A blog post dedicated to the tense 1980 Candidates’ Semi-final between Korchnoi and Polugaevsky, featuring translations of the annotations of the games to the match from the contemporary Soviet press, and some background to the event.
Viktor Korchnoi & Lev Polugaevsky in happier times together, toasting their success at the Amsterdam IBM tournament of July 1972. Polugaevsky took 1st place, with Korchnoi 2nd. (Photographer: unknown, via the Dutch National Archive.)
Korchnoi and Polugaevsky qualified for the semi-final of the 1980 Candidates’ series by winning their quarter-final matches against Petrosian, in Velden (+2,-0,=7) and Tal (+3,-0,=5) , in Alma-Ata, respectively.
This was not the first time these old rivals had crossed swords in the Candidates. In the previous cycle they had met at the same semi-final stage in Évian-les-Bains (France). It proved to be a fairly one-sided affair after Korchnoi won the first three games and then a further two with no reply in games 6 and 7. The match, scheduled for 16 games, was over after 13.
The 1980 match, which was organised by the Argentinian Chess Federation and sponsored by the newspaper La Nación, took place in the Teatro Premier on Av. Corrientes in central Buenos Aires, and lasted almost exactly a month – from 21st July until 20th August 1980. This time it was to be played over 12 games; if the scores were still level, an additional two games would be played, and then, if still level, a further two. If this was still insufficient to break the deadlock, the player having the most wins with the black pieces would be declared the winner.
A bilboard by the Teatro Premier during the match (source: La Nación).
The arbiters were Miguel Najdorf (who wrote daily articles on the event for the newspaper Clarín) and Boris de Greiff.
Korchnoi had as his seconds Michael Stean and Yasser Seirawan, while Polugaevsky was assisted by Evgeny Sveshnikov and Orest Averkin.
Their tussle in Buenos Aires proved to be a far more tense affair than their clash in Évian three years earlier. Off-the-board, as had become the norm in matches between Korchnoi and representatives of the USSR, the personal relations between the players were kept to an absolute minimum, with no shaking of hands and communication via the arbiter.
25 years later, an article in La Nación would recall that
During four weeks, a multitude followed the games and filled the Avenida Corrientes…
The political framework of the world in 1980, during the years of the Cold War, perhaps fanned the rivalry of flags among the aficionados
In the 1st game of the match Polugaevsky drew effortlessly with the Black pieces in what was a portent of things to come. In the odd-numbered games, Korchnoi’s efforts to gain an advantage from the opening would prove to be generally fruitless, despite repeated attempts in one of the lines of the symmetrical English. Indeed, the match was marked by the consistency of the players’ opening choices, with the classical main line of the Queen’s Indian (4.g3 Bb7) occurring in five of the ‘even’ games, with Polugaevsky playing White.
After fairly undramatic draws in the 2nd and 3rd games, Korchnoi broke through in the 4th, nursing a microscopic middlegame advantage with the black pieces and winning a long technical rook ending in his trademark style. The 5th game proved to be fairly eventful; Polugaevsky again equalised effortlessly, but after evidently rejecting a drawing continuation in a double-edged middlegame, he was fortunate to escape defeat. In the 6th game, Polugaevsky resorted to the gambit variation 7.d5!? exd5 8.Nd4, which was known to theory but which was not considered dangerous for Black. Korchnoi, perhaps caught off guard, preferred not to hold on to the pawn, choosing instead a continuation that he would have known from the game Uhlmann-Taimanov (‘Match of the Century’, Belgrade 1970). However, he failed to equalise, and Polugaevsky won in fine style. Thus, at the half-way point of the scheduled twelve games, the match was level.
In the 7th game Korchnoi pushed hard for the win and may indeed have missed the chance to take the lead deep into the endgame. However, matters concluded in a draw. In the 8th game – another Queen’s Indian – Polugaevsky repeated the line with 7.d5!? exd5 8.Nd4. However, this time Korchnoi was well prepared, and in the critical line introduced a novelty at the 13th move. Polugaevsky fought very hard but was ultimately unable to prevent transposition into a difficult endgame. After various adventures, Korchnoi took the full point as the game approached 100 moves.
After a tame draw in the 9th match-game, the 10th broke the mould somewhat, beginning 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5. Korchnoi failed to equalise fully, but as play entered an endgame Polugaevsky missed a chance to consolidate his positional advantage and another draw resulted.
