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.

Links


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.
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Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 3/27/2021 10:28
JackJ . your quote sums up the whole Korchnoi! He survived world war 2 as a Jew, if i am not mistaken?
JackJ JackJ 3/27/2021 09:45
If you like fighting chess, you need look no further than the games of Victor Korchnoi -- his legacy and sheer will to fight -- sometimes under the most difficult of circumstances -- will continue to inspire chessplayers for generations to come.
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 3/25/2021 09:09
Top quotes by Korchnoi:

The aim was simple: to deprive Karpov of his favourite occupation - standing at the board, staring straight at his opponent. While I was wearing these glasses, all he could admire was his own reflection.

[Garry] Kasparov and [Anatoly] Karpov have something in common. They both want to become deputies of the Russian State Duma.

As a rule, the more mistakes there are in a game, the more memorable it remains, because you have suffered and worried over each mistake at the board.

The whole life with a wife is like an end game with two bishops of different colors.

No Chess Grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness

Skeletons of mice are often to be found in coconuts, for it is easier to get in, slim and greedy, than to get out, appeased but fat.


Viktor Korchnoi
André André 3/25/2021 04:13
@alexistorres - Soltis: Soviet chess 1917-1991, p. 304
adbennet adbennet 3/25/2021 03:52
@Peter B - In the 1974 match, his trainer Furman had recently gone to work with Karpov, putting Korchnoi in a difficult spot. He couldn't use any of his previous preparation. Certainly some of his openings in that match were only emergency solutions. In the 1978 match he *mostly* used good classical openings. Playing the Pirc in game 32 was not his finest moment. Reading about the 1978 match was painful. With all the antics off the chessboard, a lesser player than Korchnoi would have lost 6-0.
alexistorres alexistorres 3/24/2021 06:04
Mr. Schulz, what's your evidence for the statement "Allegedly this match was arranged or there were instructions "from above", as Petrosian was given better chances in a match against Fischer"? Pure innuendo. I don't believe it for a second. Petrosian was very capable of defeating Kortschnoj on his own. And they both had professional pride in their craft. I highly doubt Kortschnoj would have agreed to let Petrosian win.
mikolov mikolov 3/24/2021 04:02
I had a copy of Kortchnoi's Best 400 Games book. My chess dramatically improved after going over his games. I still remembering winning a very difficult game were I got to play a Kortchnoi novelty in the opening . I saw it in the Informant. I always looked to see what he was playing in the French as no one played it better than him. What a great player and inspiration to players who wanted to see fighting chess .
lajosarpad lajosarpad 3/24/2021 10:08
I miss Kortchnoi so much. A great player, who was a great counter-attacker. I adored him in the commercial about milk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkZuwKu_WkM
SoDesuKa SoDesuKa 3/24/2021 02:49
Thanks much for a really excellent article, choice of photos, and games. This is chess history at its very best. It would be interesting to know what other players fought like, or as long as, Kortschnoi for the world championship. The years and decades passed, but he just kept fighting. "In the corner stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade." Happy Birthday, Viktor. I followed your career with great admiration, and remain astonished at the longevity of your fighting spirit. And thanks again, André. I always enjoy your excellent pieces.
Peter B Peter B 3/24/2021 12:40
If only he hadn't played the Dragon!
If only he hadn't walked into a mating net while pushing too hard for an endgame win (Game 17 in 1978)!
If only he hadn't played the Pirc!
In the end he wasn't quite good enough or lucky enough, but he is still one of the all time greats.
marcguy marcguy 3/23/2021 11:15
I got a chance to meet Korchnoi briefly in 1995. He was participating in the Pan Pacific Championship tournament in San Francisco, CA. After finishing his game with American Larry Christiansen (an eventful draw), I followed him to the elevator with hopes of getting his autograph in my copy of the book "Chess Scandals", about his 1978 match with Karpov. I was nervous as hell, alone approaching one of the most famous GMs in history. As he was waiting for the elevator, I said something like "that was an interesting game you just played with Christiansen" and he replied with exasperation "yes, but at some point I was WINNING". I then handed him my book which he readily signed on the inside cover. He was almost childlike, with a very mild mannered voice, and he was carrying a kid's backpack, not at all the image of "Victor the Terrible".
A year or two later I was able to get Karpov's autograph opposite Korchnoi's in the same book at the National Open in Las Vegas, NV. I'm not sure, but I may have the only copy of "Chess Scandals" autographed by both participants.
twamers twamers 3/23/2021 11:06
Viktor was one of the truly great fighting chess players. I watched him in the Candidates against Kasparov in London and was there on the memorable day he scored his sole win in the match against Gary. I always enjoy looking back on the games of Viktor in the books I have. A wonderful player. Thank you for remembering him.
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 3/23/2021 09:51
Another person similar to Kortschnoi should be mentioned ...Boris Gulko.
USSR champion (and USA champion) and similarly his chess career was blocked by the KGB.... Karpov was handpicked by the Russian governement...seems to be a repeated story...but Karpov did well. Anyways, we should all do research on this matter if it is still possible...
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