This is Viktor Korchnoi
, at this point in his life, the Swiss grandmaster widely regarded as the best player never to win the world championship. Bear with me as I endeavour to tell his story, and the story behind this photograph.
Born in Leningrad, Korchnoi -along with many Soviet grandmasters of his generation- was mistreated by the Soviet authorities. Speaking only Russian and unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, two years before this photograph was taken at a tournament in Amsterdam he asked the British grandmaster Tony Miles
for assistance with his English spelling. Miles handed him a slip of paper with the answer spelled out:P O L I T I C A L A S Y L U M
Korchnoi passed the paper over the counter at a police station and defected to the West. To say the Soviet Union was deeply unimpressed with this would be an understatement. Every player from the countries of the Warsaw Pact
-the majority of the strongest players in the world- was forbidden to play against him.
This was deeply problematic. You see the Chess World Championship doesn't operate like most other sports, in which typically there is a knock-out tournament every four years. Chess also has a four year cycle but it is played by everyone except
the reigning champion. This is called the "Candidate Series" where every other player is competing for the right to face the sitting champion.
Because all of the Eastern Bloc players were forced to forfeit when drawn to play Korchnoi, he had an easy path to winning the Candidate Series and did so, earning the right to play the defending champion Anatoly Karpov
The Soviets were sensitive that Karpov's status as champion was disputable, as he had been appointed rather than winning it because Bobby Fischer
had vacated the title in a petulant huff. So when the world governing body FIDE
ruled that Korchnoi would be declared world champion if Karpov refused to play, the Soviets made an exception for Karpov and allowed him to defend the title, much to the chagrin of the Eastern Bloc players who'd been instructed to forfeit.
Which brings me to the photograph.
This is the World Chess Championship of 1978 held in the Philippines, the match that is the inspiration for the Musical "Chess
" and the song "One Night in Bangkok
" from it everyone knows and wishes they didn't.
The reigning champion Anatoly Karpov has his back to the camera, behind him is the might of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
Korchnoi is dealing with the psychological pressure of the fact his wife and son are still in Russia. And he is wearing mirrored sunglasses because he's convinced that Karpov's personal psychiatrist is endeavouring to hypnotise him from the front row of the audience.
He lost the match 5-6 at game 32.