Monday, June 20, 2016

Korchnoi chess is my life

Few grandmasters have played more games than Korchnoi - I find in Chessbase Mega 2016 more than 5000 games. The database consists of about 5 million registered games so Korchnoi was in 1/1000 involved and probably in 1/200 as participant/ spectator in a tournament. If we look to only grandmastergames then the footprint of Korchnoi is even many times bigger.

He played against Levenfish (°1889) and against Carlsen (°1990), he won against all the worldchampions from Botvinnik till Kasparov at least one game - against Tal he had an enormous plusscore, however against Karpov he had a terrible minusscore. He lived to play chess, with an intensity which can't be found by other grandmasters. His gruffness, his stubbornness, his hate against the Sovjet-Union, his youth in the heavily besieged and famished Leningrad during WWII, his unexpected explosions but also his unexpected humor, his clear analysis on and off the board, his anecdotes from his excellent memory. We shall miss it. One of the greatest players has died and just like the recently deceased Mohammed Ali or Johan Cruijff, we should be happy to have them still seen at work during our lives.

I met Korchnoi twice live - this was during the Lost Boys tournament in Antwerp 1995 (won by Novikov and Sokolov ; Korchnoi was shared third with 5 other players.). The first time was the most memorable. He played in the third round a game against the strong Dutch Teun Van der Vorm and I was just watching at his board together with 5 other spectators when Van der Vorm resigned. Korchnoi didn't look happy and it quickly became clear why: ‘If I come up to the board, you should stand up to shake my hand. Not because I’m a grandmaster – also for that – but because I’m older and out of respect for my age you should stand up.’ Van der Vorm kept his mouth wisely but Victor the Terrible continued. ‘You play this game against my French and then you deviate from a game of Fischer. Why do you do that – do you think you’re better than Fischer ?’ Van der Vorm stammered something like ‘it looked playable’ but Korchnoi was not in the mood for jokes so there was no analysis afterwards. The fact that I can still easily remember this, just shows which impression it made upon me - and probably even more on Van der Vorm.

The second time was less impressive, in the center of Antwerp, during the same tournament. I was waiting -together with Franky D- at the crossroad of the Huidevetterstraat and the Meir for the trafficlights, when I noticed Korchnoi on the other side. I crossed the road but was too shied to start a conversation so just mumbled ‘good evening Mr Korchnoi’.  I think he did hear something. Franky waited for him to start a short conversation with him. Pity that smartphones didn't exist at that time.

On twitter a nice reaction of Svidler was posted, in which he stated than an insult by Korchnoi was a kind of honour (this remembered me Donner, as Dutch players you only played a role when Donner noticed you and ... scoffed at you - ‘Krabbé ? A cycler!’) – and if he became angry, then it was because you got him agitated. Noting more could annoy him than a lack of respect or a loss. Svidler won their first mutual game because Korchnoi kept playing for a win despite the equalizing play of Svidler, but Korchnoi destroyed him in their second game. He thought for an hour upon a forced continuation - Svider couldn't find the win for Korchnoi, but after that hour of reflection he was defeated quickly in a strong sequence of moves. When Svidler congratulated him after the game with the words « I always appreciate a well played game, even against me» Korchnoi relaxed. Both games are really nice to be replayed.

As metioned on Chessbase, his wife Petra stays behind alone – a soulmate, as she also experienced the black side of the communisme. When she met him the first time, she knew that they were matching - Korchnoi needed her, first as a secretary, later as wife and anchor. Korchnoi lived only for chess and that is literally. He didn't read romans or other books, he seldom or never went to cultural or sportive happenings. His biggest pleasure -after giving up smoking - was to enjoy a good piece of chocolate. He regretted the gap of culture; e.g he never read the Russian classical authors but his choice was made: everything for chess - no compromise.

I have one book of Korchnoi (PracticalRook Endgames) – the endgames are very deeply analyzed (Hubners style) but are very instructive. Somebody interested in how world-classplayers analyze - recommended (see e.g. chessgames or chesscafe for a review), even if it was only for the excellent introduction to elementary rookendgames.

