By and about Viktor Kortschnoi - a review

by ChessBase
5/9/2023 – Chess journalist Harald Fietz, who experienced Viktor Kortschnoi in person, treated himself to the Fritztrainers "Viktor Kortschnoi: My life for chess" and "Masterclass: Viktor Kortschnoi". In one the master speaks himself, in the other, they talk about him. Both Fritztrainers offer plenty of chess thrills, says Fietz in his review.

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By Harald Fietz

Crazies and normies alike welcome

Viktor Korchnoi's legacy with new shades can be addictive!

"When I analyse, I always think a bit crazy," said Viktor Kortschnoi on the Monday after the first weekend in February 2007 in Rüdersdorf near Berlin. The day before he had played for the small village near Berlin in the Second Bundesliga on the first board and had given GM Borki Predojevic a "lesson" in the French Defence. The Bosnian listened rather reverently in the post-mortem analysis that was customary in those days.

The three youngsters were more relaxed the following day in an analysis session with half a century of age difference between them, because the chess legend wanted madness and any suggestion was welcome. He was also not afraid - as I reported for Chess Magazine 64 at the time - to flaunt a defeat in the French and praise his opponent's ideas. Everything was put to the test, persistently and ruthlessly. It became a time-consuming session and after two and a half hours his partner Petra Leeuwerik almost had to drag him away so that the 76-year-old could take a nap before a simultaneous in the evening. Another trait of the two-time World Championship runner-up came to the fore - winning was paramount, a draw with a celebrity bonus as a gift was out of the question - and this was also recognised by the well-known film producer Atze Brauner, who sat down at the board at the age of almost 90 and soon knocked over the king.

Kortschnoi died nine years later, and so we can now pay tribute to a career that spanned an incredible seven decades, from the war years in starving Leningrad to a comfortable retirement in the tranquil town of Wohlen. Only in recent years has his health kept him more at home in Switzerland, otherwise it has been a restless activity for the royal game, which since the turn of the century has been increasingly caught up in the frenzy of the internet age, the youth craze and the motoring world. In this climate one rarely meets such a hero, too much of today's chess scene is streamlined to the dictates of AI knowledge and few risk stubbornness in chess.

Viktor Kortschnoi in his element: Thought ping-pong in the post-mortem and the master hits back hard. IM Steve Berger, ChessBase author and well-known Twitch streamer, was an interested spectator in 2007 in Fredersdorf near Berlin on the sidelines of the Second Bundesliga matcch between Rüdersdorf and SK Zehlendorf. | Photo: Harald Fietz

The Master speaks himself

Much has already been published about his games and life story, and ChessBase has now brought out new insights and views with two releases that you can buy as traditional DVDs or download as a Masterclass. Is there anything else of added value to contribute? The answer in both cases was "absolutely"; even if of course they are only individual building blocks of a multi-faceted chess action - but these are fascinating because of their authenticity and, in the case of Kortschnoi in front of the camera, with an almost forgotten ability to hurl chess thoughts unpolished onto the board without any engine support - or for him rather laboriously typing them into the database in the ChessBase studio.

Kortschnoi shows 17 games, all of which appeared in what is arguably his best collection of games (published in 2011 by Edition Olms in a volume for his 80th birthday, divided into White and Black games). The combination of book and video is a worthwhile addition: in the book the variations are more clearly structured and the commentary more polished, but in the moving image the turning points come out more succinctly, with a lot of frowning from the master. It's the same with the analysis afterwards. A Korchnoi subjected his own brain to constant mental torture and was reluctant to digest the machine's suggestions. While the calculator often makes you too concrete (but also a slave to a depth of calculation that you often cannot master yourself), the GM-human manages to reveal the "depth of strategic lines". It is a "school of original chess thinking", i.e. of independent exploration and imagination, as players with the will to improve should perfect it again and again.

The 2004 production, with its somewhat antiquated studio set, has a lovingly retro feel, and in the almost half-hour interview with ChessBase co-founder Frederic Friedel, the sometimes emotional Kortschnoi recounts major and minor episodes from his era, i.e. far beyond the second half of the 20th century. Although I have had the privilege of observing Kortschnoi's live analyses for hours on several occasions, this compilation brings to the fore new approaches to positions and the valuable quality of self-irony with the desire - perhaps precisely because it is protected by age - to question oneself. It is almost impossible to escape the flow of the video and the great wealth of knowledge. One "breathes in" the great chess spirit.

Master class with varied curriculum

The quartet of authors behind Master Class No. 15, on the other hand, have a different aim: to teach. There have been 14 instalments in this series about world champions and now, for the first time, a challenger who did not win the crown. The opening, tactics, strategy and endgame are all conventional, but each contribution breaks new ground and can be usefully supplemented with existing sources.

