Legends of chess

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Unpolished diamond Viktor Kortschnoi
Memories about GM Viktor Kortschnoi from GM Artur Jussupow
As told to Karel van Delft on March 3, 2023

"Viktor the Terrible"
Artur Jussupow has a lot of good memories of Viktor Kortschnoi. The first one that comes to mind is when Kortschnoi defected from the USSR in 1976 during a tournament in the Netherlands. The main reason was probably that he was severely limited in what he could do, while Karpov received all kinds of support from the government.

At the same time Jussupow was playing in a tournament in the Russian city Novosibirsk. The director of a local cinema decided to present the movie ‘Grandmaster’. The film tells about the emotional chess player Sergey Khlebnikov, who does not play for the sake of victory. Viktor Kortschnoi played a role in this film as second of the hero. ‘There were a lot of funny conversations between the Grandmaster and second Kortschnoi. Everybody wanted to see the film. Who knows, maybe it was the last time we could see him’, Jussupow laughs.

In 1975 Kortschnoi made a big impression on Jussupow, who as a fifteen year old boy played him in a simul. It was a traditional simul Grandmasters against Pioneers, where Jussupow played him for the team of Moscow. ‘Kortschnoi was from St. Petersburg and our leader was GM Yuri Averbach.’ He also played GM Anatoli Karpov there, whom he defeated. ‘But Kortschnoi made the biggest impression. First of all he trapped me in some tactical trick in the Catalan Defence, which cost me the exchange. But in the endgame it became more complicated.’ After 40 moves had been played, Kortschnoi and Averbach, the team captains, had to jointly determine the results of the unfinished games.   ‘What happened was really surprising. Kortschnoi came to my board, sat down and started thinking over the position for half an hour. Then he said: yes it is winning, I see the plan. Of course he could have just said he was an exchange up, so winning, and that would be that. But he wasn’t interested in the result, he was interested in the position and looking for an objective evaluation.’ This was a big lesson, Jussupow says, about his genuine professional attitude. ‘What happens on the board matters, the truth of the position. He showed this by his attitude.’

Kortschnoi played and lost to Karpov in the final of a candidate match. Jussupow attended about half of the games. The government was pro Karpov and Kortschnoi suffered from opposition by the sport officials. ‘I think only David Bronstein and Mark Dvoretsky dared to cooperate with him.’ Later Kortschnoi also lost two world championship matches against Karpov, when an entire brigade of leading Soviet grandmasters worked for the world champion.
After Kortschnoi left, it was difficult for people in Russia to see his games. In 1978 he wrote the book ‘Chess is my life’. The book was forbidden by the government, but it was very popular, everybody wanted to read it, Jussupow tells. ‘People liked his fighting style, he produced interesting material.’
On another occasion, going home from a tournament in Batumi, a lot of chess players were in the same plane. ‘I happened to sit next Kortschnoi. He said he liked my drawn game against GM Smbat Lputian and asked me to show it during the flight. And Kortschnoi found a way to get a great advantage! Although he was much older, after the tournament I was more tired than he. He had so much energy.’

Kortschnoi lived from 1978 in Switzerland. Jussupow gave some years training to the national team and other strong players. It was maybe 2008 he heard Kortschnoi had said he wanted to attend the lessons in the training of the national team. ‘I was, of course, a bit nervous before the training camp, the idea I could teach something to Kortschnoi, that was not from this world. But what could I do? He was entitled.’ Kortschnoi appeared to be a perfect student, Jussupow recalls. ‘He enjoyed it, he was very happy after solving a complicated endgame study which I had given as a calculation exercise.’ Kortschnoi attended more trainings and always did what he was asked. ‘First most participants were a bit stressed because of his attendance, but later this went much better. Kortschnoi also invited them to discuss with him.’
‘We had a very respectful relationship', Jussupow says about Kortschnoi. ‘He probably forgot, but our first meeting in the youth simul made a huge impression on me. In 1983 or 1984 we played a great game in Lone Pine in the USA. Somehow the political situation changed. I was young and wasn’t too much involved in political discussions. But it happened to be the first tournament in which the Russians stopped boycotting Kortschnoi.’ Kortschnoi and Jussupow were paired to play each other in the tournament. ‘He was extremely correct. He smoked, which was allowed, but he did it not at the board, not to disturb me as an opponent. He really outplayed me, it was probably one of the best games in his life.’ Later they played in Sarajevo, also then the experience was very positive. ‘But we weren’t too close, probably a matter of an age gap.’

Was Kortschnoi always that correct to other people? Jussupow smiles. ‘Oh, there are a lot of stories. Jussupow tells about a game in Switzerland. Kortschnoi played a winning game against an IM, who did not resign. Kortschnoi leaned forward and said ‘you know I am a grandmaster’. There are more stories. ‘Especially if he lost he expressed a strong opinion about the bad play of his opponent.
In Saarbrucken, Germany, at the end of the nineties Jussupow and Kortschnoi played in a ‘Janus tournament’ (the Janus is a combination of bishop and knight). Kortschnoi won a piece against an amateur in a rapid Janus game, but the guy refused to resign. Kortschnoi was not happy with that behaviour and started to give him a lecture. ‘Then he came to me, saying he was stupid to do so, because they would have to play a blitz game. Kortschnoi was realizing he was only motivating his opponent by his criticism, and rightly so because he was crushed in the blitz game.’
Not accepting losses was part of the character of Kortschnoi. He was very emotional. ‘Kortschnoi needed a hostile atmosphere before the game to perform at his best. If he was dissatisfied with the course of the game, he could be rude to his opponent. But he never did it to me, even when he once blundered terribly to me. He just said that earlier in the game he had a good position, but he did not want to analyse. He was clearly very upset.’ But the next day Kortschnoi came to Jussupow and said ‘you played classical chess and I couldn’t refute it.’
Jussupow refers to ‘veterans against youth’ tournaments of Joop van Oosterom in Amsterdam. Kortschnoi was very correct to youth players like Daniël Stellwagen and Erwin l’Ami. When Kortschnoi lost in the last round against l’Ami he invited him to analyse the game. Afterwards L’Ami asked Jussupow why he didn’t got his expected ‘portion of insult’. Jussupow answered: ‘You know, it looks like you really played a good game.

At a certain moment in his career Kortschnoi tried to change his playing style. First he was more materialistic: get material advantage and stick to that. But he always was very critical to his own play.
In one of his books Kortschnoi tells how in St. Petersburg he refused cooperation with trainer GM Alexander Tolush, a very attacking player. Later when he saw, how much progress his rival Boris Spassky made due to his work with the old grandmaster, he realized he had made a mistake. ‘Kortschnoi was an unpolished diamond. When he would have been less stubborn, he could have learned more from other people. His character sometimes stood in between.’
‘Seventy years playing and decades on the highest level, that’s great. A unique man. He brought great inspiration with him.’ To repeat what he played for years, wasn’t interesting for Kortschnoi. ‘He was always trying to move forwards and looking to find and create something new.’