World chess championships: a bored board show

The rematch between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi for the world chess championship lived up to its billing in terms of controversy and circus-like trappings. But it turned out to be pretty much of a dud from a competitive standpoint.

Mr. Karpov retained the crown in a one-sided, 6-2 victory, keeping the title in the Soviet Union for another three years while a worldwide series of eliminations is held to determine the 1984 challenger.

This year's match in Merano, Italy, began with the same atmosphere of East-West political hostility and personal acrimony that has marked previous confrontations between the two bitter rivals. And once again it was Mr. Korchnoi who staged most of the bizarre antics - wearing reflecting glasses to ward off Karpov's alleged stares, spending much of his playing time in a private room rather than at the board, and placing his yoga-specialist gurus in the audience.

Unfortunately, the contest over the board failed to measure up to their previous exciting struggles in 1974 and 1978.

Korchnoi, the self-exiled former Soviet champion who now lives in Switzerland , was hesitant and far off form in the beginning - and Karpov took quick advantage. The champion, playing simple, straightforward chess, pounced on his foe's mistakes to win the first two games, draw the third, and win the fourth, opening a commanding 3-0 lead.

Thus, in less than two weeks Karpov was halfway to the six games needed for victory, draws not counting. This was a far cry from their previous marathon struggles, which had lasted 24 and 32 games respectively.

Korchnoi's play improved for a while, and in the next nine games he had two wins, six draws, and just one loss. Even then, however, the challenger too frequently was falling into his old habit of not properly allocating his time, leaving himself forced to rush his moves in the critical late stages. Eventually the pressure of these situations, combined with Karpov's accurate and relentlessplay, proved too much to overcome.

As soon as Korchnoi narrowed the gap to 4-2, Karpov won the next game. Although Korchnoi staved off the inevitable withthree draws, Karpov won the 18th game convincingly to claim the winner's prize of $280,000. (The loser received $ 167,000).

With Karpov's victory, the Soviet Union continues to dominate the championship, which it has held continuously since World War II, except for the three-year reign of Bobby Fischer from 1972 to 1975.

The first Karpov-Korchnoi match was to determine Fischer's challenger, but Karpov's 121/2-111/2 victory turned out to be the de facto world title match when Fischer declined to defend the crown.

In 1976, Korchnoi defected from the USSR and began the bitter verbal campaign against his ex-homeland - one he has waged ever since. He says Soviet authorities favored Karpov, who is 20 years his junior, and tried to make sure the younger man prevailed in their 1974 match. He also has been unsuccessfully seeking permission for his wife and son to join him in the West.

Amid this turmoil, Korchnoi became the challenger in 1978, but lost an epic 32-game struggle to Karpov in Baguio City, the Philippines, by a 6-5 score. Undaunted, he battled through the next cycle to challenge again, only to fail badly this time.

The preliminary competition for 1984 has already begun, with Yasser Seirawan of Seattle and Californians Larry Christiansen and Walter Browne qualifying as the US representatives. These three will compete with other top players in three interzonal tournaments. A final field of eight will play a series of matches to decide the challenger.

The missing name, of course, is that of Mr. Fischer, who has become a recluse and hasn't played serious chess since he won the title from Boris Spassky in their famous 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland. Chess enthusiasts continue to hope for his return, but this seems less likely as time goes on.

Korchnoi may or may not return for another try. Other top non-Soviet representatives include Robert Huebner of West Germany (who lost to Korchnoi in last year's final for the challenger's role); Lajos Portisch of Hungary; Jan Timman of the Netherlands; Henrique Mecking of Brazil; and Bent Larsen of Denmark.

Attempting to wrest the top spot from the USSR is a formidable task, however. The Soviets are grooming Garry Kasparov as the heir apparent, and he already has risen to No. 4 in the world rankings. Others in the top 10 are Spassky, Alexander Beliavsky and Lev Polugaevsky. Also still dangerous are former champions Tigran Petrosian and Mikhail Tal. And of course there is the ultimate defender, Karpov, who has established himself as the world's top player of his era, and who would like nothing better than to extend his reign and enhance his position among the all-time greats as well.

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