GM Mihail Marin (from Romania) and Yannik Pelletier (from Switzerland), as active tournament players, have been close to Kortschnoi's playing practice over the years, while the Hamburg ChessBase home base with IM Oliver Reeh and GM Karsten Müller is more observant from a distance. There are eight videos on Kortschnoi's favourite openings and the same number of videos on strategy considerations for seven games (from the period 1969 to 2011). Tactics are represented by 27 examples and endgames by 23 fragments (shown with uncommented additions of the whole games). From the trainer's point of view, but also for the self-learner, there is a wealth of considerable possibilities to help oneself from the material, but also side notes as "branches" for one's own research.

I would like to offer a handful of suggestions from the syllabus of this masterclass, without claiming this subjective selection to be a Top 5. Kortschnoi is simply profound in many areas of chess and, as mentioned, the authors have approached the scope of the production with a certain time restriction and the associated depth of results, and have nevertheless made exciting discoveries. As with the other production with the master himself "at the helm", there is a danger of addiction to really checking every piece of information for its learning value for one's own game or that of one's students.

Top 1 Where to go with the bishop on c1 in the Queen's Gambit

On the basis of the 21st World Championship game of 1978, Pelletier explains why Korchnoi placed the queen's bishop in the Queen's Gambit to f4 rather than g5. No sensation today with the London System played at every turn, but understanding why Bg5 tends to lead to exchange of pieces and fixation of pawn structures, while Bf4 has a more proactive effect on the centre, remains a worthwhile consideration for strategically oriented players with classical aspirations. An introduction supported by the tenor that Korchnoi's orientations are still relevant and opinion-forming today. More ennoblement of a work is hardly possible!

Top 2 Viewing the King's Indian in a principled way

For the classical tradition of fighting for the centre, Kortschnoi argued all his life against the "illogical" King's Indian Defence, which pays less attention to the centre of the board at the beginning. Pelletier remains diplomatic, but has a "delightful moment" when, as German is not his mother tongue, he cannot think of the term "Kreuzzug" (crusade) and comes up with the neologism "Kreuzkampf".

And that's exactly what it was: Kortschnoi was rather a tyrant in making his views known, and Pelletier is scratching his head as to why not only did this style of play not fit into Kortschnoi's view of the chess world, but he rather despised the king's Indian player (probably with the exception of a few chosen ones like Efim Geller, Svetozar Gligoric, Robert James Fischer or Garry Kasparov). These few "protected" players were, in Pelletier's words, according to Kortschnoi, "aware of what they were doing" and all the others were considered by him to be willing followers of a false opening path which he wanted to refute with fury. Adherents of both sides of the King's Indian here get different starting points which can be used for much further analysis (take, if you can find it, Daniel King's classic Batsford book Mastering the King's Indian with the Play and Read Method for a slightly more balanced introduction to the structures of the opening). A great video clip for all levels of play to capture the range of opinions.

Top 3 Kortschnoi vs 1.e4

There is no doubt that every player, from the amateur to the professional, has at some point entered the construction site of the kingside pawn as an opening move. And so it is always worth looking at the heritage of the best. There is one opening in particular, the 'French Defence', which Kortschnoi unpacked time and again, while the Sicilian with Scheveningen structure and the Open Spanish only boomed in phases, and the Alekhine Defence and other semi-open styles remained only occasional 'excursions'. In the French, Pelletier makes it clear that Korchnoi always "rubbed his hands" behind the black pieces against the Advance Variation. He liked to play against it, but in my opinion many less experienced players find it difficult to play against the strong centre. Kortschnoi knew when to attack the centre and when to prefer other manoeuvres. Pelletier reveals some of his personal encounters with Kortschnoi in which Kortschnoi explained his preferences for variations or how Kortschnoi was not afraid to "copy" (e.g. in the mid-1980s a variation that GM Alexander Chernin had put on the agenda at the time). This almost 20 minute video is a basic opening navigation and is well worth watching for both specialist and general opening knowledge. The last five minutes cover the Open Variation of the Spanish Opening from the perspective of the trailing player. Coaches can use such a position-finding exercise in youth training, for example, to demonstrate a repertoire search to their protégés. Then have a written summary of the evaluations of the value of each variation.

Top 4 Turning away from masochism

GM Marin is what I would call one of the most exciting "strategy explainers". Understanding tactics is relatively easy, especially when you have the engine to prove it. Strategy, on the other hand, is a charade between abstract considerations and concrete actions. The real art is to highlight and make understandable the thematic priorities, how they relate to each other in the game (thinking) process, and where to expect the opponent's parries on the horizon. Marin devotes himself to the seven glorious games in so many ways that only selective references will be made here. An interesting general point is the seldom mentioned "reorganisation" of the game.

