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Grandmaster Fearless

by Andrew Sacks

Amid the unusually high number of deaths of heroic figures the past few months, one has been almost completely overlooked outside of the world he excelled in: the chess world. Grandmaster Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi is no longer with us, and that is a great loss.

Born in Leningrad in 1931, Korchnoi won the junior championship of the USSR in 1947 and, developing quickly, was awarded the highest international title, that of International Grandmaster in 1956. His playing style was characterized from the outset by a counterattacking approach and an indomitable spirit and uncanny skill in defending tough positions, with the demonstrated ability often to turn the tables upon dangerous attacks. This chessic prowess would later serve him well in battles he was forced to fight both on and off the chessboard.

Korchnoi became one of the world’s strongest Grandmasters in the 1960s, but then, remarkably, improved around the age of 40 — thought to be past a chess player’s prime — to become the second-best player in the world (not counting the retired champion Bobby Fischer). He played three World Championship matches with his fellow Soviet Anatoly Karpov, 20 years his junior, and lost each narrowly.

But it was during this period that non-chess issues came to the fore. Korchnoi defected in 1976, some two years after the first match, and the second and third were contested amid heights of controversy, political pressure, and acrimony. The Soviet government initially attempted to have Korchnoi forfeit before the 1978 match began, arguing that his defection was grounds enough.

Then, when the match was held, there were accusations back and forth between Karpov and Korchnoi both during actual play and on off-days regarding issues as improbable and far-fetched as the appropriate national flags to be posted at the board, then demands to X-ray their chairs to be certain no foul play was afoot.

Korchnoi complained about a Soviet parapsychologist skilled in hypnotism that he believed the opposition had planted in the audience in order to stare at him continuously during play. There were more complaints and bickering when he, in defense and retaliation, showed up for play wearing dark mirrored sunglasses.

The players dispensed with traditional pre- and post-game handshakes. They stopped talking to each other at all, and draw offers were conducted through match arbiters.

The upshot was that Karpov was, apparently, the marginally better player, though the pressures on “Viktor the Terrible” (Korchnoi’s other nickname) were not to be gainsaid. In this regard, it is appropriate to offer an anecdote known well enough in the chess world.

When Korchnoi was, during this period, playing in a tournament in Europe and was complaining to an American Grandmaster friend that his hotel room seemed to have a problem with the thermostat, the American kindly offered to switch rooms for the night. Korchnoi meaningfully countered, “You are that brave?”

That is right. In this Cold War atmosphere, in which Korchnoi had spurned and then criticized his Motherland, in which chess was about as highly regarded as, for example, ballet and other noble pursuits administered under the Ministries of Culture and Sport, it was not out of the realm of possibility that he could have been assassinated.

A commonly held opinion in the chess world is that Viktor Korchnoi was the strongest player never to hold the title of World Champion. It is a debatable point. However, less questionable is that he was the most courageous, a man like King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning,” and that his most oft-heard moniker, “Grandmaster Fearless,” could not have been more well-earned or deserved.

Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Sacks

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