Recently we’ve seen the deaths of sporting legends Muhammad Ali and Johan Cruyff - and now Chess witnesses the passing of one of its greatest legends, as Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016), the multi-time world championship challenger, died on 6 June at the age of 85 following a short illness, after being hospitalised near his home in Wohlen, Switzerland, with internal bleeding. He had been ailing after a stroke several years ago.
Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi was born on March 23, 1931 in Leningrad and became a grandmaster in 1956. Although Korchnoi was never world champion, he came achingly close. He was one of the best players of the second half of the 20th century, and quite remarkably, he remained a dangerous and active competitor even as a septuagenarian (he was still in the world’s top 100 at 75!), at an age when most top players had long since given up elite play.
The clue to Korchnoi’s attitude to chess and life unquestionably lay in where and the time he was born, namely Leningrad (now reverted back to its original Tsarist name of St. Petersburg) in the thirties during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. I once asked the venerable Viktor what he attributed his longevity to. “Physical exercise and a proper diet,” he replied. “That and surviving the Siege of Leningrad.”
Photo © | David Lada
That infamous 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad - lasting from September 1941 to 1944, with an estimated 632,000 Soviet citizens being killed with 4,000 starving to death on Christmas Day 1941 - forever shaped his outlook on life. For the child who survived and witnessed such atrocities, it was to toughen him with the life-lesson being stark and simple: You won, or you starved. Or, you were eaten - and that horrific focus made him such a terrifying opponent that he went on to be nicknamed ‘Viktor the Terrible’, a nickname he revelled in.
But survive he did, and the orphan of Leningrad showed his gift for the game at the Pioneer Palace, as he captured the Soviet Junior (Under 20) championship title in 1947, aged just 16. He then went on to become a four-time Soviet champion and had an amazing World Championship cycle run, the highlight being three epic matches against Anatoly Karpov. The first, in 1974 in Moscow, was officially the final match of the “candidates” to determine Bobby Fischer’s challenger, but the American refused to defend his title.
The young Karpov won that match by the narrowest of margins and was subsequently anointed as the new world champion. The two clashed again in 1978 and 1981 in much different Cold War circumstances with Korchnoi now a high-profile Soviet defector. Karpov won the first, 6-5, at Baguio City in the Philippines and the second, more convincingly, 6-2, in Merano, Italy. And through all of the bitter acrimony and 43 games without a handshake, there was bizarre incidents of paranormal mind-games, mystic gurus and claims of move hints being passed to his opponent via KGB coded messages in his yogurt during the games.
Our tribute to Korchnoi will continue over to Friday’s column. But with so many of his wonderful games to chose from - and in so many different decades! - I’ve opted for an early game against one of the best Soviet masters of all time, Efim Geller. It was played in the USSR Championship in Kiev in 1954, the year Korchnoi achieved the international master title, and it proved to be a landmark victory, as it marked him out as a rising star.
Photo © | David Lada
Viktor Korchnoi - Efim Geller
USSR Ch., 1954
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 Be7 8.0-0-0 0-0 9.f4 e5 10.Nf3 Bg4 11.h3!? Bxf3 12.gxf3 Korchnoi has taken some liberties and risks in his handling of this Sicilian Richter-Rauzer, but it has allowed him to open up a file that proves to be decisive as it leaves Geller exposed to a sizzling sacrificial attack. 12...Nd4 13.fxe5 dxe5 Not 13...Nxf3? 14.exf6 Nxd2 15.fxe7 Qa5 16.exf8Q+ Rxf8 17.Bxd2 and White will have netted a ton of material for the queen. 14.Rg1 Nxf3? Geller goes wrong in the ensuing skirmish, snatching what proves to be a very poisoned pawn indeed. Instead, he had a very promising queenside attack himself after 14...Rc8! as 15.Bh6 g6 16.Bxf8 Qxf8 leaves Black with lots of promising compensation for the exchange, as he has control of the dark-squares and the dominant knight on d4. And on reflection, 14...Nxf3? looks certainly to be a 'moment of madness' from Geller. 15.Qf2 Qb6 16.Be3 Nd4 17.Rxd4! A powerful exchange sacrifice that see's Korchnoi's pieces suddenly launch a devastating attack on his opponent's king. 17...exd4 18.Bxd4 Qd8 A somewhat timid defence from Geller. Instead, there was also the 'murkier' 18...Qe6!? 19.Nd5 Ne8 (The only move, as 19...Kh8? 20.Nxe7 Qxe7 21.Rxg7!! Kxg7 22.Qg3+ Kh8 (22...Kh6 23.Be3+ Kh5 24.Qg5#) 23.Qg5 and Black is quite helpless here.) 20.Qg2 and Black's kingside defences, and especially the g7-square, are under siege. 19.Nd5 The pressure on g7 is going to reach critical mass soon. 19...Ne8 20.Qg3 f6? Geller eventually cracks under the relentless pressure from Korchnoi, and falls to a powerful final combination. However, here he missed his last, best chance of survival with 20...Bh4 21.Qf4 (The sensational 21.Qxg7+ looks scary for Black, but the 'windmill' has nothing to bite on: 21...Nxg7 22.Rxg7+ Kh8 23.Rxf7+ Kg8 24.Rg7+ Kh8 25.Rd7+ (After 25.Rxb7+ Bf6 turns the tables.) 25...Kg8 26.Rg7+ and White is forced to take the draw with a repetition here now.) 21...Kh8 and White has an advantage with his active pieces, but there's no immediate winning attack, and with careful play Black can stay in the game. 21.Bc4 Rf7 Worse was 21...Kh8 22.Nf4! and there's now no good answer to the looming Ng6+! 22.Nf4! (See Diagram) This looks to be what Geller had missed in his calculations. 22...Bd6 So why not simply take on d4? It looks OK, but it is not easy to spot the sudden queen switch of direction for the lethal blow: 22...Qxd4 23.Bxf7+ Kxf7 24.Qb3+! Kf8 25.Ne6+ Kg8 26.Ng5+ Kh8 27.Nf7+ Kg8 28.Nh6+ and mate next move. 23.Bxf7+ Kxf7 24.Qb3+ And again, the queen switch in direction proves lethal. 24...Ke7 25.Bxf6+! 1-0 Geller resigns, as every capture leads to mate: 25...Nxf6 [25...gxf6 26.Qe6+ Kf8 27.Rg8#] 26.Rxg7+ Kf8 27.Qf7#.