Korchnoi vs Kasparov: The clash of giants

by Sagar Shah
7/6/2022 – There are only 24 days to go until the start of the Chennai Chess Olympiad 2022. In celebration of the occasion, we have launched a series of 6 episodes where the most interesting stories of the past Olympiads are discussed. IM Sagar Shah is the host of this show and IM V. Saravanan is the man with all the stories. Together they dissect this game and the entire episode surrounding it. In today's episode, we discuss the crucial encounter between Viktor Korchnoi from Switzerland and Garry Kasparov from USSR at the Lucerne Olympiad in 1982. Each session is roughly around 40-50 minutes in length and will help you to improve your understanding and knowledge of the game! Photo: Abhyudaya Ram

Master Class Vol.7: Garry Kasparov Master Class Vol.7: Garry Kasparov

On this DVD a team of experts gets to the bottom of Kasparov's play. In over 8 hours of video running time the authors Rogozenko, Marin, Reeh and Müller cast light on four important aspects of Kasparov's play: opening, strategy, tactics and endgame.


USSR vs Switzerland, Lucerne Olympiad 1982: A battle for the ages

Olympiad Stories with Saravanan S01E01

Sagar Shah (SS): Hi Saravanan, how are you?

Venkat Saravanan (VS): I'm fine, very excited about the Olympiad which is about to start! This is the third major event to happen in Chennai. The Olympiad is happening now, the Anand-Carlsen World Championship happened in 2013, and it all started with the Anand-Dreev match in 1990. So this is the third milestone event happening in Chennai.

All the milestone chess events in Chennai

SS: Yeah, players from over 180 countries are coming to this Olympiad. This is a celebration of chess, no?

VS: Absolutely, no doubt about that. What are your personal opinions, your personal memories of the Olympiads you have been to?

SS: I've been to one Olympiad, Batumi 2018. And for me, it was unbelievable. You know, on one hand, you have these top players, everyone was playing apart from Magnus. Even Vishy was playing! On the other hand, you have all of these players from different small little countries who have come there and are so happy to be around everyone in the chess world. So it's like you have people with different aims and different hopes, all in the same event. It is amazing.

VS: Absolutely. No doubt. The memories of the Olympiad are amazing! I have been reading about Olympiads ever since childhood. So honestly, it would be wonderful to talk about some of those moments which have inspired me over the years.

The fantastic playing hall of the Batumi Chess Olympiad

SS: When it comes to the different stories that you know of the Olympiads, which one would be your favorite?

VS: Without any doubt, it is the amazing clash between Victor Korchnoi of his adopted country, Switzerland, and my childhood hero, Garry Kasparov at the Lucerne Olympiad in 1982.

The Soviet Chess team at the Lucerne Olympiad 1982. Photo: Ratko Knezhevich

SS: What was so special about it? I want to know all about what happened.

VS: Okay, I'll ask you a question. When you think about Korchnoi, what's your image? How do you describe this man from your memory?

Korchnoi smoking a cigarette and pondering over the complexities on the board | Photo: Rob Croes/Anefo

SS: Kasparov described him in "My great predecessors" as Viktor the terrible [laughs]. I think of him as a person whom you cannot beat. No matter how much you attack, he will calculate and just defend really hard.

VS: You know, there is a brilliant story about Korchnoi. This is told by GM Lev Polugeavsky. So Poulugaevsky, Smyslov, Korchnoi, and other Soviet Grandmasters are all in Cuba, playing a round-robin tournament in the '60s. Victor Korchnoi is leaving early in the morning for a simultaneous exhibition of amateur players.  Polugeavsky found out that one of the participants that day is Che Guevara! So he goes, "Viktor, Che Guevara is going to be there, you know. Better not push it, take a short draw!". He says well of course, sure. The morning finishes and just before lunch, Korchnoi returns back. Lev asks him, "so Viktor, how did the simultaneous go?" Korchnoi goes "Yeah, very good". "So how did your game against Che Guevara go?" Korchnoi replies "Oh, Mr. Che did not understand any of the intricacies of the Caro-Kann defense."[breaks out in laughter] 

Even when playing a casual simul against Che, Korchnoi was adamant about beating him! | Photo: Keystone-France

The whole world knows about Viktor Korchnoi as the man who lost two World Championship matches to Anatoly Karpov in 1978 and 1981. The 1975 World Championship match between Karpov and Fischer never took place, and the Candidates finale for 1975 was Karpopv-Korchnoi. So in a way, the Candidate's Finale was like an unofficial world championship: If Korchnoi won it, he would've been the world champion. Then he lost against Karpov in '78 and '81., but he was actually a great force to reckon in the 60s and 70s.

