Korchnoi Plays His Last Move

Viktor Korchnoi, who has died at the age of 85, defeated nine world champions but never managed to claim the title for himself

Dominic Lawson

Korchnoi in 1993 (Stefan64 GNU 1.2)

“I will continue to play chess until my death,” said Viktor Korchnoi in an interview marking his 80th birthday in 2011. Now that moment has come — and if there is a heaven we can be sure that for Viktor it would consist of an eternal chess game.

Korchnoi, who in tournament play defeated no fewer than nine past, present and future world champions, never succeeded in his lifelong ambition — to be world champion himself. He lost two world title matches against Anatoly Karpov, in 1978 and 1981; and it was not long after he narrowly lost a 1974 match against the same opponent — the final eliminator for the right to challenge the reigning champion Bobby Fischer — that Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union.

Karpov was a dutiful member of the Communist Party, and 20 years younger than Korchnoi, so Viktor had become convinced he would only be “allowed” a chance to win the world title if he became a free man. But although he became a political hero to dissidents, he was not one of them. As he told an interviewer, having claimed asylum in the Netherlands after playing (and of course winning) a tournament there: “I am not a defector, I didn’t betray my country. Unless I betrayed to be able to move a bishop, or to get a better pawn structure . . .”

Needless to say, the Soviet authorities didn’t see it that way. For years, they refused to grant exit visas for Viktor’s wife and son, effectively keeping them as hostages to put intolerable psychological pressure on the man Soviet publications referred only to as “the opponent” while he was playing for the highest title against Karpov.

Korchnoi, however, was better able to withstand adversity than most of us could even imagine. As a child, he lived through the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, during which most of his immediate family died of hunger. As he wrote in his memoir, Chess Is My Life, it was only because he used the accumulated ration cards of his relatives that he too did not perish. In short, Korchnoi was a survivor.

He also wrote how he decided at the age of 13 that he would devote his life to chess; we might wonder if the most noticeable element of his chess style — a tremendous ability to hold seemingly indefensible positions and later switch to devastating counter-attack — emerged from what he had learnt during the siege of Leningrad.

But I’m not sure what could explain his unique longevity as an active grandmaster. Most GMs are ready to retire from frontline chess in their fifties. While it is not a physical game, the struggle requires intense and unremitting concentration for many hours of mind-to-mind combat: it really is best suited to the young and highly-motivated. Korchnoi, however, never lost the intensity of his motivation and an absolute lack of complacency fuelled by remorselessly objective self-criticism. Astonishingly, he remained in the world’s top 100 until he was 75 and in the year he turned 80 he beat the 18-year-old Fabiano Caruana, already ranked 25th — and now the strongest player after world champion Magnus Carlsen. 

Later that year he played a simultaneous display lasting several hours against a group of selected young talents. By then Viktor could walk only with the aid of a stick, but he sharply rebuffed someone who asked if he needed to sit down to take a rest.

Even after he later suffered two serious strokes, Viktor’s determination to play on remained undiminished. Thus it was that last year, at 84, he played a “rapid” match against an old adversary, the former world championship candidate, Wolfgang Uhlmann, himself a sprightly 80.

The Spanish novelist and chess enthusiast Arturo Pérez-Reverte witnessed this. I can do no better than quote his account:

They wheeled him out in front of a chess board to face Uhlmann. Korchnoi appeared to be oblivious to everything, absent, gazing at us bewilderedly while people took photos . . . then Korchnoi began to play and the miracle occurred. The ancient, absent invalid fixed his eyes on the chessboard and, without looking once at his opponent, except through the pieces — those eyes of his — eyes which had seen corpses strewn on the streets of Leningrad, the eyes of the dissident whose wife was deported to Siberia and whose son was sent to prison, the eyes of the man who was persecuted by the KGB to the point that they considered murdering him . . . those same eyes played out two memorable games.

From time to time he turns a little to look at his clock and it is clear that, although his faculties have been reduced to a minimum, the thousands of games and millions of moves registered in his memory continue to be played out independently, almost automatically. And as we realised this [my friend] Leontxo and I looked at each other in astonishment, thinking the same thing: the very last corner of his brain to fade would be chess.

This, however, would not be how Viktor would have wanted to be remembered. It seems more fitting to end with Korchnoi’s most devastating victory over his arch-enemy Anatoly Karpov, the 21st game of their first match, in 1974. At this stage, Korchnoi had been written off by all the commentators. But as ever, his spirit fed off adversity.

1. d4 Nf6 2.Nf3
(a modest development by Korchnoi, giving little indication of the ferocity to follow) e6 3.g3 b6 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.c4 Be7 6.Nc3 0-0 7.Qc2 c5 8.d5 exd5 9.Ng5 Nc6 10.Nxd5 g6 (Obviously not 10…Nxd5 11.Qxh7 checkmate!) 11.Qd2! (This was Korchnoi’s idea, an ingenious theoretical novelty) Nxd5 12.Bxd5 Rb8?? (Black had to play 12…Bxg5 removing Korchnoi’s knight, though White would still be better) 13.Nxh7! (Clearly Karpov had completely missed this. The point is that after 13…Kxh7 14.Qh6+ Kg8 15.Qxg6+ — exploiting the Bd5’s pin of the Black f-pawn — Kh8 16. Qh6+ Kg8 17.Be4 f5 18.Bd5+ Rf7 19.Qg6+ it’s all over) Re8 14.Qh6 Ne5 (the only way to defend the f-pawn) 15.Ng5 Bxg5 16.Bxg5 Qxg5 (Horribly necessary, as after 16…Qc7 17.Bf6 there is no defence to Qh8 mate) 17.Qxg5 Bxd5 (Karpov threatens Bxh1 and if Korchnoi recaptures with 18. cxd5 then Nf3+ wins White’s Queen) 18. 0-0 (Neatly dealing with both threats) Bxc4 19.f4! and Black resigned: 19…Nc6 20.f5 Re5 21.Qf4 is a wreck beyond even Karpov’s legendary skills to salvage.

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