Remembering Viktor Kortschnoi (23 March 1931 – 6 June 2016)

by André Schulz
3/23/2021 – Viktor Kortschnoi is a phenomenon. He started his chess career in 1943 when he joined the Pioneer Palace in Leningrad and played until his death in 2016 when he was confined to a wheelchair. Today Kortschnoi would have celebrated his 90th birthday. | Photo: De Telegraaf via David Llada

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Viktor Kortschnoi was born in Leningrad on 23 March 1931. He was ten years old when the German Wehrmacht started its siege of the city that lasted 872 days (from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944), and in which more than one million civilians were killed, mainly from starvation. A large part of Kortschnoi's family died but he managed to survive.

In 1943, Kortschnoi had joined the Leningrad Pioneer Palace where Abram Model, Andrei Batuyev and Vladimir Zak became his first chess teachers. And if you want to get an idea of Kortschnoi's enormous achievement as a chess player, the best place to look is the Mega Database. The first surviving games by Kortschnoi in the Mega Database date from 1945, including a simultaneous game against Ragozin.

Mega Database 2021

The ChessBase Mega Database 2021 is the premiere chess database with over 8.4 million games from 1560 to 2020 in high quality.

In 1947 and 1948, Kortschnoi won the USSR Junior Championship, and in 1951, he was awarded the distinction of "Master of Sports".

In 1952, Kortschnoi played in the final of the USSR Championships and established himself as one of the best players of the country. In the 1954 Championships he was already playing for the title but in the end shared second place with Mark Taimanov, while Yury Averbakh won the tournament. But in 1960, 1962 and 1964, Kortschnoi won the title.

In 1954 Kortschnoi became an International Master and in 1956 an International Grandmaster. Kortschnoi belonged to the privileged circle of players who were allowed to play in tournaments abroad and who received a monthly salary from the state.

The statistician Jeff Sonas, who in 2004 tried to evaluate the achievements of historical chess players by calculating historical Elo-ratings, sees Kortschnoi in 12th place in his "eternal world ranking list", which, however, only extends to 2004. But according to Sonas in 1965 Kortschnoi was the world's number one.

Kortschnoi's score against the World Champions of his time is impressive:

Botvinnik: 4 games, =
Smyslov 22 games, -2
Michail Tal 48 games, +6
Petrosian 70 games, +1
Spassky 79 games, +8
Fischer 10 games, =
Karpov 121 games, -18
Kasparov 41 games, -15

Michail Tal was one of the players, against whom Kortschnoi scored particularly well, especially when Tal was still young. After all, Tal was happy to sacrifice and Kortschnoi was happy to take material – and to keep it. The following game, which Kortschnoi himself annotated for the tournament bulletin is a typical example.

 

But why did Kortschnoi never become World Champion? For more than 30 years (!) he almost always made it to the qualifying stages for the World Championship, but always failed to reach the very top.

In 1962 Kortschnoi qualified for the Interzonal Tournament and then for the Candidates Tournament in Curacao, which was won by Petrosian while Kortschnoi finished fifth. There was plenty of intrigue among the top players in the Soviet Union, and while some had good connections to influential officials, others did not. Kortschnoi had none. In 1965, however, he joined the Communist Party to improve his chances to fight for the title.

Another reason for Kortschnoi's uneven performances might have been health-related. He was  a heavy smoker, which had a negative effect on his fitness and health. Kortschnoi also regularly suffered from stomach problems, perhaps due to stomach ulcers.

Kortschnoi failed to qualify for the 1964 Interzonal Tournament in Amsterdam but in 1967 he finished second behind Larsen at the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse and qualified for the Candidate Matches, where he won against Reshevsky and Tal but the lost against Spassky in the finals. Spassky then dethroned Petrosian in 1969 and became World Champion.

In 1970, Kortschnoi won his fourth Soviet Championship after winning it in 1960, 1962 and 1964. He had lost his long-time coach Semyon Furman to Anatoly Karpov, but found a good replacement in Gennadi Sosonko.

In the following candidate cycle Kortschnoi was seeded as candidate finalist from the previous cycle. He won against Geller in the quarter-finals, but lost the semi-final match against Petrosian. Allegedly this match was arranged or there were instructions "from above", as Petrosian was given better chances in a match against Fischer. Petrosian indeed played against Fischer in Buenos Aires 1971 but suffered a bitter defeat.

