My Time With Victor Korchnoi

Thursday, 09.06.2016 16:19

Translated from Russian by Ilan Rubin

My loss to Korchnoi back in 1996 in the town of Senden near Munster in Germany after quite a battle, my only ‘long’ game with him, together with my work with Ponomariov and Karpov in the same period, helped me to take a decision at the end of the 1990s not to spend the rest of my life playing chess. It wasn’t that I lost, or even that I lost to a veteran (Korchnoi won that tournament ahead of a bunch of GMs). After all, anything can happen in a single game. No, but I knew that I had played pretty much as well as I ever could in that game and I was generally in good form at the time (for example, I easily beat a computer in the same tournament).

And yet I lost to an opponent who was past his peak. That told me that I should switch to something else, at the very least in due course.

Korchnoi later included my defeat in his book My 55 Wins With Black, which surprised me a little, given that he spent decades battling the best players in the world. However, modern computers do confirm that it was a quality game. The game featured a high level of chess, pressure, intrigue and meaning. The pawn sac on move 9 in an unfamiliar position turned out to be quite effective. Several other players later repeated it, although after the game I wasn’t at all sure that anyone would.

Korchnoi, accepting the sacrificed pawn, fighting against an opponent with the initiative, I guess this is the real, classical Korchnoi – in his element. I didn’t have to sac the pawn, I had a choice, but it was the principled continuation in its own way. I would have done the same against most opponents and frankly it was interesting to see what would come of it.

[Event "Senden Masters op"] [Date "1996"] [Round "4"] [White "Golubev, Mikhail"] [Black "Korchnoi, Viktor"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C18"] [WhiteElo "2520"] [BlackElo "2635"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "1996.10.??"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "GER"] 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 c5 5. a3 Ba5 6. b4 cxd4 7. Nb5 Bc7 8. f4 a5 9. Nf3 axb4 10. Nfxd4 Bd7 11. Bb2 bxa3 12. Bxa3 Ne7 13. Bd6 Ba5+ 14. c3 Bxb5 15. Bxb5+ Nbc6 16. Qb3 O-O 17. Bxc6 bxc6 18. O-O Re8 19. Rfb1 Bb6 20. Rxa8 Bxd4+ 21. cxd4 Qxa8 22. g4 h5 23. h3 Qa6 24. Qc2 Ng6 25. Rf1 hxg4 26. hxg4 Ra8 27. f5 Nf8 28. Qf2 exf5 29. gxf5 Qd3 30. Kh2 Nh7 31. Rg1 f6 32. exf6 Nxf6 33. Qg2 Ra7 34. Be5 Qxf5 35. Rf1 Ng4+ 36. Kg1 Qg6 37. Bb8 Rb7 38. Bf4 Rb1 39. Bc1 Qe4 40. Qd2 Nf6 0-1 

Later I was to play four games against Victor in the Bank Pivdennyi rapid tournaments in Odessa (+2 -2), when I was already firmly engaged in journalism, and within the context of the tournament, as soon as play had ended, I could not avoid doing something journalism-related. And Korchnoi told me, with just a tinge of criticism, that I shouldn’t waste my time on that.

He was an extremely subjective person with a very difficult and egocentric character. Admittedly, this isn’t unusual for chess players, although a professional player also has to maintain a high level of objectivity. Of course his egocentricity could be over the top. At least he never told me that I don’t understand anything in chess, which he frequently told other players not only after he had beaten them but also after they had beaten him. Actually he once told me that I have my own vision of the game (which in my view is a rather questionable statement). So I should be grateful that he never criticized me. In fact, I never had any incidents with him.

Golubev - Korchnoi, Odessa 2005

There is no doubting it was a terrible sporting injustice that Korchnoi was only number two in the world and never became world champion (or even number one in the rating list, although once chess ratings appeared he was among the leaders for a very long time). But then again, how much importance did a man who had lived through the Siege of Leningrad as a boy attach to justice?

I don’t know, I rarely spoke with him about anything other than chess. I cannot claim that Korchnoi was detached from reality, but he seemed to have no emotions for anything that happened away from the board and treated it all as secondary – I wouldn’t be surprised if he believed that whatever happened was objective and that’s what he deserved.

He suffered inhumanely damaging experiences as a child barely over the age of ten – the Siege and the death of his father at the Front. Yet such experiences are not infrequent in the biographies of great chess players and this is no coincidence. Chess is endlessly varied, indeed inexhaustible, when compared with the limits of human thought. It is capable of consuming a person entirely, but there have to be damned good reasons to let this happen.

The greatest Korchnoi phenomenon was his ability to retain the motivation of a top player well into old age. Of course given his input into the game, the intensity of his performances over more than six decades, Korchnoi is one of the greatest chess players who ever lived: maybe among the best ever 10 or 15, definitely among the top 20. I think that a lot will be written about Korchnoi as a person, some of it exaggerated, but he wanted to go down in history as a chess player.

Not many people who were never professional chess players would have been able to understand him.


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