Skip to main content
Original Issue

They couldn't zap the Viktor

Korchnoi came out of his match with Spassky smiling and ready for world champion Karpov, but in Belgrade he was grimly convinced that the Soviet KGB was bombarding him with rays

Chess is a deceptively passionate game. Its championships arouse emotions as violent as those engendered by a Super Bowl. It is a game without mercy, for there is no release from the passion—you're not supposed to break the chessboard over your opponent's crown—and there are few lucky breaks at the highest level of play. To the uninitiated, chess players often appear driven to the brink of madness; aficionados merely recognize intensity of purpose.

When two great careers collide, as they did in recent weeks in Belgrade in the final Candidates match between Boris Spassky and Viktor Korchnoi, the stakes and passions are magnified. The winner, Korchnoi, goes on to meet world champion Anatoly Karpov next summer—a political challenge as well as a personal one, for Korchnoi defected from his native Leningrad to the West two years ago, and partly blamed Karpov, the darling of the Russian chess world, for his despair over life in the U.S.S.R. Spassky, the former world champion, goes home to France, where he lives now by choice, his hopes for a comeback after five years in the wilderness apparently in ruins. He, too, may never return to Leningrad again.

As chess, the Candidates was a bit disappointing. It was billed as a perfect test of two brilliant, evenly matched players of widely different styles. It never reached that height. Spassky simply came unprepared, and after several disastrous early defeats he turned to psychological warfare, at which he is an acknowledged master. Only three or four of the 18 games will be remembered in the annals of chess; what will be recalled are the long, loony squabbles over where Spassky could place his Soviet flag, whether Korchnoi was making gratuitous grimaces and whether Spassky tried to fix the match with microwaves, mental telepathy or death rays installed by the KGB, the Soviet secret police.

"I have never had such a match in my life," said a slightly dazed Korchnoi after Spassky abruptly resigned the 18th and deciding game to give Korchnoi the match 10½-7½. "Never have I been so nervous. I completely outplayed him in chess but I lost in the psychological warfare."

Actually, Korchnoi also outlasted Spassky in the latter as well, though not before some anxious moments. The jittery defector lost his nerve in the struggle over, among other things, non-existent rays, dropped four games in a row and gave up nearly all of an almost unbeatable lead. The real drama of the match was Korchnoi's battle to regain his steadiness. Once he did. Spassky was lost.

When the best-of-20 match opened in Belgrade's socialist-seedy trade union hall in mid-November, Dr. Max Euwe, the long-suffering Dutch grand master who runs the International Chess Federation (FIDE), noted with satisfaction that there had been no pre-match disputes—obviously recalling the Spassky-Bobby Fischer championship in Iceland, which Fischer had threatened to blow up before the first pawn was advanced.

The first game in Belgrade was cautiously played and ended in a draw. But Korchnoi, a master of defense and counterattack, had smelled out a Spassky weakness and pounced in Games 2 and 3. In Game 2 he used a favorite variation of the French defense that Spassky could have foreseen, but the former champion failed to come up with a strong response, and Korchnoi won easily. Korchnoi won Game 3 handily with an English opening. Score: Korchnoi 2½ points (two wins plus one half-point draw), Spassky ½. Needed to win: 10½.

Spassky struggled to his feet in Games 4, 5 and 6, battling to draws with newly thought-out lines of play. He lost the seventh when Korchnoi set a clever trap for him. He was on the verge of drawing Game 8 when he made an unaccountable error, advancing the wrong pawn in the 51st move. The mistake was so clear it drew gasps from spectators in the hall. Score: Korchnoi 6, Spassky 2.

The match appeared to be turning into a rout, and some grand masters predicted that Spassky, his concentration apparently shattered, would soon withdraw. They failed to reckon with his long experience in psychological warfare. Korchnoi was besting him on the chessboard, but Spassky knew his old colleague from a Leningrad chess club well. Since his defection in 1976, Korchnoi has feared the KGB. He told friends in Belgrade he was sure several of Spassky's brawnier "seconds" were actually members of the secret police. Already in the early games, Spassky had baited Korchnoi by surreptitiously nudging his Soviet flag toward the defector's side of the table. Korchnoi, who lives in Switzerland but is stateless and plays under no flag, complained to the referee, who moved the red flag back.

After Game 9, which ended in a draw, Spassky quietly opened his psychological offensive. Instead of staying at the chessboard in Game 10 and studying the positions there, he went off to a wing of the stage and sat in one of two small booths that had been provided for the players to rest in. When he decided on a move, he would saunter out, like an actor making a silent entrance in a Samuel Beckett play, move a piece and then return to his booth.

