Last fall, when the world chess chamionship in Moscow was in its early, halcyon days, an article appeared in a newspaper for Communist youth about the value of the game for young minds.
It told of how 12,000 students in the town of Norilsk were learning chess at school, using boards they made themselves in woodwork classes, taught sometimes by their parents in the absence of qualified coaches. This, concluded the author, is all for the good. "Chess lessons help children to study better because . . . it encourages a firmness of character, agility of mind and a quick and logical intellect."
Yesterday's performance at the Hotel Sport, starring a haggard world champion and a defiant challenger involved in a strange and murky battle of wills, revealed the other not-so-logical side of chess.
The world championship match between champion Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov was abruptly ended after a five-month marathon in circumstances that one chess specialist described simply as "dirty."
In the view of some analysts, the struggle over the championship match was also a reflection of the tenacity of the Soviet chess establishment, and its loyalty to Karpov, the man who has kept the title of world champion under the Soviet flag since 1975, beating off a challenge from a Soviet defector in a politically fraught match in 1978.
From around the world, expert opinion has held that the decision by International Chess Federation President Florencio Campomanes to cancel the match and start again favors Karpov. While still ahead 5 to 3 with only one more win needed to clinch victory, the champion had visibly weakened under the strain of the match, losing more than 22 pounds and failing to win a single game since Nov. 27.
The major reason for the prolonged match, which included a record 40 draws, was the scoring system. In most previous championship tournaments, a win counted one point and a half point was awarded for a draw; but in this match nothing was given for draws.
To Kasparov's partisans, Campomanes' decision was only a pretext in the first place. "You have to look deeper," said one fan ominously.
Will it become a scandal in chess circles, one Kasparov follower was asked shortly after the announcement. It is already a "bolshoi [great] scandal," was the answer.
But while the news of yesterday's "brouhaha" -- a word used by Campomanes at one point during a highly charged press conference -- made the front pages in foreign newspapers, Soviet papers today kept their information to a minimum. The match was annulled by the president for the good of the two players, for the good of chess, a new match will be held after a chess federation congress in August. That was the extent of the story on the back page of the Communist Party daily Pravda.
Today, the Soviet news agency Tass elaborated on the reasons for the decision and quoted the chief arbiter of the match, Yugoslav Svetozar Gligoric as saying that Campomanes' decision was "absolutely justifiable."
"I believe Karpov and Kasparov are really very tired, and this is quite understandable . . . after such a marathon 'battle'," Tass quoted Gligoric as saying. However, Kasparov, at 21 the youngest man ever to play in a world championship, appeared perfectly fit yesterday as he made an appeal to keep playing.
Of the three arbiters of the match, Gligoric was the only non-Soviet and, according to chess experts, his consent to the Campomanes decision has outraged chess circles in Yugoslavia, where the game is popular.
For die-hard fans, particularly those backing Kasparov, the official explanation was not sufficient, although they too had to admit that they had grown weary of the endless draws.
Still, as one fan said, "Kasparov had just won, not once but twice. He had come back from 5 to 0; it was his time." And while nothing was printed here about Kasparov's angry denunciation of yesterday's "performance," word nonetheless got around. Among his devotees, there was intense curiosity about how the matter was being treated "there" -- in the West.
In the Soviet Union, chess is not just a game. For many, it's a passion, as football is for Americans. Chess results top the evening sports programs, chess magazines have subscriptions of 100,000 or more. There are an estimated 4 million people involved in organized chess, but chess organizers estimate that about 40 million play and follow the game, debate the moves and choose a favorite from the galaxy of Soviet chess stars.
The Russian love of chess is an old story. But in the Soviet Union, the game's popular appeal has spread beyond those of Russian nationality. In Armenia, there is a chess school named after Tigran Petrosian, that Soviet republic's native world champion. Kasparov received his early training in the Republic of Azerbaijan, although he is of Armenian and Jewish extraction.
For Soviet officialdom, chess has also become a matter of national honor. The same is true of other sports and in the arts: the Soviet system is able to find talent at an early age, develop it, and nurture it until it can go on the world stage and carry off international prizes.
In chess, the system of special schools and professional guidance has produced about 50 Soviet grandmasters and about 150 international masters -- far more than any other country. In 1980, Karpov himself noted that it was "especially pleasant" to note that in 78 international tournaments, Soviet players finished first in 52.
Chess, being in some ways a national pastime, has long had a special political dimension. Since 1927, the men's world title has stayed in Soviet hands with only two lapses -- once in the 1930s when Dutchman Max Euwe held it for three years and then again from 1972 to 1975, when the brilliant but erratic American, Bobby Fischer, reigned.
Fischer earned a special place is Soviet chess memory. On the wall of the game room at the Moscow Chess Club, his is the only picture of a non-Soviet. He is also the idol of Kasparov, who is said to share his bold, attacking style.
Since Fischer's days, some here say that Soviet determination to hold the crown has only grown. The challenge to Karpov by Victor Korchnoi, a defector, only elevated the struggle, turning Karpov into something of a national hero, an upholder of the Soviet way against a man viewed here as a traitor.
This year's match, between two Soviets, both members of the Communist Party, had at first seemed dull compared to the fireworks of the Karpov-Korchnoi battles or, before that, the face-off between Fischer and Boris Spassky.
But even with both players playing under the same flag, high emotions -- and some say politics, albeit of a different sort -- once again erupted to overshadow this most silent and intellectual of games.