BACK when Bobby Fischer held the world chess championship, Boris Gulko was a young Soviet grandmaster and one of his country's top hopes to win back the title. Instead, he became a dissident - staging hunger strikes and demonstrations for seven years before being permitted to emigrate in 1986. Now, in an ironic twist, it is the Russians who again dominate chess, the United States that seeks to produce a challenger, and Mr. Gulko who has emerged as one of his adopted homeland's leading prospects.
But that's only half the story: Gulko's wife, Anna Akhsharumova, is a two-time Soviet women's champion who just won the 1987 US women's title and is perhaps even more likely than her husband to contend for world honors. Together they form what has to be the strongest chess-playing couple in history.
Now settled in this area as fellows of Harvard University's Russian Research Center (Boris also holds the title of grandmaster-in-residence), they talked recently about their long struggle to leave the Soviet Union and their new life in America.
``It was a horrible and very brutal thing,'' Gulko says. ``We lost many years of active age, of life, just to receive this natural thing - to live where we wanted to. Every moment we thought of freedom. And I still think about my friends and relatives who haven't this opportunity for a normal life, and this horrible word `refusednik.'''
During their ordeal, Boris and Anna not only were unable to play in tournaments outside the USSR, but they were even prevented from competing in most major events in that country. Gulko calls the period ``the lost years'' in terms of his chess development. But he adds, ``In those years, chess was not so important a part of my life compared to freedom and elementary human rights.''
And even now in the midst of his own happy new life, Gulko feels a pang for those less fortunate than he. He went to Washington for last Sunday's massive demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews. Later on TV he saw his sister (who is still trying to get out) participating in the concurrent protest in Moscow that was broken up by police and the KGB secret police.
On the chess front, meanwhile, it hasn't taken Boris and Anna long to reaffirm their places among the world's top players in their respective categories.
In the 18 months since their emigration, Boris has won or placed among the leaders in strong tournaments both in Europe and the United States, including first-place finishes in the 1986 American Open, the 1987 World Open, and a strong grandmaster event in Biel, Switzerland. Anna has been similarly successful, climaxing a number of fine results by winning this year's US women's championship with an unprecedented 9-to-0 sweep.
Anna's victory made her the first player of either sex to have won national championships in both countries - a feat Boris hopes to duplicate someday. He couldn't quite pull it off this year in his first US championship attempt, missing out by one point as Joel Benjamin and Nick DeFirmian shared top honors.
The main goal, however, is still the world championship, which Gary Kasparov is defending against his Soviet countryman, Anatoly Karpov - from whom Mr. Kasparov took the crown - in a match now in progress in Seville, Spain. Under the three-year cycle for title defenses, the next one will be in 1990 - but Gulko arrived in the United States too late to enter the lengthy worldwide competition that will determine the challenger. Thus the first possibility is 1993.
``So we have to wait,'' he said with a shrug of resignation. ``We lost so many years that we can wait three more.''
At 40, Gulko is already well past the age when all recent champions have ascended their thrones (Mr. Fischer was 29; Mr. Karpov, 23; and Kasparov, 22). Undaunted by such statistics, Gulko insists he still has a realistic chance, noting that youth has not always been served so regularly at the chessboard.
``[Mikhail] Botvinnik was 51 when he regained the title from [Mikhail] Tal in 1960,'' he points out.
Anna, eight years younger than Boris and rated even higher among the world's women, is also awaiting her chance. Until then they are enjoying a comfortable life with their eight-year-old son, David, in suburban Newton, Mass., a short commute to Harvard. David is a third-grader in public school, and, according to his mother, has the usual interests - ``playing football, watching television, computer games, things like that.''
But not chess? ``No,'' she says. ``Boris says two chess players in a family are enough!''
Boris started playing at 12, won the Moscow youth championship at 15, and attained master status at 18. Throughout the '70s he was one of the Soviet Union's leading young grandmasters, winning the national championship in 1977 and many other tournaments both in the USSR and abroad.
Anna followed a similar path in women's competition. In her early teens she won the Moscow girls' championship and became a master. Then, when only 19, she scored a truly spectacular success, winning the 1974 Soviet women's title ahead of Nona Gaprindashvili and Maya Chiburdanidze, the current champion.
The two were thus at the height of their fame when they made the courageous decision to apply for emigration in May 1979. Boris explains that ideologically they ``didn't want to have anything to do with the people who occupied Hungary and Czechoslovakia.'' Also, as Jews, they resented the pervasive climate of anti-Semitism.
``They have quota systems [for Jews] in universities and employment,'' he says. ``Many times it is 1 percent. Sometimes it is zero. And there are many parts of life where Jews just can't take part. You can't publish material about the culture, or teach Hebrew. Many jobs are closed.''
Gulko notes the irony that so many of the nation's great chess players, including former world champions Botvinnik and Tal, have been Jewish - and that indeed the current titleholder is the son of a Jewish father and was originally named Weinstein before changing it to a Russified version of his mother's maiden name.
