Viktor Korchnoi: My Life for Chess (Part one)

6/20/2012 – Born 1931, two-times contender for the world championship, Viktor Korchnoi is a piece of living chess history. In the 60 years of his career he has crossed swords with practically all great players of the past and present, including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. In this special Monograph DVD "Viktor the Terrible" describes a life devoted to chess. Review by Prof. Nagesh Havanur.

Viktor Korchnoi: My Life for Chess

Review by Prof. Nagesh Havanur

“On a cold autumn day in the hungry Leningrad of 1944, a thirteen-year-old youth simultaneously joined three clubs in the Pioneers’ Palace: recitation, music and chess. Fortunately for chess he was found to have incorrect pronunciation, and he had no piano at home… Chess became the main thing in his life, and then even life itself.” – Genna Sosonko

The lad was Viktor Korchnoi. He belongs to the select group of players who came close to winning the world championship title, but could not make it in the end. They are the uncrowned kings of chess. The charmed circle includes Akiba Rubinstein, Aron Nimzovitsch, Paul Keres and David Bronstein. What sets Korchnoi apart in this august company is his enviable record. He has beaten all the world champions from Botvinnik to Kasparov. While his great contemporaries have long since passed away or retired from chess, he alone battles on, defying the biological clock, it seems, for ever.

This DVD monograph comes as a surprise even for longstanding Korchnoi fans. What we see here is not Viktor the Terrible, at whose sight opponents used to tremble. No, it is a benign Viktor who appears more like an affectionate granddad regaling us with his anecdotes and observations. It is a pleasure to see this living legend and listen to his fruity mellow voice. His zest for life and childlike pleasure in recounting his experiences are evident throughout. And of course there is his wicked sense of humour, but there is little malice or ill-will in it.

Having said this, I cannot help feeling that Korchnoi has re-invented himself for this presentation. While his opposition to the Soviet state is described in some detail, his personal hostilities with fellow players like Petrosian and Geller are not even mentioned. Childhood friend Spassky is treated with kid gloves, and there is not a word of his abominable behaviour during the 1977 Candidates’ Match.

Anatoly Karpov, 57, and his three-time challenger Viktor Korchnoi, 77, in 2008

Only Karpov is singled out as an enemy, although Anatoly has done his best to build bridges with him. In recent years they have even played together on the same team.

And what about Fischer?

Korchnoi recounts how Fischer’s book My 60 Memorable Games was received in the Soviet Union. In just three days as many as 100,000 copies were sold out! Such was the phenomenal popularity of Fischer. Obviously, the chess public disdained the official propaganda against Bobby. Korchnoi also mentions with some wry amusement how there was a rumour that Fischer himself was going to be invited for the 1967 tournament commemorating the October Revolution. But it was abandoned – it wouldn’t have done for the tournament to be won by an American!

Korchnoi is all admiration for Fischer’s fierce sense of independence as a chess player. Unlike his contemporaries and the supergrandmasters today he seldom allowed his seconds to assist him in his preparation. His official second Bill Lombardy was not allowed to come anywhere near the board when he did his adjournment analysis during the 1972 World Championship match. Lombardy’s task was only to respond to Soviet demands and accusations. But Korchnoi’s admiration for Fischer turned into dismay when the latter accused him of playing pre-arranged matches with Karpov.

He has a different take on the present day grandmasters. He mentions with some affection and pride that they are like his grandchildren, or perhaps more like great-grand children. He also cherishes the fact that elite players like Ivachuk, Gelfand and Grischuk treat him with great respect.

What he fails to mention is that he treats humbler opposition with a strong mix of arrogance and contempt. They are often at the receiving end of his scorn and fury, especially when he loses. But Viktor does not always get away with it. On one occasion he was given a sharp dressing down by Irina Krush, and he beat a hasty retreat. The old war lord is not the epitome of courtesy and consideration to his opponents.

Here, however, we see a different persona, warm and friendly. The DVD begins with an interview by Frederic Friedel, the Master of Ceremonies for ChessBase. And Korchnoi’s answers are fascinating. When Friedel asks him a question on his life after he had emigrated to the West, Korchnoi corrects him. No, he did not emigrate. He defected to the West, and it was against the wishes of authorities. He also offers a more fundamental reason. He did not wish to submit to the rules of behaviour set by the state. “I wanted to be myself.” That’s Viktor, the supreme individualist speaking.

