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Korchnoi in 1993 (Stefan64 GNU 1.2)

“I will continue to play chess until my death,” said Viktor Korchnoi in an interview marking his 80th birthday in 2011. Now that moment has come — and if there is a heaven we can be sure that for Viktor it would consist of an eternal chess game.

Korchnoi, who in tournament play defeated no fewer than nine past, present and future world champions, never succeeded in his lifelong ambition — to be world champion himself. He lost two world title matches against Anatoly Karpov, in 1978 and 1981; and it was not long after he narrowly lost a 1974 match against the same opponent — the final eliminator for the right to challenge the reigning champion Bobby Fischer — that Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union.

Karpov was a dutiful member of the Communist Party, and 20 years younger than Korchnoi, so Viktor had become convinced he would only be “allowed” a chance to win the world title if he became a free man. But although he became a political hero to dissidents, he was not one of them. As he told an interviewer, having claimed asylum in the Netherlands after playing (and of course winning) a tournament there: “I am not a defector, I didn’t betray my country. Unless I betrayed to be able to move a bishop, or to get a better pawn structure . . .”

Needless to say, the Soviet authorities didn’t see it that way. For years, they refused to grant exit visas for Viktor’s wife and son, effectively keeping them as hostages to put intolerable psychological pressure on the man Soviet publications referred only to as “the opponent” while he was playing for the highest title against Karpov.

Korchnoi, however, was better able to withstand adversity than most of us could even imagine. As a child, he lived through the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, during which most of his immediate family died of hunger. As he wrote in his memoir, Chess Is My Life, it was only because he used the accumulated ration cards of his relatives that he too did not perish. In short, Korchnoi was a survivor.

He also wrote how he decided at the age of 13 that he would devote his life to chess; we might wonder if the most noticeable element of his chess style — a tremendous ability to hold seemingly indefensible positions and later switch to devastating counter-attack — emerged from what he had learnt during the siege of Leningrad.

But I’m not sure what could explain his unique longevity as an active grandmaster. Most GMs are ready to retire from frontline chess in their fifties. While it is not a physical game, the struggle requires intense and unremitting concentration for many hours of mind-to-mind combat: it really is best suited to the young and highly-motivated. Korchnoi, however, never lost the intensity of his motivation and an absolute lack of complacency fuelled by remorselessly objective self-criticism. Astonishingly, he remained in the world’s top 100 until he was 75 and in the year he turned 80 he beat the 18-year-old Fabiano Caruana, already ranked 25th — and now the strongest player after world champion Magnus Carlsen. 

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