Chess icon Karpov recalls epic match in Baguio
BAGUIO CITY—Russian chess legend Anatoly Karpov stepped nonchalantly into the Baguio Convention Center on Feb. 1 where his historic match against the late Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi about 45 years ago had fueled a global fascination with their celebrated rivalry.
Stopping briefly to sign the chessboard of a Baguio employee, Karpov, now 72 years old, proceeded to the hall, where he spoke to around 60 Baguio chess enthusiasts, many of them children and young adults.
This was the Russian grandmaster’s (GM) first official visit to the renovated convention center, which many believed was constructed purposely for the 1978 World Chess Championship by the administration of then-President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Karpov was world champion at the time after the late American GM Bobby Fischer forfeited his title due to a rules dispute with the International Chess Federation or World Chess Federation (Fide, or Fédération Internationale des Échecs).
Korchnoi, a former USSR (the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics or Soviet Union) GM, was the challenger, and the much talked about tournament drew the biggest number of sports journalists to Baguio City, said Karpov, now a member of the State Duma, one of the chambers of the Russian parliament.
Books and many archival reports portray the Baguio tournament as a “surreal” event, marked by tension and bitter public outbursts between Karpov, who was in his 20s, and 47-year-old Korchnoi.
One of the more controversial stories about the match involved Korchnoi’s allegations that he was being hypnotized by a Soviet parapsychologist embedded in the audience.
Karpov said Florencio Campomanes, one of the tournament’s Philippine organizers, thought he could handle the rivals’ dispute and was surprised when one of the first grievances involved selecting the chess board for the games.
“Campomanes could not believe he had to allow us to choose our own chess sets and chess boards,” he recalled.
Campomanes, who later served as Fide president from 1982 to 1985, eventually found a set that was acceptable to both players from a private collector in Metro Manila.
Karpov described the Baguio tournament as one of his longest matches, having spanned three months from July to October in 1978. He said the Soviet delegation had to live in the city and endured the inclement weather.
“During the match, we had many typhoons and a lot of rain … we had water from the [convention center] roof and we had water in the hall,” he said.
The Philippine tournament organizers fixed the leaks quickly and the games resumed, he said, crediting the work of the local officials and their crew as “near perfect.”
Karpov also remembered how an American military official, who was assigned to one of the US military bases in the country, helped him find a suitable tennis court because he did not like the courts in Baguio at the time.
“I needed to make physical preparations for the games,” the Russian chess legend said, adding that his legs were not comfortable with the surface grade of the local court.
This also enraged Korchnoi. “Korchnoi believed the Americans should have been on his side,” he said.
Karpov said the late former President Fidel V. Ramos had invited him to visit the Philippines to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Baguio chess match in 1998.
The Russian GM went to Baguio City that year and was a guest during the opening of the University of Baguio’s Campomanes Chess Plaza. It was not clear if Karpov took time to visit the convention center that year during his brief tour of the summer capital.
Both Campomanes and Fischer have ties to Baguio. Campomanes died in the city in 2010, after retiring here. Fischer was a frequent Baguio visitor who guested in midnight radio chats with the late broadcaster Pablo Mercado and had stayed with Filipino GM Eugene Torre between 2000 and 2002.
One of Karpov’s recollections was playing against Torre, then the top chess player in the Philippines.
A recent Inquirer report said Torre, Asia’s first GM, defeated Karpov in his prime twice. The Russian GM, however, beat Torre four times and drew the Filipino five times in their head-to-head.
According to Karpov, he has been advocating for chess to be played in Russian schools, and many institutions there have heeded his advice. But he turned down a request made by a Baguio chess enthusiast to expand that advocacy to the Philippines, citing his duties as a member of the Russian parliament.
Karpov also begged off when asked to play an exhibition game, explaining that “it would require much preparation.” But he agreed to take photographs with local chess players, most of whom were not born when he faced Korchnoi in Baguio.
One of them was 10-year-old Shiloh Paran, who said he studied Karpov’s chess moves from a book. He is a Grade 5 student of Baguio Siloam Christian Academy who raced to the convention center after hearing about the grandmaster’s visit. Karpov signed the boy’s chess board when it was offered up to him.
Karpov said he was in the country as part of a Moscow delegation led by the Russian Ministry of Foreign and External Economic Relations, which cemented cooperation ties with the City of Manila on Jan. 30.
Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Marat Pavlov said Karpov’s return to the Baguio Convention Center was “a historic event,” which he and Mayor Benjamin Magalong first scheduled in 2021 to coincide with the 45th year since the Philippines and the USSR opened diplomatic ties in 1976.
“The pandemic happened … but all dreams come true,” Pavlov said.
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