Like the world heavyweight boxing championship, the world chess championship has fallen on hard times since the ’70s and ’80s. The succession of colorful, controversial figures died out in a muddle of disputed titles and curious decisions.
From a U.S. perspective, the peak was the 1972 match in which Bobby Fischer won the title from Boris Spassky. The Soviet Union wouldn’t be without the title long — the erratic genius Fischer made a couple of unreasonable demands for his title defense and forfeited the crown to Anatoly Karpov in 1975.
Yet even without an American involved, Karpov’s 1978 title defense in Viktor Korchnoi was well-covered in the USA — see Sports Illustrated‘s report from the match’s opening and note Korchnoi’s “Ali-like entourage.” With the rabble-rousing defector Korchnoi facing a Soviet champion after disposing of several Soviet challengers, the match was steeped in Cold War animosity, perhaps even moreso than the Fischer-Spassky match. A Korchnoi comeback made the match almost as interesting on the board as it was off. Sports Illustrated recapped the final games, hinting that the key decision may have been the organizers’ agreement to kick out two Korchnoi aides — American members of an Indian “meditative sect” who were out on bail pending appeal of a stabbing convictiong — and the front-row seating of a Soviet “parapsychologist” who helped Karpov by staring intently at the challenger.