Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess

3/7/2005 – At 73 the former double world championship challenger is still going strong, playing active and attractive chess in top tournaments. Now he has spoken about a career that spans more than five decades and six generations of opponents, in his own electrifying style. Two fascinating DVDs on a life devoted to chess – we bring you the story and sample videos.

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Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess

By Frederic Friedel

Viktor Kortchnoi is doubtlessly one of the most electrifying personalities in the world of chess. At 73 the former double world championship finalist is still playing successful and attractive chess, teaching the young Turks lesson after lesson in tournament after world-class tournament. He has a career that spans so many decades and is filled with so many encounters that one can scarcely believe it has all happened in the lifetime of a single person.

Kortchnoi is not just famous for brilliancy in chess, he is also well-known for his candidly expressed opinions, his no-nonsense language and his volatile temperament. He is a volcano not just ready to go off, he is one that regularly erupts and spews molten lava over the countryside. There is hardly a chessplayer who hasn’t been burnt.

On the other hand Viktor loves chess. You can see it in every statement he makes, the way he moves around a tournament hall, the time he spends there even after his own game is over. And he can be lavish in his praise of an opponent who has done well, who has impressed him with a deep strategic game or a tactical brilliance. Players come out of postmortems flushed or devastated, depending on how Viktor Kortchnoi evaluates their game.

The way we were: the author with Viktor Kortchnoi, about twenty years ago

When we decided to make a series of DVDs with Kortchnoi I must confess that I was a bit nervous. Even in normal conversation Viktor Lvovich, whom I have known for over two decades now, is always very intense. No small talk, any question or remark can elicit a profound, witty, or caustic response. Since he is doing that in a foreign language, and since he is never willing to compromise his high standard of erudition, the conversation is sometimes ponderous. You have to wait for many seconds while he thinks. He will pause in mid-sentence and search for a word. He will go back and correct the previous sentence when a better expression has occurred to him.

How would this play out in a video recording, where the speaker is expected to be fluid and eloquent? It was with some trepidation that I took a seat behind the camera in our December recording session in the Hamburg “Studio ChessBase” (where Garry Kasparov and others have made a series of wonderful training CDs). Viktor had spent half an hour receiving technical instructions, we had given him IM Oliver Reeh, just out of the picture, to help with the computer operation when he needed it, and he had briefly flipped through his new autobiography “Mein Leben für das Schach” (My Life for Chess, Olms Verlag, 2004). Light, camera, and action!

Viktor Kortchnoi in "Studio ChessBase" in Hamburg

It was unlike anything I had expected. Viktor Lvovich was completely at ease, spoke powerfully, interspacing profundity with humorous moments, objective chess analysis with scintillating historical narrative. The pauses were there, the struggle for the mot juste. But he used it to dramatic effect. You can feel the intensity, the uncompromising need to say exactly what he is thinking.

All of this was not without preparation. Between takes Viktor would wander around the office, consulting books or the chess database, planning an anecdote and getting the dates right, or search for the chess highlight to zoom in on. Each game starts with a little story, an anecdote, putting it into perspective, before the actual moves are replayed on the chessboard, with commentary, analysis, evaluations. During the introduction the great man looks you directly in the eyes, speaks with an intensity that drained three camera operators in the four days we spent recording with him.

Preparing for a video recording with IM Oliver Reeh

But instead of eulogising endlessly, let me give you a couple of impressions, literal transcriptions, which of course fail to convey the verbal and facial eloquence, the sly grins and wide-eyed stares. But it will give you a rough idea. We start with the randomly selected recording seven.

1967. In that year the Soviet state celebrated fifty years of, more or less, its existence. It was the fifty year’s anniversary of the so-called October Socialist Revolution. In order to commemorate this day they organised two big international tournaments – one in Moscow, one in Leningrad. Well, there were even rumours that Bobby Fischer was ready, was eager to take part in one of these tournaments, without any extra fee. Just to play. There were rumours. But the Soviet authorities thought it over and decided not to allow him to come to the Soviet Union. “What the hell would happen if an American citizen would win the tournament commemorated to the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet state?” No, sorry, so the tournaments were played, the stronger one, in Moscow, was won by Leonid Stein, and the weaker one in Leningrad was won by me, in a fight with Grandmaster Kholmov, who was second. So I won several interesting games, and I am going to show you one of them.