In response to a question on his formative years he says that he was first influenced by Botvinnik, the role model for his generation, and later by Lasker, the former World Champion. So now we know that the inspiration for Korchnoi’s adoption of the French Defence and English Opening came from Botvinnik. As for Lasker, he founded no school, and none of his contemporaries could emulate his psychological approach. But Korchnoi belonging to a later generation did.

When Friedel presses him to give an example of this use of psychology, he readily obliges. He explains how he set difficult problems for Curt Hansen, Danish grandmaster, by deliberately avoiding “correct’’ moves. The unsuspecting Hansen was outplayed. In the post-mortem that followed he explained to his opponent how he had taken risks to avoid the obvious line, the opponent was appalled and kept on exclaiming, “How could you?’’ Viktor cheekily replied, “That's psychology!”

Here is what happened:

[Event "Mälmo "] [Site "?"] [Date "1996.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Curt Hansen"] [Black "Viktor Korchnoi"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E18"] [PlyCount "98"] [EventDate "1996.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Bb7 5. Bg2 Be7 6. Nc3 Ne4 7. Bd2 f5 $6 {A daring move that succeeds only on account of its surprise value} (7... Bf6 {is more thematic.}) 8. d5 $1 {White acts energetically} Na6 9. O-O $2 {This routine move plays into Black's hands.} ({He should have played} 9. dxe6 $1 { and after} dxe6 ({After the more interesting} 9... Nac5 $5 10. exd7+ Qxd7 11. Qc2 Nxd2 12. Qxd2 Qxd2+ 13. Kxd2 O-O-O+ {Black has some activity, but it's doubtful if he has enough compensation for the pawn according to Korchnoi.}) 10. Qa4+ Qd7 11. Qxd7+ Kxd7 12. Nxe4 fxe4 13. Ne5+ Kc8 14. O-O-O $16 {White's advantage is indisputable}) 9... O-O 10. Rc1 Bf6 11. a3 c6 12. dxe6 dxe6 13. Qc2 c5 {and gradually White is outplayed.} 14. Rfd1 Qe7 15. Ne1 Nxd2 16. Bxb7 Qxb7 17. Qxd2 Rad8 18. Qe3 Qe7 19. Qf3 Nb8 20. Nd3 Bxc3 21. bxc3 e5 22. e4 Nc6 23. Ne1 fxe4 24. Qxe4 Qf7 25. Qe2 Rxd1 26. Rxd1 Na5 27. Ng2 Nxc4 28. Ne3 Nxa3 29. c4 b5 30. Rd5 Nxc4 31. Rxc5 Nxe3 32. Qxe3 a6 33. Rxe5 Qf3 34. Qb6 h6 35. Re7 Qd1+ 36. Kg2 Qd5+ 37. Kg1 Rc8 38. Re1 Qc6 39. Qd4 Qb7 40. h4 b4 41. Kh2 b3 42. Re2 Rc1 43. Qd8+ Kh7 44. Qd3+ g6 45. f3 b2 46. h5 b1=Q 47. hxg6+ Kg7 48. Qd4+ Kxg6 49. Qd6+ Kf7 0-1

The first part of the DVD includes eight games mainly from the period 1949-1979. Curiously enough, it also includes a game against young Navarra played in 2004. The second part of the DVD offers eight more games from the period 1979-2004. These 16 games, with personal commentary by Korchnoi, are the cream of the DVD. Korchnoi’s opponents here include world champions, Smyslov, Tal, Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov.

In the above picture we see Tal sitting with two young talents, Lautier and Anand.
Those standing are Larsen, Korchnoi, Kasparov, Bessel Kok, Timman and Spassky.

Personally speaking, I would have liked to see games against Botvinnik, Petrosian and Fischer in the first part of the DVD. Korchnoi has also played some memorable games against the present elite, like Anand, Kramnik and Shirov. They could have been included in the second part of the DVD. We do have a database of 4293 games for almost his entire career (1949-2004). It’s a pity that most of them are not annotated. Perhaps the next edition of this DVD should provide them. Incidentally, Korchnoi has played 4991games at the time of writing (14th June, 2012). One would not be surprised if he reaches the 5000 mark soon.

Meanwhile Viktor continues to play, undaunted by defeats. He shuns draws as ever before and seeks victory in every game.

