Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The incomparable Viktor Korchnoi

It has been announced that Viktor Korchnoi had died at the age of 85. Korchnoi was possibly the strongest grandmaster during the post-Bobby Fischer era never to have become a world chess champion, He had played Anatoly Karpov not once but three times for the world championship title but he faltered each and every time.

In 1974, Korchnoi and Karpov played in the Candidates final match in Moscow, which Karpov won. And because Fischer refused to defend his title, the World Chess Federation declared Karpov as the new world champion. One year later, Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union and left his family behind. Setting up his base eventually in Switzerland, he advanced to challenge Karpov again in 1978. It was an acrimonious match in Baguio, Philippines which was full of political tension but Korchnoi was unable to dislodge his opponent. In 1981, he played Karpov for a third time in Merano, Italy but by then he was no longer at his best. After this match, Korchnoi's family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

I first met Korchnoi in 1979. Together with some other chess players from the Penang Chess Association, we were then playing as the Penang team at the Asian cities team chess championship in Hong Kong. My team mates and I knew that Korchnoi was in town but we never expected to bump into him in the hotel lift. He saw us and immediately demanded our support for his latest cause, which was to petition the Soviet Union to release Boris Gulko, another Soviet grandmaster, from house arrest in Moscow. Effectively, he had us cornered in the lift. We had nowhere to run but to grin sheepishly at him. Later, Korchnoi was to give a simultaneous exhibition in Hong Kong.

In 1982 when the Chess Olympiad was played in Lucerne, Switzerland, I was able to watch Korchnoi from up close in many of his games. My admiration for this man grew. More than anyone else, he brought to the chessboard such boundless energy and attitude which, to me, very few other professional chess players displayed in their games. It was at this event that I witnessed his momentous first game ever with Gary Kasparov.

My last time seeing Korchnoi at work was at the Manila Chess Olympiad in 1992. I was amused to watch a black eye-patched Korchnoi who, despite recovering from a minor eye surgery, spending his recuperation by playing competitive chess and carving up most of his opponents.

Korchnoi's passing closes another chapter in the long history of chess. Rest in peace, Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi, chess player, born 23 March 1931, died 6 June 2016.

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