Monday, June 06, 2016

Viktor Korchnoi was a beacon to Soviet dissidents

In April I wrote that:
Like all sports, chess has a way of mirroring the conflicts in wider society. 
The Fischer vs Spassky match of 1972 was a wonderful metaphor for the Cold War, even if the gentlemanly, quietly dissident Boris Spassky was never a cypher for the Soviet Union. 
In the 1980s the volatile Garry Kasparov was a perfect symbol of glasnost and perestroika against the model Soviet citizen Anatoly Karpov.
In between those two rivalries came the one between Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, which was a battle between the model Soviet citizen and a dissident.

Korchnoi died today at the age of 85. Leonard Barden's obituary of him in the Guardian explains his significance in and beyond the game:
Viktor Korchnoi ... was a chess grandmaster who defected from the Soviet Union, then twice challenged the USSR’s Anatoly Karpov for the world title. Their first contest, in 1978 in the Philippines, was the most bizarre in championship history, bitterly fought on and off the board. 
Soviet media referred to Korchnoi as “the opponent” or “the challenger” rather than by name. Karpov refused the traditional pre-game handshake, Korchnoi wore mirror glasses. Karpov’s team included a hypnotist seated in the front rows staring at Korchnoi, who enlisted two members of a meditative sect on bail for murder. Needing six games to win, Karpov led 5-2 before Korchnoi fought back to 5-5, only to lose the decisive game. 
Korchnoi was already 45 years old when he defected, an age when most chess players are well past their best. For him it was a liberating experience, and when his results equalled or surpassed what he had achieved as a Soviet citizen, it stimulated an exodus not just of grandmasters but also of other intellectuals.
Korchnoi's agreed  epitaph already seems to be that he was the strongest player never to win the world title.


Frank Little said...

That is sad news. Korchnoi shook up the chess world and was always good copy. He was certainly a great player, but I remember in my younger days Paul Keres being described as the best who never won the world championship and there were real giants in his day. In their shadow, Karpov is a mere functionary.

Jonathan Calder said...

That may be a little unfair to Tolya. Kasparov has a strong claim to be the best player of all time, and Karpov all but matched him across five matches. He also played in and won many tournaments while he was world champion.