Garry Kasparov On Viktor Korchnoi
The great Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi died Tuesday in Switzerland at the age of 85. His longevity as a top-level player and his fighting spirit were such that it was easy to hope that he might trick Death himself in a rook endgame and live forever! Instead, we have our memories of “Viktor the Terrible” and his unmatched lifetime of games that will indeed live forever. I’m sure there will be many detailed obituaries of him, so I will limit myself here to a few personal anecdotes and impressions.
Korchnoi in Amsterdam in 1972 | Photo Wikipedia.
I first played against Korchnoi in 1975 when I was 13 and faced him in a clock simul in Leningrad, a traditional competition that pitted teams of youngsters against top Soviet grandmasters. But I wouldn’t say I really met him then, since he had little time for chit-chat with young upstarts, even those, or especially those, who drew against him as I did!
Korchnoi was as legendary for his irascible character and sharp wit as he was for his chess. Born in Leningrad in 1931, a survivor of the Great Siege, Korchnoi had already had a worthy chess career before becoming a repeat world championship challenger and an infamous (from the Soviet perspective) defector to the West in 1976.
I saw Korchnoi play against Karpov in 1974, during my first visit to the Hall of Columns in Moscow—where I would later play a world championship match of my own against Karpov. I was visiting with a group of coaches and students from the Botvinnik School. It was game 21 of what would retroactively become a de facto world championship match when Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title against Karpov in 1975. (I remember being shocked when Karpov missed the tactical blow 13.Nxh7!, quickly spotted by my classmates and I, and lost in just 19 moves.) Korchnoi narrowly lost that match, and then two bitter world championship matches in 1978 and 1981, a period that earned him the bittersweet title of the strongest player never to win the world championship.
Korchnoi’s energy and uncompromising search for the truth at the chessboard impressed me greatly as a teen. I recall following his 1977 candidates match with Polugaevsky with my trainer Nikitin and being amazed that such a strong player as Polu could be dominated like that. The score was 6-1 for Korchnoi after seven games!
There are too many great Korchnoi games to choose from, and I wrote about many of them in the fifth volume of the “My Great Predecessors” book series, but I will single out his fantastic endgame play against Karpov in game 31 of their 1978 match. That win also brought Korchnoi even with Karpov and a win away from the title. But Karpov won the very next game to take the match.
Korchnoi had a direct impact on my life beyond his chess. We were scheduled to face each other in a 1983 Candidates' match slated to take place in Los Angeles. A great deal of controversy and provocation by the international and Soviet sports authorities around which site would host the match led instead to my being forfeited. It is impossible to say what would have happened had anyone but Viktor Korchnoi been my opponent, but there is no doubt he did what he could to make sure our match was decided at the board, not the boardroom.
Despite being 32 years my senior and an underdog in our match, winning without playing was unacceptable to Korchnoi. He was a man who enjoyed picking fights, not dodging them! And if he could antagonize the hated chess authorities of the USSR and Karpov in the process, more the better. (He had defected in 1976 and was non grata in the USSR and blacklisted by the Soviets. The political struggles for him and his family are well documented.)
We met to negotiate at the 1983 Nikšić tournament, when organizers later held a blitz event in Herceg Novi that broke the blacklist by including Korchnoi. (The audience even applauded when he and I shook hands at the board.) I remember Korchnoi telling me that now that I was playing in the West, I had to get better shoes, that you could always tell a Soviet man by his shoes! After negotiations to reschedule our match in London succeeded, I wanted to thank Korchnoi but he was having none of it. This wasn’t a present to me; he was planning to beat me! He was returning to form and also wanted revenge for a wild loss to me two years earlier at the Lucerne Olympiad.
Indeed, he won the first game of our match in excellent fashion, showing as he would for another few decades that he wasn’t strong only for a player of his age, but damned strong period!
His run at the world championship was soon over, but the great Viktor would continue to take top-level scalps well into his sixties and seventies. Viktor Korchnoi loved chess like no one else before or since, and chess was lucky to have him for so long.
Chess.com is looking for an assistant editor. Apply here.