Spassky had described Kortschnoi as a masochist at the age of about 30, because he took material (especially the "famous" poisoned pawns) and subjected himself to complicated defences, but then Kortschnoi went back to his roots and virtually reinvented himself to try to to win the World Championship at the ripe old age of 40 (when, however, his reserves of strength were no longer optimal). There was a whole range of strategic adjustments to be made, such as the use of the bishop pair, swapping or retaining pieces, setting up blockades or leading a harmonious strategy to the final with a tactical blow. Each of the seven examples is idiosyncratic and fits a statement by Korchnoi that Marin places at the heart of his lectures: "If you want to break the rule, you must first know it well". The classical strategist then knows how to find the extraordinary way. His solution in a much-publicised game against the young Artur Jussupow in Lone Pine in 1981, for example, is a gem in terms of strategic orientation. There was also the sporting and political context of a Soviet representative sitting at the table with the banned 'challenger', who had defected to the West. Look, and I bet that few will come close to the solution and its deep positional content (those who have no other source should consider buying!).

This section of the Master Class can only be described as eye-opening. If you want to think outside the box, you should get the Master Class about Alexander Alekhine's as Marin sees a similar disposition in Alekhine, which is certainly surprising given that the fourth world champion is known as being primarily committed to attacking power. Top marks.

Top 5 Blinkers of the passive rook

Karsten Müller can, of course, go full bore with Kortschnoi and contributes an insightful all-round view: eight times active play in rook endgames (this is always worth repeating and even Vincent Keymer as the best German player might want to have a look, as he drove his fans to despair on this terrain several times at the beginning of 2023) and practically relevant piece constellations and their characteristic features (rook vs. bishop, rook & knight vs rook, queen endgames and the evergreen duel of the various minor pieces). Particular pleasure provides the focus on the World Championship duel of 1978, which on the one hand underlines how rich this match was in this area and on the other hand underlines Korchnoi's immense creativity in the final phase of the game, when will counts. An almost paradoxical example is the incredible 31st World Championship game, in which Müller points to the objective draw range, but the nuances of the game point to all three outcomes. Kortschnoi explained this game in great detail for his book "Praxis der Turmendspiele" (Edition Olms), but Müller can now show new rescue possibilities with the help of the engine, as he did after White's 58th move.

It is surprising, even without the tension of a practical game, that now 58... Rd4 59.Kxa5 Kc7 60.Kb5 should have followed, and as the crowning glory of Black's defence the "passive positioning of the rook" on d7. Müller is right to say that this can only be done without blinkers, but sometimes even the greatest cannot take them off. Coaches should consider putting the diagram shown here up for discussion and justify the paradoxical path. As a tip for a complementary view I would like to refer to Neil McDonald's book "Break the rules" (Everyman 2013), where the English GM dissects the whole game from a personal point of view and, in my opinion, brilliantly encircles Kortschnoi's genius while questioning the chess principles McDonald learnt.

Müller's compilation of 23 endgames can only be described as a "treasure trove" with motivated analytical morality, but one knows that from the author, who on the one hand has the engine running at all times and on the other hand knows how to apply human doubt.

This review does not zoom in on the tactics chapter, which is not meant as a slight on Oliver Reeh's compilation. He almost always acts with a great deal of routine, which derives its conciseness from the fact that he can nonchalantly 'push through' the extraordinarily important and correct positional assessment. Tactics freaks, who often view combinations on web platforms with a quick click of the mouse, can take a leaf out of his book. Patience before the move is the true Zen of chess and can be refined here.

Also worth mentioning is the bonus section, in which all 5000+ games can be replayed. There is also a supplement with 14 tactical exercises and all his games as a Fritz book from the white and black point of view.

The length of each DVD is given as just under 8 hours. The bundle costs €49.90 (€29.90 individually) ... But let's consider what a visit to the cinema costs nowadays. Kortschnoi offers a whole series of chess thrillers and it is up to one's motivation to get involved in these chess adventures and to profit from this exercise. In any case, do not underestimate the appeal of these DVDs and perhaps reserve a weekend with a full fridge - bon appétit!

Master Class Vol.15 - Viktor Korchnoi and My life for chess

In this video course, experts (Pelletier, Marin, Müller and Reeh) examine the games of Viktor Korchnoi. Let them show you which openings Korchnoi chose to play, where his strength in middlegames were, or how he outplayed his opponents in the endgame.

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