The Russian Jewish chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi, who died on June 6 at age 85, proved that if an opponent brings in a psychic to defeat you, you can destroy the adversary by letting loose gurus. This was the surreal scenario in the 1978 chess World Championship match in Baguio City, Philippines, as described in Korchnoi’s score-settling memoirs, “Persona Non Grata.” (1981) and “Chess Is My Life” (2004).
Korchnoi, who was born in Leningrad to a Jewish mother and a Polish-Catholic father, defected to the West in 1974. The Soviets took revenge by not allowing his wife and son to leave the USSR, eventually imprisoning his son. In addition to this hostage-taking strategy as a way to intimidate Korchnoi, the team of Anatoly Karpov included a hypnotist known as Dr. Zukhar who was charged to do his stuff while the defector tried to focus on the chess board. As a riposte in the hall, Korchnoi placed two meditating gurus from the Ananda Márga movement, a so-called “Path of Bliss” founded in India with the goals of “liberation of self and service to humanity.” As W. R. Hartston’s account of the match explains, Ananda Marga was a decidedly anti-Communist organization, but what unnerved Karpov and his apparatchiks even more was that two of Korchnoi’s guru friends were temporarily on bail, accused of attempted murder. Despite this and other gambits — mirrored glasses worn by the usually spectacleless Korchnoi were another — Karpov, termed by his adversary an “angel of death… with the face of a successful murderer,” won the match.
This melee set the tone for Korchnoi’s reputation for mental toughness and ferocity, willing to take on the whole Evil Empire in the span of a single chessboard. A book he later co-wrote, “The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police and the Fight for the World Chess Crown,” went into detail about struggles with a Russia still familiar in our day for its gangsters, kleptocracy and cold-bloodedness. Even before this epic confrontation, at a 1975 match in Odessa he battled the Soviet Armenian Grandmaster Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, who apparently suffered from restless leg syndrome. As Petrosian’s trembling limbs jarred the table, rumor — officially denied by Korchnoi — had it that the two opponents were savagely kicking each other while playing.
Although Korchnoi never became world champion, the somewhat bittersweet compliment of being termed the strongest player never to achieve that status haunted him. Korchnoi felt that instead of the stress of being world No. 1, he would enjoy extraordinary longevity as a competitive player. In 2007, at age 75, he still ranked No. 85 in the world, much the oldest chess player ever to rank in the top 100. That year the second-oldest player on the list was a venerable 53-year-old. Anyone who knows the mental toughness and agility, relentless aggression, passion for winning, and hatred for losing that make up a chess player will understand what this achievement means. At an age when his contemporaries might go mall-walking to get some aerobic exercise, Korchnoi was still strolling along tables at simultaneous exhibitions, playing dozens of opponents at a time. In 2009 he was the oldest player to win a national championship anywhere, triumphing for his adoptive country of Switzerland. Two years later he bested an up-and-coming 18-year-old American grandmaster, Fabiano Caruana, earning himself the moniker of the “Methuselah of chess.”
Part of the reason for this unyielding endurance was his counterintuitive approach, expressed in many interviews. He would repeatedly opine that unlike most of his colleagues, he did not consider Bobby Fischer to be the greatest chess player ever, in part because Korchnoi won as many games as he had lost against Fischer. Instead he opted for Garry Kasparov (born Garik Kimovich Weinstein) as the greatest, even if Kasparov would later put chess aside in favor of anti-Putin politics.
In 2006, Korchnoi told the interviewer Alexander Kentler that in his view, neither Alexander Alekhine, who was a notorious anti-Semite nor Emanuel Lasker, a German Jewish champion whose longevity would inspire some to liken Korchnoi to him, was a genius. They were “simply talented people, who toiled their way to the world top players by will-power and working ability.” He added, “Chess is like a contagion, it’s difficult to recover.” Korchnoi concluded by referring to the Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” which claimed there are chess players of “two types: Some will climb the heights due to huge chess intelligence, while the others will do this due to its absence.”
No such void was present in Korchnoi’s mind as he trained like a heavyweight boxer for matches by jogging, swimming, playing table tennis, and temporarily forgoing cigarettes and a weakness for Grand Marnier. As Kasparov would post on Facebook about his eminent elder, Korchnoi was a “man who enjoyed picking fights, not dodging them! And if he could antagonize the hated chess authorities of the USSR and Karpov in the process, more the better… Viktor Korchnoi loved chess like no one else before or since, and chess was lucky to have him for so long.” The English grandmaster Nigel Short put it another, equally heartfelt, way in a tweet: “Farewell…- a cantankerous old git, but a true chess great nevertheless.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.