Thanks to a book signing organised by the Chess and Bridge Shop, I finally had a chance to meet the legendary Victor Korchnoi. Korchnoi has been an inspiration for me in my rather short chess playing career – where Nimzovitsch taught me how to play the Exchange French, Korchnoi taught me how to play the Winawer. I purchased a copy of his recently published “Chess is My Life”, and had it autographed by the man himself. (Also, thanks to Geoff for pointing out Korchnoi was in town!)
The castling question
While he was autographing away, I asked him about that 18th move in the 21st game of the 1974 Candidates final against Karpov. The story goes that before making the 18th move, Korchnoi asked the match referee whether he could castle in the current position. His rook was being attacked by Karpov’s bishop – could it then participate in a castling manoeuvre. I wanted to establish for certain whether this actually happened or was it just urban legend.
Korchnoi confirmed he did ask the question at that point, explaining that the Russian chess rules left the situation a little ambiguous, and it was the first time the situation had occurred in his games. Considering the levels of tension surrounding the match and this game in particular, Korchnoi thought it best to confirm with the match referee before making the move.
Korchnoi was in a jovial mood throughout the morning, reminiscing with various players about games played years ago. In that simultaneous exhibition that Korchnoi lost a game to the very young Nigel Short, both Malcolm Pein and Nigel Davies were playing in the exhibition.
I decided to stay for the lecture. Korchnoi delivered a talk that covered the events and players during his career. His frankness and honesty is refreshing, and offers a unique perspective on circumstances. His talk covered three chess games, and coincidentally, one of them was a quick win against a Grandmaster – a certain Anatoly Karpov, game 21 of the Candidates Final of 1974!
Becoming a Soviet Grandmaster
Korchnoi refers to his career as a series of second attempts. Nothing is achieved on the first attempt, and the second attempt is always successful. On his second attempt he won the Junior USSR Championship. In the first attempt, it was Petrosian who walked away with the title.
Korchnoi became a Soviet Grandmaster in 1956 – his badge was number 17, meaning he was the seventeenth player to achieve this title. Korchnoi mentions that the first Soviet Grandmaster was Verlinsky.
Chess in the Soviet Union was developed from above and below. It was promoted highly amongst the people – the grassroots, and it was also promoted from the highest echelons. Korchnoi regales an example from the French Chess Dictionary which shows a picture of Stalin playing chess against another person, the caption goes on to say, “of course, Stalin won…”
USSR Champion in 1960
Korchnoi won his first of four USSR Championships in 1960. What was interesting is what was happening behind the scenes. Korchnoi notes that Petrosian (pronounces Pet-ross-ian) and Geller were close friends, and they were his main competitors.
Korchnoi won a tense game against Geller, and in the last round he was half a point ahead and playing the then Master Suetin (pronounced Sue-eh-tin). After quickly getting a slightly worse position out of the opening, Korchnoi offered a draw that was immediately declined by Suetin. Suetin then left the board to talk to Petrosian and Geller asking if he should take the draw! Petrosian opined that he should, while Geller prodded “Play on, you can beat him”.
Suetin played on, and it was Korchnoi that emerged victorious. Petrosian and Geller both won, but it was Korchnoi who became USSR Champion, finishing half-a-point ahead.
Thoughts of defection, and Petrosian
In the build up to the 1974 Candidates Final, Tigran Petrosian lead a press campaign against Victor Korchnoi, putting all his support with the young Karpov. Its this particular event that started Korchnoi down the path that eventually led to his decision to defect. From Korchnoi’s perspective, Petrosian (and his family) has a history of such off-the-board activities.
Korchnoi amusingly notes that God stepped into Petrosian’s career. After Korchnoi defected, his first Candidates match was against Petrosian. And in the next Candidates cycle, he played Petrosian again in a match.
Petrosian must have found these matches difficult, and it showed, Korchnoi won both matches. Petrosian laboured under the guilt of what he did to Korchnoi.
