Culture and Civilisations

Levitation, yoghurt and chess

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Levitation, yoghurt and chess

In 1978 I became involved in perhaps the weirdest world chess championship of all time, including parapsychology, the Great Yoghurt controversy, terrorists, mystic gurus levitating for victory, long range hypnosis and an attempt to abort the entire contest, just as it was reaching its maximum sporting climax.

I experienced this panoply of outlandish occurrences when I acted as chief assistant to Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi (pictured above), as he challenged Anatoly Karpov for the World Championship at Baguio City in the Philippines during much of 1978. Karpov, lavishly funded by the Soviet state, had brought a vast delegation to Baguio, including one Vladimir Zukhar, more of whom, later.

Karpov eventually won the match by six wins to five with 21 draws, but only after Korchnoi — along with Rubinstein, Bronstein and Keres, one of the greatest players never to have won the world title — fought back bravely from a most unpromising start.

These two Matadors of the Mind conducted their campaign for the World Chess Championship, which, given the nature and political polarity of the two combatants, attained new heights of acrimony, way exceeding the quantum of bitter hostility which usually marked such confrontations.

I had the privilege of being Korchnoi’s Chief Second and then Head of Delegation for much of this 1978 marathon, which finally extended to 32 games. Much of my time was spent negotiating with the Soviets, led by the formidable KGB Colonel and former military prosecutor, Viktor Davidovich Baturinsky, a prominent member of a colourful cast of characters involved in the contest. One unusual delegate was Dr Vladimir Zukhar, whom Korchnoi enthusiastically identified as a parapsychologist, with the peculiar ability to direct mind-bending rays at any player on the stage whom he wished to influence or even harm.

Fanatical helpers then thronged to Baguio, besieging us with advice as to how to ward off such psychic pressure, among them members of the extreme Ananda Marga sect, who believed in yoga, mantras and mystic chanting. I thought they were plausible tricksters, not out of place in one of those frantic Ben Jonson comedies, such as Volpone or The Alchemist.

What I believed was that Korchnoi needed better chess strategy, not a circus of charlatans and fake gurus. Sadly, both sides seemed to take this Jonsonian charade seriously and the match ended in farce when Dr Zukhar was permitted by match officials to move into the front rows of spectators, thus propelling Korchnoi to succumb to the Scylla of bogus hypnosis rather than the Charybdis of crazy cultism.

By the way, the entire Ananda Marga troupe was at that time on bail for attempted murder of an Indian diplomat. This inconvenient fact hardly endeared either the orange-robed levitators, or indeed Korchnoi himself, to the organising committee appointed by Philippine President Marcos. By a considerable margin, though, the world’s media was most fascinated by the great yoghurt gambit.

I must admit that I felt a certain Schadenfreude when Korchnoi dispensed with my services for his rematch against Karpov in 1981, in favour of re-enlisting a motley crew of levitating gurus. Result, three losses out of the first four games (with one draw) and utter disaster in the match as a whole.

But back to Baguio. During the drawn second game, a pot of yoghurt was delivered to Karpov. After the conclusion of hostilities Petra Leeuwerik, Korchnoi’s colourful and volatile confidante — herself a former prisoner of the Soviet concentration camp in Vorkuta — came to me and said: “We must protest!” At first I thought she was joking, but she was, in fact, deadly serious. So, when an identical yoghurt was delivered to Karpov in game three, the audience burst out laughing — for by now The Great Yoghurt Controversy, for which the match may be remembered long after the chess has been forgotten, was in full swing. Mme Leeuwerik had once been incarcerated for attempting to blow up a train, so we were not unaccustomed to expressions of extreme opinions from her.

After the second game the Korchnoi camp issued a formal protest, claiming that the delivery of the yoghurt could convey a kind of coded message. Thus yoghurt after move 20 could signify “we instruct you to offer a draw”; or a sliced mango could mean “we order you to decline a draw”. A dish of marinated quail eggs could mean “play Nb5 at once” and so on. The possibilities are limitless.

Predictably only Baturinsky and Mme Leeuwerik appeared to take the protest seriously, but their intransigence was sufficient to blow the dispute up out of all proportion. After a lengthy meeting of the match appeals committee had failed to solve the problem, Lothar Schmid, the German chief arbiter, finally saved the day by decreeing that Karpov could have his yoghurt, provided that he consumed only the violet-coloured variety, served at a fixed time by a designated waiter.

