Soviet officials yesterday appeared willing to let their hottest young chess player forfeit a critical match this weekend with Victor Korchnoi, a figure of contempt in the Soviet Union since his defection nine years ago.
Korchnoi was playing a waiting game in Pasadena, Calif., yesterday, and the vibrations coming out of Moscow indicated he might as well be waiting for Godot as for the new Soviet chess phenom, Gary Kasparov.
If Kasparov fails to appear by 2 p.m. Saturday, "he will forfeit the match--it's that simple," said Tim Redman of the U.S. Chess Federation. "Not being allowed to pursue his talent, he will have to wait three more years, and for a man of 20, that's a long time to wait."
Kasparov and the 52-year-old Korchnoi were scheduled to play a semifinal match leading to the selection of a challenger for the world championship held by Anatoly Karpov. But Soviet chess officials, after repeated protests against the choice of Pasadena as a playing site, flatly announced yesterday that Kasparov will not be going there. While they were at it, they bitterly condemned the leadership of Florencio Campomanes, president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE).
"Today, millions of chess fans are looking on with puzzlement and dissatisfaction as Campomanes , striking the pose of a dictator, tries to impose his own will on leading grandmasters," the newspaper Sovietsky Sport declared yesterday.
"The Soviet chess players have their pride," the article added.
Kasparov has said it is his wish not to play in Pasadena, but Randy Hough of the U.S. Chess Federation said, "We have good information to the contrary."
"He's the most exciting player to come along in many years," said Hough. "A lot of people--including people in the Soviet Union--are looking forward to seeing him play Karpov." But "they apparently don't fully trust him. He is considered not fully reliable politically. He is half Jewish, and there is a lot of speculation that the Russian hierarchy would prefer to have Karpov, who is of good Russian peasant stock, as champion."
By tradition, each player has had virtual veto power over the site of any match. But according to U.S. chess officials, the rules require consideration of four factors: the playing conditions, the promotional value to the game, the climate and "the wishes of the participants."
The Soviets contend that Pasadena was chosen to lure former champion Bobby Fischer, a local resident, out of retirement. In any case, they object to Pasadena on the grounds of climate, security problems ("where even the safety of the president of the U.S.A. is not guaranteed," according to Sovietsky Sport), and diplomatic travel restrictions, which mean that an official from the nearest Soviet consulate--in San Francisco--would have to drive rather than fly to Kasparov's aid in an emergency.
"From our point of view," said Edward Malayan, cultural affairs attache' of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, "Mr. Campomanes neglected the rules, which were that the match has to be played in a city which would suit the desire of the two players."
The Soviets have urged Rotterdam instead, pointing out that it was Korchnoi's first choice and Kasparov's second. "And I think you will not deny that the conditions in Rotterdam in summer are not worse than Pasadena," said Malayan.
But according to Redman, Kasparov originally had only one suggestion for a site--Las Palmas in the Canary Islands--and by the time he expressed an interest in Rotterdam, "it was too late."
Campomanes, a native of the Philippines, sees the dispute as a test of will in his campaign to stand up to the Soviets and impose a new order of discipline on the game.
"The U.S.S.R. Chess Federation has, in the past, been accustomed to getting its own way by browbeating the president's distinguished predecessors," he stated after the first Soviet protests in June. "This president will not compromise the broader interests of FIDE and will stand fast by his decision as previously announced."
Last month, he flew to Moscow in hopes of settling the matter, "and he got one of those numbers where he got off the plane at 8 p.m. and they didn't give him any dinner and they took him right to a meeting," said Hough.
Still, Campomanes returned to FIDE headquarters in Lucerne, Switzerland, saying he thought Kasparov would come to Pasadena after all.
The Soviets had also objected to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the scheduled site of the other semifinal between their Vasilly Smyslov and Hungary's Zoltan Ribli. Abu Dhabi was simply too hot, they said, and yesterday the United Arab Emirates Chess Federation withdrew its invitation, explaining: "Since one of the players Smyslov was reported not to be willing to come to Abu Dhabi, then we deemed it necessary to call off the game here."
The word in Abu Dhabi was that the Smyslov-Ribli semifinal would be played instead in Budapest. U.S. chess officials could not confirm this.
It was possible, Hough said, that the Soviets would be just as happy to have another Karpov-Korchnoi final, "because they know Karpov would win." On the other hand, Karpov has said he will refuse to recognize any challenger who emerges by forfeit. If he sticks to that position, it is possible he would have to forfeit his title to Korchnoi.
Five years ago, while losing his first championship match against Karpov in Baguio City, the Philippines, the high-strung Korchnoi charged that his wife and children were being held hostage in the Soviet Union, and he worried that Karpov's support team would send coded messages to him in the arrangement of the food he consumed during play.
"Thus a yogurt after move 20 could signify, 'We instruct you to offer a draw,' or a slice of mango could mean, 'We order you to decline a draw,' or a dish of marinated quail's eggs could mean, 'Play knight-to-knight's-five at once, and so on," a Korchnoi aide explained. "The possibilities are endless."
Later, Korchnoi said his protest was meant as "a joke, I think."