10 Jun

Korchnoi and the Angels

When he reached the milestone age of 70 back in 2001, the still very active and often cantankerous Viktor Korchnoi (1931-2016) - who died earlier this week after a short illness, aged 85 - was asked by a Swiss journalist how he would best like to be remembered by the chess world after his death. “Once I’m gone,” he replied with a wry smile on his face, “I’d like people to say that I was no angel.”


Back then, most players would instinctively be reaching for the pipe and slippers, but Korchnoi continued to defy the odds by still competing at the highest level against the likes of Kasparov and Co. even when he was a septuagenarian. But time waits for no man, and he found the rigorous demands of playing at the elite level much tougher in his advancing years - but despite this, he remained an active player and a star attraction when he stepped down to the arena of the many top international opens and senior events.

At the age of 75, when he slipped out of the world’s top 100 for the first time, Korchnoi - a multi-time world championship challenger, regarded by many as the strongest player never to have won the world title - was finally crowned a world champion himself, when he won the 2006 World Senior Chess Championship title. And his last major win - regarded as his last “good” game, his swan-song if you like - came at the Gibraltar Masters in 2011, when he beat Fabiano Caruana.

Interestingly, that win over Caruana went down in the annals as the first (and many argue probably probably the last) time that a player of 80 (rounded, as he was just shy of his 80th birthday) had beaten a player rated 2720+. And it proved to be full circle with a meeting of the eras for Korchnoi: In his youth, he played and beat the early Soviet great Grigory Levenfish (born 1889); and in his dotage, he played and beat Caruana (born 1992)  - a unique 103-year span of wins against elite players!

Many have rightly paid tribute this week to Viktor Korchnoi. Too many to mention individually, but two should be looked at. Over at Chess24.com, there’s two wonderful and insightful videos from 2008 and 2011 by Content Director Macauley Peterson that you can view by clicking here and scrolling down.

Photo © | Chess24.com


Garry Kasparov included in his tribute a wonderful photo from his own archives of playing Korchnoi in a clock simultaneous, when he himself was a very young and promising prospect for the future! Kasparov added: "The great Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi passed away today in Switzerland at the age of 85. His longevity as a top-level player and his fighting spirit were such that it was easy to hope that he might trick Death himself in a rook endgame and live forever! Instead, we have our memories of ‘Viktor the Terrible’ and his unmatched lifetime of games that will indeed live forever.”


And we return to Kasparov’s theme of Korchnoi’s legendary expertise in the field of rook endings with today’s game, as he gives Anatoly Karpov an endgame lesson from their first world title match in Baguio City (and a game that left quite an impression on this writer).  Karpov was excellent at endings, but in rook endings, as Kasparov hinted at, Korchnoi was one of the all-time greats in this field.