Korchnoi was enraged. He protested Spassky's behavior, demanded that his booth be opened to view and insisted on the removal of a large demonstration chessboard set up at the back of the stage for the benefit of the audience but which Spassky, from his booth, was using to plot his moves. And, as is customary in championship chess, Korchnoi threatened to walk out if his demands were not met.

Even Korchnoi's seconds, the British grand masters Raymond Keene and Michael Stean, were astonished by his passion and assumed he felt Spassky was insulting him by treating him like a minor player. The real explanation of Korchnoi's reaction was far stranger: he was certain that the KGB was aiming microwaves at him, or using mental telepathy or hypnotic "rays" to disrupt his thinking, and that Spassky was hiding in the wings to stay out of range.

At first Keene and Stean denied the story while they tried to convince their shattered star that there were no mysterious rays. They failed. Though he won Game 10, Korchnoi lost Games 11, 12 and 13, playing miserable chess marked in Game 13 by what one commentator called "horrendous hallucinations." Korchnoi was sure the problem was hostile telepathy. And one of his seconds was observed pounding in frustration on the other's hotel room door, moaning, "He still believes in the rays! He still believes in the rays!"

After 13 games Korchnoi issued an ultimatum: the rest of the match would be played without spectators (presumably to get rid of the KGB men and their manifold rays). Referee Bozidar Kazic denied the demand but came up with a compromise. Each player's booth was opened to the view of his opponent, and the spectators were moved back so that they sat no closer than 25 yards from the stage. Korchnoi agreed to this arrangement, played the 14th game—and lost his fourth in a row. Now the score was almost even: Korchnoi 7½, Spassky 6½.

Keene later said that Korchnoi himself may have given Spassky the idea for his psychological gambit. "The Russians actually looked into the idea of bombarding a chess player with rays of some kind once," he said, "and they discovered it could be done but that it would affect both players on the stage. Viktor said he told Spassky about it months ago—so Spassky saved it up as something he could use. A fear that he could play on. It was diabolical." For his part, Spassky denied knowing anything about the notion.

Now within striking distance, Spassky returned to the chessboard but did not ease up on Korchnoi's nerves. Several times he arrived sporting a bright white tennis visor and an enigmatic smile, drawing titters from the audience and irritating Korchnoi. Still, with Spassky back on center stage, the threat of KGB interference was gone—at least in Korchnoi's mind.

Games 15 and 16 were draws, and Korchnoi got back on track in Game 17 with a solid win that marked his psychological recovery and made the score 9½ to 7½, one point from victory. "That was the best game," Korchnoi said later.

In the 18th game Spassky at first battled Korchnoi to a standstill and even refused a draw. When the game was adjourned after 40 moves, Spassky sealed his 41st move in an envelope. The grand masters in attendance believed he could count on at least a draw.

Korchnoi and other analysts assumed Spassky's 41st move would be to pull back his exposed king into a more sheltered positon. But when the sealed move was opened the following day, they saw that Spassky had pulled back his queen instead.

Spassky, too, knew that he had erred. As Korchnoi gaped, he muttered, "I resign" with an angry wave of his hand, signed the score sheets confirming his defeat and strode off the stage without shaking hands or saying another word.

"I completely outplayed him," Korchnoi crowed. He predicted that he would defeat Karpov, too, rays or no rays. "I am sure it will be much worse," he said. "Karpov will not be easy."

Korchnoi once called the 26-year-old champion "a player of modest abilities." Now he hedged a bit. "I can confess that every year he has added to his skill," he said.

Korchnoi did reconfirm one trait in Belgrade: unpredictability. After disposing of Spassky, he threatened to hold up the title match with Karpov unless Soviet authorities allowed his wife and son, who are still in Leningrad, to emigrate to Israel. "This is a threat," he said in his hotel room, nervously juggling two wooden bishops in his right, chess-playing hand, and offering visitors his left hand to shake. But at almost the same time he was vowing to play Karpov under any circumstances. Four days later, at a news conference in Zurich, he denied ever linking his family's wish to emigrate and the Karpov match and claimed that reports that he had were "misinformation from the Spassky camp." (On the same occasion, he produced a Swiss para-psychologist who declared that by applying "positive PSI forces, also known as white magic," Korchnoi had successfully neutralized the hostile Soviet telepathy.)

In Belgrade Korchnoi had said he would trust Karpov's judgment on where the championship match should be held: "He knows how to make money." So far Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina have expressed interest in hosting the match. For the Belgrade series, Korchnoi and Spassky divided a purse of only $25,000, and they each got a Yugoslav-made Zastava automobile. Indeed, the match was run on such a shoestring budget that the second day of each adjourned game had to be played in a smaller, cheaper hall.

The new challenger, sighting success after a long uphill pull, said he posed only one condition for the championship match: "I would like to play in a city that has no Soviet Embassy."