Krush on Korchnoi

I guess you could say that the other highlight of my tournament was my game against Korchnoi in round eight; certainly, playing someone who's been battling it out with the world's best players since the 1950's is a special opportunity. He's the only link left between that bygone chess generation and today, and I've always found his example inspiring. At 75, he's still traveling (someone told me that he said that after this tournament he was going home to "change suitcases" before moving on elsewhere), still playing chess, and what's more, he still cares a lot about his results. The downside to that last point is that he's known to be quite disagreeable to his opponents after losing, saying things along the lines of 'before this game, I knew you were a terrible player, but now I see that you don't understand chess at all', etc.

[Event "Gibraltar Masters"] [Site "Gibraltar"] [Date "2007.01.31"] [Round "8"] [White "Kortschnoj, Viktor"] [Black "Krush, Irina"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A28"] [WhiteElo "2629"] [BlackElo "2449"] [Annotator "Krush,Irina"] [PlyCount "54"] [EventDate "2007.01.23"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "ENG"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2007.03.07"] 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. a3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Qc2 Be7 7. e3 O-O 8. Be2 Be6 9. O-O f5 10. d3 Qe8 11. Nxd5 Bxd5 12. b4 a6 13. Bb2 Qg6 14. Rac1 Kh8 15. g3 Bf6 16. Nd2 e4 17. Bxf6 Rxf6 18. dxe4 fxe4 19. Qb2 Be6 20. f4 exf3 21. Bxf3 Bh3 22. Be4 Rxf1+ 23. Rxf1 Qe6 24. Rf4 Rd8 25. Qc3 Kg8 {The game ended rather unfortunately. Korchnoi played} 26. Qc5 {setting up a very nasty trick of winning my queen with Bd5 and Rf8+ check or ...Rf8+ and then Bd5, pinning the queen. After a too-brief think, I played} g6 $2 {defending against only the 27.Bd5+ move order, since I could just take the bishop and on Rf8 play Kg7. } ({I could just defend against both of these ideas with} 26... Ne7 {after which the game would be balanced.}) {Here he thought for about fifteen minutes, and came up with the lemon} 27. Rf2 $4 {The funny thing about this move is that I had noted a while back that the rook is not well-placed on f2, since it allows all kinds of back-rank mates, and now all I had to do was to remember that mental note and find 27...Qxe4!} ({Immediately after playing 26...g6? I realized that he could start with} 27. Rf8+ $1 {and either I give up the queen for a rook and bishop, or after} Kg7 {I drop pawns after}) 27... Qxe4 $1 (27... Qxe4 28. Nxe4 (28. Rf8+ Rxf8 29. Qxf8+ Kxf8 30. Nxe4 $19) 28... Rd1+ 29. Rf1 Rxf1#) 0-1

So it was a sudden, and really unfortunate, end to the game. I wasn't happy about winning due to such a blunder. He seemed pretty disgusted with himself, signed the score sheet, and left the playing area without saying anything. I was glad to have escaped his wrath, but a few minutes later I encountered him in the lounge/analysis area of the hotel, where I had come to show Elisabeth Paehtz the position that could have arisen had he correctly played 27.Rf8: Did I have any chances there with my rook and bishop?

Ah, seeing me there looking at the game was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The first thing he said was "I could have had two extra pawns!" Then he would suggest some move and walk away, only to come back in a minute, and all this interspersed with insults such as "it's good to know theory, but you should learn how to play chess as well" (unfortunately, even the insults were not helpful – what theory? I was playing the White side of a Scheveningen with a tempo down, and I definitely did not feel very comfortable in the opening).

Finally, it came down to this: he suggested a move, and Elisabeth suggested a (stronger) alternative, both moves were quite simple, nothing special. So he says, about Elisabeth's suggestion, "no, this move is too good for her." I look up at him, waiting for the inevitable "she doesn't deserve this" which duly came. And really, that was just too much for me. What is that supposed to mean, that a move is too good for a person? "Why do you have to be so unpleasant?" I asked. I was incredibly angry. He sputtered something and walked away, this time for good.

As you can see, it wasn't exactly a 'highlight' moment for me. I guess I just don't like having abuse poured on my head. In a conversation about this episode over dinner that night, Greg Kaidanov tried to get me to view his behavior as part of what makes him great – if he wouldn't get so upset about losing, he'd never maintain the level that he has. I see his point, but somehow I can't accept the idea that these sorts of verbal assaults on people are justified, no matter what their end goal is.

Source USCF: Irina blogs from Gibraltar

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