Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: Viktor Korchnoi

This article was originally published in the March/April 2009 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.

Viktor Korchnoi, who lost World Championship matches to Anatoly Karpov in 1978 and 1981, is still going strong today; the 77 year old Grandmaster competes regularly and ranks among the top 230 players in the world! In September 2006, Korchnoi won the World Senior Chess Championship and as recently as 2007 he was still on FIDE’s top 100 list.

Jeff Sonas' Chessmetrics ratings are calculated slightly differently than FIDE ratings. According to Sonas' reckoning, Korchnoi was the number one chess player in the world from September 1965-December 1965. After briefly dropping as low as sixth on Sonas' list, Korchnoi was the second highest rated player in the world from August 1967-July 1970. Sonas ranked Korchnoi between second and eighth in the world for the next four years but Korchnoi then held on to the second spot on Sonas' list from September 1974 until December 1981. Korchnoi remained in Sonas' top ten through January 1983, dropped as low as #17 in July 1983 and then returned to Sonas' top 10 from February 1984 until March 1988. Korchnoi's last top 10 appearance in Sonas' rankings came in October 1990 when Korchnoi was 59 years old.

Korchnoi's one year peak rating in Sonas' system ranks 13th best all-time. Considering his remarkable durability, it is not surprising that Korchnoi's ranking goes up when one examines longer time frames; his best 20 year peak average ranks fifth all-time behind only Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Emanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine, impressive company for a player who never won the World Championship.

Much like Paul Keres and David Bronstein faced certain pressures from Soviet authorities when they battled Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship, Korchnoi's path to the ultimate title was made more difficult--if not outright blocked--by the Soviets, who clearly preferred Karpov, an ethnic Russian and proud Communist party member, over Korchnoi, a player with Jewish ancestry who was hardly a Communist party loyalist even before he defected to the West.

In addition to the 1978 and 1981 World Championship matches, Korchnoi also lost the 1974 Candidates' Final match to Karpov; that turned out to be a de facto World Championship match after reigning World Champion Bobby Fischer forfeited the title to Karpov in April 1975. Karpov won his 1974 encounter with Korchnoi by the score of 12.5-11.5 (3-2, with 19 draws). The match was played in Moscow and Karpov enjoyed the full weight of Soviet support: he had the best trainers--Semyon Furman and Efim Geller; Furman had worked with Korchnoi in the past and thus was keenly familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, other strong players were discouraged and/or prevented from offering any assistance to Korchnoi.

After the match, the Soviet authorities decided to punish Korchnoi for a host of "crimes" that he had committed in recent years, including various public statements that they considered to be unpatriotic; they forbade him from traveling abroad for a year, reduced his salary and denied him opportunities to write about chess or appear on television to talk about the game. In his 1978 autobiography Chess is My Life, Korchnoi wrote (p.119), "Strong pressure was being brought to bear on me, but there was also the feeling that they were awaiting for an appropriate moment, when I should begin playing less strongly, to bring me down completely." Understandably, Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976, seeking asylum after sharing first place with Tony Miles in a tournament in Amsterdam. Although the Soviet authorities no longer directly controlled Korchnoi, they still put tremendous psychological pressure on him because his wife and son were now essentially prisoners of the state, forbidden to go live with him in the West.

In the next World Championship cycle, Korchnoi defeated former World Champions Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky to earn the right to face Karpov again. Prior to the match with Karpov, Korchnoi wrote an open letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev: "Soviet leaders have declared more than once that sport must be separated from politics. It is self-evident that those states should also adhere to this principle who will participate in the World Sport Olympiad destined for Moscow in 1980. I appeal to your political common sense, my dear General Secretary: In order to ensure that this match for the World Chess Championship should take place under normal conditions, without political complications, I beg you to allow my family to depart from the Soviet Union."

Needless to say, the Soviets rejected Korchnoi's plea; they had already tried to get him banned from participating in the Candidates cycle and when that failed they found other ways to attack him politically and psychologically but--even though he ultimately fell just short of his goal--Korchnoi displayed his great fighting spirit in his match with Karpov. In the first 12 games, the players battled to a standstill (one win each, 10 draws) but Korchnoi had squandered several promising positions. Karpov then took what seemed to be a decisive lead by winning three of the next five games. Needing only two more wins to retain his crown--the match winner would be the first player to win six games, draws not counting--Karpov faltered, failing to win for nine straight games (eight draws, one Korchnoi win).