So now we come to the story of the Lucerne Olympiad. The soviets were the overwhelming favorites and now, USSR is paired with Switzerland. Korchnoi is Switzerland's top board. On the other boards, obviously, the Soviets are stronger. There was Alexander Beliavsky, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Tal, and so on. And then they find out about it is going to be Anatoly Karpov with the black pieces against Victor Korchnoi, who just played 2 WC matches with Karpov. So they decided to bench Karpov, and they put in a young Kasparov to play the man himself, on the top board, with the black pieces! And we had this amazing explosion of a game. In his first book "The test of time", the way he has described this game is simply amazing.

How does one evaluate a chess game? Yeah, the customary words win, loss, and draw, even together with resounding descriptions are unable to reflect the profundity of the events occurring during the encounter. However, for a competitive evaluation, the three words, in fact, suffice. But how does one evaluate the creative energy invested by the two players and compounded by the terrible tension of the struggle? One can recall numerous games about which the arithmetic of the result says virtually nothing. It is then that literature comes to the aid, arrayed in verbal form and strewn with beautiful metaphors. The chess commentary allows us to draw slightly aside the veil of mystery, enshrouding a highly complicated encounter on the black and white board.

It can happen that the pieces, as though receiving an invisible impulse from the players, come alive and begin to live their own lives. And when the energy invested by both sides reaches a critical point, the game begins to develop according to laws unknown to anyone, and it is no longer possible to control its course. The flood of concentrated chess thought washes away the usual contours of the board, and after twisting the pieces into violent pandemonium, it crashes down into the depths of chess art. However, the game concludes, chess never loses out, it is not easy to understand all the intricacies of such a game, even in subsequent analysis, and it is difficult to talk about it without disrupting the picture of a grandiose encounter.

The cover art of Kasparov's fantastic book "The Test of Time".

SS: A fantastic paragraph. I noticed Kasparov didn't even mention he won the game in this whole description!

VS: Exactly, it was as if he was thrilled just to play the game. See, this is something I really feel very strongly about. How many players are able to express their love for the thought? How many players have come out with books expressing their emotions? It's very easy to say plus equals or minus plus and just carry on. Whereas if you look at Kasparov's books and the quality of description for each game, it is just amazing. This is the quality of a great champion! In my opinion, those who don't write their memoirs at the top level are actually doing a disservice to the game.

SS: We know Kasparov as this guy who has a killer instinct on the board. He is that guy whom everyone is afraid of. He's arrogant, and he likes to finish off his opponents. But when he talks about chess, it always feels he has a certain responsibility for the game.

VS: This actually reminds me of a story. I attended the 2012 World Championship in Moscow, the one between Vishy Anand and Boris Gelfand. That was the best World Championship I had ever attended! Every day, they would bring a great player and they would give a simultaneous in the morning for children, and they would come to the commentary box in the afternoon. So that included Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Alexander Morozevich, Peter Svidler, and I could go on and on. One day, Garry Kasparov came to give commentary as well as do a press conference. After the press conference got over, he went down and was doing the simultaneous display. I watched the simul for the whole three hours. After his game ended with an extremely small kid, he stood up and analyzed his game for two full minutes with the kid! He was analyzing with the same intensity, force, and attachment to the game, just as he does with Carlsen or Anand. People say Garry is arrogant, but I think the arrogance comes out of concentration and energy. He does it even without knowing himself probably.