In 1973 Kortschnoi won the Interzonal Tournament in Leningrad and again qualified for the Candidates Matches. With victories over Henrique Mecking and Tigran Petrosian he reached the final, where he lost to Karpov. Since Fischer refused to defend his title in a match, Karpov became World Champion.

That was the time when Kortschnoi felt disadvantaged by the Soviet authorities, expressed this publicly, came under pressure and decided to flee to the West in 1976. After his flight from the Soviet Union almost all players of the "Eastern Bloc" boycotted tournaments in which Kortschnoi played. However, in the World Championship cycle such a boycott was not possible.

In the World Championship cycle 1975-1978 Kortschnoi inflicted crushing defeats on Petrosian, Polugajevsky and Spassky but then narrowly lost the World Championship match against Anatoly Karpov in Baguio City 1978.

In the next cycle Kortschnoi again defeated Petrosian and Polugajevsky, and then also won against Robert Hübner from Germany in the final of the Candidate Matches. In 1981 Kortschnoi played his second World Championship match against Karpov, but this time lost clearly. Kortschnoi had passed his zenith, but he was still one of the world's best players.

In the Candidate Matches 1983 Kortschnoi defeated Lajos Portisch in the quarterfinals and was to play the young Garry Kasparov in the semifinals. The match was to take place in the USA but the Soviet authorities did not want any of their players to play in the US, as the US boycott of the 1984 Moscow Olympics became more and more like.

Therefore, the match Kortschnoi vs Kasparov did not take place and Kortschnoi won by default. Then Heydar Aliyev, a politically influential Azeri intervened, and the match took place after all. Kortschnoi agreed to play against Kasparov in London and the boycott against him ended. But Kortschnoi could not cope against the young Kasparov who won the Candidate Matches and in 1985 became World Champion.

Photo: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo

But in the next World Championship cycle Kortschnoi started again. In 1987, at the age of 56, Kortschnoi won the Interzonal Tournament in Zagreb and again qualified for the Candidate Matches where he lost against the Icelandic Grandmaster Johann Hjartason.

Three years later, in 1990, Kortschnoi once again made it to the Candidate Matches after finishing sixth in the Interzonal in Manila. After narrowly winning his quarterfinal match against the Hungarian Gyula Sax Kortschnoi lost in the semifinals against Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman - and this was the last time Kortschnoi played in the Candidates.

However, in 2006 Kortschnoi became World Champion after all – he won the World Senior Championships.

The Mega Database contains 5168 games by Kortschnoi, more than any other player.

Mega Database 2021

The ChessBase Mega Database 2021 is the premiere chess database with over 8.4 million games from 1560 to 2020 in high quality.

Kortschnoi played his last official games on 16 February 2015, in a rapid chess match against Wolfgang Uhlmann. By then Kortschnoi had been in a wheelchair for several years after suffering a stroke in 2012.

Kortschnoi's games are first of all characterised by his willingness to fight – classic brilliancies are relatively rare. The following game is an exception.

 

Since 1991, when he played against Sax and Timman in the Candidates, Kortschnoi has commented regularly for the ChessBase Magazine

ChessBase Magazine 200

Anniversary issue with several extras! "My favourite young Carlsen game": 22 authors annotate. Pearls from Wijk: Jorden van Foreest and Anish Giri comment on their best games. Plus 11 opening articles, 3 opening videos, "Carlen's strategy" and much more!

All in all the Mega contains 259 games that Kortschnoi annotated. He not only annotated his wins, but also some losses, and games by other players, e.g. a Bundesliga game two editors-in-chief of hte ChessBase Magazine, Rainer Knaak and Oliver Reeh, played in 2006.

 

Kortschnoi's last annotated game is the game Acs –Kortschnoi.

 

If you want to see the chess legend Kortschnoi live, you can watch him in action on his two ChessBase DVDs. It's worth it.

My Life for Chess Vol. 1

Victor Kortchnoi, two-times contender for the world championship, is a piece of living chess history. He is known as one of the greatest fighters in the history of chess. On this DVD he speaks about his life and shows his game.

My Life for Chess Vol. 2

Volume 2 of the memories of Viktor Kortchnoi features about four hours of Kortchnoi live. He speaks about his life and shows his game - and in every minute you see and feel his enormous passion for chess.

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André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.

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