Did Korchnoi play impressive games to be stored as heritage? Yes Any wins of Korchnoi in collections of best played or most memorable games? No In the little book « Legendäre Schachpartien » of Humboldt, there are more than 100 memorable games. 2 of them are losses by Korchnoi, no wins are included. If we compare then Tal is mentioned 6 times, Kasparov 8 times. Also in other collections we see very few wins of Korchnoi ( in Bouwmeesters 100 brilliant games there are surprisingly still 2: Korchnoi-Udovcic, Leningrad 1967, in which he has to fight against his French defense and the latte middlegame of Korchnoi-Yusupov, Rotterdam 1988). Korchnoi was not brilliant, he liked defending and counterattack, but as Spassky sneakily formulated: « He can play anything, from attack to defense, from complex middlegames to technical endgames. He masters his openingtheory and posses an unbelievable strength to work. It is only a pity that he didn't have the talent to become worldchampion. » That hits the nail on its head. Just like Kamsky years later, Korchnoi also missed that last sparkel of creativity, dare, talent, luck, readiness to take risks, ingeniousness, - call it like you want - to jump over the last hurdle. Often he introduced a novelty on the board, which already was tried 50 years ago, because ‘everything that is forgotten is new (again)’.

My personal selection of Korchnoi games is therefore Van der Vorm – Korchnoi (Fischer-Darga).

and Karpov-Korchnoi from the tournament of Dortmund 1994, in which they both scored 50%.

The last game was one of the rare wins of Korchnoi over Karpov. After their second worldchampionship in 1981 they still met each other 32 times. But something was broken for Korchnoi. Karpov had solved the code and became his nemesis. Of the 32 games, Karpov won 16 times (!), they made 15 draws and only once Karpov lost. But that one game must have made Korchnoi very happy for week or so. It was also a very special game: In an equal position Korchnoi permits Karpov to get a second queen, but that is immediately the losing move. Although the game still lasts more than 10 moves, Korchnoi doesn't blink anymore and wins. After the game Korchnoi commented " one way or another the board is too small for 2 queens».


Tuesday, June 14, 2016


The strong British grandmaster Matthew Sadler doesn't really fit in today's routines of professional chess. As (sub-) worldclass-player he stopped playing in 2000 and chose a normal civilian life. Only in 2010 he found back his love for chess not by accident after his divorce. The rust quickly disappeared and today at age 42 he has a peakrating of 2670. Not surprisingly we find back this unusual career also in his style of play. Creativity and originality are omnipresent in his games. Experiments with dubious openings happen regularly. You will seldom see big theoretical battles.

A couple of months ago a new book Chess for Life was presented by this intriguing player so obviously I got curious. It wasn't an ordinary concept as by a number of interviews and analysis they explained how chess-skills develop or are maintained over the years. So it is not the usual technical book but rather an interesting psychological look at how some people keep playing strong chess.
The chapters were very varied even to such degree that it looked like a potpourri. There is much entertaining/ interesting stuff to discover but I couldn't find a common thread through the book. Unless maybe that active players consider winning still very important later in their career. Age seems not to matter really as the game is in the first place played to defeat the opponent. At the same time this also can give an explanation why so many players quit. Or winning is not so addictive anymore or it just becomes too difficult to keep on winning more games. The recently passed away legend Viktor Korchnoi was naturally the identification of an insatiable fighting spirit. I even read in 1 of the more unique obituaries on schaaksite that at the age of 73 he still hoped to increase his rating above 2650.

I was slightly disappointed to read that winning was of such importance for older players. I had hoped for other aspects of the game getting more attention in the book. Instead we get an overview of different techniques of how to stay successful in chess despite aging. Some players are even more ambitious. What can you do to make still progression and achieve a higher peakrating despite being not so young anymore?

Of course it matters a lot when we talk about a comeback or not. In the book the English FM Terry Chapman explains how he achieved at the age of 57 the FM-titel after 5 years of study. Closer we have our own even more powerful comeback of strong Jan. He achieved the IM-title at the age of 67. Also he spent an enormous amount of effort to improve his level.

Players having already a long active career, will get it of course much more difficult to find a way to increase their rating. There is not only less margin to study more but old (bad) habits are very hard to change. A recent exception is the natural Granda Zuniga (not long ago already popping up in my article extra sweet). On there was recently an article published in which he was congratulated with his new peakrating of 2699 at the age of 49. It is no surprise that in a recent interview he admit to work today in a much more structured way.

A great performance but maybe even more stunning is what our Belgian grandmaster Luc Winants achieved a few months ago. Not only he reconquered the first ranking upon young grandmasters such as Bart Michiels and Tanguy Ringoir but at the age of 53 he also managed to raise his peakrating till 2574 elo (fide). Luc pumped up his rating quietly with some solid victories. An example you can find in below technical clean game against the very experienced Russian grandmaster Vyacheslav Ikonnikov.

