When the warlord was young

by Nagesh Havanur
6/27/2016 – Seventy years ago a young boy made his debut in competitive chess. Our thumbnail shows him a few years later, at the start of a great career. For decades tournament halls resonated with his astonishing victories and disasters no less. Time and again he fell and rose like a Phoenix. Here Nagesh Havanur remembers those early steps in a legendary career, which recently sadly came to an end.

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When the warlord was young

12th February, 2016. The Zürich Chess Challenge Tournament is about to begin and there is a glittering opening ceremony. Players and spectators are exchanging bonhomie even as music is played. Amidst all this festivity you see an old man perched on a wheelchair.

He sits motionless, lost in a reverie. When was it that he played like these boys?

Almost seventy years ago! He is standing in the middle with friends and his coach Vladimir Zak (seated)

Spectators at the USSR Championship in Moscow

He was only 21 and already crossing swords with Botvinnik, Keres and Smyslov.

How time passes! Today when you see him he looks like
a frail old eagle. Of course he has seen much. [Photo David Llada]

Once he said, with pride: 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… 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… I believe I have played against people of six generations!"

Here in Zürich they have invited him as a Guest of Honour. He does not mind being honoured. But he does not relish the idea of being a spectator. "They didn't get me an opponent this time! I don't want to watch, I want to play!" he complains to photographer David Llada.

Hasn’t he had enough of the frenzied world that is chess? Never. Chess is his life. How many games must he have played? No one has kept a count. For the record there are about 5000 games and many of them defy description. They are chaotic and crazy. If there are adventures, there are also disasters. Inspiration alternates with insanity.

For this reason he is seldom satisfied with his play or that of others. If he loses he worries what is wrong with his game. If he wins he wonders what is wrong with his opponent. Disappointment shows even when he finishes first. “Every time I win a tournament I think there is something wrong with modern chess,” he says.

He likes old masters, though. One of them is Levenfish and he fondly recalls
the combination that the veteran played against him 60 years before.

[Event "URS Trade Unions-chT Minsk"] [Site "?"] [Date "1953.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Korchnoi, V."] [Black "Levenfish, G."] [Result "0-1"] [Annotator "Nagesh Havanur"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r3r1k1/5ppp/2p2q2/2P5/1p2B3/1Q4Pb/1P3P1P/3RR1K1 w - - 0 23"] [PlyCount "8"] [EventDate "1953.??.??"] {Having outplayed the old master our young hero overreaches himself with the aggressive move,} 23. Rd6 $4 ({Instead he should have played} 23. Qxb4 $1 Rab8 24. Bg2 {according to Levenfish. After} Rxe1+ 25. Rxe1 Qd8 26. Qe4 Bxg2 27. Kxg2 $16 {White has the upper hand.}) 23... Rxe4 $1 24. Rxe4 ({If} 24. Qd1 Rxe1+ 25. Qxe1 Qf3 $19) ({After} 24. Red1 Qe7 $1 {Black has several ways of winning,the most elegant being} 25. Rf1 Re1 26. Qd3 Qxd6 $1 27. Qa6 Rxf1+ 28. Qxf1 Qd3 $1 29. Qe1 Qf3 $19) 24... Qxd6 $3 25. Qxb4 Qxc5 $1 26. Qe1 g6 0-

This was a wonderful lesson in defence and counterattack. His own road to mastery had begun eight years earlier. He was only 15 when he played the following game:

[Event "2nd Cat. Tournament Leningrad"] [Site "?"] [Date "1945.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Korchnoi, Viktor"] [Black "Dymov, I."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A85"] [Annotator "Nagesh Havanur"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1945.??.??"] 1. d4 e6 2. c4 f5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 {Refreshing play without preconceptions.} ( 4. g3 {followed by Bg2 is the main line.}) 4... Be7 5. Qc2 O-O 6. O-O-O d6 ( 6... d5 {leads to a Stonewall like position. Curiously, it has not made its appearance in practice.}) 7. Nf3 Nbd7 8. e4 $1 fxe4 9. Nxe4 Nxe4 10. Bxe7 Qxe7 11. Qxe4 Nf6 12. Qh4 Bd7 13. Ng5 $2 {Played with boyish impetuosity. But this move threatening Nxh7 could have waited.} (13. Kb1 {moving the king to safer quarters is a bit slow.}) (13. Bd3 {developing the last minor piece is better.} ) 13... h6 14. Nf3 Rf7 $2 {Concerned with White's forthcoming attack Black reinforces the second rank only to find later that it was not required.} ({ Instead he could have seized the initiative on the quenside with} 14... b5 $1 15. Kb1 ({or} 15. cxb5 Qe8 $17) 15... Qe8 $17) 15. Bd3 Be8 {With this move and the next Black attempts to keep an eye on g6 which may be targeted by White. So he skips the option of opening a front on the queenside with...Rb8 and...b5. In the end the delay proves fatal.} 16. Rhe1 ({The advance} 16. g4 $6 {would be premature on account of} Bc6 $1 17. d5 Nxd5 18. cxd5 Bxd5 (18... exd5 { gives White respite with} 19. Bg6) 19. Qxe7 Rxe7 20. Nh4 Bxh1 21. Rxh1 Rf7 $15) 16... Rf8 {This move, a part of Black's plan, leaves the queen unguarded.} 17. Re2 $2 {This idea of doubling up rooks on the e-file is a bit slow.} ({This time} 17. g4 $1 $14 {would have given him the initiative.}) 17... Bf7 18. Rde1 {still on the wrong track} ({Here} 18. g4 $1 $16 {is even stronger than before. }) 18... Qd7 19. g4 {Now this move needs a bit of preparation.} (19. Kb1 { first, keeping off any possible pin on the c-file, was necessary.}) 19... Qd8 $2 {Black hopes to prevent the advance g5-g6 with the "threat" of exchange of queens. However, it's insufficient and should lose.} ({Instead he should have played} 19... Qc6 $1 {targeting both the c4 pawn and the knight on f3, although even here White has some advantage after} 20. Qg3 b5 21. Rc2 bxc4 22. Bxc4 Ne4 23. Qg2 $14) 20. g5 Nd7 ({After} 20... Nh5 {Komodo suggests the subtle } 21. Re3 $1 ({However, I think, Viktor would have played for direct attack with} 21. Qe4 g6 22. Rg1 Qe8 23. gxh6 $18) 21... Kh8 (21... hxg5 {there follows } 22. Nxg5) 22. Kb1 Qe8 23. Qe4 $18) 21. Rg1 h5 22. Qg3 $4 {During the game young Viktor thought he should avoid the exchange of queens following g5-g6. Later he found he was wrong.} ({After the game he saw} 22. g6 $1 {won on the spot. If} Qxh4 ({or} 22... Be8 23. Qxh5 $18) 23. gxf7+ Rxf7 24. Nxh4 $18) 22... g6 23. Nh4 Kh7 (23... Qe8 {is met by} 24. f4 {followed by f5 with a winning kingside attack.}) ({After} 23... Kg7 {Korchnoi gives} 24. Nxg6 $1 {There follows} (24. Bxg6 {leads to the same result.}) 24... Bxg6 25. Bxg6 Kxg6 26. Rxe6+ Kg7 27. Qd3 $18) 24. Qf3 {This move threatening both 25.Qxh5 and 25.Qxb7 is not bad.} ({But} 24. Bxg6+ $1 {would have won immediately after} Bxg6 25. Nxg6 Kxg6 26. Rxe6+ Kg7 27. Qd3 $18) 24... Kg7 {opting for the lesser evil and hoping that White's capture of the pawn would open a line against the king} 25. Qxb7 d5 ({Black cannot open a route for the queen with} 25... c5 26. Nxg6 $1 Bxg6 27. Bxg6 Kxg6 28. Rxe6+ Kg7 29. Qe4 $18) ({The plausible} 25... Rb8 { is met by} 26. Qe4 Qe8 27. f4 Rb6 28. Rge1 {with the threat of f4-f5 wins}) 26. cxd5 exd5 27. Qc6 Rb8 28. Qc2 {Again this is not bad in itself.} ({Otherwise there is a win with} 28. Nf5+ $1 Kh8 (28... gxf5 29. Qh6+ Kg8 30. g6) (28... Kh7 29. Re7) 29. Nh6 $18) 28... Rb6 29. f4 Nb8 30. Kb1 Na6 31. a3 Qd6 32. f5 $1 Qxa3 33. f6+ Kg8 34. Bxg6 Rxb2+ $1 {An imaginative move that deserved a better fate.} (34... Qa2+ $2 35. Kxa2 Nb4+ 36. Kb1 Nxc2 37. Kxc2 $18) 35. Qxb2 Bxg6+ 36. Nxg6 Qd3+ 37. Qc2 $1 {courting danger} ({The prosaic} 37. Ka1 Qxg6 38. Qb7 $18 {also wins.}) 37... Rb8+ 38. Kc1 Qa3+ ({If} 38... Qxd4 39. Rg3 Qa1+ 40. Kd2 Qd4+ 41. Rd3 $18) 39. Kd2 Rb2 {The last fling.} 40. Re8+ $1 Kf7 41. Re7+ { The final phase of the game is well-played by both sides.} 1-0