With two games remaining in ‘normal time’, Polugaevsky now needed 1½ points to stay in the match. The 11th game saw him adopt the ‘hedghog’ set-up that was then becoming fashionable at the highest levels, but after a full-blooded struggle the result was another shared point. Thus, Polugaevsky had to win ‘on demand’ in the 12th game. He took one of his permitted postponements, and evidently put the extra time to good use. Annotating this game a couple of years later, he was to write:
In preparing for the decisive 12th game, in which only a victory could satisfy me, I studied over the course of many hours the position arising after Black’s 13th move, but was not able to improve White’s play. I had to go back, and it was just here that I managed to find a completely new track in an opening that had seemingly been studied ‘inside and out’. Further evidence of the inexhaustible nature of chess!
It proved to be one of the finest games of Polugaevsky’s long career. In the position after 7.d5!? exd5, he came up with the stunning novelty 8.Nh4!, a line that has not lost its topicality to this day.
The position prior to 12.Nxg7! in the 12th match-game.
Korchnoi chose a defence that allowed White, after 12.Nxg7! and 13.b4, to gain control over the dark squares as compensation for the missing pawn. After he was able to force a breakthrough in the centre (23.e5), the storm broke over Black’s position with 25.Rd7!!.
The position prior to 25.Rd7!! in the 12th match-game.
After this, decisive win of material was inevitable. Though Polugaevsky made somewhat heavy weather of the technical stage of the game, his victory was never in doubt. Thus, the match had been forced into ‘extra time’.
In the 13th game Polugaevsky once more emerged from the opening with no problems. In a tense struggle that continued deep into the endgame, neither player was able to gain winning chances and a draw was agreed at the 63rd move.
The decisive 14th game of the match saw a repeat of an opening line that had seen Polugaevsky (White) suffer a crushing defeat against Tal in the Interzonal tournament at Riga the previous year. Evidently, he had found an improvement in the interim, but Korchnoi was first to vary, continuing 6…Nd3+ rather than 6…Be6. He made use of a continuation that had been employed a week and a half previously by Lajos Portisch against Robert Hübner, in the other Candidates’ semi-final match that was taking place in Abano Terme (Italy). It seems that Bent Larsen (who was then living in Argentina) was in Italy as a correspondent for Clarín, and had published analysis of this line in the newspaper column, but the Soviet team was unaware of this. Polugaevsky repeated Hübner’s play until the 15th move, but after thinking for 30 minutes decided on a highly dubious plan that resulted in his king being exposed in the centre. In addition to his difficulties on the board, by move 21 he had only 10 minutes remaining for the next 19 moves. The situation proved to be too much for him, and he suffered a crushing defeat.
Thus, Korchnoi progressed to face Hübner (who defeated Lajos Portisch by the score 6½:4½ in Abano Terme) in the Candidates’ final. However, it had been a very close-run thing. Sosonko, in his moving portrait of Polugaevsky in Russian Silhouettes, later wrote regarding this match
One has to agree with Spassky, that the entire atmosphere at the Korchnoi-Polugaevsky match in Buenos Aires in 1980 – the non-shaking of hands , the minor conflicts and clashes – all this affected Polugaevsky to a much greater degree than his opponent. Korchnoi was accustomed to such an atmosphere from the time of his match with Petrosian in 1974, which for him was a kind of training ground for subsequent serious battles, more particularly those away from the board. Who knows how that match in Buenos Aires would have ended, had the battle been fought only on the 64 squares.
Some of from Miguel Najdorf’s articles from the newspaper Clarín
The games of the match were annotated by Soviet grandmaster Sergei Makarychev in the newspaper ’64’. Variations from the annotations by Evgeny Sveshnikov and Michael Stean in Chess Informant (vol. 30) have been incorporated to Makarychev’s annotations at critical junctures – on occasions, assessments on the positions seem to have differed widely… The annotations to the 12th game are by Lev Polugaevsky, from a later biographical work on the grandmaster from Kuibyshev, published in 1982.
Translations of these annotations are available to download at the following links. I have omitted the 2nd and 9th games, which were colourless draws.
The annotations by Makarychev are from a series of articles written while the match was in progress, and published in the newspaper ‘64‘ (№ 15, № 16, № 17 & № 18). Polugaevsky’s annotations to Game 12 are from Grossmeister Polugaevsky (Fizkultura i Sport, Moscow 1982, edited by Ya. V. Damsky).
The quote by Sosonko is from Russian Silhouettes (1st edition, published by New in Chess, 2001) pp 62-63.
Some background to the match was provided in a 2005 article (in Spanish) by the Argentinian chess writer Carlos A. Ilardo on the ChessBase website. The quote from La Nación was accessed at https://www.lanacion.com.ar/deportes/25-anos-hito-de-una-pasion-nid731583.
The photos of the articles in Clarín are from http://najdorf-miguel.blogspot.com.