Petrosian passed away in 1984, but before he did he spoke with a friend of Korchnoi’s and asked him to tell Korchnoi he apologises for what he did to Korchnoi.
In 2004 a memorial tournament was held for Tigran Petrosian. Garry Kasparov invited Korchnoi to play in this tournament, but Korchnoi was not allowed to play – being denied by Petrosian’s own son, Vartan Petrosian.
The Candidates Final and Karpov
In comparison with Petrosian, Karpov is more sly.
In the closing ceremony of the Candidates Final, Korchnoi decided it was time to leave the Soviet Union, but he was not able to go. The Soviet chess authorities isolated him from playing chess. He was not allowed to participate in international tournaments.
Paul Keres and Nei invited Korchnoi to participate in an international tournament in Estonia. Korchnoi was not allowed to go, and both Keres and Nei were reprimanded for their actions.
It was Karpov, interestingly enough, that ensured that Korchnoi got to play another international tournament. Karpov had inherited the World Championship after Fischer had resigned the title. Questions surfaced over who he had beat, and since Korchnoi was effectively locked away, questions were raised by the worthiness of Karpov as a World Champion. To bolster his credentials as World Champion, Karpov convinced the Soviet chess authorities to allow Korchnoi to play in international tournaments – good results from him would enhance Karpov’s reputation as World Champion.
1976 IBM Tournament
Travelling to Amsterdam in 1976, Korchnoi took a few valuable items with him, he knew he wouldn’t be coming back. During the tournament a French TV station with a Russian channel interviewed Korchnoi and asked some really sharp questions. Korchnoi being Korchnoi answered frankly and honestly. One of the questions was why the Soviet Union had boycotted the Chess Olympiad in Haifa, Israel. Korchnoi answered with the statement that the Soviet policy was one of anti-semitism.
The program was broadcast in Moscow later that evening, and a number of Korchnoi’s friends confided that it wouldn’t be safe for Korchnoi to return to the Soviet Union. After jointly winning the IBM tournament with Tony Miles, Korchnoi asked Tony to spell the words “political asylum”. The next day Korchnoi walked into a nearby police station and requested political asylum.
Korchnoi took us through the first game he played against Spassky. Korchnoi was 17, and Spassky 11. Spassky played inexactly in a Sicilian Dragon, and believed that an exchange of pieces would lead to a quick draw. Korchnoi threatened the win of a piece and Spassky resigned in what he believed was a hopeless position, only to be shown by Korchnoi there was a resource that avoided the lost piece (…Kd8).
That 21st game
Korchnoi then shows us a game where he beats a Grandmaster quickly. It turns out the Grandmaster is Anatoly Karpov, and the game is the 21st game of the 1974 Candidates final.
Korchnoi talked about superstition. Karpov considers 17 to be his lucky number, and the seventeenth game of each match tends to be a Karpov win. Karpov doesn’t like 21 for the same reason, and 21 tends to be a lucky number for both Korchnoi and Kasparov.
He explained that Karpov went wrong because of a mistake in his theoretical notebook – a notebook that was put together by the large Grandmaster team that was his trainers and seconds. Korchnoi cheekily suggests that perhaps Karpov consults this theoretical notebook while he is on his loo-break…
Korchnoi revelled in his Qd2, particularly Botvinnik’s comment that this must be home preparation, to which Korchnoi retorts that it couldn’t have been home preparation because of the number of dubious moves Karpov played.
Then we get to the position after Black’s 17th move, and Korchnoi, quite openly, explained that this was the first time he was in a position where his rook was attacked and wanted to castle. So he got up to ask the match referee, Salo Flohr, whether this was a legal move. When Flohr confirmed it, Korchnoi castled. Karpov did hear the conversation.
Having read through the game on the train up to London, I already knew how the game played out, so it was fascinating to see Korchnoi point out the subtleties of the Queen’s Indian position.