A far from perfect encounter! Our young hero preserved the scoresheet and with a boyish hand diligently wrote out where he and his opponent had gone wrong. The lad was not wanting in dedication. Two years after this debut he won the USSR Junior Championship. However, he had set his sights higher, playing in the national championship.

17th USSR Chess Championship in progress in Moscow

That was to happen later with his participation in the 20th USSR Championship. Meanwhile he still had to beat opposition in his native Leningrad. Take a look at the following game. Here one can see the fighting spirit and fierce will to win for which he was to become celebrated throughout his career.

[Event "Leningrad"] [Site "?"] [Date "1950.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Khavsky, A."] [Black "Korchnoi, V."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B21"] [Annotator "Nagesh Havanur"] [PlyCount "62"] [EventDate "1950.??.??"] 1. e4 c5 2. f4 {Khavsky wants to avoid the book and go for an attack. Today this move is seen as the commencement of the Grand Prix Attack.} ({Otherwise} 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 {was more often seen in those days.}) 2... Nf6 $5 {Inviting the e4-e5 advance. A provocative move typical of Korchnoi } ({After} 2... d6 {White plays} 3. Bc4 {followed by Nc3, Nf3 0-0 and d3. In general he has better development and greater chances of initiative on the kingside.}) (2... d5 {is the thematic counterthrust in the centre after White's flank attack with f4.}) (2... Nc6 {is as good, developng a piece and exerting pressure on d4.}) 3. Nc3 e6 4. e5 {This move allows Black to have a fine pawn centre.} (4. Nf3 {would at least enable White to complete development and castle soon.}) 4... Nd5 5. Nxd5 exd5 6. Qf3 $2 {White thinks Black would be weakened on the a2-g8 diagonal if he advances the pawn to d4. However, it's shown to be insufficent.} ({He should have played} 6. d4 d6 7. Nf3) ({or} 6. Nf3 Nc6 (6... d6 7. d4 {transposes to the previous line.}) 7. d4) 6... d4 {Both sides have advanced pawns on adjacent diagonals. But Black's pawn on d4 hurts more as it impedes White's development.} 7. Bc4 Be7 8. f5 { White is depending on pawn moves at the cost of development.} (8. Qe4 {would at least have vacated f3 for the knight.}) 8... Nc6 9. Qe4 O-O 10. Nf3 ({If} 10. f6 $2 Bxf6 11. exf6 $4 Re8 $19 {-Chekhover}) 10... d5 11. exd6 (11. Qxd5 Bxf5 12. Qxd8 Bxd8 $15 {followed by ...Re8 was the lesser evil, although Black is ahead in development and has the initiative.}) 11... Bxd6 12. O-O Qf6 { This move is not bad.} ({But Black had to eliminate or neutralise the bishop on c4 first.} 12... Na5 13. d3 ({or} 13. Bb5 a6 14. Ba4 Rb8 $17) 13... Nxc4 14. dxc4 Re8 $17) 13. g4 {an ambitious advance that meets a rebuff} ({After} 13. Qh4 Qxh4 14. Nxh4 Re8 $17 {the downside of White's opening play is obvious.}) 13... Bd7 14. Qe2 Rae8 15. Qg2 Ne5 {preparing the move ...d4-d3.} ({But he could have played it right away with decisive effect.} 15... d3 $1 16. Bxd3 Nd4 $19) 16. Bd5 ({Not} 16. Nxe5 Qxe5 17. d3 Bc6 18. Qf2 b5 $1 19. Bb3 c4 20. dxc4 Qe4 $19) 16... d3 $1 17. Nxe5 Rxe5 18. g5 Qd8 19. f6 c4 {Thematic, but a little slow.} ({After} 19... Re2 $1 20. Rf2 Rfe8 $19 {Black has a decisive attack.}) 20. g6 Bc5+ {This move is not bad and indeed leads to a dramatic climax.} ({There was a far from obvious win with} 20... gxf6 $1 21. gxf7+ Kh8 22. b4 Rxf7 $1 23. Bb2 Rg7 $19) 21. Kh1 hxg6 22. Qxg6 {It appears that Black is lost. Now comes the move that turns tables.} Qxf6 $3 23. Rxf6 Re1+ 24. Kg2 Rg1+ 25. Kf3 Rf1+ 26. Kg2 Rxf6 27. Qe4 $4 {This allows mate.} ({The lesser evil was} 27. Qxf6 gxf6 28. cxd3 cxd3 29. b4 Bd4 30. Rb1 Be6 $17) 27... Re8 28. cxd3 cxd3 29. Qxd3 Re1 30. Kg3 Bf2+ 31. Kg2 Rg1# 0-1

