Korchnoi remains defiant, but a new foe looms

He has glowered across a chessboard at the savants of six different generations. In 1953 he played a grandmaster, Grigory Levenfish, who was born in 1889; more recent opponents include the current world No 1, Magnus Carlsen, born in 1990.

At 78, however, Viktor Korchnoi remains revered not just for past endeavours – which qualify him as one of the authentic chess giants – but also for his ageless appetite. In a game that nowadays identifies its prodigies earlier than ever, his must now be considered a more truly freakish genius. The old grandmaster’s horror of defeat remains undiminished, exactly half a century after his first international tournament success.

Korchnoi has been spending the past few days in London, as guest of honour at the London Chess Classic. He remains as spry and engaged as ever and – to any who remember only the cantankerous, suspicious demeanour of the years after his defection from the Soviet Union in 1976 – full of surprising warmth. But mellowness is a relative concept in a man who cherishes a withering revulsion for any upstart with the temerity to beat him.

“Sometimes I felt I had to stop,” he admits. “They say: ‘You have done so much in this life. You can relax.’ Then I play a game, and I lose to somebody. And I look at him. I look at who he is, as a chess player. And I look at who he is, in general. And when I do this, I know why I will never stop.”

He gives a deep, satisfied chuckle. Dapper, measured in speech and movement, Korchnoi registers the cadence of his conversation with heavy hands and eyelids. Here is the man who would be nobody’s pawn.

In his time, Korchnoi was a central character in the epic, deranged saga of East-West chess showdowns that engrossed millions around the world. The chessboard became no less a motif of the Cold War than Checkpoint Charlie. Korchnoi’s defection in Amsterdam saturated his world championship duels with Anatoly Karpov, the darling of the Soviet establishment, with political symbolism. It was also the era of the American maverick Bobby Fischer, and the Soviets were desperate to depict the West as intellectually bankrupt in a series of showdowns: first between Boris Spassky and Fischer, then between Karpov and this reviled apostate, Korchnoi. Incongruously, the most sedentary of pursuits had suddenly become the stuff of melodrama.

His first match with Karpov, in the Philippines, became an epic of paranoia and controversy. Korchnoi’s camp protested against the arrival of blueberry yoghurt for his opponent as a coded message; in his autobiography, Korchnoi instead concludes that Karpov was being drugged. He also felt that he was being targeted by a Soviet parapsychologist, gazing from the gallery; in turn Korchnoi summoned transcendental forces of his own, enlisting the help of yogis.

Fischer, who died last year, infamously lost all connection with the world after beating Spassky. But Korchnoi has never faded, in any sense. In a recent tournament he was asked how he proposed to beat a younger opponent. “I shall tire him out,” he said. And so he did, closing out the match by winning the last three games.

It is not difficult to trace the roots of this voracious hunger. As a boy, Korchnoi lost his father in the war, and then had to survive the grotesque privations of the Siege of Leningrad. “A youngster can live anywhere because it’s his life, he has not seen anything else,” he says. “But it did get into my blood that I have to be alert, have to fight – whether against difficult conditions in life, or against authority. From the very beginning, I was forced to become a fighter. A fighter in life, and so a fighter in chess.”

This refusal ever to submit meekly did not endear him to the Soviet authorities, who soon identified the emerging Karpov as their poster boy instead. Karpov was everything Korchnoi was not. He belonged to the working class, not the intelligentsia; he was a conformist; and he had no Jewish blood.

“In 1999, a former KGB worker came to live in England,” he says now. “He [wrote] that in order to ensure victory for Karpov, 17 KGB [agents] had been sent to the Philippines. Everything was clear. If I were to beat Karpov, I would be exterminated. It would have been the Marcos people who would have done it. We all felt it, in our skin.”

So he truly thought himself in mortal peril, yet fought to beat Karpov as though his life depended on it? “We have to believe in the presence of a higher being,” he says, shrugging expressively. “It was not deliberate that I lost the match.”

The ultimate irony is that the Soviet machine, in identifying chess as a political vehicle, arguably hastened its own breakdown. For Korchnoi acknowledges that this game of set patterns, confined by 64 squares, contains within it so many different possibilities that it emboldens the instincts of liberation. “The Soviets had forgotten that the game is played by an individual, who is fighting for himself,” he says. “And so it happened that, one after the other, strong, independent-thinking grandmasters appeared, and caused difficulties for the regime. When I defected it was because of chess, not politics. I wanted to be a free person. Freedom is my essential stance.”

Chess players, of course, are either tremendously clever – or plain crazy. Korchnoi invokes the Austrian novelist, Stefan Zweig, who held that the game is mastered either by the mind that can only flourish within the confines of the board – or by the genius that could prosper equally in any other field. He does not consider himself one, but he has encountered them. “And someone like this could be a writer, a composer, an actor, could bring fantastic benefits to mankind,” he says, before giving that delightful bark of laughter. “Then some fool teaches him to play chess!”

It is at this nexus between programming and intuition that Korchnoi contemplates the increasing sophistication of computer chess. Is there some kernel, beyond the reach of computers, where the human mind can only get something right because it also gets things wrong?

“I hope so,” he says. “But I am very pessimistic. I am afraid that in 100 years human chess may disappear. Only the mechanical chess will be there. That is my fear. When a computer produces everything it can be made to know, it can look like intuition. And the computer has no ego, no fear, never gets tired.”

But surely a man like Korchnoi can only discover the infinite possibilities of the 64 squares because of his uniquely quixotic, maddening, inspired spirit? Here, after all, is a man who extends his career to a seventh generation if you include Geza Maroczy, the Hungarian grandmaster who lived from 1870 to 1951. Korchnoi “beat” him, through a medium, in 1985.

“You can play a position slowly, without risk,” he muses. “Maybe you win, maybe not. But when you take risks, you check character. Some players are full of fantasy and fighting spirit. Others just imitate computers. They like to call me Viktor the Terrible. It’s true I don’t like chess players who are trying to catch fish – just sitting by the water for hours, hoping to catch something. I do prefer fighting people. I believe the two players should not be friendly to each other. Sometimes when I don’t have respect, it is dangerous. Many times have I lost silly games like this. But I learned to fight at the chessboard. And I am still fighting.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Bafetibis Gomis of Swansea City is stretchered off at White Hart Lane
football
News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
Louis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
people
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Life and Style
love + sex
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Order Processor

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Graphic Designer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot