Yuri Averbakh: How I fell out with Korchnoi and Karpov

Mar 14, 2015, 12:10 AM |

An interesting insight as to why Korchnoi was disliked by Soviet authorities and chess society in 1970s. He didn't exactly make many friends.

How I fell out with Korchnoi and Karpov

In 1973, there were two Interzonals in Leningrad and Petropolis. The first one was won by Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov. Then they advanced through the Candidates' matches: Korchnoi defeated Mecking and Petrosian, while Karpov won against Polugaevsky and Spassky.

In 1974, shortly after the Nizza Olympiad, preparations for the Candidates' Final between Karpov and Korchnoi began in Moscow. It attracted much interest due to Fischer's refusal to defend his title. This meant that the match's winner could have instantly become a World Champion!

Karpov's fast rise to prominence attracted many fans, especially among the party elite. Anatoly was a fellow countryman of the LYCLSU Central Committee secretary E. Tyazhelnikov, and he supported the talented young man to the best of his capacity. Karpov was a new big hope. Ethnic Russian, good-looking, from the province, a LYCLSU Central Committee member, he had a very attractive image of a young man of the new socialistic formation. No wonder that all the higher-ups rooted for him. The Sports Committee also was pro-Karpov. Here's one, but very telling example.

During the talks about match reglament, there was an argument about something very simple: the games' starting time. Korchnoi insisted on 4 p.m., which, by the way, was very convenient for reporters: they were able to publish news about the game in the morning newspapers. Karpov was an "owl" who got up late, and so he demanded to start the game on 5 p.m.

Korchnoi phoned me from Leningrad and asked me to help with this dispute. I immediately called Ivonin [a Sports Committee official]:

"Viktor Andreevich! There's a dispute between Korchnoi and Karpov. Let's start the games on 4:30 p.m. as a compromise to satisfy them both."

"Impossible!" he replied. "Giving Korchnoi a foreign arbiter was enough. The question is already settled. Games will start on 5 p.m."

Even argument about reporters didn't help. Ivonin wouldn't budge.

After learning that the Sports Committee sided with Karpov, Korchnoi vented all his rage on me. Several days later in the Central Chess Club, on the correspondence table, I found a post card from Korchnoi full of bile, with insults towards me.

How should I have reacted? If this happened in the 19th century, I would have challenged Korchnoi to a duel. If I were a bit younger, I would have punched him in the face. Ultimately, I just stopped talking to him altogether.

The Karpov - Korchnoi match attracted much interest, even from non-chess public. Almost every game was attended by high-ranking officials: the Central Committee secretary V. Dolgikh, the ideology department chairman E. Tyazhelnikov, interior minister N. Schyolokov etc. Karpov took the lead from the start, but Korchnoi fought back, and by the game 20, Karpov was just one point ahead. Karpov managed to keep the lead and win the match.

I think that Korchnoi underestimated his young opponent, his subtle understanding of chess, refined technique, exceptional playing qualities. And, understanding that he'd essentially lost a World Championship match, he vented all his anger and bitterness on Karpov in an interview for Tanjug, Yugoslavian news agency. He went too far and couldn't stop.

Viktor said that his opponent's playing didn't impress him at all, that Karpov won because of his strong will and fanatical determination, that his chess arsenal is too small and that he was not stronger than Spassky, Polugaevsky, Petrosian or Korchnoi himself.

Evaluating this interview now, much, much later, I can say that Korchnoi was unfair, biased, and his evaluations were quite far from the truth. He's one of those who rail at their opponent rather than themselves after losing. There are many such players; English speakers call them bad losers. But, nevertheless, the Sports Committee's violent and harsh reaction was inadequate as well. It seems that Karpov fans were offended by unkind words towards their pride and joy. As if by magic, a rebuke quickly was published in Sovetsky Sport signed by Petrosian, and then chess fans started sending in angry letters, demanding to punish Korchnoi harshly. The punishment did follow. Korchnoi was ousted from the national team, his stipend was decreased, he was forbidden to go abroad for a year.

After this campaign started, Korchnoi didn't go to Moscow for several months. Then he sent an apologetic letter to the chess federation, admitting that his behaviour was unacceptable and asking for pardon. We went to the Sports Committee and asked to cancel the harsh measures.

At the time, Karpov was already declared a World Champion, and so the Committee bigwigs were in a good mood and forgave Viktor. In December, he went to Hastings, and in summer 1976 - to the Amsterdam tournament.

I was home when my phone rang.

"Hello! I need to talk with the Soviet Chess Federation president Mr. Averbakh."

"Hello, Averbakh speaking."

"I'm a Moscow correspondent for the France Press agency. We have heard that Korchnoi remained in the Netherlands and asked for asylum. How would you comment on that?"

