WHEN THE KNIGHT sat down across from Death to play a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman's movie classic "The Seventh Seal," their game was not without precedent: Wilhelm Steinitz, the world champion from 1866 to 1894, claimed, near the end of his life, that he had exhausted all potential human opponents and was playing a match against God--giving the Latter pawn odds.
Chess lends itself to such flights of fantasy. There is, in the medieval symbolism of the chess pieces and the way they are moved, in the timeless symbolism of opposite colors, an allegory for conflict and battle. Enmity is in the nature of the game.
The grandmaster sits face to face with a man whose object is to take away his livelihood. His only desire is to find the weakness in each of his opponent's moves, and he crafts each of his own to exploit the other. A championship chess game is like a bitter five-hour argument during which neither party can agree with anything the other says.
Garri Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov have had 120 such arguments in their four championship matches. And tomorrow, at the Macklowe Center in Times Square, in front of television cameras, they will begin another. After a gala dinner on the eve of the match, the two Soviet millionaires will draw colors to determine who will make the opening move of the first championship held on American soil since 1907, a match with a $3-million prize. Against a backdrop of American corporate logos, they will begin 24 games to decide who can call himself world champion for the next three years.
The two have enjoyed a monopoly on the title for the past 15 years. After Karpov became champion in 1975, nobody mounted a successful challenge until Kasparov took the title a decade later; since then, only Karpov has challenged Kasparov. Their first match, ending without a decision, and their second, which Kasparov won, were played in Moscow in 1984 and 1985. In their third match, divided between London and Leningrad, Kasparov eked out another narrow victory. By virtue of a tie score in their fourth match in Seville in 1987, Kasparov retained his title. No two championship contestants have ever played so often. After 120 games, Kasparov has won only one more than Karpov. They are perhaps the most equally matched--and the most acrimonious--rivals the game has ever seen.
They are a study in opposites: Karpov is pale and slight, Kasparov dark and sturdy. Karpov is so reticent that he only recently began granting interviews; Kasparov is blustery and hyperbolic, a walking sound bite who endorses Schweppes soft drinks and appears on David Letterman. Karpov, at 39, is a cautious reformist who believes in gradual change for the Soviet Union; Kasparov, 12 years younger, is a freewheeling radical who demands complete transformation of the Soviet system. Karpov is a wary chess strategist, Kasparov, a risky tactician. The two unite only in a grand loathing for the other.
"Kasparov," says Karpov, at the first mention of his opponent's name, "brings you one fact which is well-known, but around this fact he gives a lot of lies."
"I don't want to say that Karpov is a liar," charges Kasparov when I say I have spoken with Karpov, "but normally he tells something that's just outside of reality."
Their animosity is not unique in chess. Alekhine and Capabalanca, the great rivals of the 1920s, did not speak and refused even to enter tournaments in which the other played. Bobby Fischer, who once said he enjoyed chess because "I like to watch them squirm," found himself so far ahead of any competitor that he made the entire Soviet chess establishment the target of relentless criticism. Victor Korchnoi, who lost two championship matches with Karpov, declared, "I must hate my opponent."
APPLAUSE BREAKS OUT as Anatoly Karpov steps into the dry August sunlight on a terrace overlooking San Lorenzo del Escorial, the ancient village outside Madrid that is the traditional burial place of Spanish kings. I am one of 26 players in this exhibition who rise like a receiving line behind a long strand of chessboards to shake hands with the man who inherited the championship from Bobby Fischer. Karpov greets each with a smile and a different chess opening. The bearded young intellectual to my left will defend against the Queen's Gambit, the elderly gentleman to my right faces an English Opening, and I must play against one of the oldest openings in chess, the king-side attack that bears the name of the 16th-Century cleric Ruy Lopez.
Karpov strolls from board to board, pausing to consider each position for a few seconds before making his move, placid, relaxed, slightly removed, a shopper at a flea market who hasn't yet seen anything he wants to buy.
"I like your game," my young neighbor tells me. "You have many plans." I wish I could see them, I say. He laughs. "You don't expect to actually win? Karpov is very astute."