Culture and Civilisations

Cracks in the Evil Empire: London 1986

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Cracks in the Evil Empire: London 1986

Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov August 1986 (Trevor Jones/Getty Images)

Mikhail Botvinnik, the man who was to become the Red Tsar of the Soviet chess imperium, first won the World Title for his fellow sons of Lenin at the 1948 match tournament, split between the venues of The Hague and Moscow. This event replaced a planned Alekhine-Botvinnik match, when the incumbent champion died undefeated at the Hotel Palacio, Estoril, Portugal, in 1946. The abortive championship match had been due to be hosted by the British Chess Federation (BCF). With the cancellation of what had promised to be a fascinating clash between the two mental matadors, British chess fans had to wait for a further forty years before the UK could stage a world championship.

Of fifteen World Chess Championships staged between the end of World War Two and 1985, no fewer than twelve had been located in Moscow. The 1986 championship was to be different. It was to herald not just some fault lines in the USSR chess dominion, the mightiest package of state support which the world had ever seen, or was likely to see, but also to give clues to the break up of the Soviet state itself. This monolith, as we were soon to see, only had another five years to run. The Hammer and Sickle would be lowered for the very last time over the battlements of the Kremlin on Christmas Day, 1991.

In 1984 the BCF entrusted me with the task of finally bringing the World Championship to England. During the last few weeks of 1985 and the start of 1986 we trod a frighteningly narrow path in efforts to ensure, firstly, that Garry Kasparov did not default the return World Championship match against Anatoly Karpov, and, secondly, that all or part of the match be played in London. After the attempted cancellation of Kasparov’s qualifying campaign by the KGB in 1983, and the subsequent 1985 premature closure of Kasparov’s challenge (covered in recent columns), the fear was that Kasparov might, in exasperation with the repeated blockades of officialdom, simply give up, and follow the path of Bobby Fischer into the wilderness. To lose one chess genius to bureaucratic intransigence was unfortunate, but to lose two would definitely look like carelessness.

Ultimately it proved possible, by patient diplomacy, to avoid the potential tragedy. A second default would have been every bit as damaging to the chess world as Fischer’s refusal to play for the World Title in 1975.

The current crisis had emanated from the surprise termination of the 1984/1985 World Championship by the World Chess Federation (FIDÉ) President Florencio Campomanes. That match was stopped “without decision“, which effectively meant that the defending champion, Anatoly Karpov, retained his title. A rematch was arranged later in 1985, again in Moscow. This time Kasparov won, albeit narrowly, but Karpov was entitled to a rematch in 1986. This third title contest was no less eagerly awaited.

Backed by the Greater London Council (GLC) and in particular by the farsighted vision of Peter Pitt, chair of the GLC Arts and Recreation Committees, we were now able to put in a bid of one million Swiss francs for this rematch. The GLC had already sponsored a series of super-grandmaster tournaments in London between 1980 and 1986. Now the Council hoped to bring a match of the very highest calibre to the capital city. As Peter Pitt himself argued, the council had a “strong commitment to investing in people’s creativity”. There were also significant benefits to be reaped in terms of improving Anglo-Soviet relations.

Offers to hold the next stage in the cycle had to be assembled rapidly, and after further consultation with the GLC, the BCF was able to muster a bid of 1.8 million Swiss francs, approximately £600,000.

The only other bid came from the Soviet Federation, but would it be enough to leave British chess fans disappointed for a second time? On the appointed day, 16 December 1985, two sealed envelopes were opened at the FIDÉ headquarters in Lucerne. Leningrad was offering one million Swiss francs. London’s chances of hosting the world championship now appeared overwhelming. The British offer was nearly double the size of that from Russia.

Almost immediately the BCF made it known that, in the interests of détente, it would be willing to split the match, with 12 games in London and 12 in Leningrad.

Now began the weeks of waiting for a final decision. In reality, there were still a number of factors which could completely scupper London’s hopes. The players had to consider their own preferences and the president of FIDÉ was to inspect the playing conditions personally to ensure they were up to standard. FIDÉ would not make the final announcement until 13 January 1986. Interwoven with these technical considerations was another formidable obstacle. Kasparov objected to being forced to defend his title so soon after the end of the last match. No previous champion had in fact ever defended his title in much less than a year.

The new World Champion’s objection to a rematch gave us our biggest problem. I had been entrusted with the mandate to bring the 1986 World Title match to London. This was the centenary of the 1886 confirmation of Wilhelm Steinitz as the first undisputed World Champion, after his destruction of Johannes Zukertort, and it would be the first time since the 19th century that a world chess championship had been fought out on British soil. But I, along with our whole team, also wished to ensure that both Karpov and Kasparov were satisfied with the conditions, which clearly extended to the scheduling of the match itself. 

