Korchnoi The Chess Psychologist

Korchnoi The Chess Psychologist

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The death of GM Viktor Korchnoi is a huge loss for chess. I am not going to repeat the obvious facts that he was the strongest chess player who never became the world champion or tell you about his enormous chess heritage. There are thousands of books, magazines and videos where you can find this information.  

Instead I am going to discuss something you are not going to find anywhere else. For example, have you heard that Korchnoi won a super tournament in the Soviet Union in 1982?  You might think that it is absolutely impossible since after Korchnoi left the country in 1976 even his name was erased from the chess magazines, and when the newspapers had to report about his world championship matches vs. Karpov, he was called "the challenger."

I was a 13-year-old kid obsessed with chess and in the summer of 1982 I enjoyed a chess camp in a beautiful mountain town of Yangiabad in Uzbekistan. There my friends and i played countless blitz tournaments almost every day. I don't remember who came up with this idea, but in one of the tournaments we decided that all of us would take the name of a famous chess player as an alias.  But there was one caveat: we could choose the names only of those chess players who left the Soviet Union.  

Had you seen the crosstable of that tournament, you'd have been really impressed by its strength as grandmasters Korchnoi, Shamkovich, Alburt, Lein, Igor Ivanov and other distinguished players took part there.  As I explained in this article I was rooting for Korchnoi in all his world championship matches, so in our blitz tournament I naturally took his name as my alias!  

Either because the real GM Korchnoi was much better than the grandmasters I mentioned above, or I was simply stronger than my peers, the name "Korchnoi" was at the top of the final standings. I had many opportunities to talk to GM Viktor Korchnoi ( we even discussed his game vs. the ghost of GM Geza Maroczy), but somehow I never mentioned the episode from my childhood when I usurped his name for one day.

I wish I did because I am really curious to know what would be his reaction happy.png

Korchnoi in the audience of the Zurich Chess Classic, last February (Photo Mike Klein).

I know, this funny story from my childhood has almost nothing to do with the real Viktor Korchnoi. It just shows how popular he was even after his name was essentially banned! So let's talk about one side of his chess which is not usually mentioned. In my opinion, he was one of the best chess psychologists ever and he always used these skills in his games. You can feel it even if you just read his annotations to his games.

The traditional way to annotate chess games is very straightforward.  A chess player explains what he was thinking, what he feared and what he was hoping for during the game. From time to time the opponent is mentioned in the annotations, but generally we have an impression that he is just an extra in this big spectacle. Meanwhile in Korchnoi's annotations he always talks about his opponent and how the opponent's strong and weak sides affected Korchnoi's decisions during the game.

Take for example Korchnoi's  comment after White's sixth move in the following game ( I tried to translate from Russian as close to the original as possible.):

"My opponent was a young chess player a couple of years older than me. He was my antipode to some extent. While he was an established person who had a high rank in the society being a navy officer, I was just a university student. He was already an established chess player and I was still researching chess ( something I kept doing for many years!). While he had  very strong character, I still had to work a lot to develop mine! He liked to attack and knew how to do it well. And it took for me about 20 years to acquire this skill. He felt this huge difference between us and I could see his  contempt towards me as a chess player. That's why I was very attentive in our game. And his contempt could have really ruined his game because he had thought that he would have been be able to beat me easily.  For example now, instead of a normal developing move 6. d2-d4 he popped up his queen. Was he going to deliver the scholar's mate??"

Here is what Korchnoi says about his opponent , GM Yuri Avebakh, in the following game:

"My opponent is a very experienced grandmaster , a big expert of openings and endgames. He got a classical education in his childhood and therefore he thinks about chess as a scientist. Most of all in chess he appreciated logic. The strategical consistency is Averbakh's chess goal."  

Now let's see how Korchnoi uses this information in their game:

"The consequences of 15. Nc4 were totally unclear to me. But I thought that Averbakh, who played logical chess, wouldn't move his knight back to the square where it was just a short time ago"  

Sure enough Averbakh didn't play 15. Nc4!

Finally I want to discuss our memorable game, especially since Kasparov paints a slightly inaccurate picture in his brilliant "My Great Predecessors."

Since we already analyzed this game in the above-mentioned article, let's talk about the key position of the whole game:

So, instead of the correct 14.Nxe5, which was essentially winning the game, or even 15. Nxe5, which would lead to an approximately even position according Korchnoi and Kasparov, I played the losing 15.Nxd4??

Kasparov suggests in his book that I simply didn't see the move 15.f4! after 14. Nxe5 Qd6.  Of course from Kasparov's chess height I was just a chess tourist, but nevertheless I was in the top 50 in the world at that point and therefore the move 15. f4 was the first move I considered. In our post-mortem after the game, Korchnoi  asked me why I didn't play this variation. I told him that  Black is winning after 15... Qc5 with a nasty threat of a discovered checkmate and attack on my Nc3. And then Korchnoi showed me a very simple refutation: 16. e3! and Black is in trouble.

Boy, did I hate myself then! Apparently the threat of checkmate was so strong that I stopped analysis of the position exactly one move before White wins!

In his annotations, Korchnoi explains that when he started his attack he knew that it was incorrect and yet he decided to go ahead and attack!

This is how Korchnoi explains his bold decision:

"Here we come across a phenomenon which I would like to call the 'young Tal effect.' Playing the game with all your energy, emanating a kind of hypnotic influence and an air of absolute confidence, a player can sometimes convince his opponent that his tricks are watertight and absolutely irrefutable! I knew Tal very well, and he was aware, indeed proud of his hypnotic abilities. As for me, I have never had any idea of what happens off the board -- until Serper started to show me the variations in the post-mortem analysis."

Korchnoi's explanation is spot on! He was drilling the board with his eyes during the game. I could almost see the beams of light there, even though he wore glasses. How could I possibly allow him to threaten a checkmate in one move? And not even a simple checkmate but one delivered by a discovered double-check!

So, I easily convinced myself that 14. Nxe5! was losing and chose instead the "safe" 14.Nxd4??.  

Bravo Viktor Lvovich and thank you for the lesson! It was a great privilege and honor to play you!

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