That's some news! I had to pull myself together for almost a minute, then mumbled something like: "I don't know anything about that, can't say anything..."

"But why don't you want to say anything?" the correspondent insisted.

I answered that I will speak after I hear official news and rushed to the Sports Committee.

In Ivonin's office, everyone was already working intensively.

"Korchnoi decided to stay", he said. "We have prepared statements from the Federation and grandmasters about that. Now we're ringing them up. Start working, but first, you have to sign this statement."

Failure to return from a foreign business trip was considered a state crime, close to high treason. Of course, the Soviet laws were at odds with the Declaration of Human Rights in this regard, signed by Brezhnev in Helsinki in 1973. But at the time, you could emigrate perfectly legally if you asked for permission. Spassky, who married a French woman, was allowed to leave shortly after, others - musicians, writers, doctors - also got their permissions...

But if you go on a business trip financed by government, refusing to return doesn't look like a normal thing to do. Though for me, it wasn't the main reason. Since Korchnoi sent me an insulting letter, I had no desire to support him. So I signed the statement immediately.

The document that condemned Korchnoi was signed by an overwhelming majority of grandmasters, including Tal, Smyslov, Petrosian, Taimanov, Polugaevsky, Flohr, Kotov.

Only a few people refused. Botvinnik said that he never signed any collective letters, though in the infamous 1937, he did sign a letter condemning the Trotskists. Gulko said the same thing and immediately fell from grace. Spassky, if I recall correctly, wasn't contacted at all. And Bronstein was in Poland and didn't pick up his phone. After that, he was forbidden to go abroad for a long time.

Karpov also didn't remain silent. He wrote an additional statement that also condemned Korchnoi.

And I didn't get to talk with the France Press correspondent. I came home in the evening, and the phone wouldn't work. It was turned off for a couple of days!

After Karpov became a World Champion, he immediately moved to Moscow. The Sports Committee leaders, many of them former LYCLSU workers, didn't even try to hide the fact that Karpov was their favourite. Every time I met any of them in the corridors, even those who had nothing to do with chess, they would warn me:

"Don't you try and harm our Tolik!"

In early 1976, the world champion gave a big interview in Pravda. He said that our youth players are playing quite unstable and blamed the federation for that. Karpov also criticized me personally because, in his opinion, I wasn't opposing the Swiss system at the FIDE congress in Nizza hard enough, and after the vote, I even supposedly said, "That's nothing: we won by classical system, and we'll be winning by Swiss system!"

I don't remember saying that, but exactly this thing happened: we've started to win by Swiss system, too.

Soon after the interview, Ivonin asked me innocuously, "Are you going to react to the world champion's words?"

Pravda was a policy-making body, so I answered, "We'll discuss it at the federation meeting."

And so, the federation presidium meeting took place, in Karpov's presence. The speakers, as it was common at the time, listed our achievements in working with youth, admitted some defects, offered improvement measures. Someone asked Karpov, "Can you tell us whom Averbakh was talking to about the Swiss system?"

"I haven't heard it myself, but I was told that it happened!" Anatoly Evgenievich answered without hesitation.

The criticism in the country's most important newspaper suggested that my presidency would be over soon.

After Korchnoi remained at the West, he, as the Soviet ideologists believed, turned into an enemy that should have been crushed by any means necessary. This mission, more political than sport-related, was given to our candidates. But everyone - Petrosian, Polugaevsky, Spassky - failed. And Korchnoi again got a match with Karpov!

Before the match, Karpov started to gather loyal people under his banner, and decided to begin with the federation president. I was contacted by Alexander Roshal, the world champion's trustee.

"Tolya asked me to tell that at the next elections, Sevastianov will become the president", he said. And immediately consoled me: "But you will remain as the first vice-president!"

A cosmonaut, two-times Hero of the Soviet Union, Vitaly Sevastianov was Karpov's fellow countryman and his long-time friend. He was invited to Karpov's wedding with his first wife Irina. In the chess circles, he rose to fame in 1970, when, together with Andrian Nikolaev, he played the historical game Cosmos vs. Earth, where Earth was represented by General Kamanin, head of the Cosmonaut Training centre, and Gorbatko, also a cosmonaut. And in 1972, Sevastianov was the arbiter of All-Union Chess Olympiad.

No wonder that before a crucial match, Karpov decided to install a loyal man as the head of the federation. Botvinnik and Petrosian before him did the same thing. By the way, the new president had quite a few connections high up, which also was fortunate.

I was under impression that Sevastianov dreamed about a political career. There were rumours that he was even considered for the cultural minister chair. Vitaly Ivanovich liked to be noticed. He hosted a TV show about space, was a member of the Maliy Theatre artistic board, opened dog shows...

Now, I can say that Sevastianov's dream came true: he became a politician and even had a stint in Russian State Duma.