"Lasker's Successor", Alexander Kotov's article about Viktor Korchnoi

Jun 6, 2016, 11:08 AM |

I've started to translate the article some time ago, but today seems the most appropriate time to post it. This was published exactly half a century ago, in 1966, when Korchnoi was still a well-respected member of the Soviet chess society.

Lasker's Successor (original title - "You Can't Touch Me!")

"Ten or so years later, there'll be several chess masters that nobody would be able to defeat", Jose Capablanca wrote in 1927 after losing the World Championship to Alexander Alekhine. "Chess is threatened by the draw death, decisive games will be very rare."
This prediction wasn't new: six years before, also after losing the chess throne, Emanuel Lasker predicted the draw death of chess too. Lasker was a mathematician and researcher, and he gave a theoretical foundation of his prediction, saying that chess were limited. The chess world took the pessimism of the former chess kings with a pinch of salt - they never said anything about "death of chess" during their reigns. Chess players had even more fun when Capablanca tried to reform the ancient game and played a match with Maroczy on a 16x12 board. The games with additional pieces on 192 squares lasted for almost a whole day; neither the playing process nor the content of the games were particularly enjoyable.
A crushing blow to the draw death theory was dealt by the Russian - Soviet chess school, headed by Alexander Alekhine and Mikhail Botvinnik. They proved, both theoretically and practically, that there was still much to learn in the old game, and its possibilities were practically unlimited. The chess players won't stop making spectators happy with complicated combinations, sudden attacks, harmonious and logical strategies.
If you study the games of best players, you'll see that everyone of them has their own winning style. Botvinnik, for instance, is trying to grip his opponent in a vice straight from the opening, limiting the mobility of his pieces, and then squeeze him methodically. In some games, the Soviet chess veteran's opponents couldn't make a single active move. The ironclad logic of Botvinnik's play deprived them of any chances to break free.
Tal's playing is completely different. His goal is to create as much tension in position as possible, to cause wild complications. In a crucial moment, Tal's sudden sacrifice blows up an elaborate defensive construction, all traditional measures and concepts go out the window, a tempest of combinations appears over the board. In this environment, Tal's inventive mind finds a sure way to strike down his opponent.
Smyslov is again different. Once, in a talk to me, he stated his chess credo:
"My goal in every game is to make 40 moves without mistakes. If my opponent also finds 40 moves without mistakes, there'll be a draw; if he makes but one mistake, he'll be struck down by my technique."
Quite a tactic! The ex-champion would often finish even the strongest tournaments without losing.
History also knows other means of fighting for success. In 1910, Emanuel Lasker, world champion at the time, agreed to play a match against the Austrian grandmaster Karl Schlechter. He was quite a solid player: rarely won, even more rarely lost.
The match consisted of 10 games: the organizers couldn't raise money for a longer competition. At the start, Lasker lost a game and then valiantly tried to equalize the score. After seven games, Schlechter still led. In the next two games, the champion's efforts were also futile. Schlechter was building fortresses on the board, which Lasker couldn't breach with any tactics. Lasker's position was critical. Another draw, and he'd lose the chess crown!
Lasker probably thought a lot before the last game. How to break down the opponent? If you play a simple, quiet game, Schlechter will easily draw. Unimaginable complications won't work too: the cold-blooded Austrian will calculate everything and then punish you for the excessive risk, as he did many times.
Perhaps that's when Lasker had a great idea: he should attack Schlechter's nerves rather than his position! Disturb the Austrian, make him excited and nervous! And when he gets nervous, he may make a mistake. Shortly, Lasker had to play against Schlechter the human being rather than Schlechter the chess player.
But how to unsettle such a calm opponent? Lasker's decision was nothing short of genius. He had to provoke Schlechter into attacking, deliberately calling fire on his King. Get a worse position - not an irreparably worse one, but the one where attacking needed a lot of effort and nervous strain. This was the only way to dissuade the Austrian from his usual simple, drawish play.
In the game, something horrible was happening. Lasker allowed his opponent to launch a strong attack from the very first moves. The Black King was under threat from all White pieces. It seemed that it wouldn't escape the mating net.
And Schlechter, for the first time in the entire match, lost his cool. The crown was so close! Several more moves, and the hall will be applauding a new champion. And he, Karl Schlechter, would be that champion! The hand that moved the White Knight trembled just a small bit, but this couldn't escape Lasker's attentive gaze.
The wise chess philosopher played the game with titanic effort. Provoking his opponent into a fight, he defended with great precision, coordinating the remains of his army. Step by step, the Black pieces consolidated around their King. And then, a sudden counter-attack! And Lasker's strong will quickly prevailed over the candidate's tormented nerves. The game was won, the chess crown was saved.
