Victor Korchnoi at the Chess & Bridge

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.

Reminiscing

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.

Lecture

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.

Playing Spassky

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.

Gibraltar 2006

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!).

Curacao

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.

Conclusion

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.

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16 Responses to Victor Korchnoi at the Chess & Bridge

  1. Dave says:

    Very interesting! If I may ask, how did you come about meeting Karpov in South Africa in 1994, I don’t remember him being there around that time?

  2. Isofarro says:

    Karpov was in South Africa in 1993, but his schedule was not public knowledge. That was the year he lost horribly on the White side of a King’s Indian Samisch against Kasparov in Linares. Definitely before Kasparov-Short World Championship.

    It was during the Roosevelt Park Open in Johannesburg, around February – the tournament that used performance rating rather than score to pair players for each round – my memory fails me of the name of the Roosevelt Park player that devised the system.

    The rumour was that Karpov would play a simultaneous exhibition during the tournament, so I went along just for that. I wasn’t playing the tournament itself, just wanted to play the simul.

    The simul didn’t take place. But I was invited along to Eddie Price’s house. Eddie, at that time, was a lecturer at Wits University. I was studying for a BComm there at the time, and was part of the Wits Chess Club (I wrote the Wits Chess Club newsletter at that time).

    One of my friends is Mark Buswell, who knows Eddie. Mark is one of Eddie’s students. We both went over to Eddies house, and its only on the way did Mark mention that that’s where Karpov would be.

    Eddie had invited Karpov over, and try, amongst other things, boerewors. While Karpov was having his lunch we had a conversation on various chess topics, including how to prepare for the middle game, Short’s chances against Kasparov.

    Had a few photos taken, including members of the Soviet embassy. But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen those pictures. All I have of proof is Karpov’s autograph in my copy of Informator number 32 (red cover) – the one covering the 1981 World Championship, Karpov-Korchnoi, as well as the Category 16 tournament held in Johannesburg 1981.

    The next edition of Wits Chess I wrote about the discussion we had, as well as annotated Karpov’s smooth Sicilian Dragon win over Korchnoi from the 1974 Candidates tournament (it was all probably home preparation).

    It was said that Karpov wasn’t playing any chess in South Africa, but a few months later, one of the newspapers published a game Karpov played against Paul McAvoy, which was part of a simultaneous display against a number of top South African juniors.

  3. Isofarro says:

    I should add, Eddie Price was influential and a well respected member of the South African Chess Federation. Hence the connection with Karpov, the SACF had invited him to visit South Africa.

  4. Dave says:

    Mike, what a fascinating story! I remember the name Eddie Price. I was a member of the Durban Chess Club and played board 2 for Natal Schools at the time. I gave up chess at the age of 17 to focus on other things but still enjoy the game very much.

    You got to meet one of the greatest chess players of all time in a private sitting. Brilliant. Thanks for relaying the story to me!

  5. edward says:

    Fascinating personality, fascinating story!!

    I admire the challenging Korchnoj, to some extend a positional player, but a brilliant non-conformist one and although not a prodigy – but virtuous and very versatile, never achieved in his originality of idea, looking for the “exception of the rules”.

    No matter when, where and against whom, Korchnoi goes always for a win – still very much alive!

    Thanx a lot

  6. Mark Buswell says:

    Isofarro

    I am the Mark Buswell referred to above! Great read on the blog. I shall have to rack my brain to remember the name of the pairing system used by Roosevelt Park Chess Club. Obviously it is named after the guy who invented it. Will get back to you.

    Mark

  7. Isofarro says:

    The pairing system I think was called the Dave Hulbert system.

    And apologies, Mark, for confusing you with Craig Young. I think it was him that managed to get myself and Neil Kaplan to meet Karpov at Eddie Price’s house.

    Thanks for dropping by, great to see you again.

  8. Nikita says:

    Great post! I’ve posted it to my site with a link… ;)

  9. Nikita says:

    Hi Isafarro… You don’t perhaps have that game?

  10. Isofarro says:

    Nikita: “You don’t perhaps have that game?”

    I’m guessing you are referring to one of the Karpov games he played in South Africa – if so, no.

