Viktor Korchnoi: The Best to Never Become World Champion?

Viktor Korchnoi

Chess grandmaster and writer Viktor Korchnoi may be the strongest ever chess player to have never been titled World Chess Champion.

However, he still holds an impressive list of accolades to his name. He was a candidate for the World Championship on ten occasions and became USSR chess champion four times. Korchnoi was also on the winning team of the European championship four times, and on six occasions his team won the Chess Olympiad.

Playing competitive chess into old age, Viktor Korchnoi even became the oldest person ever to be ranked among the world’s top 100 players.

So let’s find out how he came to earn the nickname ‘Viktor the Terrible”, both on and off the chess board…

Viktor Korchnoi

The Early Life of Viktor Korchnoi

Viktor Korchnoi was born on the 23rd March 1931 in Leningrad. His mother was a talented pianist and his father was an engineer, and they had moved to the USSR from Ukraine 3 years previously. It was Korchnoi’s father who first taught him how to play chess, from the age of five years old.

Unfortunately Korchnoi’s parents ended up divorced and he was moved around a lot, living with his mother until 1935, then with his father and paternal grandmother, and was later adopted after his father was killed during the siege of Leningrad.

Despite all this upheaval in his early life, Viktor Korchnoi went on to graduate from Leningrad State University with a major in history.

Viktor Korchnoi

The Chess Career of Viktor Korchnoi

Viktor Korchnoi was trained by Abram Model, Andrei Batuyev, and Vladimir Zak at the chess club of the Leningrad Pioneer Palace. In 1947, and then again in 1948, he won the Junior Championship of the USSR. He took part in the 1950 Leningrad Championship, and ended up with an impressive second place finish.

In 1951, Korchnoi earned the title of Soviet Master, when he was a young 20 years old. The following year he qualified for the USSR Chess Championship for the first time. He ended his first attempt in this tournament in sixth place. The following year he qualified for the finale again and improved on this score to finish in the shared 2nd/3rd position.

Due to this high ranking finish, Viktor Korchnoi was offered his first international opportunity in Bucharest, Romania. After he finished in an outright first place, Korchnoi was awarded the title of International Master by FIDE.

Two more international success followed this. Viktor won the 1955 Leningrad Championship with an impressive score of 17/19, and then went on to share 1st and 2nd places at Hastings 1955–56. this led to him being awarded the Grandmaster title in 1956 by the FIDE Congress.

By this time Viktor was beginning to get a name for himself in the world of chess. His individual playing style began to become apparent as he became known for his aggressive counterattack, excelling in difficult defensive positions. Although his results weren’t always the most consistent, suffering a few spectacular losses during the 1950s, he was ruthless and never to be overlooked.

Viktor Korchnoi earned his first international team selection for the Soviet student team in 1954, and went on to join the full national team for the European Team Championship three years later. He represented the USSR for 20 years through to 1974, winning 21 medals in total.

During the 1960s Korchnoi gained more experience at the top level, and his playing style became more versatile. He soon became recognised as one of the best players in the world.

Korchnoi’s first Candidates tournament was at Curacao in 1962, for the right to challenge World Champion GM Mikhail Botvinnik. Although he played some of his best ever games in this tournament, he only finished in 5th place.

Korchnoi dominated the 1964-65 Soviet Championship, losing none of his 19 contests and winning by two points over GM David Bronstein. Unfortunately though, he didn’t qualify for the 1965 Interzonal and therefore missed out on the Candidates. This was the last time he failed in his attempts to qualify, and he came back stronger than ever in 1967 and advanced to his second Candidates tournament. He had more success this time around but eventually lost in the final to Boris Spassky.

Viktor Korchnoi

Throughout his career, Viktor Korchnoi played in 10 Candidates tournaments, spread over nearly 30 years from 1962-91. Although he did win two of them, he never became champion.

The 1974 Candidates final has often been regarded as Korchnoi’s first great chance at becoming world champion. It came years before he was in with a chance again, and the years in-between were filled with drama away from the chess board.

In the lead up to the 1974 Candidates, a vicious campaign to promote Karpov over Korchnoi led Viktor to decide it was time to leave the Soviet Union. After winning a tournament at Amsterdam in 1976, Korchnoi did not return home. The central authorities responded by preventing Korchnoi from playing any international tournaments outside the USSR.

“When I defected it was because of chess, not politics. I wanted to be a free person. Freedom is my essential stance.”

Viktor Korchnoi, speaking retrospectively in 2009 about his deflection.

This decision led to a period of time where Viktor Korchnoi had no home nation, until he became a citizen of Switzerland in 1980. And yet there were still chess matches to be played.

He was allowed to resume playing international chess after Anatoly Karpov had inherited the World Champion title from Bobby Fischer, even though he had never played him. So Korchnoi was allowed to play the 1976 Amsterdam tournament, as a means to prove Karpov was a worthy World Champion.

At this time Korchnoi was hoping to become the first stateless World Champion, and although he came close, it wasn’t to be. He played and lost two World Championship matches against Karpov, before his personal life took him away from the chess board again.

Viktor Korchnoi’s wife and son had been denied emigration alongside him, and were still stuck in the Soviet Union. In 1980, his son had been promised release to join his father in exile if he gave up his passport. But when he did so, he was promptly drafted into the Soviet army. When he attempted to evading army service, he was sentenced to two and a half years in a labour camp. After he served this sentence, he was released in 1982 and Korchnoi’s family was finally able to join him.

Viktor Korchnoi

Viktor Korchnoi’s Later Life

Although some may say that from the 80’s onwards Viktor Korchnoi never reached the same level of playing greatness again, he still had many marks to make in the world of chess.

He won three Swiss championships in the 1980s, and then won twice more over the next 20 years in 2009 and 2011. These latter two came when Viktor was 78 and 80 years old respectively, at an age when many players would have been retired for multiple decades.

Viktor Korchnoi was also victorious in the Senior World Championship in 2006. The minimum age for entry was 60, and he far surpassed this at the age of 75. Despite his seniority, Viktor’s faculties were still perfectly strong. He didn’t lose any of his 11 games!

In 2011, the year he turned 80, Korchnoi won his final Swiss championship. He was more active this year than a number of competitive players half his age, also playing in Tradewise Gibraltar, the senior division of the Botvinnik Memorial, the European Club Cup, and the European Team Championship.

Viktor Korchnoi sadly died at the age of 85 on the 6th June 2016 in the Swiss city of Wohlen.

Quick Facts

  • Although Viktor Korchnoi may never have become the world champion, he still won against four of them (Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky and Magnus Carlsen) and was drew against two (Mikhail Botvinnik and Bobby Fischer).
  • He is the only player to have won or drawn against every World Chess Champion since the world chess championship interregnum of World War II.
  • Korchnoi was considered a late bloomer by the standards of his day, not playing in a Candidates until he was 29 years old.
  • Throughout his impressive 70 year long career, Viktor was widely admired despite his cantankerous personality.
  • Viktor Korchnoi at times displayed his temper after losing games by sweeping all the pieces off the board.
  • Korchnoi’s 1976 defection is thought to have inspired in part the plot of the 1986 musical Chess.