Closing Gambit: A Review

Billed as a documentary, the 80-minute Closing Gambit: 1978 Korchnoi versus Karpov and the Kremlin (Screenbound Productions, 2018) aired on July 1, 2018 on Hulu. As is usual with well-crafted documentaries about subjects previously analyzed or debated in widely-publicized books, before its release I hoped to see a reasonable amount of fresh material or a consistent effort to challenge perceptions or inconsistencies left in place for decades. But what Alan Byron, the writer and the director, has offered us instead is a reel of recent interview snippets of star-level grandmasters juxtaposed with archival footage and a minimum of narration.

Like a materialistic chess player grabbing material at the expense of the harmony between his pieces, the director opted for quantity instead of focusing on quality and genuine substance. Throughout the film we hear from 18 grandmasters (Michael Adams, Vishy Anand, Boris Gelfand, Vlastimil Hort, Gregory Kaidanov, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Raymond Keene, Daniel King, Yannick Pelletier, Yasser Seirawan, Nigel Short, Gennadi Sosonko, Michael Stean, Emil Sutovsky, Peter Svidler, Jan Timman and Veselin Topalov), some of them with bigger roles and longer lines than others. To be sure, it’s always interesting to hear from such players (especially from first-hand witnesses) on any chess-related topic but the overwhelming impression one gets is that telling a story through brief snippets of recent interviews from a long string of household names is not exactly the best way to tell a coherent, meaningful and nuanced story. What we get here is a wealth of superficial, substance-free and almost cliché lines interrupted by a somewhat deeper thought here and there, a disjointed and depth-less mix. The narrator’s job was essentially outsourced to the guest stars and it simply doesn’t work. Stylistically, high-quality documentaries feature high-quality narration and a cleverly selected cast of characters.

The selection of (mostly) Associated Press high-quality footage heavily used in the film strikes an interesting balance. But even here I have to say that I did not see a single piece of footage which was new to me or is likely to be genuinely new to the average chess fan interested in history or culture. There were a few missed opportunities throughout. For the past couple of years, during my research I’ve seen plenty of little-known footage of excellent quality (e.g. Karpov’s crowning as world champion in 1975, Karpov’s stunning military-style parade on his arrival in the Philippines, Korchnoi and his analysis team working in the hotel room, Zukhar and Karpov’s entourage in Baguio, Karpov’s welcoming home by his fans, family and security apparatus staff, Korchnoi’s simultaneous exhibition in Hong Kong following the match and quite a few other rare ones) but none of this lesser known material is used in this film. 

On the topic of archival material, it’s one of the film’s greatest failings. Access to the KGB archives can be difficult but it seems critical for the story’s angle. Has there been any attempt to actually request or access such material from Russian archives? We don’t know because nobody tells us that. Has there been an attempt to physically visit the Russian archives and film the visit and the interaction with the people in charge (footage which could have been used in the documentary)? We can’t tell. Was there an effort to visit the Philippines and obtain previously unpublished material (e.g. footage, recordings, documentation, oral history accounts)? I doubt it. The overreliance on grandmaster chatter may work for some but, in terms of archival research, ground-breaking material and serious attempts to unearth interesting or fresh information, the film falls short quite dramatically. A word to the wise: in addition to having two dozen grandmasters it would pay off to have one or two professional historians or specialized chess historians on board.

The lack of a coherent voice leading the narrative is especially missed when various inconsistencies in the interviews required better presentation. At one point, in a discussion about the psychological trappings of the match, you see Keene claiming that Korchnoi played at his worst when he was angry and a few moments later you have Stean claiming Korchnoi was playing at his very best when he was angry. The film’s almost servile reliance on Keene’s story-telling is particularly regrettable. As a leading member of Korchnoi’s team, he obviously had to be interviewed but he had to be interviewed searchingly. Was the director aware of Korchnoi’s own writings and unequivocal public statements about Keene’s role and behavior during the match? Or about Keene’s long record of blundering on multiple levels in terms of public statements or in his writings on historical topics? As it stands, Keene’s nonsense remained unchallenged. For instance, when he recounted the dramatic 5-5 moment in the match and being approached for a possible termination, he took time to explain his decision to keep Korchnoi in the dark: 

So Korchnoi has now pulled back from 5 to 2 down to 5 each and he has won three of the last four games. And various things happened at this point. One was that the President of the World Chess Federation, Dr. Max Euwe, came to me and said “Let’s just call the match off, shall we? We call it a draw and we’ll have another match next year.” My first thought was if I suggest this to Korchnoi and he says yes he may have thrown away his chance of winning the match because we just won three in a row essentially. But if he says no, when he plays the next game he may wish that he’d agreed to do it and it may affect his play. So do I tell Korchnoi or do I just take the decision myself as the head of his delegation? My second thought was what is the world going to say? When it’s got to its most exciting point, we call it off. So I said to Euwe, “No, we are not going to do that. I am not even going to tell Korchnoi. Forget you have suggested it.” But I think it was a legitimate suggestion.

What Keene keeps to himself (and during this interview for the film no one reminded him of) is that he knowingly breached a written contract with Korchnoi by secretly writing a book about the match during the match. The chess world needed a dramatic finish all right. But a shamelessly self-interested Keene needed a dramatic finish too. The narrator briefly mentions Korchnoi’s dissatisfaction with Keene’s little side project but Keene gets the last word without even addressing the issue. 

Was the director/writer really unaware that Korchnoi himself produced a detailed book on the controversies in the match (156 pages in the original German edition and 145 pages in the English edition)? It is an insult to Korchnoi's memory that his important work is ignored by the film.

All in all, as the public record has indisputably shown for the past decades, the more you are tempted to rely on Keene’s recounting of events, the heavier is your need for diligent fact-checking. If truth-telling is the point of a serious documentary, as it should be, then the film fails to establish some clear facts. This was important for the story of the Baguio match was not just a story concerning a contest against a Kremlin-backed star and a team of Kremlin operatives; it was also a story of Korchnoi team’s inner breakdown and, ultimately, utter dysfunction.

The 1970s gave us two major world title matches, both underdog stories and both scripted as duels between a remarkable individual and a redoubtable oppressive system: Spassky vs. Fischer (1972) and Karpov vs. Korchnoi (1978). If in the first case the individual defeated the system, the latter struck back in the second case, with the Soviet hierarchy crushing a talented defector’s ambitions. This wider aspect linking sport to culture and Cold War-era politics, as well as the controversies surrounding it, justifies placing a magnifying glass on the Baguio 1978 match as a promising subject for a fresh investigative effort. This particular documentary offers a lot of new color and a dizzying number of easily recognizable faces. But, at least from a historian’s perspective, there’s very little that is fresh or new about it.