    I recall that the game was Karpov vs Paul McAvoy, can’t remember who played what colour, but the gamescore was published in a Johannesburg Paper, I can’t remember if it was the Citizen or The Star. I do distinctly remember seeing a news clipping of the game score. (the reason I remember it was against Paul McAvoy is because Paul played for the Wits Chess Club while I was there. I never got around to asking him about the game)

  11. Nikita says:

    Hi Isofarro

    Thanks! Yes, it was their game I was looking for to blog with the post.. ;)
    If one could contact Paul and ask him .. :) wish it was me to play him!

  12. Esalen says:

    Very nice reading. I am doing a text on Korchnoi in Norwegian on my website, and wonder, if you can confirm the story of Korchnoi and Petrosian kicking each others legs under the table during a match? Is this true, or just a rumor? Or perhaps not even a rumor? In case it happend, where was it?

  13. Isofarro says:

    Hi Esalen,

    Looking through two autobiographies I have of Korchnoi, the main contraversial match with Petrosian was the one played in 1974. The main dispute was Petrosian’s table shaking, caused by his twitching leg. There is no mention of kicking. Here’s the excerpts:

    Viktor Korchnoi: Chess is My Life, (published 1977, Batsford), on the 1974 match with Petrosian:

    “During the first game a dispute arose. In recent years Petrosian had acquired the terrible habit of twitching his legs under the table, usually beginning this about an hour before the time control.”

    “While my clock was going and I was thinking over my next move, Petrosian would sit in his place and cause the table to shake all over. ‘Its impossible to play like this; shall we sit at separate tables?’ … Petrosian stopped shaking the table, but after the game wrote a statement to the controlled about my behaviour. (I found out about this later)”

    Game 4: “During the time scramble I found it difficult to sit at the table. Petrosian was rocking it, and causing it to shake by the rapid twitching of his leg. I went over to the controller to complain, but he merely shrugged his shoulders – what could he do to help? After the game I wrote a statement to the control team, to the effect that, despite repeated requests, Petrosian was continuing to behave in an unsporting manner, and was disturbing my play.”

    Game 5: “An hour before the end of play, with the time scramble approaching, Petrosian sat solidly at the board, and when it was my turn to move, began shaking the table. What was I to do? I had already used up all the accepted ways of curtailing his behaviour. I gained the impression (and at the board, in a highly tense situation, a player senses his opponent much more keenly) that if earlier Petrosian had been shaking the table subconsciously, by habit, he now realised how much this disturbed me, and with the connivance of the controller wanted to utilize his opportunity. ‘Stop shaking the table, you’re disturbing me’, I said to him. Petrosian made out that he hadn’t heard what I said. ‘We’re not in a bazaar’ he replied. On seeing the commotion, the controller rushed up. ‘Calm down, calm down’ he said. Petrosian seated himself more comfortably, and again began shaking the table. What was I to do? I was playing a match for the world championship, and I was in a trap.! My clock was going, and Petrosian would not allow me to play. Then I uttered the sacred and at the same time naive words: ‘This is your last chance!’ Petrosian caught this (and, perhaps so did some of the spectators). On the other hand, I gained the chance to continue playing, under normal circumstances.”

    Korchnoi’s updated autobiography, Chess is my life (2005, published by Edition Olms) goes into less detail, but he still talks about the table shaking incidents.

    Petrosian apologised to Korchnoi, via a journalist (Alexander Geller) in 1984, weeks before he passed away.

    Hope that info is of use to you.

  14. Vivien McAvoy says:

    Paul McAvoy can be contacted via the following email address, we have a photo proudly displayed of him playing Karpov as well as the newspaper clipping!
    [REDACTED]@ananzi.co.za
    Regards

  15. Isofarro says:

    Hi Vivien, thanks for the comment and that Paul did get to play Karpov. I’ve edited out the first part of the email address, otherwise you’ll be inundated with email spam from people harvesting websites for email addresses. But thank you for that, I’ll send an email soon. I would love a scan of both the photo and newspaper clipping, if that is possible.

  16. Donald Ariel says:

    I understand that Korchnoi made a big issue (rightly so) of the Soviet authorities not allowing his wife Bela and son to leave Soviet Union soon after he defected. However at the same time he was having an affair with Petra. Soon he left Bela and married Petra. Is that an honest behavior?
    Again, in order to advance his career he joined the CPSU, but ditched it as soon as he got he left Soviet Union. Did he have to join the CPSU? Tal and Spassky never did that (Karpov and Kasparov also joined and later denounced the decision). Is that an honest behavior on part of the three K’s?

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