Chess24 Jan London

Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016)

Viktor Korchnoi 1931 - 2016

Viktor Korchnoi in Zurich 2016. Photo © David Llada.

Viktor Korchnoi in Zurich 2016. Photo © David Llada. | http://www.davidllada.com

Viktor Korchnoi has died at the age of 85 in Wohlen, Switzerland. (Initial report on Korchnoi's death by chess-news.ru)

Korchnoi had one of the longest professional careers of any chess player and achieved his greatest successes in his forties. Korchnoi lost three matches to Anatoly Karpov a Candidates match in 1974 3-2 with 19 draws, a title match in 1978 where he levelled the match going into the final game 6-5 with 21 draws, and 1981 where he was beaten 6-2 with 10 draws.

Korchnoi's defection from the Soviet Union in 1976 to continue his career resulted in harassment from Soviet Sports and KGB officials. This trouble only ended as a result of an agreement to play Garry Kasparov in the Candidates in 1983.

Korchnoi's great reputation lies in his world championship record and his lengthy career at the highest level. He was for a long time the last active member of the golden post-war generation of Soviet players. He has played, and for the most part beaten (Kramnik and Anand excepted), every world champion from Mikhail Botvinnik onwards, including Magnus Carlsen.

The nickname "Viktor the Terrible" came from his combative personality both on and off the board. Korchnoi became quite well known for his barbed comments after the game. He was not a good loser.

Viktor Korchnoi 1931 - 2016

Early career

Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi was born in Leningrad 23rd March 1931 and died in Wohlen, Switzerland, 6th June 2016.

Korchnoi survived the siege of Leningrad and came from a poor background. His progress was not that of a prodigy although he picked up Soviet Youth titles in 1947 and 1948.

It was only in 1952 that he played the Soviet Championship for the first time finishing 6th. After that he quickly advanced. He earned the IM title after winning the Bucharest 1954 tournament and was awarded the GM title in 1956. His career stagnated a little after this before he really broke through at the start of the 1960s when he won the first of four USSR titles (1960, 1962, 1964, 1970).

Early World Championship career

Korchnoi qualified from the Stockholm Interzonal for his first Candidates tournament in Curacao 1962. He finished 5th in an event marred by accusations of collusion between the top three Soviet players (not Korchnoi or Tal) and the withdrawal due to illness of Tal.

He missed out on the next cycle but reached the final of the Candidates matches for the first time in 1968 by beating Reshevsky and Tal before being convincingly defeated by Boris Spassky. In the following cycle he lost to Tigran Petrosian in the semi-finals who went on to lose to Bobby Fischer.

Defection

In 1974 Korchnoi again reached the Candidates final and lost to Anatoly Karpov in a close match 12.5-11.5. The winner should have gone on to play Bobby Fischer but after that match didn't take place Karpov became world champion. Karpov was clearly favoured by the Soviet establishment and Korchnoi had trouble preparing for the match. After the match Korchnoi was banned from travelling abroad for some time and it was at this time he decided that in order to meet his own ambitions he would have to leave. Korchnoi's first trip abroad after a break was Hastings 1975-6 but it was at the 1976 IBM tournament in Amsterdam he chose to defect from the Soviet Union. Korchnoi later moved to Switzerland where he lived for the rest of his life.

Korchnoi won 21 medals for the USSR including six Olympiad team gold medals and two individual golds.

Korchnoi left behind his family, wife Bella and son Igor. They applied to leave but this was only allowed after Korchnoi's loss of his second title match to Karpov in 1981. His son Igor Korchnoi was harassed and drafted into the army, which he refused and spent 30 months in a labour camp. Accepting the draft would have complicated his leaving the Soviet Union. Igor is now a software engineer in Switzerland. Viktor and Bella's marriage ended a year after their arrival in Switzerland.

Korchnoi married Petra Leeuwerik in 1991 after being together since the late 1970s. Petra had spent 10 years in the Russian Gulags 1945-55 after being arrested in Leipzig on suspicion of being a spy and being allowed to leave only on the death of Stalin. There is reportedly a long and interesting story to be told there. She survives Korchnoi but is not in good health. Their long marriage defied the horrible things said about her by the Soviets around the time of the world championship matches.

