Viktor Korchnoi, 1931-2016

Viktor Korchnoi, 1931-2016

| 105 | Chess Players

In a bad year for sports legends, the chess world is not staying behind. Today Viktor Korchnoi died at the age of 85 in a hospital in Wohlen, Switzerland. Korchnoi had been ill for some time and was hospitalized last week after suffering from internal bleeding, Chess-News reports.

Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi was born March 23, 1931 in Leningrad. At the age of five he was taught chess by his father. He was one of the most talented pupils of the local Pioneers Palace, which he joined in 1943. Only four years later he won the junior championship of the USSR, with 11.5/15.

He played his first USSR championship, the 20th edition in 1952, in Minsk. It was won by Mikhail Botvinnik and Mark Taimanov but Korchnoi he finished in an excellent sixth place. He did even better in the next championship, where he tied for third place. This one was won by Yuri Averbakh, who is now 94 and the oldest living grandmaster in the world.

From this point Korchnoi was allowed to play international tournaments, and thanks to victories in Bucharest (1954), Leningrad (1955) and Hastings (1955-56) FIDE awarded him the grandmaster title in 1956.

He was soon strong enough to be part of the strong Soviet team at many team events. Between 1954 and 1974 he won 21 medals in these events, including individual gold at the European Team Championships in Vienna 1957 (board eight), Oberhausen 1961 (board six), Hamburg 1965 (board three), Bath 1973 (board three), and at the Olympiads in Havana 1966 (first reserve), Skopje 1972 Olympiad (board two). (He would later win individual gold at the 1978 Buenos Aires Olympiad for Switzerland.)

Korchnoi won the USSR championship, the strongest tournament that existed in those days, four times: Leningrad 1960, Yerevan 1962, Kiev 1964–65 and Riga 1970. With several victories at international tournaments he was considered to be one of the world's best players from the 1960s, even before he would achieve his successes in the world championship cycle.

After doing well in the zonal and interzonal tournaments, Korchnoi managed to qualify for the 1968 Candidates' matches. He first eliminated Samuel Reshevsky at Amsterdam in 1968, and then in Moscow in the same year he beat Mikhail Tal. He then lost the Candidates' final to Boris Spassky, who would take over the crown from Tigran Petrosian the next year.

As the losing finalist Korchnoi was directly seeded into the next Candidates' matches in 1971. He first beat Efim Geller at Moscow in 1971, then lost in the same year and city to Tigran Petrosian, who would lose the Candidates' final to Bobby Fischer. The American then also beat Boris Spassky in 1972.

Korchnoi in Amsterdam in 1972 | Photo Wikipedia.

In 1974, then age 43, Korchnoi would again reach the Candidates' final after beating Henrique Mecking and Tigran Petrosian. Again he was only one opponent away from qualifying for a world title match with Fischer, against whom he had scored level: two wins each and four draws.

There was one problem: his opponent's name in the final was Anatoly Karpov, a 23-year-old grandmaster from Zlatoust. They had been on friendly terms, and even played a secret training match together, but it was the 20-years-younger Karpov who would be the biggest nemesis for the rest of Korchnoi's career.

The 1974 Candidates' match can be considered the first of three world title matches because in 1975 Bobby Fischer was stripped of his title, and the winner of the Candidates' was the automatic champion. Karpov won this match, held in Moscow, 12.5-11.5 and later became the 12th chess world champion.

By then Korchnoi had experienced lots of problems in his countries, including threats and harassment, and after playing a tournament in Amsterdam in 1976 (which he won together with Tony Miles) he decided not to return to the Soviet Union. Leaving his wife and son behind, he became the first Soviet grandmaster to defect from the Soviet Union. He lived in the Netherlands and Germany before eventually settling in Switzerland in 1978.

Korchnoi finally managed to qualify for a world title match in 1978 after eliminating Tigran Petrosian, Lev Polugaevsky, and Boris Spassky in the Candidates'. In 1978 in Baguio, Philippines, he faced Karpov in one of the most controversial title matches in history. There was the infamous Dr. Zukhar, a Karpov team member accused of hypnotizing from the first row by Korchnoi, the yogurt incident and the mirror glasses used by Korchnoi.

Like in 1974, Karpov took a three-game lead but Korchnoi came back and even leveled the score by game 31. It was Karpov who then won the 32nd and final game to retain his world title. 

This video shows footage of the arrival of Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov in the playing hall — it is game 31, not 32.

A highly recommended 14-minute report on this match can be found here; this one doesn't seem to have been uploaded to YouTube (yet).