``When a player like that succeeds, they talk about the `Soviet people,''' Gulko says. ```Jewish' is practically a prohibited word, unless you are saying something derogatory. Then the person becomes a `Zionist.'
``Also, they sometimes exclude Jews altogether. In 1985, the Soviet champion was a Jew, Mikhail Gurevich. That gave him the right to play in the Interzonal [the next step in the qualifying competition to determine a world championship challenger], but the authorities didn't give him permission to go.''
And why didn't fellow players speak out against such injustice?
``To say something means to not play chess for many years,'' Gulko explains. ``When I didn't sign a letter against Korchnoi [former world title challenger Viktor Korchnoi, who defected in 1976], I wasn't able to play any chess for a year. To say something about Gurevich would have been 2, 5, 10 years. It's one thing to resent something, another to shout about it.''
Applying for emigration is another way to become persona non grata, of course, but in the spring of 1979 the political climate seemed propitious. The couple got a bad break, however: Soviet troops went into Afghanistan in December, leading to a hardening of the domestic political posture and a virtual end to ``easy'' emigration.
As Boris and Anna's case became publicized in the West, many organizations brought pressure to bear for their release. Meanwhile, they kept up the battle in Moscow, staging demonstrations and hunger strikes.
``It was very difficult,'' Gulko recalls. ``But strange to say, it was an interesting life. The society of refusedniks is an interesting one - scientists, musicians, writers, artists, and so on.''
There was also some surprising chess success in the rare opportunities they had. Boris embarrassed the establishment by winning the Moscow Open one year. And Anna won her second national championship in 1984 after having appeared to win the same title two years earlier, only to have it nullified in a controversial ruling.
By last year Soviet attitudes had softened a bit, and the couple stepped up their demands to leave. Gabriel Shoenfeld, a Harvard graduate student familiar with the case, sought them out when he was traveling in Moscow.
``They were quite desperate to leave by that time,'' he recalls. ``They decided the circumstances were right to force the government to let them go, so they began a series of calculated attempts. Boris went on his third hunger strike. Then they escalated things with public demonstrations. It was a campaign designed to force the government to let them go or send them to Siberia. They were very brave. Their son could have been taken from them. But eventually the authorities relented and let them go.''
Their initial destination was Israel, but they eventually decided that the prospects of pursuing chess professionally would be better elsewhere. The choice came down to West Germany or the United States, and they were persuaded to make it the latter by the American Chess Foundation (ACF), an organization that provides financial support for a variety of chess activities.
``There were good humanitarian reasons to aid the Gulkos,'' says Allen Kaufman, executive director of the ACF, ``but there were compelling chess considerations, too. Both have spent a lifetime as students and coaches in the Soviet chess training machine - which is quite clearly the best in the world. ... Both have played on Soviet student and Olympiad teams and in the men's and women's Soviet championships. They have unique experience, and I believe that our efforts to help them will yield handsome dividends for American chess in the future.''
So with ACF support to supplement their tournament winnings, they came to the United States in August 1986, living in Silver Spring, Md., before moving here. And already, Mr. Kaufman points out, the move has paid off.
``Anna is a contender for the women's world title, and both of these brilliant players will probably become stalwarts on future American Olympiad teams,'' he said. ``Furthermore, Boris has already helped train some of our most promising young players, and, of course, will continue to do so.
``I really don't think we've done anything in the whole history of the foundation that's more constructive than this project.''
As one of the world's chess elite, Boris plays mainly in major international tournaments geared toward grandmasters. His current schedule calls for participation in the World Chess Festival in St. John, New Brunswick, in January and February, followed by tournaments in Rome and Lugano. Anna competes primarily in tournaments that are rigorous in their own right, but a cut below that very top echelon - i.e., various weekend events in the Boston area and elsewhere, plus women-only tournaments.
Because of their different levels of skill (Boris's national and international ratings are significantly higher), they seldom actually play each other, though they do spend quite a bit of time studying and analyzing together.
Clearly, Gulko's ``last game'' with the Soviet authorities, as he calls it, turned out to be a victory for him and his family - but he won't be truly satisfied until the Soviet government relaxes the policies that prevent so many others from achieving the same result.
``Many thousands apply for emigration, but they let maybe one go a month - usually a well-known person, for image, for propaganda,'' Gulko says.
``My brother-in-law [physicist Vladimir Kislik] has been trying since 1973 - and he and my sister are still there. He's one of the longest refusedniks. And the reason is ridiculous. They say he knows secrets. What secrets can he know? He hasn't worked as a physicist for 20 years. Pupils in high school today know everything [professional physicists] knew then.''
Through all his tribulations, though, Gulko has retained his sense of humor. When asked at the end of the interview if he needed a ride, Boris smiled as he walked toward his own car and pulled out a wallet to display two prized possessions:
``As soon as I got to this country and saw how things were, I knew I needed four things to become a real American - a driver's license, a credit card, a house, and being able to speak the language,'' he said in passable but still halting English. ``Well, as you can see I'm already halfway there!''