World Championship Matches

The Soviet Chess Federation tried to have Korchnoi excluded from the next cycle but FIDE President Fridrik Olafsson stood up to them and Korchnoi won bitter matches against Petrosian, Polugaevsky and Spassky. The World Championship match of 1978 in Baguio City was a long struggle over 32 games, first to six wins. Karpov dominated for much of the match and after winning game 27 only needed one more win for the match but three wins in four games by Korchnoi levelled things up after 31 games. Now one game was needed by either player for the title. Korchnoi had done well with the French Defence throughout the match but switched to the Pirc for what turned out to be the decisive game and a narrow 6-5 loss over 32 games.

The match became notorious for the off the board antics of the teams. Dr. Zukhar was part of Karpov's team, supposedly a parapsychologist. Korchnoi wore mirror glasses to counter any effects. There were complaints about the colour of yogurt delivered to Karpov during the game. The bitterness over Korchnoi's defection and the Soviet reaction to it coloured everything. I read in several sources dark claims that Korchnoi would not have been allowed to win the match in any event.

Korchnoi qualified again to play Karpov in 1981 by beating Petrosian and Polugaevsky in matches before a rather strange final victory against Robert Huebner who withdrew from the match 4.5-3.5 down with a couple of games to go. Karpov won the world title match in Merano rather easily 6-2.

In the next cycle Korchnoi beat Lajos Portisch 6-3 before losing to Garry Kasparov 7-4 in the semi-finals. The match was scheduled for the US but the Soviet establishment, perhaps fearing a defection, refused to allow Kasparov to play there and he was defaulted. Korchnoi wanted to play and the match did take place in London instead. Korchnoi won the first game but was generally overpowered by chess' new superstar. The negotiations for the match allowed Korchnoi to normalise his relations with the USSR following his defection.

Korchnoi's overall record in the World Championship cycle is unrivalled by anyone who didn't go on to take the title. Wins in two Candidates Final matches and 23 years of continuous participation in these final stages. Candidate in 1962 and then continuously 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1988 (after winning the Zagreb Interzonal) and finally in 1991.

Other tournaments

Korchnoi had a number of major tournament wins outside the world championship cycle and USSR Championships. Here are just a few: Shared first Buenos Aires 1960, Maroczy Memorial 1961, Capablanca Memorial 1963, Yerevan 1965, Asztalos Memorial 1965 (14.5/15), Bucharest 1966 (12.5/14 these last two indicate the level of scoring Korchnoi was capable of), October Revolution 50th anniversary tournament in Leningrad 1967, Wijk aan Zee 1968, 1971, 1984 (shared), Palma de Mallorca 1968, Sarajevo 1969, Hastings 1971-2 shared first with Karpov, London Phil;ips and Drew shared 1st 1980. Korchnoi played a huge number of events from the mid-1980s onwards, perhaps as many as in his career so far. He maintained this heavy schedule until his stroke towards the end of 2012.

Korchnoi was still in the top 100 at the age of 75. He was Swiss Champion in 1982, 1984, 1985, 2009 und 2011, he won the event in 2009 and was top Swiss finisher in 2011. In the last really significant individual result of his career he beat Fabiano Caruana in the Gibraltar tournament of 2011. Korchnoi became World Senior Champion in 2006.

He played a couple of final exhibitions against Wolfgang Uhlmann in 2014 and January 2015 in Zurich.

Korchnoi wrote a number of books on his own games and a single volume on rook endgames (Practical Rook Endings (Progress in Chess) 2003). His book "Chess is My Life" gives a personal account of his career, first published in 1978. A new Edition Olms version was published in 2005.

Korchnoi

Korchnoi was tough and uncompromising. He could make outrageous comments at times and seemed to have very few friends among his rivals. His son said that he needed to "hate" his opponents in order to play his best.

Korchnoi was known as a counter attacking player with great defensive abilities. He was a phenomenal calculator and this helped him be one of the great endgame players with a special reputation in Rook and Pawn endgames.

Korchnoi's success was based on a phenomenal work rate both at and away from the board. He also kept himself fit into old age which extended his career.

Korchnoi played every opening in the course of his long career but his name is associated with amongst other things the English Opening as white, King's Indian Mar Del Plata variation as white and the French Defence as black. Korchnoi played many unusual and innovative ideas in the opening phase.

Korchnoi was a one of a kind chess player and a one of a kind man. He will be missed.

Obituaries

ChessBase Korchnoi obituary

Swissinfo Korchnoi obituary

Guardian Korchnoi obituary

Telegraph Korchnoi obituary

Chess24 Korchnoi obituary

Chess.com Korchnoi obituary

Chess.com Korchnoi obituary by Kasparov

Wikipedia Korchnoi entry

Mrs. Korchnoi: A Pawn In A Soviet Power Game. New York Times January 30, 1982.

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