An obvious compromise was to start the match later in 1986, in the summer or early autumn. However, this seemingly simple solution was fraught with danger, for the main British sponsor, the GLC was to be legally abolished on the 1 April 1986. Could the offer of sponsorship continue past that crucial date?

The players now took matters into their own hands. Kasparov and Karpov signed an agreement in Moscow on 22 January in order, in their own words, “to avoid a situation where, in the absence of an agreement, they would have to accept any extraordinary measures decided by FIDÉ”. They agreed that a return match would take place, but it would be postponed until the summer.

Faced with this fait accompli on the part of the two principals, FIDÉ had no option but to accept. A week later FIDÉ President Campomanes released his own statement. The match was to start between 28 July and 4 August and would be split between London and Leningrad. Although delighted that an acceptable solution had been found, I was now deeply worried that the GLC, with abolition looming, would no longer be able to deliver its promise of sponsorship. On 1 April 1986 the Council would hand over responsibility to the London Residuary Body. Only then would this new institution decide whether the funding could go ahead.

We eventually picked the Park Lane Hotel as the most suitable site for the match. During the Second World War the grand ballroom at the hotel had been chosen as an alternative venue for Parliament, in the event of bombing at Westminster. Now the ballroom was to host the paraphernalia of a world championship. A stage would have to be erected, new overhead lighting installed for the players, and rooms built where Karpov and Kasparov could rest during the game. 

While these decisions were being taken, I watched anxiously as the 1 April deadline drew near. When the new London Residuary Body finally considered the case for funding the match, their conclusion was at first negative. The one crumb of comfort was that ultimate responsibility now devolved upon Westminster Council, the borough where the chosen site for the match was located. 

With weeks to go before the scheduled starting date, I approached anyone who might be able to argue in favour of the match. Letters were dispatched to Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose son Dominic was (and is) a chess writer and strong amateur player, while the help of other chess enthusiasts — including two MPs, Sir Jeremy Hanley (later a Cabinet minister) and Michael Stern — was enlisted. With Gorbachev’s new concepts of Perestroika and Glasnost in the air, this was a particularly exciting and propitious time for Britain to improve relations with the USSR. Their help proved decisive and disaster was averted. Our funds were duly restored.

On his arrival, Kasparov proved to be the most outspoken, scarcely any longer even trying to disguise his contempt for Soviet officials, the KGB and dubious officers of FIDÉ. He even appearing on the popular BBC chat show Wogan, where he berated FIDÉ officials as members of the “international mafia“ and praised Britain as being the only place free of “this mafia“. In an interview with Time Out reporter Peter Willis, Kasparov warmed to this theme, explaining that he had to win the next title match “for the future of world chess. It’s very important for me and for chess because now I’m sure, and my friends are sure too, that I am defending chess against an international chess mafia”.

Kasparov’s visit to London coincided with the opening of the new Tim Rice/ABBA musical Chess, which was loosely based on the careers of Fischer, Korchnoi, Karpov and Kasparov. The musical proved immediately popular and on the opening night was booked up for months to come. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the British public to avoid the subject of chess.

Television programmes were planned for the BBC and ITV throughout the duration of the match, offering grandmaster analysis of the games and visual coverage of the two protagonists at the board. The grand design was to saturate Britain with chess throughout the summer and to build on the fast-growing prominence and status of chess in Britain. 

Among the colourful cast of characters now congregating around this clash between two prominent Soviet citizens in London were two Prime Ministers. Crucially, Margaret Thatcher agreed to open the match — enticed, as Sir Jeremy put it, by the prospect of appearing on the front page of every newspaper in the USSR. In order to balance our political affiliations, her predecessor as PM, Lord Callaghan, presided over the closing ceremony.

The split venue match proved both a political and cultural eye-opener. The London leg exploited what was then the latest technology, including computerised screens, a giant video wall in Green Park (opposite the venue), live commentary and faxes (at that time, still an innovation) around the world of the game moves, times taken and furnished with Grandmaster analysis. In contrast, the Leningrad leg employed teenagers with long hooked poles to show the moves on giant manual demonstration boards, while in order to disseminate the moves (and only the moves) to the world’s press, the chief of the press room had to take the official record by taxi to the one photocopier in Leningrad, at Communist party HQ, in order to convey duplicates to the representatives of the world’s press.

Somewhat mockingly, we christened the collective Soviet procedures as “Neandertech”. It was not difficult to predict that the necessity for free information flow in the modern world was about to bury the sclerotic machinery of the by now obsolete and dysfunctional Soviet state. And yet few did. Even Sovietologists were astonished when it collapsed within two years of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

This week’s game is Kasparov’s most polished performance from London. He led by one point after the London portion and succeeded in preserving his lead in Leningrad to take the match and preserve his title— by the narrowest of margins.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
53 ratings - view all

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