A terrific battle! The ascent on the Olympus had begun.

Source: Chess News and Views

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ChessBase eulogy: Viktor Korchnoi dies at 85
6/6/2016 – He was one of the truly great chess players, a legend. He played in three matches that produced the World Champion, but in each case lost to Anatoly Karpov. It made him the strongest player never to have won the title. In 1976 he defected from the Soviet Union and took up residence in Switzerland, where he continued to be active into his eighties in spite of a stroke. Now he has gone and leaves a grieving chess community.

Viktor Korchnoi: My Life for Chess (Part one)
6/20/2012 – Born 1931, two-times contender for the world championship, Viktor Korchnoi is a piece of living chess history. In the 60 years of his career he has crossed swords with practically all great players of the past and present, including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. In this special Monograph DVD "Viktor the Terrible" describes a life devoted to chess. Review by Prof. Nagesh Havanur.

Viktor Korchnoi: My Life for Chess (Part two)
6/26/2012 – Born in 1931, twice contender for the world championship, Viktor Korchnoi is a living chess legend. In his career spanning over 60 years he has crossed swords with practically every great player of the past and present, including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. In this special Monograph DVD, "Viktor the Terrible" describes a life devoted to chess. Review by Prof. Nagesh Havanur.

Viktor Korchnoi

born 1931, two-times contender for the world championship, is a piece of living chess history. In the 60 years of his career, "Viktor the Terrible" crossed swords with practically all great players of the past and presence, including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. A relentless fighter at the board, he expressed his never-ending love for the royal game in a very simple phrase - "Chess is my life".

In 2005, at the age of 73, Viktor visited ChessBase in Hamburg, to record two fascinating DVDs on a life devoted to chess – a career that spanned more than five decades and six generations of opponents. Kortchnoi was never one to mince his words. On these DVDs he created a vivid memorial to himself and his great chess career. In Volume 1, he presents eight of his most brilliant effort from the years 1949-1979, describing in detail the story around each game, never beating around the bush, sometimes harshly criticizing his opponents, but also lavishing praise on them when this is warranted. A highlight is the game against Karpov from the match for the world championship in Baguio 1978.

