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Grandmaster chess, more than ever, has become a young man's game. Fifty years ago or so, when Bobby Fischer qualified as a grandmaster at the age of 15, it was considered freakish. Not so today, when boys of 12 have become grandmasters, and by 15 are regarded almost as battle-hardened. What then, are we to make of Viktor Korchnoi, who in July won the national championship of his adopted country of Switzerland at the age of 78? 

There have been other signal achievements of chess longevity, most notably by Emanuel Lasker, whose third place in the great Moscow Tournament of 1935 at the age of 66 was considered miraculous at the time. Lasker, perhaps the greatest of all chess fighters, is Korchnoi's hero, but the similarity ends there. Lasker had been forced to flee Nazi Germany, leaving all his assets behind: he restarted his chess career as an old man, not out of choice, but to avoid a penurious old age. Korchnoi, by contrast, has never retired, and would regard even the suggestion as heretical. He lives and breathes for the chess struggle, and still has more fighting spirit than grandmasters less than half his age.

In one sense Korchnoi had to be a fighter. As a child he experienced the horrors of the siege of Leningrad. He wrote with complete absence of sentiment in his memoir: "I lived in a communal flat where eleven families were huddled together. When the war began, the flat began to empty. Some went away, and those remaining began to die one by one of hunger, but the ration cards of the deceased remained — until the end of the month. Had it not been for the death of my relations I doubt whether I would have managed to survive."

Combine that with the experience of surviving under the capricious terror of Stalin's rule, and one can understand not just Korchnoi's unconquerable fighting spirit, but also his darker side. He is a notoriously bad loser, and it is his habit, when defeated by younger players (and there is no one older left to play) to tell them how little they really understand the game. Type in "Korchnoi vs Polgar chess" on YouTube and you will see what happens after a mere blitz game between Korchnoi and the young Hungarian Sofia Polgar. After losing, Korchnoi storms off, snapping: "It is the very first and the very last time you will ever win against me!"

While some players need to feel that there is an underlying civilised relationship between them and their opponents during a game, Korchnoi is exactly the opposite. He has always thrived on creating an atmosphere of great tension — feeds off it, in fact. He is well aware of this, and in his memoir relates how during a game against his mild-mannered compatriot Vladimir Simagin in 1961, his opponent went up to another competitor and said, "Why does he look at me with such malice, as if I had slaughtered all of his family down to the sixth generation?"

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