Best chess players never to become World Champion? Viktor Korchnoi's amazing achievements
This is an excerpt from the latest post on my personal blog:
In the history of the chess there were only sixteen undisputed World Champions.
The names of those masters who have managed to win the most valuable chess title are rather well known. Every chess player has heard about Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca or that Dutch guy who managed to beat Alexandar Alekhine.
Every world chess champion had to win a World Championship Match in order to win the title (if we disregard Botvinnik).
However, since history is written mainly by the winners, we think that chess public sometimes fails to give enough credit to those players who participated on the losing side of historical chess battles.
Therefore, in this post we will portray three best chess players who never became World Champions.
While choosing three best eternal seconds, we were guided by following criteria:
- results in World Championship context and personal score against World Champions
- chess consistency (results in chess tournaments throughout career)
- chess longetivity
Finally, we have concluded that the following three players deserve their mention on this list.
As with any list starting with "best", there might be some subjectivity involved. But still, let us proceed with our article with the player widely regarded as the GOAT of "chess losers".
1. VIKTOR KORCHNOI
The gold medal winner of this highly irrelevant contest is the Soviet Grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi.
I think that the decision to put him on the first place won't find many opponents, since he is widely regarded as the greatest player never to become World Champion.
Even Garry Kasparov, in his historical masterpiece about his great predecessors, devotes a half of the book to the Viktor the Terrible.
To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson here, "What is it that Viktor has got, that makes him stand apart from other non World Champions?"
We will try to dissect the answer on the basis of the criteria mentioned above:
a) Participation in the World Championship matches
During the chess history there have been numerous chess rivalries.
And while rivalries between World Champions such as Spassky - Fischer or Karpov - Kasparov, are well known even to the people who don't play chess, the intense and controversial rivalry between Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov is to my mind somewhat underestimated.
I believe that there is a couple of reasons for that underestimation:
- Since Korchnoi was never a World Champion, he never got the publicity that the title brings
- Long battles between Korchnoi and Karpov were overshadowed by the later matches between Karpov and Kasparov
- Spassky - Fischer match happened at the height of the Cold War, and therefore it represented a clash of ideologies. Karpov and Korchnoi matches represented a fight between the model Soviet citizen (Karpov) and the defector (Korchnoi has requested political asylum in Holland in 1976).
It is worth remembering that both during Fischer - Spassky and Karpov - Korchnoi matches, Leonid Brezhnev was the head of the SSSR. And whereas it was foolish to expect that he would seriously harm Fischer with the whole USA behind him, it is much more likely that something might have happened to Korchnoi had he won any of the matches against Karpov (there are certain rumors of his potential liquidation, but everything said in this paragraph is mostly my speculation.; for more details about political situation during the Karpov - Korchnoi matches, I cannot recommend the aforementioned Kasparov's book highly enough).
Naturally, everything happening behind the scenes would have been irrelevant if Korchnoi wasn't a serious contender in the purely chess sense.
Let us take a deeper look at the three Karpov - Korchnoi matches and their key moments.
Hint: For game analysis, click on any move, and the pop-up board will appear.
1974. CHESS CANDIDATES FINAL IN MOSCOW
The first time Korchnoi "missed" his opportunity was technically not a World Championship match, but a final match of the 1974 chess Candidates cycle.
However, as it later turned out, due to Fischer's decision to end his career, the winner of this match was destined to become the new World Champion.
The match itself was merely a beginning, and not a culmination of the rivalry between these two players.
The initial phase of the match was dominated by Karpov. After using Efim Petrovich Geller's preparation to breach opponent's Sicilian Dragon in the 2nd game, Karpov scored another victory in the 6th game as well, after Korchnoi self-destructed from the Black side of the Petrov defence.
However, after the 6th game there followed a pattern that would occur regularly in Karpov's matches later: a long series of 9 draws.
Then came the 17th game. A highly characteristical game in which Korchnoi blundered after enjoying a better positon for the most of the game:
At this point it seemed that the match is virtually over. Suprisingly though, Korchnoi won the 19th and the 21st game.
21st game especially is very shocking. Judging purely by the moves one would attribute it to the 3rd category tournament rather than to a Candidates final.
Drawing conclusions from the game above, it seems like Karpov relaxed prematurely, which greatly aggravated his match situation. However, he managed to pull himself together and the match ended with three draws and with the overall score 12 1/2 - 11 1/2.
With hindsight, this psychological trait cost Karpov greatly throughout his career. As we will observe later, it almost cost him the match in Baguio City. And it certainly cost him when he failed to finish Kasparov off in their 1984. match, after leading 5-0. But that is a theme for another article.
Full article is available at the following link: