Viktor Korchnoi was a professional chess player, one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, twice World Championship challenger, the strongest player never to have won the title. He was also, in recent years, the oldest active grandmaster on the tournament circuit.
Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi was born on 23 March 1931 in Leningrad, Soviet Union, to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He learned to play chess from his father at the age of five. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a major in history.
In 1974 Korchnoi lost the Candidates final to Karpov, who became the Challenger and was declared world champion when Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title in 1975. After that Korchnoi won two consecutive Candidates cycles to qualify for World Championship matches against Karpov, in 1978 and 1981. He lost both. In total Viktor Korchnoi playing in ten Candidate tournaments (1962, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1988 and 1991). He was also a four-time champion of the Soviet Union. In September 2006, he won the World Senior Chess Championship.
In 1974 it became clear that a campaign was under way in the USSR to promote Karpov over Korchnoi. The central authorities prevented him from playing international tournaments, or even in Estonia, which was part of the Soviet Union. He was Korchnoi was allowed to play in the tough 1976 IBM Amsterdam 16-player round robin, probably in order to prove that he was not so strong, and that Karpov was a worthy World Champion. Korchnoi was the joint winner of the tournament along with Tony Miles, both scoring 9.5/15 points.
At the end of the tournament, Korchnoi famously asked Miles to spell "political asylum" for him. He became the first strong Soviet grandmaster to defect from the Soviet Union. He had to leave his wife and son behind. He resided in the Netherlands for some time, moved to West Germany and then eventually settled in Switzerland by in 1978. He continued to play chess, and in 2009 became the oldest player ever to win a national championship, when he won the Swiss championship at age 78.
In 2012 he suffered a stroke and the general opinion was that he would never play competitive chess again. Still he continued to give simultaneous exhibitions and in 2015, bound to a wheelchair, he played a match against German GM Wolfgang Uhlmann. He attended the 2016 Zurich Chess Challenge earlier this year, but was not able to play anything himself.
I got to know Viktor Lvovich shortly after his defection, when he visited Hamburg. We got on well, shared a slightly deviant sense of humour, with myself enjoying his sometimes caustic and rude remarks. He always spoke to me in German, even if I started the conversation in English.
Viktor Korchnoi and Petra at the ChessBase Christmas dinner in Hamburg
At some stage I got to know his wife Petra, who quickly became one of my best friends in the chess world. I have always sought and enjoying her company, joking and flirting. I know her harrowing life story, how her life was interrupted by captivity and a decade-long incarceration in a Soviet concentration camp in the Arctic Circle immediately after the war. Hers is a life story that must be told – and will be sometime in the future.
When I met Viktor and Petra in Zurich in February this year, he was frailer than I had ever seen him before. When he saw me he simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders: "What you gonna do?" was the meaning of that shrug. Petra, who is a couple of years older, was also uncharacteristically shaky, and I found myself helping her to her armchair or through doors. When I commented on Victor's feebleness she said to me: "I only hope he dies before me, Frederic." "Why?" I protested. "Because I do not know who could care for him if I am gone."
There will me many stories following this somewhat rushed eulogy. Our editors are already working on them. I myself could go on all night, but will restrict myself to pointing our readers to a few of the great number of article we have published on this great man over the years.
2011, Viktor Korchnoi turned 80. There was a week of celebrations, held mainly in Zurich, which is not far from where Viktor Lvovich and his wife Petra live. The celebrations were kicked things off with a clock simul by Korchnoi, and then a gala dinner in his honour. Guests included Mark Taimanov and Garry Kasparov.
Above you see the man for whose 80th birthday all this had been organised, already hard at work himself. Viktor Korchnoi was playing a clock handicap simultaneous exhibition against ten talented youngsters from the Swiss Youth team. Absolutely amazing.
Incidentally, I came down to the Festival Hall, where the simul was under way, with a message from another guest: if the eighty-year-old simultaneous master was overcome with fatigue he could enlist the assistance of an unrated player who was willing to jump in for him, for a move or two. However, Viktor refused: he would do the job by himself. But thank you very kindly for the offer, Garry Kimovich.
Viktor and Garry – for decades they have shared a very affectionate relationship
And here are some picture of two great chess legends: below we see Viktor in animated conversation with 85-year-old Mark Taimanov, who had come to Zurich for the celebrations.
In 2005, at the age of 73, Viktor visited us in Hamburg to record two fascinating DVDs on a life devoted to chess – a career that spanned more than five decades and six generations of opponents.
