by Jeremy Young | 9/17/2008 05:17:00 PM
Here's what's going on in the Presidential race at the moment:

My favorite instance of chess buffoonery happened when [the fiery Russian defector Viktor] Korchnoi was playing Boris Spassky in Belgrade. Everything started beautifully for Korchnoi. He won five of the first ten games and drew all the others. The match seemed in the bag, but then Spassky sprang a devastating series of ploys. As usual, two isolation booths had been provided in the wings of the stage for the players as an escape from the stifling presence of the audience in the hall. Players frequently use these "rest cabins" to unwind during a championship match, but Spassky literally moved into his. Explaining that he had difficulty concentrating under Korchnoi's gaze, he left the stage entirely as of game 11, viewing the position on the big demonstration board erected for the audience, striding up for a few seconds to make his move and then scuttling back to his retreat like a hermit crab. Alone at the table to fight a phantom opponent as 1,800 pairs of eyes beamed down on him, Korchnoi began blundering, becoming so unnerved that at one memorable moment he gave his queen away, the kind of idiot move that most 10-year-olds would never make. Suddenly the initiative swung to Spassky, and he plunged ahead with another ploy. It was an oversize sun visor, of the sort that copy editors wore in old newspaper city rooms, but this one was bright silver in color. The glare of the demonstration board bothered him, Spassky explained blandly, and he needed some comforting shade. It was nonsense, of course, but Spassky knew he had old Viktor reeling.

"Korchnoi stopped in his tracks in amazement," reported a journalist, but the fun wasn't over yet. Spassky relentlessly plowed on, skillfully adding to his number as each day passed and Korchnoi grew closer to hysteria. Next came a comically huge pair of Mafioso-style sunglasses. Korchnoi sighed and rolled his eyes and threatened to walk out. One postponement followed another as principals, seconds and referees flailed away with the arcana of chess jurisdiction and precedent. The apogee of the dogfight occurred when Spassky appeared onstage with his masterstroke, a pair of black swimming goggles. Korchnoi's mouth hung open, and the audience roared with mirth and appreciation. "Tomorrow he's going to come with a bucket of water and a snorkel," predicted Michael Stean, one of Korchnoi's seconds. Korchnoi finally turned things around by riveting his eyes to the board and more or less forgetting Spassky, but the clowning had made him lose four games in a row, an absolutely un-precedented disaster. He won the match, but it was a close shave.

-- Rudoloph Chelminski, "In the game of chess 'your opponent must be destroyed,'" Smithsonian 28:10 (January 1998): 44-52.



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