David Owen

My colleague Mike Rowbottom's delightful piece on the Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky chess match in 1972 jogged my memory about a visit I paid to Moscow's 18th-century House of the Unions almost 34 years ago.

It is an experience I tend to compartmentalise in my head as a holiday adventure.

On reflection though, it would be better regarded as one of the most noteworthy sessions of live sport it has been my privilege to witness.

For what I saw in the grandiose surroundings of the House's Hall of Columns, where the bodies of Soviet leaders used to lie in state, was a small fragment of the epic/gruelling/marathon/interminable chess World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.

The story, as best I remember, goes like this.

It was 1984. Two friends of friends from university with Russian degrees were toying with the idea of setting up a business that would offer guided tours behind the Iron Curtain.

These were not quite the Mikhail Gorbachev years: a largely forgotten figure called Konstantin Chernenko was in the middle of a brief reign as General Secretary of the ruling Soviet Communist Party.

But there was a sense that the Cold War was starting to thaw just a little, perhaps sufficiently to allow a London-based travel company, headed by Russia specialists, to operate.

In late-December, a smallish party of around a dozen excited twenty-somethings gathered at an airport departure gate for a ten-day trip to Moscow and (as it was then) Leningrad.

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov had an enduring chess rivalry ©Getty Images
Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov had an enduring chess rivalry ©Getty Images

I think we were essentially guinea-pigs, to see how the Soviet authorities reacted and hence help to ascertain whether a full-fledged business venture would be viable.

It turned out to be one of the most memorable trips I have taken, peppered with slightly surreal, unrepeatable experiences.

To try and put things in context for you youngsters, not only was this a country that we had been encouraged for our entire lives to view as a hostile and awesomely powerful nuclear threat, but it was a place with no concept of a market economy, or of freedom of speech for the mass of the population.

We were chaperoned by a young Russian who I took to be an employee of the official tourist agency.

So our trip consisted partly of standard - though none the less wonderful for that - visits to treasures like the Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace and so on.

But our two ex-student guides also had their own contacts.

This opened up to us glimpses of a side of the Soviet Union that few Westerners at the time would have had access to: a traditional neighbourhood sauna near the end of a tram-line; a pop-up beer kiosk in a snowbound Moscow park, supplied by what looked like a heating-oil tanker; the cramped flat of one or more dissident artists who showed us brilliantly inventive canvasses commenting wryly on the drudgery of everyday life.

One of these paintings that stuck in my mind showed Lenin and John Lennon queueing to use the communal bathroom in a run-down Soviet apartment block, their personal toilet-seats - apparently a necessary accoutrement at that time - clamped under their arms.

The other thing to bear in mind is that mainly thanks to that Fischer versus Spassky match, chess was A Big Deal.

By the time we hit the freezing Soviet capital, another dream-to-market, supposed hero versus supposed villain, World Championship clash had been droning on for more than three months.

This time, the guy in the black hat, as far as the West was concerned, was Karpov, thin, cerebral, unspectacular, strategic.

The guy in the white hat was, of course, Kasparov, young, aggressive, ferociously intense and a breath of fresh air.

One of our group was a chess fan, and I think it simply occurred to some of us, while failing to negotiate a second cup of coffee over breakfast at the hostel where we were staying, to ask whether it might be possible to get tickets for a game while we were in Moscow.

A blurred picture of David Owen's trip to the World Chess Championship in Moscow ©ITG
A blurred picture of David Owen's trip to the World Chess Championship in Moscow ©ITG

As a non-Russian speaker, I do not recall the detail of what was done, but it was quite quickly established that, yes, there were tickets, if we could go to some sort of chess association near the match venue to pick them up.

In the absence of that market economy, they were very cheap.

And so in we went.

What I mainly remember is sitting, perhaps 20 rows back on an ordinary straight-backed chair inside a large hall, peering at the two figures on the stage as they huddled over the tiny board that separated them.

In a hopelessly blurred snapshot I took, they are just visible over the backs of spectators' heads, between two of those famous pillars, under multiple chandeliers.

Off to the side, a huge display board shows the state of the game; high above the contestants’ heads, a large oblong poster displays a white horse’s head (a knight?) against a blue egg- or possibly eye-shaped background.

I also recall the chess connoisseur among us whispering that he had identified Mikhail Tal, a revered former world champion, in the audience a couple of rows away.

Not knowing much beyond the rudiments of the game, that is about it for direct memories of the scene - except that nearly every move seemed to be taking an eternity.

By process of deduction, I think that we must have been there for Game 36 of the series, which began on December 28.  

The match situation was this: Kasparov had made a dreadful start; with six wins needed for overall victory, he found himself 4-0 down after just nine games.

He then, in football parlance, parked the bus and reeled off 17 consecutive draws - a sequence which puts even the current draw-fest in London between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana in the shade - before losing again, hence tumbling to the brink of overall defeat, in Game 27.

That was on November 23. After more draws, Kasparov finally secured his first victory in Game 32, begun on December 12.

The game we watched would have been one of another batch of draws, as Karpov battled in vain to secure the one remaining victory he required.

The epic struggle was eventually terminated inconclusively after 48 games, with Karpov leading 5-3.

Kasparov took the crown and became the youngest world champion in history after a new series of matches beginning in September 1985.

I have one further vivid memory.

After watching the duel in the hall for some time, I decided to have a look around.

Fabiano Caruana, left, and champion Magnus Carlsen have played out a series of draws in this year's World Chess Championship ©Getty Images
Fabiano Caruana, left, and champion Magnus Carlsen have played out a series of draws in this year's World Chess Championship ©Getty Images

I remember a side hall with a large table covered mainly with vodka shots and salami open sandwiches.

I then headed off downstairs; knowing me I was probably in search of the loo.

I became aware of a cacophony of voices some way off and headed towards it; there, through a doorway, a rather heart-lifting sight (though not a toilet) met my eyes.

Clustered around another display board like the one upstairs, a couple of dozen men, maybe more, were engaged in animated, even heated, debate about what the next move should be.

(The players had two and a half hours for their first 40 moves, so there was plenty of time for this sort of thing.)

Given that we were encouraged, perhaps even indoctrinated, at the time into thinking of the USSR as an entirely cowed, conformist society, this scene made a deep impression on me.

From that moment on, I understood that Russians are fallible, sentient, passionate human beings, just like us.