At the time, when we decided to make the DVDs, I was a bit nervous. Even in normal conversation Viktor Lvovich was always very intense. No small talk, any question or remark could elicit a profound, witty, or caustic response. And since this was all done in a foreign language, and since he was never willing to compromise his high standard of erudition, the conversation was sometimes ponderous. You had to wait for many seconds while he thought, he would pause mid-sentence and search for a word. He would even go back and correct a previous sentence when a better expression has occurred to him.
Viktor Korchnoi in Studio ChessBase in Hamburg
How would this play out in a video recording, where the speaker is expected to be fluid and eloquent? It was with some trepidation that I took a seat behind the camera in our recording session in the Hamburg “Studio ChessBase” (where Garry Kasparov and others have made a series of wonderful training CDs). Viktor had spent half an hour receiving technical instructions, we had given him IM Oliver Reeh, just out of the picture, to help with the computer operation when he needed it, and he had briefly flipped through his new autobiography “Mein Leben für das Schach” (My Life for Chess, Olms Verlag, 2004). Light, camera, and action!
It was unlike anything I had expected. Viktor Lvovich was completely at ease, spoke powerfully, interspacing profundity with humorous moments, objective chess analysis with scintillating historical narrative. The pauses were there, the struggle for the mot juste. But he used it to dramatic effect. You could feel the intensity, the uncompromising need to say exactly what he was thinking. Let me give you a couple of impressions, literal transcriptions, which of course fail to convey the verbal and facial eloquence, the sly grins and wide-eyed stares. But it will give you a rough idea.
1967. In that year the Soviet state celebrated fifty years of, more or less, its existence. It was the fifty year’s anniversary of the so-called October Socialist Revolution. In order to commemorate this day they organised two big international tournaments – one in Moscow, one in Leningrad. Well, there were even rumours that Bobby Fischer was ready, was eager to take part in one of these tournaments, without any extra fee. Just to play. There were rumours. But the Soviet authorities thought it over and decided not to allow him to come to the Soviet Union. “What the hell would happen if an American citizen would win the tournament commemorated to the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet state?” No, sorry, so the tournaments were played, the stronger one, in Moscow, was won by Leonid Stein, and the weaker one in Leningrad was won by me, in a fight with Grandmaster Kholmov, who was second. So I won several interesting games, and I am going to show you one of them.
[Korchnoi starts to replay his white game against Mijo Udovcic, which begins 1.d4 e6 2.e4]
Well, some time ago the then world champion Mikhail Botvinnik said that a young player had to arrange his opening repertoire in a way that he would never have to play against himself. What does it mean? It means that if I play the Grunfeld with black against d4 and the French Defence against e4, I should not play against the French myself. Somehow I had to avoid openings which I play myself. But I got tired of playing closed openings and decided to take the challenge. The guy wanted to play the French against me, I take it! But if possible I would avoid the most modern lines.
His Life for Chess on DVD – Viktor Korchnoi narrates and annotates games
Another example? Before one session, I found Viktor Lvovich struggling to find a player called Lowenfish in the Mega Database. After some moments we discovered he was spelled Levenfish. Viktor expertly created a “players dossier”, and I asked him whether he would be showing us a game against Levenfish. “No,” he said, “I just need his exact date of birth.” Mysterious. After this we recorded session number 16, which starts with the following introduction:
I have played chess for more than fifty years. Some of my first opponents were born in the 19th century. For instance in 1953 I played against Grandmaster Levenfish, who was born in 1889 [aha!]. He won one of the games and was very proud. He wrote: “Such a great tactician as Korchnoi overlooked my very nice combination.” Yes, it was a nice game. Well, okay, I played against Levenfish. Now in about one week I am going to Oslo where I will face Magnus Carlsen, who was born one hundred and one years after Levenfish, in the year 1990. Such a range – I believe I have played against people of six generations!
In the year 1976, after the tournament in Hastings, I gave a simultaneous display in London where I played against a selected team of juniors. Thirty boards. It was not easy. I played for seven hours and fifteen minutes. I won seventeen games, I drew twelve, and I lost only one, to a small boy, whose name was Nigel Short. That was 1976. And now I am going to show you a game from 1990, where I play against a future challenger for the world championship, a future contender in the match against Garry Kasparov. This is the game. [Shows us the game Korschnoi vs Short, Rotterdam 1990, 1-0 in 40 moves].
Petra, we are deeply saddened and our thoughts are with you
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