Photo © | Kasparov.com

Viktor Korchnoi - Anatoly Karpov
1978 World Championship Match
Queen’s Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation
1.c4 e6 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 0-0 7.Bd3 Nbd7 8.Nf3 Re8 9.Qc2 c6 10.0-0 Nf8 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.b4 Bg4 13.Nd2 Rc8 14.Bf5 Bxf5 15.Qxf5 Qd7 16.Qxd7 Nxd7 Usually in the 'Minority Attack' in the Exchange Variation, Black tends to keep the queens on and looks to counter-attack White's queenside push with an attack on the kingside. But here, Karpov exchanges off the queens, and despite it being a little uncomfortable, feels he can hold the draw - but players such as Korchnoi are likely to squeeze the bitter life out of such positions rather than accepting a draw. 17.a4 Be7 18.Rfb1 Nf6 19.a5! This locks down Black's queenside and sets a new direction of the game, as Korchnoi begins the switch of his attention to playing e4 to allow for the exchange of pieces. 19...a6 20.Na4 Bf8 21.Nc5 Re7 22.Kf1! Korchnoi activates his king for the endgame, with the easy passage to d3. 22...Ne8 23.Ke2 Nd6 24.Kd3 Rce8 25.Re1 g6 26.Re2 f6 27.Rae1 Bh6 28.Ndb3 The position is equal - but what you have to do asa player is envisage the board with the rooks being exchanged off, and you soon see White is better; and this is what Korchnoi does. Karpov, realising this danger, looks to take the game into a rook and pawn ending which will have good survival chances. 28...Bf8 29.Nd2 Bh6 30.h3 Kf7 31.g4 Bf8 32.f3 Rd8 33.Ndb3 Nb5 34.Rf1 Bh6 35.f4 Bf8 36.Nd2 Nd6 37.Rfe1 h6 38.Rf1 Rb8 39.Ra1 Rbe8 40.Rae1 Rb8 41.e4! With the time-control now made, Korchnoi sets about opening the e-file to seek the exchanges needed to push for the win. 41...dxe4+ 42.Ndxe4 Nb5 43.Nc3 Rxe2 44.Rxe2 Bxc5 45.bxc5 Rd8! The rook and pawn ending is Karpov's best hope here. 46.Nxb5 axb5 47.f5! A committal move from Korchnoi, that offers access for his rook into e6 or possibly g6. 47...gxf5 48.gxf5 Rg8 Karpov had to stop Korchnoi playing Rg2-g6 which would have been awkward to meet, as defending the h-pawn would have been difficult. 49.Kc3 Re8 Exchanging off the final set of rooks and going into the king and pawn ending would have secured Karpov the draw, thanks to the passed b5-pawn. But worse was 49...Rg3+? as it pushes Korchnoi into a position he's looking for: 50.Kb4 Rxh3 51.a6! bxa6 52.Ka5 Ra3+ 53.Kb6 and with the Black king cut off by the rook on e2, White easily wins by capturing on c6 and pushing home his two connected passed pawns. 50.Rd2 Re4 51.Kb4 Ke8 52.a6! bxa6 53.Ka5 Kd7 54.Kb6! Wonderful timing from Korchnoi, as now the big threat is d5 followed by c6. 54...b4 55.d5 cxd5 56.Rxd5+ Kc8 57.Rd3 a5 58.Rg3 (See Diagram) 58...b3? According to authors Karsten Muller and Yakov Konoval, in their the wonderful Understanding Rook Endgames, Karpov misses a good drawing chance here with 58...Rd4! 59.Kxa5 (Now if 59.Kc6 h5 60.Rg8+ Rd8! and Black's b-pawn is a big problem for White to deal with.) 59...Kc7 60.Kb5 Rh4 and Black's active rook and the potentially problematic b-pawn offers excellent saving chances. All of this is easier to workout at home with analysis - but extremely difficult to find over-the-board in the heat of battle. 59.Kc6! The back-rank mating threats is what makes all the difference in this now being a win rather than a draw, as pointed out with Karpov's miss of 58...Rd4! 59...Kb8 60.Rxb3+ Ka7 If 60...Kc8 Black gets pushed back into what happens in the game with 61.Rg3! Re8 (If 61...Kd8 62.Kb6 a4 63.Rg8+ Ke7 64.c6 Rb4+ 65.Kc5 Rb3 66.c7 Rc3+ 67.Kb6 Rb3+ 68.Ka5 and White hides from the checks behind Black's pawn.) 62.Kb6 a4 63.c6 winning. 61.Rb7+ Ka6 62.Rb6+ Ka7 63.Kb5 a4 64.Rxf6 Rf4 65.Rxh6 a3 66.Ra6+ Kb8 67.Rxa3 Rxf5 68.Rg3 Rf6 69.Rg8+ Kc7 70.Rg7+ Kc8 71.Rh7 1-0 And if you read an even better endgame book, Silman's Complete Endgame Course, you'll discover that the winning plan is bringing the h-pawn to h7, after which rook-pawn and bishop pawn is a theoretical win!

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