(Cover photo credit: Douglas Griffin Twitter)
After the nail-biting defeat at Karpov's hands in the controversial 1978 World Championship match in Baguio City, Viktor Korchnoi was seeded directly in the quarter-final phase of the Candidates Matches of the 1979-1981 World Chess Championship Cycle.
He was joined by Boris Spassky (the loser of the Candidates Final Match of the previous cycle), Mikhail Tal, Lev Polugaevsky and Andras Adorjan (top three from the 1979 Riga Interzonal) and Lajos Portisch, Tigran Petrosian and Robert Hübner (top three from the 1979 Rio De Janeiro Interzonal).
The Candidates Matches were played throughout the 1980. Korchnoi himself once again managed to battle the Soviets successfully.
In the quarter-finals, he beat Petrosian quite convincingly – 5.5-3.5.
Then, in the controversial and dramatic semi-final match, he met his old acquintance – Lev Polugaevsky. The match was held in the customary tense atmosphere – the players avoided any eye contact whatsoever and communicated only through the official arbiter.
Although Korchnoi has always been a very difficult opponent for Polugaevsky, this time the match was very close. After 12 games, the score was tied and two additional games were played, according to the regulations. Only in the 14th game, after employing the „new“ move 8… Ne8 in the variation of the English opening (a move that escaped the attention of Polugaevsky's team was played only 10 days earlier in the other, Hübner – Portisch Candidates match), did Korchnoi manage to break his opponent and proceed to the final.
In the match, Korchnoi, for the first time, met an opponent „he didn't hate“ – German grandmaster Robert Hübner. Although quite a strong grandmaster, Hübner was borderline eccentric. Therefore, although there were no Soviets involved, this match was no less strange or controversial.
After six games, Hübner was leading. Then, in the 7th game, he made a shocking one-move blunder, missing a simple knight fork. After losing the 8th game, Hübner asked for a postponement. Games 9 and 10 were both adjourned and the German grandmaster asked for the postponement of the adjournement sessions as well.
Then, out of nowhere, he decided to leave Merano, where the match was played and was forfeited. To this day, it is not clear what happened behind the curtains – there are claims Hübner's seconds got into a fight and he was unable to handle it.
In any case, Korchnoi got a default win and qualified for yet another match against his old nemesis, Anatoly Karpov.
Just like in 1978, the match was held in a tense political atmosphere. Korchnoi's wife Bela and son Igor were still held in the Soviet Union. Back in 1979, his son was even arrested for evading army service and sentenced to two and half years in labor camp.
Before the match, Korchnoi sent a letter to Brezhnev himself, asking for their release. He even refused to play until his demands are satisfied, but after the sharp Soviet reaction, it was all in vain. His son served the full sentence, and Korchnoi was ultimately joined by his family only in 1982, a year after the match.
The match itself was much less controversial and dramatic than the Baguio City one. Quite simply – Karpov was already way too strong for Korchnoi at a time. Already in the very first game, he managed to open his account with the Black pieces. He then built upon his success in games 2 and 4. With some analytical help from the formidable Soviet team, he managed to breach Korchnoi's Open Ruy Lopez and took the 3-0 commanding lead.
A small glimmer of hope for Korchnoi was provided by his victory in the 6th game, but it turned out to be only a shadow of events that happened back in Baguio. After mere 18 games, the match was over. With a very convincing 6-2 score, Karpov defended his title and earned another three years of peaceful rule.