Beating weaker players won't let you win many points but if you do it regularly then it still helps to improve the rating. A few years ago I didn't stand a chance in my game against Luc in the Belgian interclubs.

I don't know Luc personally so I can only guess how much he worked at chess. I am curious if he developed new techniques or adopted new methods. It is a pity that there hasn't been more publicity about this unique performance. Schaakfabriek doesn't bring much news anymore today.


Thursday, June 2, 2016


Garry Kasparov played a huge number of fantastic games in his active career but maybe the series he published about himself and the former worldchampions will become his most important heritage. It hits me how often contemporary literature refers to these books. It looks like every serious chessplayer read the books.

The most recent one of the series which I read covered, as the title already reveals, Fischer. However Kasparov doesn't only talk about the 11th worldchampion. Reshevsky, Larsen and Najdorf are also getting their chapter which I liked very much. Unfortunately this meant that only half of the book remained for Fischer. On top Kasparov spends a considerable amount of space on Fischers weird behavior off the board which further shrinks the technical part of chess. I counted in total only 59 games of Fischer (some of them only partly).

About maybe the greatest player ever, I expected much more stuff. Was it Kasparovs ego that forbids him to praise Fischer? He surely would never admit that Fischer was stronger. After having finished the book I felt that I didn't get the right picture about Fischers strength. Besides it is not the first time that I search a supplementary book of a former-woldchampion after reading My Great Predecessors. I have read about Tal also the excellent book The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal.

About Fischer many books appeared but which one is the most appropriate for me? Naturally it depends what you want to find in a book. The book The Career and Complete Games of Fischer by Karsten Muller is doubtless the most complete collection of Fischer's games with more than 700. However the analytical part isn't very appealing as I see little difference with a database. The book My 60 memorable games door Robert Fischer is technically much better but has a big disadvantage that it stops in 1967. We all know that his best years were just after. An addition or follow-up never happened. Fischer was not anymore interested.

Being slightly lost, I consulted the biggest Fischer-expert in Belgium: Robert Schuermans. I explained him that I was searching a book with a large collection of Fischers games spanning his career but also well analyzed. Old analysis supported by contemporary engines are considered a plus. Anecdotes and side information improve the readability so should neither be neglected. Robert thought for a while but had to disappoint me. The book I wanted, must still be written. A real pity so I asked him which book he liked the most about Fischer. This time Robert didn't hesitate as "My 60 memorable games" is the uncontested number 1 for him.

So I bought this book in de denksportkampioen. I wasn't disappointed. The book is not only very enjoyable to read but it also includes many excellent analysis of the worldchampion himself. This is rare as in that era there were no engines playing decent chess. As Fischer played almost exclusively 1.e4, I became curious of any overlaps with my repertoire. Besides I don't follow any fashion and often play some old lines.

In 5 a 6 games I was lucky to discover Fischer's opinion about openings I also play. The book discuss the game of 62 against Keres which was part of my article old wine in new skins. The most intriguing game from theoretical perspective was for me his Sicilian game of 61 against Reshevsky. The last time I played the classical Sicilian Dragon with Be3 already dates from 1999 when I suffered a scornful defeat against Marcel Van Herck.

I didn't find any improvements for white so I replaced Be3 by Bg5. Fischer however claims in his book that white can create chances without playing 0-0. His analysis looked very convincing so I became interested to find out what our current top-engines tell us about that idea. To revive an old opening, can be useful in practice.

It was no big surprise to discover the engines didn't approve Fischers idea. The score of white in the online openingbook already hinted this. Fischer neither repeated the idea.

Such excursions once again confirm the gigantic gap in openings between the past and modern chess of today. The large part of the openings which were popular decades ago, have been reduced to footnotes in the theory which can only be used as a surprise on masterlevel. So from pure theoretical perspective you better read new books. Anyway these books I read primarily for the historical aspect.

Till today Fischer is a recurring topic in debates. An ultimate collection of his best games well analyzed and bundled in a new book doesn't sound to me useless. For sure we need to start with the 60 memorable games which Fischer chose. Fischer died in 2008 in Reykjavik so likely it is today easier juridical to reuse his work as base. Who (preferable a very strong player) dares as this will be a very big job while there is no guarantee about the return? No Kasparov already had his chance.