The World Champion, a film directed by Alexey Sidorov that depicts the dramatic world championship match between GM Anatoly Karpov and GM Viktor Korchnoi in 1978, hits cinemas in Russia on Thursday.
While the 1972 “Match of the Century” in Reykjavik between GM Bobby Fischer and GM Boris Spassky had plenty of intrigues, the next world championship match, in 1978 in Baguio City (the Philippines), was even more tense and dramatic. This legendary showdown between USSR loyalist Karpov and Soviet émigré Korchnoi, was a duel of personalities under immense psychological pressure and with the stakes incomprehensibly high.
Following the 2014 movie Pawn Sacrifice about the 1972 match and a documentary about the 1978 match, we now also have a film depicting the first of the two Karpov-Korchnoi clashes. (Karpov’s runaway victory in 1981 against the same opponent is much less memorable.)
It took a while before the movie took shape. Sidorov (53), both the director and author of the original screenplay, spent three decades playing with the idea of the film.
“The match, and the story around it, captured my imagination when I was 10 years old,” he said. “I was a witness to the excitement surrounding the battle. There was this incredible atmosphere when updates on the chess match filtered in from the Philippines and spread across the Soviet Union. Naturally, for political reasons, everyone spoke about the tournament in hushed tones, but I knew that something important was going on. And I remember thinking that the surname ‘Korchnoi’ had a menacing ring to it. I played chess a little with my father, and the championship match naturally spurred my interest.”
While writing the screenplay, Sidorov studied chess literature, including Karpov and Korchnoi’s autobiographies, and watched documentary footage.
Shooting commenced in July 2020 and after a pause due to the pandemic, it was completed in the spring of 2021. The film was shot at locations in Moscow, Sochi, Serbia, and Montenegro.
Karpov himself was involved as well, getting to see an early version of the screenplay, meeting with the film’s creators, and talking with actor Ivan Yankovsky, who plays Karpov in the film. Konstantin Khabensky plays Korchnoi.
The press material further informs that staff at the Russian Chess Museum and the library of the Botvinnik Central Chess Club in Moscow gave invaluable support and provided the production team with archival materials and props such as period books, magazines, posters, chess sets, and clocks .
Among the consultants were GMs Daniil Dubov, who was brought onto the team after helping Yankovsky get into the character of Karpov. The actor, who even joined a chess club and played online, had seen Dubov on the cover of a chess magazine and wrote to him asking for a meeting.
“Karpov’s love for the game astounded me,” Yankovsky said. “Dubov told me that Anatoly loves not only chess, he also plays pool and even plays strategy board games on a tablet computer. Love for the game and the drive to win are vital qualities that make a real champion. That and the ability to set priorities and maintain a game-life balance. When you know for sure what your goals in life are and where the limits of the game are, then it’s easier to make decisions and choose the right path.”
It seems that no energy was saved to visualize the 1978 match with the finest details. set designers painstakingly reproduced the interiors of the venue in Baguio City from film footage and photographs. The chess table, the players’ chairs, and even the chess clock are the same as those used in the match.
After a gala premiere on December 22, The World Champion hits Russian cinemas on Thursday. Plans for an international release aren’t known yet, but we’ll post about it when we learn more.