“My Life for Chess Vol. 1” offers more than three hours of first-class chess training, plus an extensive interview. A must-have for every chess fan! Volume 2 features about four hours of “Kortchnoi live”. The great chess legend presents among other things his games against Kasparov (1986), Spassky (1989) and Short (1990) in his typical 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 Kortchnoi’s ever-enduring love for chess. Whenever the great master gets to the heart of an opening (King’s Indian, English and French) or shows an astonishing move, one can see the joy sparkling from his eyes. No wonder – hardly any other chess genius has lived chess as intensively as “Viktor the Terrible”.

Order these very popular Korchnoi DVDs in the ChessBase Shop


Topics history, Korchnoi

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 a decade. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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oldhabibian oldhabibian 6/29/2016 06:11
One of my first chess books were "Korchnoi's 400 best games" and "Chess is my Life" and I have been a disciple of him ever since. What great odds he encountered! And he did not compromise his values. Of course he was human and had his faults. I hope he is in heaven (surely God wouldn't have made a hell for his creatures!) playing his favorite game with other greats like Fischer, Capablanca, Keres, Rubinstein...... I wish him eternal peace.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 6/29/2016 06:04
This is only for those interested in the life and times of Korchnoi. For starters, there is Korchnoi’s writing, “Chess is My Life”. There are also personal accounts of encounters with Korchnoi in the autobiographies of Averbakh, Tal, Benko, Karpov and Kasparov. Tukmakov, Dvoretsky and Sosonko closely worked with him and described the experience in their books. The most engaging narrative comes from Sosonko, especially, his essay, Obsession in “The Reliable Past”. Russian readers would find a recent version on chess-news.ru. Non-Russian readers could use Google Translate and give it a try.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 6/29/2016 05:46
@TMMM
Grandmasters don’t write short stories. That’s fiction in common parlance. Very few now remain from Korchnoi’s generation, Spassky, Portisch and Uhlmann….They could be asked to share their experience with Korchnoi. They are all very old and it’s a moot question whether they would oblige. ChessBase has to take a call on that. Till then one has to search this site and see what’s already available by way of personal narrative.
Pawnroller Pawnroller 6/28/2016 12:16
The photos are good.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 6/27/2016 04:42
TMM. Agree. Reading this was a complete waste of time. Commenting on it to, but nobody is perfect as Jessie J says.
KevinC KevinC 6/27/2016 01:50
@GregEs, they also had a HUGE advantage in opening prep too.
TMMM TMMM 6/27/2016 01:48
With all due respect, I'd be much more interested in reading a story about Kortchnoi written by someone who actually knew and played Kortchnoi throughout his career (and has interesting anecdotes to share) than someone who maybe met him once. Would it not be possible to get one of the "senior" world elite players to write a short story about Kortchnoi for ChessBase?
GregEs GregEs 6/27/2016 07:32
@XChess1971,
There were no engines during those times but countries with so many GMs have an edge during adjournment. And the country with so many GMs is Russia, true before and it is still true today. Probably the reason why Chess Matches during those days always favor Russian GMs because there would be 15 or 20 super GMs from Russia who would analyse a game.

With engines, adjournment is not a problem anymore even if you have no second (or they call it coach), because engines can unravel the secrets of most chess positions. Be it in middle game or endgame. But current trend is fast chess with no adjournment, except in World Championship matches.
XChess1971 XChess1971 6/27/2016 07:09
Those were real heros to use no computer.
tom_70 tom_70 6/27/2016 04:37
I love to see the elite gm's of today and yesteryear playing the elite gm prodigies as they begin their careers. Watching Kortchnoi play a young Kasparov or young Carlsen is pretty awesome. It's a special club.
Logos Logos 6/27/2016 04:11
One by one, they have fallen. Petrosian, Botvinnik, Tal, Smyslov, Fischer, and now Korchnoi. From that golden generation of world champions, only Spassky remains. They were titans, overcoming humongous challenges in life and over the board to make history.
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