Three years later, in 1981 in Meran, Italy Karpov's opponent was again Korchnoi. This time Karpov won convincingly: six to two, with 10 draws. Many years later Korchnoi would enjoy a nice revenge.

If playing two world title matches is not enough to be called a legend, Korchnoi certainly deserved to be called one when taking into account the remainder of his career. He is noted for his unusual longevity at the chessboard as he remained in the world's top 100 for many more years and as a very active and successful player. For example, at the age of 75 he won the 2006 Banyoles Open in Spain ahead of Sergei Tiviakov. On the January 2007 FIDE rating list Korchnoi was ranked number 85 in the world at age 75, by far the oldest player ever to be in the top 100.

It was in these years that he finally managed to win at least one world title. In September 2006 he won the 16th World Senior Championship in Arvier (Valle d'Aosta, Italy), where he started with 7.5/8 and then drew the remaining three. Korchnoi was also probably the oldest player ever to win a national title when he won the 2009 Swiss championship at the age of 78. 

At the Gibraltar Chess Festival in 2011, when he was still quite active, Korchnoi (then rated 2544) defeated an 18-year-old Fabiano Caruana, then the world #25 with a 2721 rating.

In that year Korchnoi was a guest at the last Melody Amber tournament in Monaco. The following video was produced by Macauley Peterson:

And here's one by Macauley and myself from the Experience vs Rising Stars tournament in 2008 in Amsterdam:

Not everyone was on friendly terms with Korchnoi. It cannot be denied that in his later years, he turned somewhat into a “grumpy old man.” For example, when he lost a game to Caruana in Amsterdam in 2008, his remark “you will never play chess!” could be heard clearly in the audience. And then there was the famous incident when he lost a blitz game to Sofia Polgar and said: “This is the very first and the very last that you ever won a game against me!”

Korchnoi's last recorded games were the four rapid games that he played against Wolfgang Uhlmann at the 2015 Zurich Chess Challenge. He also played two rapid games against the same opponent in 2014 in Leipzig.

His last classical games were from 2012, played in the Swiss Team Championship. At the end of that year, when he was 81, he suffered from a stroke, and later he had problems with his heart as well. He was scheduled to play in the 2013 Zurich Christmas Open, but withdrew due to health reasons.

Korchnoi recovered somewhat, but his condition didn't allow him to play long games. He didn't lose his love for chess though. Photographer David Llada, who shared the photo below with, wrote:

He complained that [the organizers of the 2016 Zurich Chess Challenge] only invited him to the opening ceremony: “I'm not coming here as an spectator! I don't want to watch chess, I want to play chess, but they didn't get me an opponent this time!” The guy was still willing to sit at the board!

Months before his passing Korchnoi was still willing to sit at the board. | Photo David Llada.

Korchnoi had a universal and very principled playing style. Especially in the King's Indian, Mar del Plata variation he was a feared opponent, where Viktor Lvovich would take the white pieces and say: “I will crush you on the queenside and you cannot checkmate me.” Garry Kasparov was one of the very few who managed to prove him wrong sometimes.

A number of books were written by Korchnoi, the most famous ones being Chess is My Life (1977) and My Best Games (two volumes, 2001-2002) and Practical Rook Endings (2002).

Nicknamed “Viktor the Terrible,” Korchnoi was a true legend of chess, who kept an amazingly high level up to his seventies. He is widely considered the strongest player never to have become world champion, closely followed by Paul Keres and Akiba Rubinstein. The chess world has lost a true giant of chess.

Korchnoi giving a simul at the London Chess Classic in 2010, which lasted about five hours while he was 79.

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

In several tweets five-time world champion Vishy Anand remembered Korchnoi today:

The chess world loses its greatest fighter. R.I.P. Viktor Korchnoi. We learnt so much from you. Just being in Baguio where he played Karpov was the first time being world champion crossed my mind. I had the privilege of playing against him. He would never give up & would explain the position in depth to us. His struggle both on & off the chessboard is what chess history will holding highest regard. I was lucky to see him in Zurich this year. He always admonished me for playing too fast. He was a chess player in its truest sense without parallel. Petra is in our thoughts and prayers. She has always been such a source of inspiration. The chess world will miss Viktor. Personally I will miss his characteristic laughter & his love for chess. It was wonderful that the Zurich Chess Classic invited Viktor to their event as a special guest. Every time I had a rook ending I would look at Viktor following the game and think what would Viktor say??

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

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