Culture and Civilisations

Chess: Two cases of cancel culture 

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Chess: Two cases of cancel culture 

Karpov and Kasparov 1985

At the climax of the 1978 World Chess Championship, which I recalled last week in my column on The Great Yoghurt Gambit, I was approached by Dr Max Euwe, President of FIDÉ (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), The World Chess Federation, with a singular proposition. Having started catastrophically and going four wins to one down, Viktor Korchnoi, the Soviet defector, had fought back to level the scores at five wins each against the defending Champion, Anatoly Karpov, the golden boy of the USSR chess establishment. In the light of what follows, it is crucial to remember that the first player to score six wins would take the match and thus be crowned World Chess Champion.

With the two matadors of the mind on five wins each (with 21 drawn games) both Korchnoi and Karpov were poised on a cliff edge, when just one more victory for either side, would determine the outcome of the contest. It was at this tense moment that the President came to me to suggest that the current match be cancelled, with a resumption to be scheduled for the following year, with Karpov to remain Champion during the interim and scores to start at 0-0.

As Chief of Korchnoi’s delegation, I now had a difficult decision to make. In the first instance, should I even inform Korchnoi of the offer? If I did convey the offer, I felt that it would place him in an impossible situation. Should Korchnoi refuse the offer, the lost opportunity of acceptance might haunt him in the game, or games, to come, especially if he were to find himself at a disadvantage at any time. On the other hand, having won three games from the past four, accepting the offer would forfeit the benefits of the victorious roll on which Korchnoi found himself. To continue the match might well represent Korchnoi’s last best hope of conquering the chess Everest, which had been his lifelong ambition. A further consideration was that, in my experience and contrary to the opinion of those less well informed, Korchnoi played dreadfully when stressed or angry. Continuing the match, with the nagging thought at the back of his mind that he could have bailed out, would have been a very bad idea.

My major qualm, though, was the court of public opinion. The match had reached a peak of excitement, so, to rob the feverishly expectant global audience of the final coup de grace, from either side, seemed to me to be a moral dereliction of our sporting obligations to the planetary community of millions of chess fans, not to mention those new to chess, who had been captivated by the drama of Korchnoi’s phoenix-like resurrection.

Consider sporting parallels: what if the Wimbledon final were called off during the final tie-break, because both players were looking a bit tired. They would have been lucky to leave Centre Court with any reputation or dignity intact, and the umpire responsible would have been (metaphorically) lynched, first by the crowd and then by the media.

Korchnoi had won by four wins to one from the point when I had taken over as Head of Delegation. With Karpov clearly struggling, Korchnoi was about to play as Black (with which it is harder to win). My plan was to draw this game quickly and then keep on a relentless attack as White in the next game against the mentally fatigued Karpov.

Having considered all these facets, I therefore declined the offer. But sadly, under advice from others in his camp, Korchnoi went hell for leather in the next game as Black, in the process over-exposed himself, and thus lost the 32nd and (as it turned out) final game. 

One cancellation down. More to come, and, as you will see… history will repeat itself.

Now fast forward to Moscow in February 1985, when Garry Kasparov had been battling the selfsame Anatoly Karpov, still World Champion. After an absolute record 48 championship games, Kasparov had arisen from the ashes of 5-0 defeat to bounce back with three wins, the last two of which had been consecutive. Having appeared initially as overwhelmingly dominant, Karpov now seemed punch drunk. He only needed one more win to clinch the match in his favour, but it seemed more likely that Kasparov would win his requisite three, before Karpov could reel in his crucial one win.

Now read on…

For the whole of game 48 (which turned out to be the last game played) I had been in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, with Florencio Campomanes, the regnant FIDE President, and two other leading FIDE officials. Our task was, if possible, to smooth the path of the Israeli team for participation in the 1986 Olympiad, set for Dubai. On the evening of Saturday 9 February, Campomanes was phoned urgently by Moscow, with a stunning message from the World Champion’s camp, that Karpov was too ill to continue and Campomanes should fly at once to Moscow to resolve the situation.

I happened to knock on Campomanes’ hotel room door just as the call ended, and he exclaimed in excited tones: “Anatoly is unable to continue. I must do something about it!”

Various emergency solutions were then put forward by Campomanes and discussed by our group in Dubai to aid the FIDE President’s thought process:

1) that the match be stopped forthwith; Karpov should retain his title, but Kasparov be permitted another crack at the whip later in the year.

2) that an artificial guillotine be imposed after game 60 with the man in the lead then taking the title; an even score to result in Karpov’s retention of the title, but with a rematch clause.

3) that the match be postponed for a month or two to permit Karpov to regain his strength.

All of these answers seemed to me to be excessively favourable to Karpov. My clear view at the time was that the match should continue normally. But if the World Champion were truly under too much stress to continue, after his two most recent hammer-blow defeats, then he should gracefully concede and then claim his inalienable right to a revenge match in September 1985. In spite of the inordinate length of this match, already a record 5 ½ months, the World Title contest, as with any sporting battle, should undoubtedly contain an element of stamina-testing and it seemed to me that Kasparov was bearing up to this aspect with considerably greater success than his rival. There are rules for sporting contests and things become arbitrary if they are ignored. Facing stress and tension while displaying stamina and endurance are all part of being a champion. It’s no use setting a world record over 99.999 metres, if you fall over and miss the tape at the last microsecond.

On Sunday 10 February Campomanes flew to Moscow, well aware that western media regarded him very much as being in the pocket of the KGB and the USSR Chess Federation, who, in turn, were widely suspected of favouring Karpov. This was doubtless a residue of goodwill from Karpov’s prior victorious performance against the defector, Korchnoi. There was a further reason for officialdom to favour Karpov, a staunch party member, holder of The Order of Lenin and Moscow resident. In comparison, Kasparov came from the outlying province of Azerbaijan, was half Jewish (he started life under the name of Weinstein) and was somewhat doubtful where loyalty to communist doctrine was concerned. Indeed, he was to become an outspoken foe of Communism and remains a bitter critic of Vladimir Putin. A Freudian blunder let slip at the time by one senior officer of the USSR Chess Federation said it all: ‘we have one World Champion, so why do we need another one?’ It is incontrovertible that the true sons of Lenin were less than favourably inclined towards the young interloper from Baku, as might be inferred from their attempt in 1983 to cancel Kasparov’s participation in the Semi Final of the World Championship Qualifying Competition. I am delighted to say that I played my part in foiling this dastardly Soviet plot, but that is another story for another column.

Campomanes’ arrival in Moscow led to an ominous and immediate break in the match schedule. Then… on Friday 15th February the crunch came – a press conference called by Campomanes at noon Moscow time, in the Hotel Sport. Around 300 Western journalists were present. I reproduce this reconstruction of the astonishing proceedings from wire services – the fastest way to obtain breaking news before the internet.

Moscow, Friday – the President of the World Chess Federation ordered a halt ‘without result’ to the 160-day-old Championship match, which means that Karpov still retains his title. Nevertheless, titlist Anatoly Karpov, and challenger, Gary Kasparov, rebelled against the move in an angry public debate. Chess Federation Chief, Florencio Campomanes, told a news conference in Moscow’s Sport Hotel that he had decided to stop the match and ordered the two Soviets to play a new, 24-game contest starting on first September and that this would determine the new World Champion.

Campomanes’ pronouncement was predictably greeted with pandemonium. In fact this might well have been the first official press conference of any sort, on any topic, to have been staged in the heavily dirigiste USSR, which had spiralled completely out of control.

With members of the audience loudly heckling, Kasparov then shouted out that the authorities were trying to deprive him of his chances, and that he wanted to continue play with no time-outs and no intervals. “I have said more than once that I am absolutely healthy”, he continued, “they have tried to convince me otherwise and to end this match on all sorts of pretexts.”

The wire service carried on: Campomanes was asked if Karpov was too ill to continue. He said he had seen Karpov 25 minutes before the news conference and added, “Mr Karpov is well and appealed to me to continue the match until the very end.” He said he decided to end of the match at this stage because “24 times 2 equals 48”, a reference to the 24-game limit under old rules. Campomanes said he had made the decision impartially in the interest of world chess and denied his friendship with Karpov influenced him.

