov concedes that Fischer will be unbeatable. "I believe Fischer will beat the challenger in 1975, whoever it may be," he says. "But I hope to dethrone him in 1978. Six years of rule will be enough for him." Korchnoi also thinks Fischer is unbeatable and agrees that Karpov may have the best chance against the American in 1978, though not in 1975. With peculiar Russian logic Korchnoi argues that he intends to defeat Karpov to spare the young genius the "catastrophe" of a shutout defeat by Fischer.

Karpov and Korchnoi have faced each other five times over the board. Before this series each had scored two wins, and the other match had been a draw. Their current match, which will last a maximum of 24 games if neither gains five victories, will thus be decisive.

From a technical standpoint the match sets two entirely different styles of chess against each other. The paradox of Karpov and Korchnoi is that, although the chess world reveres the former's youth, everyone describes his game as that of an old man, while Korchnoi, who is always spoken of in terms of his great experience, plays an attacking, energetic "youthful" style. Karpov, says Kashdan, "is the classic positional player in the manner of Capablanca. He takes the most minute positional advantages and patiently exploits them into a win." William Hartston, the British master and chess theoretician, puts it differently: "Karpov is a boa constrictor who squeezes his opponent to death—effective but undramatic." Says U.S. Grandmaster Robert Byrne, "The only way to play Karpov successfully is to try to rough him up. You have to choose openings and select lines with a great many counterattacking possibilities."

If anyone can do this, it is Viktor Korchnoi. "I am nothing if I am not an infighter," he has said, adding that he would beat Karpov "with my energies." Virtually all the current major grandmasters agree that Korchnoi's style produces devious, complex games with little thought given to positional esthetics or higher strategy. "Capablanca may be Karpov's model," Korchnoi says, "but Lasker is mine. The old German tiger didn't see chess as art or science or psychology, but as sport—a rough sport."

But Tolya Karpov is not afraid, nor, as the match moved along, did it seem he had reason to be. If Bobby Fischer's resignation should prove to be irrevocable, the world title—for whatever it will then be worth—may hang on the outcome. Karpov is a genius of chess, and he is young. If it were not for Fischer, he would probably be the world's best player as well as the world champion in 1975. But chances are he will have to wait a few years.