Viktor Korchnoi, the Last Knight from Leningrad

Viktor Korchnoi in 1976. Credit: Verhoeff, Bert/ Anefo

Viktor Korchnoi (March 23, 1931-June 6, 2016) in 1976, the year of his defection from the Soviet Union to the West. Credit: Verhoeff, Bert/Anefo

The Siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941 when invading German forces cut off the city from the rest of the Soviet Union. It was one of the most horrendous sieges in history. At its worst, daily rations were reduced to 150 grams of bread (baked with sawdust) with wallpaper used as seasoning. Over 2,000 persons were convicted of cannibalism (classified as “Special Category Banditry” in Soviet law). More than 1,500,000 Leningraders died before the siege was lifted in January 1944.

The casualty list did not include a Polish-Jewish resident, who was 10 years old when the siege started, and not quite 13 when it ended. That boy lost every member of his family. He was later adopted by his father’s ex-wife.  Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi used the ration cards of his dead relatives to supplement his diet.

Korchnoi, who died on June 6, 2016  in Zurich, will be remembered for his extraordinary chess skills and for being the first Grandmaster to defect from the Soviet Union. He had a very long and successful career, winning everything except the world championship and he came within an ace of taking that as well.

The orphan started playing chess regularly some months after the siege was lifted, at the Pioneer Palace.  It was soon obvious that he was very gifted.  Indeed, he would win the Soviet Junior (Under-20) Championship in 1947, which was great going for a 16-year old.

Korchnoi would win the very strong USSR Chess Championship four times before he quit the Soviet Union. He would be a contender for the world title in every cycle between 1962 and 1992. He would win over a hundred tournaments.

His attitude to chess and to life (which he considered a mundane extension of chess) was shaped by “The 900 Days” as the siege is known. To the boy who survived Leningrad, the equation was stark and simple: You won, or you starved. Or, you were eaten. There was no point getting attached to people, or letting relationships distract  you.

That absolute, even absolutely monstrous focus made him a terrifying opponent. On principle, he hated whoever he faced. He could switch on the hate at will.  Sadly, he often failed to switch it off when the game was over.

He loved chess, he loved winning and he wanted to be world champion. To further those ends, Korchnoi worked at an insane tempo, spending long hours in analysis, trying to glean more insights. He taught himself to calculate to incredible depth. He would routinely end up in time pressure, as he kept calculating. But he was also a great blitz player. With only seconds left, he would find the best moves.

He was brave, almost foolhardy. He would take material and face down attacks. And, he would hit back.

Others prided themselves on their ability to defend, or attack. Korchnoi counter-attacked. He provoked his opponents, absorbed material and hit back when they over-extended. His endgame technique was near-flawless. He literally wrote the book on rook endgames  – as Viswanathan Anand once said, “Every time I reach a rook endgame, I wonder what Viktor would say “.

Off the board too, Korchnoi took huge risks to maximise returns from his talent.  In 1974, it became apparent that his national federation did not want him to be world champion. He did not fit the template of the ideal Soviet champion. He was 43, foul-mouthed and Jewish.

The 23-year-old Anatoly Karpov, whom he disparagingly called “that little boy” was much more acceptable and clearly favoured by the Soviet establishment. They played what turned into a de facto world championship match in 1974. (Bobby Fischer did not defend his title). Karpov won 3-2 with 19 draws to become world champion by default. To add insult to injury, Korchnoi’s stipend was cut because of his outspoken comments.

So, he just upped and left. in 1976, he walked into a police station in Holland and asked for asylum while playing in a tournament there (he won). That meant abandoning his first wife, Bela, and his son, Igor behind the Iron Curtain. Chess was more important.

Korchnoi bulldozed through the 1977-78 Candidates cycle, beating three Soviets, Lev Polugaevsky, and the two former champions, Tigran Petrosian and  Boris Spassky. These were all ill-tempered matches with protests and counter-protests galore. Most amusingly, the chess-mad Soviet public had to read between the lines because Korchnoi’s name was not mentioned in news reports. Two revered former world champions lost to an unnamed opponent!

The title match in Baguio City, Philippines transcended the Candidates in terms of lunacy. Karpov’s team included a “parapsychologist” and hypnosis expert, Dr Vladimir Zoukhar. He would glare at Korchnoi from the audience. Korchnoi retaliated with an Anand Margi Gambit, hiring two Australians Margis (who were embroiled in a murder case). The Aussie sadhus glared at Zoukhar!

When Karpov wanted to drink yoghurt during play, Korchnoi demanded that he choose the flavour (to prevent Karpov’s team passing flavour-coded messages!).  Korchnoi was down 5-1 and  came back to tie the match 5-5 before Karpov finally pulled out a deciding win.

In 1981, Karpov won another title match in Merano, Italy. The Soviets arrested Igor, perhaps  in the hopes that this would psychologically destabilise Korchnoi. Maybe it did since Karpov won with some ease. After the match, Korchnoi’s wife and son were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union. By then, he was  a Swiss citizen. He divorced Bela in 1983 and married  Petra Leeuwerik, who survives him.

That Merano match  was the zenith of Korchnoi’s career. He lost a hard fought Candidates match to Garry Kasparov in 1983 and he was superseded as a credible challenger.  But he continued to perform at extremely high levels until 2009 when he finally dropped out of the top 100 at the ripe old age of 78.

Viktor the Terrible, as he was named, was not an  urbane, charming personality. He castigated little children and ruthlessly beat them when giving  simultaneous displays. He scolded people when they beat him. He scolded people when he beat them. Anatoly Karpov complained that he was repeatedly verbally abused during play in their matches.

In  fact, Korchnoi’s putdowns were epic. It was considered a rite of passage to get the rough end of his tongue. Viswanathan Anand laughs, “I have a plus score against Viktor but he’s always called me a coffee-house player”.  When he was pushing 80, Viktor the Terrible beat 19-year-old GM Fabiano Caruana in 2011 (now world #3). He promptly rubbed salt into the wound saying, “You are very weak!”

His saving grace was his merciless self-criticism. In 1982, the teenaged Dibyendu Barua beat Korchnnoi (then World #2) at the Lloyd’s Bank Open in London. Barua (who was officially 15, by his birth certificate) pulled off a lovely endgame combination in a wild struggle.  The Indian GM says, ” We did a post-mortem of that game for about 30 minutes. He just kept pointing out his errors. He was so angry with himself. He could not accept anything less than perfection.”

He suffered a stroke in 2012 and made only a partial recovery. But he sat in a wheelchair and played a last match against the East German great, Wolfgang Uhlmann (born 1935) in 2015. They drew 2-2 and Korchnoi characteristically castigated himself for playing “very badly”.

That search for perfection has finally ended.

Devangshu Datta is an internationally rated chess player