Is Everything Aboveboard as Anatoly Karpov Closes in on Another Title?

UPDATED 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

The all-stars of international chess play don't buy and sell their team members, nor do they spike and boogie after seizing an opponent's rook or bishop. But they do engage in histrionics that could make even a Steinbrenner or a Lasorda blush.

That's especially true when the reigning world champ, the U.S.S.R.'s Anatoly Karpov, 30, digs in against archenemy Viktor Korchnoi, 50, a Russian Jew whose 1976 defection to Switzerland via Holland is a move Soviet chess fans view the way Brooklynites regard the Dodgers' retreat to L.A.

When the grand masters last met in the Philippines three years ago, Karpov (who became champ when Bobby Fischer abdicated in 1975) carped that Korchnoi's mirrored sunglasses were distracting. Korchnoi kvetched about Karpov's chair swiveling. Worse, Korchnoi claimed a Karpov aide possessed psychic power and was zapping his meditations. Karpov finally won, after 93 grueling days.

Things have been hardly less Byzantine since the pair assembled last month in the drowsy Tirolean resort town of Merano, Italy for a rematch. Before agreeing to play, the Soviets had thoroughly researched the region's rainfall, most common diseases, noise pollution, water supply and measured local radiation with Geiger counters. Then, on the eve of the match, Tass accused Korchnoi of being an adulterer, though he is publicly demanding the Soviets allow his wife and son to emigrate. Viktor retaliated by having several friends wearing the orange robes of a religious sect take seats for a while in the front row. The goal: to unsettle Karpov. But nothing has seemed to, not even Korchnoi's claim that he is marked for a KGB assassination should he win. The players have spoken only once ("Stop smiling or I'll call you a fascist," Korchnoi said. "You can call me anything you wish," Karpov replied.)

The implacable Anatoly has taken a 4-to-1 lead in victories; the first to win six games is champion. The winner's prize is $250,000 (the loser's, $150,000).

Karpov began young, playing his first game at 4. He credits his father, a Zlatoust factory engineer, with teaching him "the most important secret of chess: A threat is more intimidating than its realization."

Karpov, wife Irina, 27, and son Anatoly Jr., 2, now live in Moscow and will soon have a state-provided retreat. (He keeps some of his tournament winnings and the rest go to the Soviet Chess Federation.) Having earned an economics degree from Leningrad University in 1978 with a thesis on leisure in a socialist society, Karpov knows whereof he wrote. Moody and shy, he doesn't smoke, rarely drinks and dances "badly." But he likes to ski, swim and play tennis and billiards and is an avid stamp collector. In his rented retreat outside Merano, which he shares with a retinue of 13 who accompanied him to the championship, he likes to listen to records by Muslim Magomaev, a Russian singer, and sustain himself with pelmeni, a Russian version of ravioli, prepared by his personal cook. He relishes his diversions. "Chess," he says in his 1975 autobiography, "is my life, but my life does not consist only of chess."

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