Karpov finally achieved his fifth win but then Korchnoi remarkably struck back with three victories in the next four games to tie the match at 5-5 (plus 21 draws). Karpov won game 32, ending one of the most rancorous matches in World Championship history. It is worth remembering that in addition to the political and psychological factors which favored Karpov in this match he also had Father Time on his side: the champion was 27 years old, while the challenger was 47.

The 1978 World Championship match seemed like a last hurrah at the top level for Korchnoi but he confounded the doubters, once again battling through the Candidates cycle to earn the right to challenge Karpov for the World Championship. Korchnoi's family was still trapped behind the Iron Curtain and in 1981 Karpov had a much easier time versus Korchnoi, winning 6-2 with 10 draws. Korchnoi made it to the semifinal round in the next Candidates cycle before losing to Garry Kasparov, the young titan who would ultimately end Karpov's reign. Korchnoi advanced to the Candidates round three more times (1985, 1988, 1991) but never again seriously challenged for the title.

Korchnoi has long been renowned for his defensive prowess but early in his career he understood that to contend for the World Championship he would have to change his style. As he explained in Chess is My Life (p. 51), "There came a time when I realized that the ability to defend was--for a good chess player--insufficient. You can't be dependent upon your opponent's will, you must try to impose your will on him...I would put down my successes in the 1960s, and my rise in stature as a chess player, to the fact that I learned how to fight for the initiative and maintain it." Here is an example of Korchnoi at his attacking best:

Efim Geller - Viktor Korchnoi [B03]

