Victor Korchnoi, Soviet-born chess grandmaster, dead at 85
GENEVA — Chess grandmaster Victor Korchnoi, a former Soviet champion who defected to the West and was considered among the best players never to win a world championship, died Monday, his son said. He was 85.
Korchnoi died near his home in Wohlen, northern Switzerland, where he had lived for decades, said Igor Korchnoi. He said his father had been ailing after a stroke several years ago.
Angry at the Soviet leadership, Korchnoi defected in the Netherlands in 1976 and moved to Switzerland the following year. As retribution, Igor and his mother were sent to the Gulag for 2½ years, the son said. In 1982, they were allowed to join Korchnoi in Switzerland.
Korchnoi’s matches against the official Soviet champion, Anatoly Karpov, became famous as duels on political, psychological and physical levels. Korchnoi tried and failed twice to defeat Karpov for the world championship in matches that mirrored the Cold War in international politics at the time.
Korchnoi claimed that the Soviets had hired a hypnotist to distract him in the first, three-month match in the Philippines in 1978, and demanded protection during competitions, insisting the USSR would do anything to prevent him beating the Soviet champion.
His story in part inspired the musical “Chess,” by ABBA star Bjorn Ulvaeus and lyricist Tim Rice, which set international chess firmly in the midst of Cold War politicking.
With nicknames like “Victor the Terrible” and “the Lion of Saint Petersburg,” Korchnoi had a style that could be aggressive, attacking pawns and trying to keep a pawn advantage on the way to victory.
Korchnoi continued to play into old age, was still ranked in the top 100 in the world at the age of 75 and was Swiss chess champion as recently as 2011.
“His struggle both on & off the chess board is what chess history will hold in highest regard,” tweeted former world champion Viswanathan Anand.
“He always admonished me for playing too fast. He was a chess player in its truest sense.”
Peter Wyss, the president of the Swiss Chess Federation, said that in his heyday, Korchnoi was known as “as the benchmark for ‘fighting chess.'” He noted how Korchnoi once stormed away after losing to young chess star Sonia Polgar.
In a video posted on YouTube, Korchnoi growled at her, saying that it was “the very first and the very last (time) in your life” that Polgar would win against him.
“He had to hate the person to play well: He couldn’t be at his best otherwise,” Igor Korchnoi said. “My father hated the Soviet Union so it wasn’t difficult to hate Karpov, who represented it.”
The son recalled visits of Karpov to the family’s home, once bringing a Paul McCartney album for the boy to copy. The two men were not friends, though, he said.
In August 1990, in the waning days of the USSR, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev restored the citizenship of Korchnoi, who praised an “important step” on humanitarian grounds but said it wasn’t enough to make him move back. He was one of 23 people, including novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to be reinstated.
Korchnoi is survived by his son.
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