[Kortchnoi starts to replay his white game against Mijo Udovcic, which begins 1.d4 e6 2.e4]

Well, some time ago the then world champion Mikhail Botvinnik said that a young player had to arrange his opening repertoire in a way that he would never have to play against himself. What does it mean? It means that if I play the Grunfeld with black against d4 and the French Defence against e4, I should not play against the French myself. Somehow I had to avoid openings which I play myself. But I got tired of playing closed openings and decided to take the challenge. The guy wanted to play the French against me, I take it! But if possible I would avoid the most modern lines.

  • Click to replay a short excerpt for dial-up or broadband
    Note that these clips have been highly compressed. The original is in much higher quality

His Life for Chess on DVD – Viktor Kortchnoi narrates and annotates games

Another example? Before one session, I found Viktor Lvovich struggling to find a player called Lowenfish in the Mega Database. After some moments we discovered he was spelled Levenfish. Viktor expertly created a “players dossier”, and I asked him whether he would be showing us a game against Levenfish. “No,” he said, “I just need his exact date of birth.” Mysterious. After this we recorded session number 16, which starts with the following introduction:

I have played chess for more than fifty years. Some of my first opponents were born in the 19th century. For instance in 1953 I played against Grandmaster Levenfish, who was born in 1889 [aha!]. He won one of the games and was very proud. He wrote: “Such a great tactician as Kortchnoi overlooked my very nice combination.” Yes, it was a nice game. Well, okay, I played against Levenfish. Now in about one week I am going to Oslo where I will face Magnus Carlsen, who was born one hundred and one years after Levenfish, in the year 1990. Such a range – I believe I have played against people of six generations!

In the year 1976, after the tournament in Hastings, I gave a simultaneous display in London where I played against a selected team of juniors. Thirty boards. It was not easy. I played for seven hours and fifteen minutes. I won seventeen games, I drew twelve, and I lost only one, to a small boy, whose name was Nigel Short. That was 1976. And now I am going to show you a game from 1990, where I play against a future challenger for the world championship, a future contender in the match against Garry Kasparov. This is the game. [Shows us the game Kortschnoj vs Short, Rotterdam 1990, 1-0 in 40 moves].

  • Click to replay a short excerpt for dial-up or broadband
    Note that these clips have been highly compressed. The original is in much higher quality

The young lad whom Kortchnoi faced in the simultaneous exhibition in 1976

Well, that is what you get with the new DVDs of Viktor Kortchnoi “My Life for Chess”, volumes one and two. These videos are replayed using ChessBase 9, Fritz 8 or any compatible chess program (Junior, Shredder), or with the ChessBase Reader that is provided on the DVD. The actual video recordings contain invisible instructions that tell the above programs what the speaker was doing during the recording: which moves he was replaying or entering, which arrows were drawn or squares marked. The instructions are executed synchronous with the video playback. You can see that the speaker is moving a piece, while it moves on the chessboard. A perfect way to present chess.

Viktor Kortchnoi and wife Petra at the ChessBase Christmas dinner

The videos, might I add, are of very high quality, taken with studio lights, a professional video camera and high quality microphones for the sound recording.

In volume one Kortchnoi presents eight of his most interesting games from the years 1949-1979. Among them games against Smyslov, Geller, Tal, Hübner and Karpov. The highlight is certainly an encounter with Karpov during the match for the world championship in Baguio 1978. All in all, “My Life for Chess Vol. 1” offers more than three hours of first-class chess training, plus an extensive interview.

Volume 2 features about four hours of “Kortchnoi unplugged”. The chess legend portraits the second part of his eventful career, presenting among other things his games against Kasparov (1986), Spassky (1989) and Short (1990), all in the same gripping style. Embedded in the game commentaries are many details of Kortchnoi’s biography. For instance, before commenting his game against Spassky, the veteran speaks extensively about his personal relationship towards the ex-world champion. Throughout these lectures you can feel his ever-enduring love for chess. Whenever he gets to the heart of an opening (King’s Indian, English and French) or shows an astonishing move, you can see the joy sparkling from his eyes. No wonder – hardly any other chess genius has lived a chess life as intensively as “Viktor the Terrible”.

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