27th USSR Championship, 1960

1.e4 Nf6 Korchnoi needed a victory to retain any serious chances of winning the tournament, so he chose a sharp opening that Geller had not yet faced in serious tournament play. 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.f4 Bf5 6.Nc3 dxe5 7.fxe5 e6 8.Nf3 Be7 9.Be2 0–0 10.0–0 f6 "By undermining the opponent's center, Black solves his opening problems, although White retains a certain advantage in space" (Garry Kasparov). 11.Bf4?! Kasparov criticizes this move, saying that in this structure the B belongs on e3, supporting the d pawn. Since Geller only needed a draw to clinch at least a tie for first place, Kasparov adds, "The line that best corresponded with White's tournament objective was 11.exf6 Bxf6 12.Be3 Nc6 13.Qd2 Qe8 14.Rad1 Rd8 15.Qc1." In that case, Kasparov gives White a slight edge, but Korchnoi had played this position before, so from his perspective the opening had already been a success: "I had some experience with it, in contrast to Geller, who knew of the position only by hearsay. My choice of opening had been correct! Now it was just a matter of playing well." 11...Nc6 12.exf6 Bxf6 13.d5 Na5 14.Ne5 Bxe5 Korchnoi says of this move, "A mistake, typical of the early period of my chess career: in striving to win material as soon as possible, I underestimated the opponent's tactical possibilities." However, Kasparov concludes that Korchnoi's suggested improvement, ...Qe7, is in fact not objectively any stronger than the text: 14...Qe7 15.g4! Bxe5 16.Bxe5 exd5 17.Bg3 Be6 18.cxd5 Rxf1+ 19.Bxf1 Nxd5 20.Nxd5 Qc5+ 21.Bf2 Qxd5 22.Qxd5 Bxd5 23.Rd1 c6 24.b4 Nc4 25.Bxc4 Bxc4 26.Rd7 and White has sufficient counterplay for his material deficit. 15.Bxe5 Naxc4 16.Bxc4 Nxc4 17.Bxg7! Korchnoi admits that he overlooked this move but Kasparov praises "the very interesting possibility of counterplay" that Korchnoi found. 17...Ne3 17...Kxg7 18.Qd4+ Rf6 19.Qxc4 and White has the initiative (Kasparov). 18.Qe2!? 18.Qd4 Qg5 19.Rf2 Nc2 20.Rxc2 Qxg7= (Korchnoi). 18...Nxf1 19.Bxf8 Nxh2! 20.Bc5 20.Kxh2? Qh4+ 21.Kg1 Qd4+ (21...Rxf8 22.Qe5 is less clear [Kasparov].) 22.Kh2 Rxf8 23.Rd1 Qf4+ 24.g3 Qg4 and Black is better. However, after 20.dxe6 Ng4 21.e7 Qd6 (21...Qd4+ 22.Kh1 Qf4 23.g3 Qxg3 24.Rf1 Bd7 25.Qc4+ Kh8 26.Bg7+ Kxg7 27.Qf7+ Kh6 28.Qf8+ and White has a perpetual.) 22.Qf3 Be6 23.Ne4 Qh2+ 24.Kf1 Qe5 25.Kg1 White can hold. 20...Ng4 21.dxe6 Qh4 22.e7 Qh2+ 22...Re8?? 23.Qc4+ Kg7 24.Qf4± (Korchnoi). 23.Kf1 Qf4+ 24.Kg1 24.Ke1 "would have quickly led to the draw that White so desired" (Kasparov): 24...Qg3+ (24...Re8 25.Nd5 Qh2 26.Nxc7 Rxe7 27.Qxe7 Qg3+ 28.Kd2 Qd3+ 29.Ke1 Qg3+ with an equal position) 25.Kd1 Kf7 26.Qc4+ Kg6 27.Rc1 Ne5 28.Ne2 Qd3+ 29.Qxd3 Nxd3= 24...Re8 25.Qf3 Qh2+ 26.Kf1 Qh5 27.Qd5+? "In his career, Geller played and won many decisive games. When he needed to win, and his opponent was satisfied with a draw, he would calmly break down his opponent's resistance. He rarely found himself in the opposite situation--of fighting for a draw. And in this game his nerves let him down. Incidentally, similar situations also occurred with me and I did not always emerge with honor from a difficult situation" (Korchnoi). After 27.Kg1! Black has nothing better than forcing a repetition: 27...Qh2+ 28.Kf1 Qh5 (28...Qh1+?? 29.Ke2 Qxa1 30.Qxf5 Qxb2+ 31.Kd3+-) 27...Kg7 28.Qd4+ After 28.Re1 Bd3+ 29.Qxd3 Qxc5 30.Qg3 h5 White cannot play 31.Qh4?? because of 31...Qc4+ 32.Kg1 Qd4+ 33.Kf1 Ne3+ 34.Rxe3 Qxh4–+, but Kasparov points out that 31.Qf4 Rxe7 32.Rxe7+ Qxe7 33.Nd5 Qf7 34.Qxf7+ Kxf7 35.Nxc7 Ne3+ 36.Kf2 Nd1+ 37.Kg3 Nxb2 38.Nb5 would have led to a draw. 28...Kg6 29.Ne2 29.Qd8 Qh1+ 30.Bg1 Ne3+ 31.Ke2 Qxg2+ 32.Bf2 Kf7 33.Kxe3 Qg5+ 34.Kf3 Qg4+ 35.Ke3 Rxe7+–+ 29...Qh1+ 30.Ng1? 30.Qg1 Qxg1+ 31.Kxg1 b6 32.Ba3 Ne3 offers more resistance (Korchnoi). 30...b6 31.Qd8 Nf6 32.Ba3 Be4 33.Qd2 c5 34.b4 c4 35.b5 Bd3+ In the wake of Korchnoi's success in this tournament, David Bronstein wrote, "The play of the new USSR champion is characterized by amazing tenacity in defense, resourcefulness in attack and virtuoso mastery in the endgame." Famed Grandmaster and trainer Vladimir Simagin added, "In the field of tactical mastery, Korchnoi, in my view, is not inferior to Tal." In a career that has spanned six decades and counting, this still remains one of Korchnoi's favorite games: "This is a special game, one that is closest to my heart. Played towards the end of a difficult tournament, it is full of fighting spirit from start to finish." 0–1

This win helped Korchnoi to clinch the first of his four Soviet Championship titles. Although Korchnoi clearly proved that he could be a devastating attacker, he will forever be remembered mainly for his durability and for being a tenacious, opportunistic and resourceful defender. In Chess is My Life (p. 40), he recalled at least three occasions that he drew games after being down a minor piece, concluding, "It is evidently all a question of optimism. If a player believes in miracles, he can sometimes perform them."

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