by Ian Rogers
Viktor Korchnoi, who died last week aged 85, was not only the greatest player never to win the world title, but also the only defector from the Soviet Union whose name could not be extinguished from official media.
A cantankerous fighter on and off the chessboard, Korchnoi had been a star Soviet player for two decades before he defected from the Soviet Union in Amsterdam in 1976, a move that had been brewing for some time.
In 1970, Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian were brought together by the Soviet authorities in Moscow before their World Championship Candidates semi-final and asked who had the better chances to stop the rampaging American Bobby Fischer.
Korchnoi said they would both lose to Fischer, whereas Petrosian was more optimistic about his chances, so Korchnoi was instructed to throw his semi-final match to Petrosian.
Four years later, after narrowly losing a Candidates final match to Anatoly Karpov, Korchnoi gave a critical interview to a Yugoslav newspaper about the unequal treatment provided to himself and Karpov but this had dire consequences for Korchnoi’s chess career.
So in 1976, after winning a tournament in Amsterdam, Korchnoi visited the tourist police and asked for political asylum. (12 years later, when visiting the tourist police over a bureaucratic matter, the veteran officer looked at my application form and said “A chessplayer? I had a chessplayer here once before. He asked me for political asylum and I said yes!”)
Korchnoi’s name was immediately expunged from the records in the USSR and the Soviet chess authorities attempted to have him excluded from the World Championship cycle due to his stateless status.
When that plan failed, and Korchnoi began beating Soviet stars Polugaevsky, Petrosian and Spassky in the Candidates matches, chess magazines and newspapers mentioned only that the home Grandmasters had lost to ‘the opponent’, or sometimes ‘the traitor’.
However by the time Korchnoi, in his late 40s – an age when most players are declining, qualified to play Karpov in a world title match in the Philippines in 1978, it was impossible to suppress Korchnoi’s name and dissidents within and without the Soviet Union were able to enjoy the sight of a Soviet defectors name in the newspapers almost every day.
The Karpov-Korchnoi match in Baguio City, the Philippines, generated international headlines, with Karpov employing a parapsychologist and the Soviet authorities conscripting Korchnoi’s son back in the USSR to ramp up the pressure on the challenger.
Korchnoi came back from 2-5 down to level at 5-5, only to lose a decisive sixth game and the World Championship title.
Karpov had won the match by the narrowest of margins, yet later in life Korchnoi expressed relief that he had not won the crucial final game. This was because, a decade and a half later, immediately after the fall of the USSR, Korchnoi bought his KGB file (for $US400!) and discovered that had he won in Baguio the KGB had a plan in place to assassinate a victorious Korchnoi before he left the Philippines.
Since 1976, the USSR had also let it be known – though denied officially – that if Korchnoi was invited to a tournament, no Soviet player would play, a boycott which was only broken in 1981 when Korchnoi turned up in secret to the Lone Pine tournament in California and the Soviet competitors felt obliged to stay.
In that year, Korchnoi, by then aged 50, earned another title challenge in Merano, Italy but by now he was no match for Karpov.
Two years later Korchnoi was again immersed in controversy not of his making when the USSR forced Garry Kasparov to forfeit his Candidates semi-final rather than play Korchnoi in Pasadena, USA.
High-powered negotiations with the world body FIDE rescheduled the match for London, with Korchnoi pocketing $US50,000 for his troubles. Kasparov went on to win a tough contest and later defeat Karpov for the world title.
Korchnoi qualified for his last Candidates tournament in 1991, aged 60, stayed in the top 100 into his 70s, and, despite a series of debilitating strokes, played competitive games in 2014 and 2015.
Korchnoi’s life struggles were the inspiration for the musical ‘Chess’. After Korchnoi attended his first performance of ‘Chess’ in England, the singer who played Korchnoi was introduced to his role model and it was hard to tell who was more chuffed.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev returned Korchnoi’s Soviet citizenship and the history books could be rewritten with Korchnoi’s name restored.
From a personal viewpoint, Korchnoi was the player who constantly proved to me that there were aspects of chess that I would never understand.
In my first three games against Korchnoi I was breezing along, happily content with my position, when suddenly I would look around and realise that I was in desperate trouble. (After the first game Korchnoi compounded my feeling of bafflement by saying “But of course you stood well…”)
Lucerne Olympiad 1982
Opening: Torre Attack
When I finally broke my duck in our third encounter, thanks to a fluke blunder by Korchnoi, Korchnoi confounded his reputation as a poor loser by acting as the perfect gentleman and analysing with me after the game.
The diagrammed position is the position after Black’s (Korchnoi’s) 81st move from the fourth round of the Grandmaster tournament in Biel 1986; the position in which the game was adjourned for a second time. (For younger readers, in the era before computers players were given a break for food and/or sleep after a certain number of hours and resumed the game at a later time.)
During overnight analysis I came to the tentative conclusion that, thanks to an improbable, one piece counter-attack over the past dozen moves, White probably had enough counterplay to draw. Korchnoi, however, was sure he was winning.
The game was resumed at 9am on a Thursday morning, the two of us arriving to conduct the game’s last rites in a near-empty Biel Kongresshaus. I had raced away from breakfast with Cathy and Darryl Johansen at the Hotel Posta with my final comment being “If I can keep checking, I’ll draw. If he escapes the checks, he wins.”
My sealed move emerged from the adjournment envelope as
and within a minute we had bashed out the moves
82…Kd6 83.c4! Qd4 (played with a confident air) 84.Qd8+ Kc5?? 85.Qc7 checkmate!
Korchnoi smiled at his own stupidity and spent a few minutes analysing the adjourned position with me, eventually concluding that it had, after all, been just a draw as 83…Ke7 can be answered by 84.Qc7+ Kf6 85.Qa5!.
Less than 15 minutes after I had left, I returned to the Posta to find Cathy and Darryl still at breakfast. “He avoided the checks,” I said mournfully, pulling the longest face I could manage in the circumstances, but the truth soon came out.)
Later, after a couple more losses – both times at least understanding that I was being outplayed – I was to learn that Korchnoi did not always take defeat so well. I was blasted for disrespect at the 1990 Novi Sad Olympiad for declining a Korchnoi draw offer not by replying but by just making a move. However later that evening one of Korchnoi’s Swiss team-mates explained to him that I had in fact said “I’d like to play on,” but due to his deafness Korchnoi had failed to hear me. Korchnoi approached me and apologised the next day, though making sure to point out, correctly, that I had been close to lost earlier in the game.
From famine as a child in WWII Leningrad to trying to control his own destiny in the USSR, to surviving as a defector in the West and with his later ill health, life was always a struggle for Korchnoi. Yet Korchnoi showed that it was not necessary to win every time to be great – there is honour in the fight.