Korchnoi then takes us through a recent game he played in Gibraltar against the Swedish Prime Minister’s son. Malcolm Pein covered the game in his chess column. It was a tactical slugfest. At one point Korchnoi admits he goes berserk with a dangerous attack. The finish is elegant, and typically Korchnoi.
The questions and answers reveal the behind the scenes activities in the chess world.
Retirement of Garry Kasparov, and modern players
Korchnoi believes that Garry Kasparov quitting is the greatest blow to chess. Modern players don’t seem to stand out like the players of the sixties and seventies. But pushed to a decision, Korchnoi considers Aronian as the player most like himself, and hinting that Aronian is likely to be the next World Champion.
Topalov (pronounced To-pal-ov) is the World Champion. Korchnoi relates that talking to the players in Argentina (San Luis FIDE World Championship), they all think/believe that Topalov had computer help during the games.
Keres and Bronstein
A question was asked whether Paul Keres was commanded to lose his games to Botvinnik in the 1948 match tournament.
Korchnoi regards Paul Keres and David Bronstein as tragic figures in chess. Keres was in a difficult position – Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Germany in 1941. Keres is a chess player, that’s his profession, and he played the “European Championship” – or the Reich championship.
After the war, the Soviet Union found themselves with thousands of Prisoners of War. All of them were sentenced to 10 years in Siberia, after which they were released. Stalin believed Keres should be exterminated.
In the 1948 World Championship, Keres probably found himself under immense psychological pressure. Korchnoi doesn’t say that he was ordered to lose to Botvinnik, but I think he hints at the possibility that Keres decided to throw the games on his own. This ties up with other stories I’ve read of Keres gifting those games in gratitude of Botvinnik saving Keres from a purge.
Korchnoi does point out, however, after the 1948 match tournament, Keres beat Botvinnik very frequently, and heavily.
Korchnoi talks about Bronstein – calls him a good friend. Its obvious there is a lot of respect between both of them. At one time Bronstein spent 10 years without a roof over his head. Korchnoi says Bronstein made a number of mistakes, and was punished by the authorities. One of the mistakes was naming his son Lev Davidovich – this ties up with supporting Lev Trotsky, a political adversary of Stalin (Trotsky was born as Lev Davidovich Bronstein!).
A question was asked whether the Soviet authorities ordered the collusion of Soviet players against Fischer.
Korchnoi says there were no official orders from the Soviet chess authorities to prevent Fischer from winning (by taking energy conserving draws amongst themselves, so they could focus their efforts against Fischer). Korchnoi points to Petrosian (and his family) as the instigator and leader of this strategy, and both Geller and Keres went along with the idea.
As I understand, Korchnoi wouldn’t have participated if asked, because short draws are completely against his character. The same can be said of Mikhail Tal.
Strongest responses to 1.e4
A question was asked about what the three strongest responses to 1.e4 are.
Korchnoi jokes that if he knew the answer to that, he would be the World Champion.
Korchnoi is a marvelous story teller, his lecture was engaging and interesting. His zest for life is clear. He was relaxed, and a great sense of humour. With Korchnoi there’s no hidden secrets. He lives his life, like he plays his chess, searching for the truth – and he’s not afraid of the truth. Considering the array of Soviet assets set against him, what struck me was today, he was very forgiving to people like Petrosian – and perhaps Karpov.
I’m reading his auto-biography titled “Chess is my life”, its an awesome story. Full of character, and at times raw emotion. Its the kind of book that draws you in, Like an annotated chess game, Korchnoi still reviews and dissects his past, finding new threads and new meaning.
It was fantastic to meet a living legend in person. Twelve years ago I met Karpov in South Africa. Six years ago I was in the audience during the first game of the Kasparov versus Kramnik match. And now I’ve talked with an inspirational fighter and legend. The chess world, for me, is leaping off the printed pages into my world.