Subsequently, Lasker used this method many times. He would deliberate make his position worse only to miraculously save the game. Remember his King's brave journey under attack of the opponent's pieces in his game against Rudolf Spielmann in Moscow 1935. There are a lot of games where Lasker, despite the seemingly desperate position, still prevailed. Some of his contemporaries even thought that he hypnotized his opponents.
Original chess players, as a rule, have followers. Some follow Botvinnik's steps: they study openings extensively, trying to grab the opponent from the outset. Others follow Alexander Alekhine and Mikhail Tal's temperamental style - they want combinations and sharp attacks. Still others favour technical style, led by Tigran Petrosian and Vasily Smyslov.
Only Emanuel Lasker was unlucky - he had no followers. It's clear why: who wants to defend deliberately, hoping to repel the opponent's attack before launching their own counter-attack? For years, Lasker remained the only representative of the original style he'd created, until a young follower appeared in the Soviet Union.
During the war, a young, thin boy came to the Leningrad Pioneers' Palace. He was very shy. When asked which circles would he like to study in, he surprized everyone with his diverse interests:
"I'd like to take rhetoric, music and chess classes", the boy said.
He quickly lost interest in the first two hobbies, and soon the 13 years old Viktor would spend entire evenings at the small table with wooden pieces. He didn't show any exceptional strength at first, didn't amaze the teachers with his achievements like his fellow Pioneers' Palace pupil, Borya Spassky, but an experienced coach could see that this boy was going to go far in chess. The distinguished coach Vladimir Zak had a great eye for chess talents!
Viktor Korchnoi's talent developed along very peculiar ways.
Everything came easy to Spassky, but Korchnoi earned all his successes with long, arduous work. He got his master title only at the age of 20, and became a grandmaster only seven years later than Spassky.
Was Korchnoi any less talented? Of course, talent isn't like a flour sack, you cannot weigh it on some scales, but we can surely say that both Leningrad players have received as much from the chess gods as one possibly can.
Why then their ways are so different? Why Korchnoi still remained grounded when Spassky already flew up high? This can partially be explained with the young men's different inclinations, different chess styles. While Spassky is more in the Alekhine/Tal camp, Viktor Korchnoi is possibly the only one grandmaster who took up the legacy of Emanuel Lasker.
At age 16, Korchnoi played a game against the Estonian master Ivo Nei. "In this game, I was on the verge of defeat", Korchnoi wrote later, "but I managed to snatch a draw with tenacious defence. I got great creative satisfaction from this game; moreover, it was like a revelation to me: it was the first time when I felt pleasure and joy from difficult, tedious defence."
Pleasure from defending at age sixteen! At this age, players usually try to attack, seek combinations and sacrifice opportunities in the position. But Korchnoi takes his pleasure in defending, he's ecstatic when he manages to barely escape from the edge of the abyss!
"In my youth, my inclination to defend was more motivated by mischevousness, love of risk, but later, defence became my serious practical and psychological weapon". These Korchnoi's words open up his creative and sporting spirit to us.
"Here I am, but you can't touch me!" Korchnoi says with his moves. "I'll be defending, and... I'll bite you!"
"Sometimes I deliberately give away initiative to my opponent, drawing him onto myself", Korchnoi explains. "I love luring the opponent in, letting him feel the taste of attack, during which he may get carried away, lose his guard, sacrifice some material. Such moments can often be used to start a counterattack, and here's where the real struggle begins."
Chess specialists know another characteristic feature of Korchnoi. He just loves to snatch some tasty pawn intentionally left unguarded by his opponent. The grandmasters are astonished by Viktor's naivete, and yet he takes the bait.
This is not greed, not passion for material gains. This is the same willingness to risk, to balance on the razor's edge. Accepting the sacrifice "dooms" Korchnoi for tenacious defence, but that's exactly what he's looking for. The slow, quiet game immediately turns into passionate and exciting, and what more does the Leningrad player need? He courageously invites the opponent onto himself and gets the positions he prefers.
Korchnoi takes dangerous risks, especially now, when his opponents have "smartened up" and started to use Viktor's style to their advantage. Sometimes they offer him sacrifices that look more like a worm on the fishing hook. You bite it and immediately fly high into the air, flailing and helpless. Nevertheless, Korchnoi rushes headlong even into barely disguised traps - so great is his desire to face and survive the danger.
"Only Korchnoi chops such pawns", the grandmasters often say about sacrifices that are tantamount to suicide when accepted. Everyone, for instance, remembers the game Bronstein - Korchnoi from the 1964 zonal tournament. The Leningrad player grabbed the pawn sacrificed by the cunning Bronstein and lost devastatingly in a few moments.
Korchnoi loves to defend like nobody else, but this doesn't mean that he's weak in other aspects of chess. His endgame technique is impeccable, he's good at maneuvering, he can attack and sacrifice, even though this doesn't fascinate him all that much. Still, even his attacks have the mark of his distinct "Korchnoi style". His attacks are usually risky, because any action that's not "on the edge" don't concern Viktor that much.