The Great Yoghurt Controversy gave the press a field day. On-the-spot reporter Ian Ward must have enjoyed himself when commenting in the Daily Telegraph on the compromise: “But will the yoghurt crisis now really subside? Herr Schmid is the first to admit the tenuousness of the situation. He fully realises that yoghurt can come in many colours — green, blue, pink, yellow, to name but a few. Under the Schmid ruling a change in the colour of the yoghurt passed to Karpov would throw the whole compromise into confusion: for then the Russians must seek official permission once again.”

The Schmid ultimatum continued: “If it is violet yoghurt again no mention needs to be made in advance to me or to the deputy arbiters. In case Mr Karpov wishes to change beverages, please let an arbiter to know in advance of the game by describing the new beverage in a short note.” German humour is, of course, no laughing matter, and Herr Schmid’s deadpan Judgement of Solomon was universally admired. Ward concluded: “In this rarefied atmosphere that only chess grandmasters appear to comprehend fully, it appears that there might be serious complications if Herr Schmid is asked to distinguish between, say, mauve and violet yoghurt. The implications remain frightening.”

I had been dealing with the Soviets at close quarters ever since 1974, when I attended the first match between Korchnoi and Karpov in Moscow, while both participants were still, at least in theory, reliable sons of Lenin. This was the encounter which ultimately decided the world title in Karpov’s favour, when Bobby Fischer decided to default rather than defend it. I was in Moscow to gain first hand information for my book on the match.

Korchnoi complained that the leading Soviet Grandmasters had deserted him during his match against Karpov, one reason for his defection in 1976. I, however, suffered no such political qualms and freely offered my advice while I was in Moscow. In fact Korchnoi used one of my ideas to destroy Karpov in record time in game 21 of the match, a game which can be found at the close of this column. Presumably it weighed heavily in Korchnoi’s decision to invite me to assist him in his World Title campaign three years later.

Here is the crux, a game from 1974, where Korchnoi adopted my suggestion to annihilate Karpov, which led to my appointment as chief second, entrusted with analysis of openings, and Head of Delegation for the 1978 World Championship.

At the climax of the 1978 World Chess Championship, I was approached by Dr Max Euwe, President of FIDÉ (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 warriors of the mind tied 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 Euwe, the FIDÉ 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, he over-exposed himself. He thus lost the 32nd and (as it turned out) final game. I analyse this game and apportion blame appropriately in my broadcast for Nigel Davies and Andrew Martin. To see who the culprit was, go to the link with “masterchesswebshow” below.

Back in the 1990s, IM Andrew Martin and GM Nigel Davies formed the “Master Chess Roadshow” and toured the UK to help players all over the country to get better and to have fun with chess. Thirty years later this project was reborn as the Master Chess Web Show, with weekly shows on Twitch that are then published to their YouTube channel and web site. The goal is to provide entertaining and instructive shows that can be enjoyed by everyone who is interested in chess and the chess scene.

The shows are a mixture of instruction, fun, current news and answering questions from listeners, as long as they are submitted in advance. Guests are invited, based on whether they might have something interesting to say and good stories to tell, in keeping with the presenters’ belief that chess should be fun and engage people. One of the things that makes the Master Chess Web Show different is that engine use is discouraged and even frowned upon; both Andrew and Nigel believe that using them creates a crutch that gets in the way of people thinking for themselves. Guests are not pressured, and when they relax it can be surprising how frank they are.

Several Grandmasters have appeared on the show, with yours truly being the first to be invited back; after the success of the first show on April 12th a second was arranged, in which I gave the inside track on the 1978 Baguio City match, in which I acted as Victor Korchnoi’s second.

Nigel Davies and Andrew Martin have been friends for almost half a century, during which time they have each produced multiple books and DVDs as well as both acquiring the FIDE Senior Trainer title because of their success as coaches.

I fervently wish the creators of this quintessentially British chess product the best of good fortune in their future endeavours.

I leave you in the company of the four games from Korchnoi’s portfolio, which I analysed on the masterchesswebshow:

Polugaievsky v Korchnoi  game 6, 1977  

Korchnoi v Karpov  game 11, 1978

Korchnoi v Karpov  game 17, 1978

Karpov v Korchnoi  game 32, 1978

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell’s

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