The warlord enjoys himself

by Nagesh Havanur
6/9/2018 – A few days ago, the 6th of June, happened to be the death anniversary of Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016), the legendary player who strode the chess world like a colossus. The warlord simply loved playing, whatever the format, blitz, rapid or classical. He reveled in simultaneous displays. The public adored him and he, in turn, enjoyed their adulation. In such events his play was uninhibited and he moved pieces with fiery spirit and energy. Our columnist Nagesh Havanur goes down memory lane. | Pictured: Korchnoi in Hoogovens 1985 | Photo: Rob Croes / Anefo

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Back in 1972, we were all Fischer fans. Who wasn't? Unless you were a Botvinnik or Petrosian fan. Our only other idol was Tal.  Around this time, two other players caught our fancy: Bent Larsen and, of course, Viktor Korchnoi. It was Baruch Wood's writing that introduced me to the play of the legendary warrior.

Baruch Wood | Photo: Kingpin Magazine

Apart from the famous CHESS magazine, Wood founded and edited the Sutton Coldfield Magazine and found time to write a popular column for The Illustrated London News.

He was an engaging writer and it was a pleasure to read him. Back in 1972, I saw his column describing the ups and downs of a “crazy” game that Viktor had played in a simultaneous display at Teesside, UK. 

Now, how did this come about? The great man had shared first place with the rising star Anatoly Karpov at the 1971-72 Hastings Tournament and had time to spare for a simultaneous display before returning home. In the picture below, we can see a characteristic show (not from Teesside).

Korchnoi simul at Liverpool, 1972 (from L to R: John Ripley, John Beach, Griff Parsonage and Loius McGrath) | Photo: Liverpool Chess Club

In those days, Viktor was still in the prime of life and was a serious contender for the World Championship. As is known, chess for him was a fight and he shunned draws. An offer of peace treaty was often met with a curt “nyet”. On occasion, he inspired his opponents, who put up a big fight before going down in flames. That’s what happened when he met M.J. Graham from Leeds at the Teesside simultaneous display.

From this point onwards we shall follow Baruch Wood’s narrative:

In the following position Black has captured the rook on e1 and is feeling quite happy. If White takes the bishop, Black will reply…NxB. He remains with a rook for a bishop, which in fact counts as a slight material advantage.


White to move

Here Korchnoi played 1.Bxe5+!

Everyone thought the great man had blundered. After all, he was racking his brains at 39 other boards. So, the unsuspecting opponent replied 1…fxe5

Now came the stunning move that Viktor had seen before, 2.Qf7!!


Not one of the spectators who had clustered around this board (some of them really strong players) had thought of this move. Now Graham really got round to it and — in the five minutes before Korchnoi’s return — found the clever reply which the grandmaster himself had suddenly noticed, 2…Bxf2+!

There followed a fiery counterattack, which was met by a cold-blooded defence by Korchnoi: 3.Kh2 Bg3+ 4.Kxg3 Qg5+ 5.Kh2 Rxh3+ 6.gxh3 Rd2+ 7.Rxd2 Qxd2+ 8.Kg1 Qe3+ 9.Qf2 Qxf2+ 10.Kxf2 Nxa6 and White won the ending.

The complete line for replay:


But that is not the end of the story.  The knight on c5 was found missing in the original diagram, and a number of readers phoned or wrote Baruch Wood to tell him how Black should have continued. Among them were Mr. Vasey of Wisbech and his son Philip, who set up the position to solve. While the father was briefly away, 15-year-old Philip came up with a remarkable discovery. Graham missed a winning move and Korchnoi should have lost! Was he right?


A phenomenal might-have-been!

For the record, Baruch Wood mentions the following:

At Teesside Simultaneous Display, Korchnoi scored 33 wins, six draws and only one loss in less than 4½ hours.

Four decades later, he was to repeat a similar performance. He scored 21 wins, four draws and one loss. His zest for the game had not dimmed: 

The warlord’s uncompromising attitude became part of chess folklore. Here is an anecdote narrated by Genna Sosonko:

When Korchnoi plays chess, he forgets about everything. Tal once told me, before a simultaneous display in Havana, Viktor was told, “You will be playing Che Guevara. He is a rather weak player, but he loves chess passionately. He would be delighted if he were able to gain a draw.” Korchnoi understandingly nodded his head. A few hours later he returned to the hotel. “Well?” Tal enquired. “I crushed them all, all without exception!” “And Che Guevara?”  “Che Guevara? I also crushed Che Guevara — he hasn't a clue about the Catalan Opening!”

-The Reliable Past, New in Chess, 2003


Prof. Nagesh Havanur (otherwise known as "chessbibliophile") is a senior academic and research scholar. He taught English in Mumbai for three decades and has now settled in Bangalore, India. His interests include chess history, biography and opening theory. He has been writing on the Royal Game for more than two decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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Grad Grad 6/24/2018 09:18
Korchnoi=Adolf Andersen, Kasparov=Paul Morphy, Fischer=Geza Maroczy. Double great players.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 6/11/2018 04:32
Genna Sosonko recalled, “On his 80th birthday he gave a simultaneous display on 10 boards with clocks before the gala dinner. He didn’t look too well…and he held a walking stick on which he leaned with difficulty as he reached each table. I remember asking the organizers: “Why are we playing the simul with clocks? It’s difficult for him!” They explained: “A couple of days ago he gave an ordinary simul on thirty boards- and it lasted six and a half hours! Do you think that was any easier for him?”
He won eight games and lost two…”
(from the recent memoirs, "Evil-Doer: Half A Century with Viktor Korchnoi")
Michael Jones Michael Jones 6/11/2018 12:22
Thank you chessbibliophile. When I first saw the simul advertised I realised it would most likely be the only chance I'd ever have to play such a legend of the game, and signed up immediately before the places sold out. Apart from anything else, it gives me a Morphy number of 5, which I don't suppose I'd ever have achieved playing at my more usual local league level. If he thought I should have resigned earlier, he was too polite to say so!
macauley macauley 6/10/2018 05:17
@jimliew - Despite his moods, I think it's a fair statement re. the public. Here's an example:
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 6/10/2018 09:30
A fascinating testimony marked by modesty and grace. Congratulations are due for having played with a legend (never mind the result). In a kinder mood Viktor would have said, “That young man played on in a lost position. Good. If you cannot do anything, hang on and try to survive, but don’t surrender.”
Michael Jones Michael Jones 6/10/2018 03:31
I was one of the players in that 2009 simul (green hoodie, back to the camera at 0:36). It was the first time I'd played a GM, and I was expecting that he'd blast me off the board. He didn't: he slowly crushed me instead. I don't think I've ever been so completely lost in a position with level material - my knight was stuck on a8 for much of the game and I eventually sacced it out of sheer desperation. The simul had to be brought to a premature end - they'd underestimated how long it would take, and the venue was due to be locked - with any unfinished games being adjudicated; there was no point adjudicating mine, since I was clearly lost, so I just resigned then. At least I lasted that long - he won one game in 8 moves!
jimliew jimliew 6/9/2018 04:27
"The public adored him". Seriously? Have you ever met him in person?
thirteen thirteen 6/9/2018 02:54
FIERCE warrior! Forever to be remembered that way. Perhaps a few not so low rated, early draw making icons should learn something of his bravery. But again I repeat, it seems only the devised winning payments of money can bring about such likely needs, nowadays.
marek1969 marek1969 6/9/2018 08:35
Great warrior.