Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi would have turned 90 yesterday.
He is one of those monumental figures one returns to time and again when writing about chess. What would most people know about Korchnoi nowadays? A strong player, an incredible fighter, a cranky guy. These traits can't be argued, and they are well-known; I would like to give nuances and details on a character that were more hidden from the world.
First and foremost, Korchnoi's attitude towards chess. It was strikingly different from the approach of the majority of his colleagues, even the greatest ones. Arguably, Korchnoi became the first one to make "Fighting to the last bullet" his chess motto. He kept this aggression burning throughout his long career and probably was the best chess player in history when it comes to fighting spirit and resilience.
Korchnoi was one of the few (perhaps along with Geller, Polugaevsky, and Fischer) who toiled over chess incessantly. It helped him to permanently stay in shape. Quite funny was to hear the young players lament exhaustion after working with the seventy-year-old Korchnoi at a training camp.
Viktor Lvovich (simply Viktor back then) grabbed material in a way that was later to be labelled "computer-like," but still was ready to fend off his opponent’s attacks (please note, that despite his pawn-grabbing propensity, Korchnoi rarely came under a crushing attack). The word “dangerous” was not in his vocabulary. He neither guessed nor made rough estimations; he just diligently calculated numerous variations. This, incidentally, explains his overwhelming record against Tal.
Photo source: http://gahetn.nl
It was Korchnoi who, 40-50 years ago, long before Carlsen was born, became a great (probably the best in the world) master of a complex endgame. He was particularly strong in rook endings.
Striving for a real fight and for opportunities to overtake the initiative over the chessboard throughout his career, Korchnoi frequently used difficult openings (French Defence, Pirc Defence). But he also had a great opening intuition - in a letter, written in 1972 (published in the excellent book "Russians vs. Fischer"), Viktor Lvovich advised Spassky when in preparation for his match with Fischer:
"From the play-to-equalize standpoint, I suggest paying attention to the Petroff Defence and 3...Nf6 in the Ruy Lopez". Nowadays these continuations (along with the Marshall counterattack and the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defence) are Black’s most solid response to 1.e4 - but back then both the Petroff Defence and the Berlin Variation of Ruy Lopez were in the fringes of opening theory! In fact, Korchnoi was the first and only one for decades to use the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez – currently, the majority of the best players have this line in their opening repertoire.
Korchnoi was never an easy man, and, drawing parallels to the present day, was a great master of trash-talking, so popular among the leading young chess players nowadays. On the other hand, “Viktor the Terrible” won over chess fans with his unfailing love of chess, ever-burning fighting spirit, and desire to give it all on the battlefield.
Elegantly dressed, distinguished-looking, and always eloquent, but he could be different each time you met him - from prickly and caustic to charming or infectiously laughing. Korchnoi was invariably gallant in female society but often irritable and scathing with his colleagues.
Ready to talk endlessly about chess and chess-related topics, he had tenacious memory. Viktor often quoted the classics of literature (Pushkin for example) and chess players of the past ("but Levenfisch said..."). At times Korchnoi was unexpectedly respectful and open with young colleagues outside the tournament hall, but one could see him nervous and at times aggressive during and immediately after a game.
From Korchnoi's personal archive, via ruchess.ru
Usually, Viktor showed mercy to his defeated opponents, but once he remarked immediately after the game we played, in which I intuitively sacrificed a piece in a position with a huge advantage, but was unfortunately left high and dry: "Do you think you're Tal? Even Tal didn't sacrifice me a piece without calculating variations. And you are not Tal.” He was admired by many, but it was hard to imagine a person who could tolerate the irascible Viktor Lvovich. Frau Petra managed it, although not without difficulty - perhaps because their life together was based on mutual respect. Today you cannot imagine married couples who address each other exclusively as "You”. Another reason might be that she went through a school of hard knocks and became just as tough a fighter herself.
Korchnoi as a chess player was treated with fearful respect, but an even greater number of people found his behaviour during/after a game unacceptable, and yet, the Greats are forgiven more sins than mere mortals. He was forgiven not only for his magnificent play but also for his dedication to chess, for that genuine commitment over the board. Karpov once said: "Chess is my life. But my life is not just chess”. Korchnoi could have easily discarded the second half of that quote. Viktor Lvovich pushed every conceivable boundary, surpassing even Lasker. At 70 he won a super-tournament in Biel finishing ahead Gelfand, Grischuk, Svidler, and others, and at 80 he put in a good performance in Gibraltar, defeating, among others, Caruana, who had already begun his meteoric rise...
And yet Korchoi’s best period is the 1970s. His epic duels with Karpov are still talked about. But there were so many other remarkable battles: the matches with Spassky, Petrosian, Polugaevsky... Even in the match against Kasparov (1983), for the most part, he was fighting on equal ground. We often talk about the most interesting unplayed matches - one of the most interesting for me would have been the Candidates final between Korchnoi and Fischer (1971). But Korchnoi lost to Petrosian in a very strange semi-final. The duel with the American genius did not take place. It is a pity because Viktor Lvovich was effective against Fischer; he controlled the proceedings in their last game back in 1970.
Korchnoi remains a controversial figure. Indeed, he regularly did things that mere mortals would not have been forgiven for. What was it – the legacy of his troubled childhood, when five-year-old Viktor became a hostage of his parents’ difficult divorce? Was it the war and the post-war years, when he had to fight for himself? Was it his focus on chess, coupled with his temper? Was it the realization that he could take liberties because his successes over the board would compensate? I don't know. I only know that a noble Korchnoi would not be Korchnoi.
He was merciless not only with others and his family but also towards himself - I talked with Viktor Lvovich quite a lot but never heard him say "I played a brilliant game / discovered a subtle maneuver / invented a new concept". No way. Korchnoi could call his opponent a dummy in a fit of rage - but he often spoke of himself self-critically and, at times, even pejoratively. He kept refining himself all the time being already a champion of the USSR, a Challenger, a true legend.
The title of world champion is a sacred thing in chess. But for me, Viktor Lvovich is in no way inferior to at least half of the world champions. Korchnoi is a truly great chess player who anticipated modern chess, a fighter who filled the pieces he led into battle with his energy for seven decades, not loved by everyone, but respected and in a class by himself - he will always remain the one and only for me. KORCHNOI.
Emil Sutovsky, FIDE Director General