Viktor Kochnoi: Fighting The Soviet System To Play Better Chess

Almost anything associated with the Cold War appears to be an anachronism these days. New college graduates never saw the hammer and sickle fly over the Kremlin, the deadly wall cut Berlin in half, and defectors leave home in search of that most precious human commodity, liberty.

Even for those of us with a few more years, such memories are fading. Still, 1989 remains an extraordinary moment. The political earthquake began as reform communists took control of Hungary and opened the border to Austria. More tremors occurred as Poland held free legislative elections in which the communists were routed. The quake reached a climax with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aftershocks included the Christmas Day execution of the particularly odious Romanian dictator and dictatress Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

The Soviet Union lasted another two years, but it was only a shell of its former totalitarian self. No longer did its citizens have to hope for a trip to the West for an opportunity to leave everything behind. Today the countries which pen their people in are few -- North Korea, Eritrea and Cuba, among the most obvious.

But that's not the world in which Viktor Korchnoi grew up. He was born in Leningrad in 1931 and survived the 872-day siege during World War II. His father died fighting the Nazi invaders. That experience seems guaranteed to coarsen any life. However, he displayed an aptitude for chess, winning the Soviet junior championship in 1947. The U.S.S.R. enjoyed a stranglehold on the world championship from 1948 to 1972, when American Bobby Fischer dramatically upended Boris Spassky.

Korchnoi was not just a good chess player. At one point he enjoyed the highest ranking in the world. In 1975 he lost a close match, essentially the semi-finals, to countryman Anatoly Karpov. Since Fischer refused to defend his title, Karpov was declared champion, making his match with Korchnoi the de facto title fight.

Twice more Korchnoi played Karpov for the title. But in the meantime Korchnoi had defected from the Soviet Union. He never was a compliant Soviet citizen. Stubborn, uncompromising, even rude, he was no Communist model. Eventually Moscow tired of its ungrateful star and denied him permission to travel abroad. The regime promoted his great rival and former friend, Karpov, even threatening Soviet grandmasters who might help Korchnoi train or invite him to participate in tournaments.

Such restrictions threatened to kill a chess career, which is why they were such effective punishment for anyone thought to be a flight risk, or simply uncooperative. When he finally was allowed to play in Europe in 1976 he failed to take the flight home. He admitted his defection was about career, not politics, but that was irrelevant to the Kremlin. He immediately became a non-person at home and a target of Soviet fury overseas.

He was old, in chess terms, when he fled at age 45. Yet he continued to knock on the championship door.

In 1978 he disposed of the other challengers to gain a shot at Karpov. The winner would be the first to six victories. Korchnoi fell behind 5-2. I was in law school at the time, and hoped Korchnoi could strike another blow for someone who sacrificed much for liberty and against the totalitarian system which held so many people in bondage. But I gave up hope.

Then Korchnoi won three of four games, tying the match. My spirit revived, only so see Karpov win the next game, along with the match. Injustice, oh the injustice! Karpov was the perfect representative of the Soviet machine, aided and rewarded by the Soviet state. Korchnoi again challenged in 1981, but was overwhelmed 6-2.

Although he had escaped, his wife and son languished in the U.S.S.R., denied permission to join him. Indeed, his son was later imprisoned for resisting the draft. Moscow was only too willing to use them as hostages against Korchnoi. (They were finally freed in 1982.) The first match also had comic-opera aspects with participation of monks and hypnotists, use of mirrored sun glasses, x-rays taken of chairs, protests over blueberry yogurt, and claims of tampering that neared Fischeresque absurdities.

Alas, the Moscow apparatchik twice triumphed. Korchnoi played in matches leading to the championship for another decade, but never again challenged for the title. Although he had defeated at one time or another more world champions, nine, than any other player, he was doomed to be known as the best chess player who never won the championship.

In the 1984 competition the 53-year-old Korchnoi suffered a 32-year-age gap and lost early to Gary Kasparov, another malcontent in the Soviet system. Kasparov, of Azerbaijani and Jewish descent, went on to defeat Karpov in three successive matches (with their own bizarre drama). Soon the Soviet Union itself was tossed on the trash heap of history while the world chess system fell into disarray with competing organizations and champions.

Korchnoi ended up as the oldest active grandmaster playing major tournaments. For years he was by far the oldest grandmaster in the top 100 and he still was a ferocious competitor, often grabbing a poisoned sacrifice from his opponent and then hunkering down to defend his ill-gotten loot. He continued to win tournaments and in 2006 became the Senior Chess Champion. At age 80 he won the national championship of Switzerland, where he had settled. Even after a stroke in 2012 he continued to play.

Korchnoi truly was a chess legend, playing for more than a half century. Never loved, he was widely respected at the end of his life. His 80th birthday celebration in 2011 was attended by Kasparov, now retired and fighting for democracy in Russia. And eulogies were many on his passing.

Thankfully, he finished his life in freedom. His childhood was harsh; his career difficult. But he spent almost half of his life in the West, able to taste liberty even before the Soviet Union fell. Viktor Korchnoi is one more reminder of the manifold injustices of totalitarian communism. RIP Viktor.