Whoever the opponent may be, Kasparov's focus and energy are the same | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: I actually have Garry's book "How life imitates chess". On the first page, he wrote such a huge message for me! He has been a world champion for 15 years and is a very busy man. When we met on a stream, I asked him how does he get the time to do this? Garry replied, "Chess has given me so much in my life. So whenever I do something chess-related, I make sure to put extra emphasis on it."

VS: After Kasparov retired, I think in a way he is giving back a lot back to the game. I had been to St. Louis on 2017, 18, and 19 to cover the Sinquefield chess cup at St.Louis Chess Club. One day, Garry Kasparov was coming to the prize distribution function with his wife. There was an American guy standing outside with a huge camera and he is like "Gary Gary, can I take your photograph?" Gary was busy at the moment, he was talking to his wife and didn't respond. The guy said again "Gary, I drove all the way today, 800 miles, just to see you, you're my hero." Kasparov immediately turned around, looked at the guy and he gave this huge smile. I will never forget that! I mean, this is basically what we look for in chess- passionate players, passionate fans, and passionate champions. For me, Garry is the epitome of passion.

SS: Now we go to the Lucerne Olympiad in 1982, the battle between Kasparov and Korchnoi. What was the background for Korchnoi in this game?

VS: When this game was played in 1982, the Soviet chess authorities had put a ban on Korchnoi. His name would not appear in any newspapers of the Soviet Union. Of course, there was no internet in 1982 [chuckles]. So no newspapers, no magazines will carry his name, it will be just left blank. Unfortunately, words like "traitor" would be used before his name. The Soviets would never participate in any tournament where Korchnoi was allowed to play. The organizers had to choose between inviting Korchnoi or inviting the Soviets. Naturally, they went for the Soviets. So this actually was affecting Korchnoi's life in a big way. So, you know, I'm pretty sure Korchnoi would have been itching to play the Olympiad against the soviets.

Korchnoi playing in a simul against a young Kasparov, way before he defected to Switzerland

SS: Maybe it's not a question related to today's subject, but do you know why Korchnoi left the Soviet Union and defected to Switzerland? Did he just not like the entire philosophy prevalent at the time?

VS: There were many Soviet players who resented the way they were treated in the Soviet Union. You know, Karpov was the anointed successor to Boris Spassky, who had lost to Bobby Fischer. So even at the time of the Spassky-Fischer match, I'm very sure they spotted Karpov to be the next challenger. In the Soviet Union, I met Grandmaster Lev Psakhis. He was a second to Kasparov during his world championship match against Karpov. The Soviet authorities were very much in favor of Karpov beating Garry, because after all, Karpov was the established champion. Why disturb the scenario when they have a guaranteed guy who will win World Championships? Psakhis told me that they used to have a very haphazard way of training. He, Dolmatov, and Vladimirov [these are the two other names he told at the time] will actually travel deep inside the Soviet Union, and suddenly they will all meet in a place undisclosed to even them. Kasparov will meet them in the same undisclosed location, and they will have the training there for a few days. They were not at all confident that the Soviet authorities wanted these camps to be held. But Psakhis had other fears, which I don't think I can tell in the stream. His major fear was that his life or his career would be doomed if people came to know that he was helping Kasparov. Also, Soviet World Champions decided a lot of things like who would travel to tournaments abroad. Korchnoi probably felt scuttled in this atmosphere, and that's why he left the Soviet Union.

From left: Lev Psakhis, Yevgeniy Vladimirov and Sergey Dolmatov

SS: Korchnoi was a man of principle, and he didn't like all these regulations. So when this match happened between Switzerland and USSR, he would have been very excited to beat whoever comes on Board 1.

VS: I can only recall Vishy Anand's quote on Garry Kasparov for this occasion. This is exactly how Korchnoi was feeling:

What happens to you in a match if you're a point up against Kasparov? How Gary would fight? Take away his hands, take away as limbs, and he will fight with his teeth.

SS: The stage was set for Korchnoi to play against Karpov, but then something happened in the USSR Camp and they decided that Kasparov will face him.