He was asked again if it  was  true that Karpov was at the point of physical collapse, but had no time to answer before the world champion himself burst into the auditorium, shouting: “I want to make my statement!“ and strode to the microphone to a round of applause. “We can and want to continue the game”, he said. “I do not agree with the decision to end it and to start from scratch. I think Mr Kasparov will second this position.” Kasparov had been sitting at the back of the hall with five visibly agitated members of his team… Invited to the podium by Campomanes (“Gary do you want to comment?”), Kasparov took the microphone and shouted at the FIDE Chief  inEnglish: “You said that 25 minutes ago the champion was objecting to breaking off the match. Then why are you making all this show? Will you please answer this question?”

With members of the audience booing and heckling, Campomanes told the angry players he would have been happy to discuss the decision, but had not been able to get in touch with them… Kasparov’s supporters booed and shouted at Campomanes: “You said you just met Karpov 25 minutes ago.” At this point Mr Campomanes declared a recess in the news conference to discuss the situation with the players.

After the meeting, the President and Karpov both agreed to a halt that categorically aided the current World Champion, and Kasparov was forced to abide by the ruling. 

Campomanes sought, implausibly, to defend himself but, of course, nobody was convinced, least of all the challenger, Garry Kasparov, as the wire service continued: “It is quite evident that FIDE shows complete inability to deal with such things as this World Championship,” Kasparov told reporters. Referring to Campomanes, he said that the press conference reminded him very strongly of an attempt to stage a well-rehearsed spectacle in which everyone knows his own rôle.

The main conclusion I draw from this is relief that I rejected the then FIDE President’s identical offer back in 1978 and thus avoided being complicit in the chaotic maelstrom of opprobrium, which instantly descended on those considered culpable in the 1985 debacle.

What else is one to make of all this? Karpov has always suffered, unjustly in my opinion, from the stigma of a champion who won by default (against Fischer in 1975). That he should have been allowed to duck out of a critical situation by the intervention of a deus ex machina, in the persona of the FIDE President, did his reputation nothing but damage. He would have been much wiser to play on and risk the consequences. As for Kasparov, after a highly shaky start, he had produced what was almost certainly, the most impressive rear-guard action in any discipline in the history of recorded sport. Remember that the first player to win six games wins the match. From games 1 to 9, Kasparov went down by four losses and five draws. He seemed annihilated and no one came to his rescue at this point. From then on, displaying remarkable tenacity and maturity, he held Karpov at bay in the long war of attrition from games 10 to 26. The public may have seen these games as tedious draws, but they were an important part of Kasparov’s process of mental reconstruction. Losing game 27 made Kasparov’s position desperate but his opponent’s inability to deliver a knockout blow permitted Kasparov to complete his psychological repairs and ultimately take over the initiative. Indeed, Kasparov won convincingly over the 39 games, from games 10 to 48, by 3 to 1 with 35 draws. Kasparov had the knife at his throat for four months, yet he never gave up, and at the end his chances may even have been superior. He was certainly playing much better chess, and many observers now preferred to regard his claims to be the legitimate World Champion as more valid than Karpov’s.

As it was, Kasparov won the rematch, defended his World Title on three further occasions against Karpov (one of which I was instrumental in organising in London 1986, opened by then Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher) and the rest is history, now that FIDE’s probity is assured with Arkady Dvorkovic as President and our own Nigel Short as Vice President. 

This entire farrago resembles an operatic plot, in fact it formed the inspiration for the Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of ABBA) musical “Chess: The Musical”, and in particular the Arbiter’s song.

As you settle down behind your pawns
Power passes to me
You may play like Fischer,
Capablanca, Tal combined
I don’t mind
Please feel free!

They all thought
they were the big fromage
But they don’t have my clout
I control the match
I start it, I can call it off
Found that out.”

This week’s game was number 48 from Moscow, the one which convinced FIDE, the USSR Chess Federation and the KGB, that the contest had to be terminated.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 95%
59 ratings - view all

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