(I am dedicating this post to Jimmy, whom age has not dulled).
Viktor Korchnoi is one of my all-time chess heroes. I was prompted to write this post because he leads yet another tournament today: the György Marx Memorial tournament in Paks, Hungary.
He is probably the chess player with the longest top-class career ever. He is still winning top-class tournaments at the grand age of 76 (in 2006 he won the World Veteran’s title). But let’s put his career in some context to judge just how good he has been for so long: He hit the chess world as early as 1947, when he won the USSR Youth championships. He qualified for the full USSR championships in 1952, which was no mean feat (at that time it was becoming the predominant chess country in the world). By 1960 he won his first of four USSR championships (the others being 1962, 1964, and 1970). Of course, he is most famous for his series of extraordinary world championship matches against Anatoly Karpov in the 1970s and early 1980s. It started with a candidates final in 1974, and ended with his defeat in Manila in 1981. Although he lost all three matches, he was clearly the second best player in the world for those years. He has been in the world’s top hundred players for the best part of 50 years now (or even longer).
Korchnoi is also my hero because of his defection from the Soviet Union in 1976. One story goes that he calmly asked English GM Tony Miles how to spell ‘political asylum’ while he was competing at a tournament in Holland. That’s cool! If you’re about to defect from the world’s most oppressive communist state, you’d think your mind would be on other things! But he still managed to win the tournament, jointly, with Tony Miles.
The word “irascible” would have had to have been invented for Viktor if it didn’t already exist. He is a loveable old rogue, which probably makes him a right pain to be around, but for me enhances his humanity and honesty. The stories of his fights with Karpov are legendary and well worth looking up: http://www.mark-weeks.com/chess/78kk$$01.htm. After you’ve read about mysterious blueberry yoghurts, x-ray glasses, hypnotists, the ‘Stateless’ flag, swivelling chairs, and other bizarre goings-on, you’ll never again look at chess the same way.
One story about Korchnoi has always puzzled me. I read that he once got up from a game to ask the arbiter a straight-forward question about queen-side castling. He asked, is it legal to castle queenside when there’s an enemy rook attacking the b1 square? It is, and Korchnoi continued the game and won. It is a well-known rule and it always struck me as odd that he had to ask.
Korchnoi has been making videos for Chessbase of his favourite games. He comes across as personable, funny, and wise. His shrugs and raised eye-brows and constant grins show how much he loves chess. What a star! I hope he lives to be 100 and keeps winning chess games all of that time.