VS: The reasoning in the Soviet camp went something like this: obviously, Korchnoi was itching to play Karpov. If Karpov lost to him, it would be really bad publicity. So they just rested Karpov for the day and put in Kasparov. Garry actually mentioned to his teammates that he will shake Korchnoi's hand only if Korchnoi offered the handshake. This goes to show you that there Soviets were not even shaking hands with Korchnoi prior to this. But one thing is for sure- Kasparov didn't want to meddle in this politics, he just wanted to have a full-fledged chess fight.

Initial moments of the historic game between Korchnoi-Kasparov

Critical moments of the game along with Saravanan's comments


Kasparov plays the modern Benoni, an opening true to his uncompromising style

VS: This was the time of his career when he used to play the Benoni often. In the 1985 World Championship match's 16th game, which Kasparov won brilliantly, has a very interesting comment by Mikhail Botvinnik. He didn't like the way Kasparov played the game! He said, sacrifices should never be done for the sake of sacrificing. In the initial phase of his career, Kasparov had a very daredevil style.


17...b5 the first tactical shot of the game. The Knight stayed on e5 stayed en prise for seven more moves!

VS: There was this wonderful quote regarding this move in the Chess Life magazine:

Some people burn their bridges after they cross them. Then there are people who burn their bridges before they reach them.

b5 is the move of a player who burns the bridge before reaching it. I don't care that you are attacking my knight, I'll play another pawn sacrifice. 18.fxe5 is not possible due to 18...Nxg3! 19. Kxg3 Bxe5+ and its curtains. Somewhere around this position, the following brilliant picture was taken:

Look at the sheer tension in this photograph. Kasparov's posture is not something you would want on a chess board- he's nervous about the position. You can see Alexander Beliavsky very intently following the game beside Korchnoi, and Karpov looking from a distance. Korchnoi is just deep in thought, fully concentrated. This is exactly the kind of picture which shows the beauty of chess, the calculations, and the complications.


At last, White accepts the bait. But his position rapidly disintegrates now.

VS: This was the decisive mistake. After...Bxe5, g3 becomes really weak. Play continued with 25.Nc4 Nxg3! If you count the number of hanging pieces on the board, it is insane. This is a very fertile ground for calculation and analysis. This reminds me of another excellent story regarding Soviet Grandmaster Semen Palatnik. We met him at the Tata GM Open in 1987. Kasparov and Karpov were playing their WC match in Seville at the moment. IM Lanka Ravi asked Semen "What do you think of the Kasparov-Karpov match?" His response was something I'll cherish for years to come [smiling]:

What do I think? This is a fight between tigers, and we are monkeys. We can only watch from the mountains.

This would be my advice to any aspiring junior player of today: at the end of the day, chess is a game. First and foremost, you need to enjoy it! Sacrifice a piece, sacrifice some pawns, play the Benoni, attack freely. Fearlessness is one of the defining qualities of any great chess player, be it from the past or today.


29...Rf2+ was not the cleanest way to convert the game.

VS: This was the only major mistake by Kasparov throughout the game. After 30.Qxf2 Nxf2 31.Ra2, White is still fighting. A much easier win was there with 29...Nxd2 30. Nxd7 Nf3+ 31. Qe2 Nh4+ 32. Kg1 Qxc3 and Black is completely winning.


Korchnoi got his last chance to fight for a draw here but missed the idea under severe time pressure.

VS: In this position, Korchnoi missed his final chance to get a draw. If white plays 33.Ra8+ Kg7 34.Ra7, there is no way for Black to progress. But he played 33.Bh6? and Kasparov went on to win comfortably after 33.Qxd7.


SS: What an amazing game and amazing stories to start off the first episode, Sara!

VS: Yes, the start couldn't have been any better than this game. There's actually an aftermath to this story - due to this one game, Korchnoi completely misunderstood Kasparov's style of play. He himself mentioned that this was the prime reason he lost the Candidates match between them in 1983. Honestly speaking, I don't think the hype and the tension regarding these battles can be ever recreated again.

SS: Saravanan, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you, thank you so much for your time. We will be back with the second episode very soon!

VS: Thank you, Sagar!

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.