Korchnoi's games always excite the spectators. I must admit, there are chess players who, despite playing tournaments for many years, never drive the spectators crazy, never receive ovations.
But such players as Korchnoi and Tal make the fans tremble with their every move. Sometimes it gets ridiculous. When, for instance, Mikhail Tal just moves his Rook pawn two squares ahead, there's already murmur in the crowd. They think that this move is a harbinger of a gathering storm. And so they make all sorts of noises even after Tal's most innocent moves.
When I was the chief arbiter of the USSR Championship, I once tried to calm the raging Tal fans.
"Why are you so excited?" I asked the chess fans. "He's just moved a pawn!"
"No, the move is very interesting!" the fans protested. I couldn't convince them otherwise.
I've tried to direct their attention to a nearby board with an actually sharp game, but to no avail: Tal fans thought that only their hero's moves were truly attacking and combinational.
Viktor Korchnoi causes a stir wherever he plays. True chess connoisseurs love him; they watch his moves, trying to comprehend his plans. Korchnoi leads the chess fans into the fascinating world of chess, lifts them up to his level of understanding of strategical and tactical laws.
Here he sits at the stage, calm and collected; his thin, wiry body looks like a statue of Francois Voltair. His legs are convulsively crossed, his elbows are resting on the chess table. He's leaned forward, intently searching for the most hidden opportunities at the board. And he doesn't move. Viktor can sit for hours in this pose of a researcher who forgot about the world around him.
And the chess fans, led by some unknown law of feedback, begin to understand the subtle nuances of position better, to predict the grandmaster's plans, to get happy and sad with him.
In 1962, the milestone 30th USSR Championship was held in Yerevan. Mikhail Tal and Viktor Korchnoi fought for the gold medal. The game between them, played somewhere at the end of the tournament, decided the championship winner. This game is still remembered well by the participants and by the Yerevan fans!
The Great Hall of the Yerevan Philharmony was sold out that day. The fans didn't try to hide their sympathy towards Tal, the young ex-World Champion who'd just shocked the world with his phenomenal sacrifices. There were few people who wished Korchnoi to win - he was yet to earn the support of the Armenian chess lovers.
And so the battle began. The King's Indian Defence, as usual, led to a very sharp position where every move mattered, where every mistake could cost you the gold medal. The fans applauded Tal's every move and silently, critically watched Korchnoi's moves.
It's not simple to play in a hall that doesn't support you. A famous Soviet pianist Emil Gilels once told me a story that happened to him in a Western country. He was to play with a local orchestra. During the rehearsals of piano concerto, the conductor didn't want to work in the tempo set by Gilels, trying to impose his own understanding upon him.
At the concert, Gilels would constantly play faster than the conductor indicated. The audience members were baffled, looking at Gilels, and then at each other. This back-and-forth continued for the first two movements. In the final movement, the conductor... was carried away by Gilels' performance! The finale was played in complete concert with the soloist, and the original interpretation was met with rapturous applause. After the performance, the conductor even kissed Gilels' hand, admitting that he was wrong.
Something similar happened in the Korchnoi - Tal game. The Yerevan fans were slowly swayed by subtlety of Korchnoi's plans. The game was adjourned, the play-off took place the next day. The hall was again sold out: the fans wanted to watch the second part of the "King's Indian Tomb", as this thrilling game became known. But this time, the fans sympathized with Korchnoi. When Viktor, already in time trouble, played a dazzling combination with sacrifices, he received a standing ovation. And Tal congratulated his colleague with a well-deserved victory.
Viktor Korchnoi won three Soviet championships and numerous international tournaments. But his main achievement is playing deeply meaningful games that are studied by chess fans all around the world.
As we have seen, Korchnoi has a rare and peculiar chess style. First, he invites the opponent to attack, then he uses all possible means to "drag him down" and quickly counter-attack. There are very few players willing to play like that!
"Defence is considered unrewarding", Korchnoi notes insightfully. And, I would add, defence is probably the hardest thing any chess player does.
Yes, the attacker dictates the tempo of the game, the timing of the attack and its direction. The defender only reacts to attacks, and he should be very vigilant to notice the subtlest regrouping of opponent's forces. This entails immense strain, and that's why Viktor Korchnoi is always so concentrated during the game. His great predecessor, Emanuel Lasker, played with the same concentration.
In our time, following the methods of Lasker and Korchnoi became quite dangerous. Modern grandmasters usually don't get carried away and think their sacrifices through. You can invite the opponent onto yourself, and then he just pins both your shoulders to the mat!
Still, the brave man who still uses defence as his main weapon deserves even more admiration!
"The masters of defence", Korchnoi says, "have contributed as much to the history of chess as the players of attacking style."
And he proves his words with all his creative legacy, with deep and peculiarly colourful chess games.