A narrowly missed record: Viktor Kortschnoi against the World Champions

by Johannes Fischer
1/7/2024 – During his long career Viktor Kortschnoi (23 March 1931 - 6 June 2016) won against Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov and Carlsen. He never became World Champion himself, but you might think that "he could beat anyone". But this is just a cliché. For although Kortschnoi played a total of 17 games with classical time control against Anand and Kramnik in the course of his life, he never scored a full point against either of them. | Photo: Kortschnoi at the 1960 Leipzig Chess Olympiad | Photo: Tournament book

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If he had managed just one victory in these 17 games, Kortschnoi would have won at least one classical chess game against ten of the 17 world champions in chess history, setting yet another record in a chess career that is not short of records.

However, Kortschnoi is still the co-record holder in the category "At least one victory over one of the 17 world champions in a classical game". However, he shares this honour with Paul Keres and Alexander Beliavsky, who, like Kortschnoi, won games with classical time-control against nine world champions during their careers. However, this statistic does not take into account whether these victories were achieved against later, current or former world champions.

For example, Kortschnoi played Magnus Carlsen only once, at the Smartfish Masters in Drammen in 2004, when Carlsen was already a grandmaster but only 14 years old and of course not as strong and experienced as he was later. Considering the age of the two opponents, Kortschnoi, who was 73 at the time, scored an impressive victory, which he, however, probably would not have achieved against an older and more experienced Carlsen.

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Magnus Carlsen 2004 | Photo: Giorgio Gozzi

Carlsen handled the opening imprecisely, came under positional pressure in the middlegame and lost a pawn. Kortschnoi easily won the ensuing rook ending.

Kortschnoi was less fortunate against Vishy Anand (born 1969, World Champion from 2007 to 2013) and Vladimir Kramnik (born 1975, World Champion from 2000 to 2007). Kortschnoi played his first game against Anand in Wijk aan Zee in 1990, the year in which Anand qualified for the Candidates Tournament for the first time at the Interzonal Tournament in Manila at the age of 21 - and this duel ended in a draw after 28 moves without much excitement.

Vishy Anand at the Chess Olympiad Novi Sad 1990 | Source: ChessBase India

But in the six classical games that Anand and Kortschnoi played against each other over the next ten years, until they met for the last time at the tournament in Wijk 2000, exactly a decade after their first duel, Anand clearly dominated with four wins and two draws. The overall score was 5.5-1.5 in favour of Anand, and the result of the blindfold and rapid games between the two was even clearer: 9-1 in favour of Anand (+8, =2).

Anand vs Kortschnoi - Games

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From their first meeting at the World Team Championship in Lucerne in 1993 to the tournament in Wijk in 2000, Kortschnoi played a total of ten games with classical time control against Kramnik, but here too Kortschnoi was unable to win a single game: Five wins and five draws gave Kramnik a 7.5-2.5 advantage, and Kramnik also dominated in rapid and blindfold games with 4-1 (+3, =2).

Kramnik vs Kortschnoi - Games

Vladimir Kramnik | Photo: Guido Kohlen

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Kortschnoi's best chance of winning one of these 17 games against Kramnik or Anand in classical time control was against Anand at the Tilburg tournament in 1991. Playing with Black, with energetic play Kortschnoi quickly seized the initiative in a French Defense and eventually reached an advantageous but difficult double rook ending, which he, however, failed to win.

Posthumously, however, Kortschnoi could become the sole record holder in the category "At least one win against a world champion in a game with classical time control" - if a player against whom Kortschnoi won during his career were to become world champion. For example, Fabiano Caruana.

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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