Viktor Korchnoi, still going strong at 75

3/23/2006 – On Wednesday Captain Kirk celebrated his 75th birthday, on Sunday it is Dr Spock's turn. In between, on Wednesday, it is one of the defining chess players of our time: the indomitable Viktor Korchnoi. Born on March 23 1931 this chess legend is still going strong, taking part in the highest levels of international chess. We wish him a happy anniversary.

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Viktor Korchnoi, still going strong at 75

This week Star Trek fans are in permanent party mode. William Shatner, the famed Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise, was born on March 22, 1931, while his pointy-eared half-Vulcan first officer Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, was born on March 26, 1931. Both turn 75, which is cause for the trekkie celebrations.

Chess fans have an important date between the two space travellers. Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi, whose surname is also spelled Kortschnoj, Korchnoy, Kortchnoy, etc., (Russian: Ви́ктор Льво́вич Корчно́й), born March 23, 1931 in Leningrad, USSR, which makes him 75 years old today.


Fischer vs Kortchnoi at the Candidates in Curacao, 1962

Korchnoi was USSR champion four times over, in 1960, 1962-63, 1964-65 and 1970. He won five European Championship titles, two interzonal tournaments for world championship, and two Candidates Tournaments, in 1977 and 1980. The latter led to world championship challenges. Korchnoi played three matches for the title, all against Anatoly Karpov. The first was the 1974 Candidates' Final, which turned out to be the title match when Bobby Fischer did not play the winner (Karpov). The other two were title matches against Karpov in Meran and Bagio.


The 16-year-old Viktor Korchnoi winning the 1947 USSR Youth Championship

Korchnoi learned to play chess at the age of seven. In 1943 he joined the Leningrad Pioneer Palace chess club, in 1947 he won the USSR youth championship, and in 1952 he qualified for the first time for the USSR Championship. He became an IM in 1954 and a Grandmaster in 1956. Next to his chess career he also graduated from Leningrad State University with a major in History.

In the first part of his career Korchnoi's playing style was characterised by aggressive counter-attack, and by tenacious defence. But in his prime he had become a genuine all-rounder in the style of Fischer. He played equally well with or without the initiative, in attack or defence, tactically or positionally, in the opening or in the endgame. Korchnoi had a plus score against the world champions Tal, Petrosian and Spassky, and an equal score against Botvinnik and Fischer.


Viktor Korchnoi in August 1976, just after his defection

In spite of his world-class playing strength Korchnoi was not given enough opportunities to use his talents. In 1976 he defected to the West and became the target of a personal campaign by the Soviet chess establishment. In spite of the pressures brought upon him he managed to qualify for two world championship matches. The first was held in 1978 in Baguio City, Philippines. It involved the use of a parapsychologist named Dr Zukhar by the title holder Anatoly Karpov, and an Indian religious sect by Korchnoi as a counter to this gambit. Karpov took a big opening lead, but Korchnoi fought back and won three out of four games to equalise the match 5:5. Karpov won the next game to take the title for a total of +6 =21 –5 (six wins was required to decide the match).


Korchnoi vs Karpov during the 1974 Candidates matches

The next challenge to Karpov came in 1981. During the match, which was held in Merano, Italy, Korchnoi was preoccupied with the fate of his wife and son, who were still in the Soviet Union. This led to a bad performance, and Karpov easily decided the encounter in his favour. Korchnoi's son was sentenced to two and half years in labour camp for evading army service.


The third game of the 1981 world championship match Karpov vs Korchnoi in Merano. The challenger had lost the first two games but to the surprise of his opponent took no out time before the third game. Karpov, playing black, offered him a draw, and Korchnoi replied: "Citizen Karpov, you must direct your offer to the arbiter!" The term "citizen" (instead of the usual "Comrade") was used at the time by prisoners when they addressed their jailors, a barb not lost on Karpov.

Korchnoi played in the next Candidates cycle, and in its course had to face a young Russian talent named Garry Kasparov. The match was scheduled to be played in Pasadena, California. But the Russian chess federation protested and Kasparov was not allowed to travel to the US, leaving Korchnoi as the winner by default. However Korchnoi of his own accord agreed to replay the match in London. After a good start he was soundly defeated by Kasparov, who had similar troubles with the Soviet chess federation, which favoured Karpov and put obstacles in the way of the younger, outspoken Kasparov.


In 2002 Viktor Kortschnoi was awarded the title of Doctor honoris causa by the University of Moldova.

Viktor Korchnoi is a phenomenon of longevity at the chessboard. He has been playing top-level chess for half a century, and even in his 70s he remains one of the best players in the world.


Viktor with wife Petra during a visit in Hamburg a year ago

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