SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
There are so many interesting, instructive and nicely-done chess websites out there worthy of exploring that it makes one regret that there are only 24 hours in one day. One that should definitely be one everyone’s list is the site ”Chess in Translation”. Apart from great analysis of key games–often appearing the same day as when they are played (!)–the site also offers a wide selection of interesting interviews that allow the reader to fathom the minds of chess players, both great and almost great.
Last week the legendary Viktor Korchnoi turned 80 and most of the online chess world paid tribute to this milestone. Chess in Translation ,a day after Viktor’s birthday, published an interesting interview with a colleague and former coach of the legend–GM Evgeny Vasiukov–that I found insightful. Vasiukov touched numerous topics–including Bobby Fischer’s 1958 visit to Moscow–but concentrated on Viktor Korchnoi. The interview was originally done in Russian by Evgeny Surov. Below are excerpts.
GM Evgeny Vasiukov (born 1933) is one of my favourite players from the magnificent generation that started to blossom in the years immediately following the II World War and dominated chess until the 1980’s. A ferocious attacker, Vasiukov won the Moscow Championship not less than 6 times (!); he defeated many world champions in tournament play and won a number of very high level international tournaments. However, his results were never consistent enough to reach the world stage as others such as Tal, Spassky and Korchnoi did. To be honest, perhaps he was not quite as strong as them…
You were also Korchnoi’s coach?
Yes, at the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse. That’s remembered by all chess fans for the fact that Bobby Fischer withdrew while leading the tournament. There’ve been all kinds of judgements and interesting arguments about that. Fischer withdrew from the tournament after a dispute with the organizers. At the time he was in the lead with 7 wins and 3 draws (8.5 from 10 games) It created a great controversy at the time. The following cycle some compromise was made to accomadate Fischer, and he actually went on and won the World Championship in the historic Iceland match in 1972.The older generation of chess players was even familiar with the bulletin that was published at the tournament, and I was the one writing each day about what went on there – as Korchnoi’s second I was in the thick of events. It was very interesting, unusual, and it left a certain trace in chess history. And Fischer himself, of course, was an amazing and out-of-the-ordinary figure. I had the opportunity to spend time with him on more than one occasion. The first time was in Moscow, when he arrived and was supposed to play two training matches (not many people know about that). The American Chess Federation approached our Soviet one, and two people were supposed to play training matches against Fischer. Those were Boris Spassky, our youngest grandmaster, the World Junior Champion, and the World Student Team Champion (at the time those events were rated very highly after the Olympiads). The second person who was supposed to play Fischer was me. I was the Moscow Champion at the time, and a two-time World Student Champion.Fischer playing Petrosian. Vasiukov is to the immediate left of Fischer (with glasses!) Notice the spectators! But on his arrival in Moscow, Fischer said that he only wanted to play Botvinnik. That made a lot of people smile, as Mikhail Moiseyevich stood on such a pedestal, and the idea that he would simply play a training game against someone (and an American at that) was inconceivable. For the two weeks that Fischer was in Moscow he played blitz from morning to night, and gave everyone an incredible battering. And then three people were invited, based on the results of the most recent “Vechernaya Moskva” blitz tournament, which was the unofficial Soviet Union blitz championship. They invited the three winners: Petrosian, who came third, Bronstein, who lost a match to me for first place, and myself.But David Ionovich [Bronstein], who had already played a World Championship match, said: sorry, but why should I play a kid? Tigran Vartanovich [Petrosian] and I arrived. We played in the grandmasters’ room, and Petrosian won by a small margin, while I literally crushed Fischer. From that point on whenever we met he always treated me with great respect. There were even situations… for example, the 85th birthday of Andor Lilienthal was being celebrated in Budapest, there were a lot of guests, including Taimanov and the editor of the magazine “64”, Roshal, – but Fischer didn’t want to meet with anyone, while he met me twice. For one of those encounters he invited me to dinner, and we dined together. As for Sousse, I was Korchnoi’s second there. To a certain degree that was unexpected, as during that period his permanent trainer was Semen Abramovich Furman. He was unwell at the time, however, and Korchnoi approached me to help him at the tournament. We’d had a normal relationship up to that point as well, but somehow it was strengthened there. Korchnoi was satisfied with the way things went. It struck me that he wasn’t very well prepared, but we did a lot of work, and often managed to come up with the right thing to play. As a result Korchnoi got into the Candidates Tournament. I was told that in the chess federation (and back then every performance would be carefully analysed at that level) he had a very high opinion of how I’d helped him.
After Sousse, Korchnoi went all the way to the finals, losing only to Boris Spassky.
There was another curious thing. To get to that tournament it was more convenient to drive to the airport from my house. It’s interesting that from that point onwards Korchnoi would, over the course of many years while he was living in the Soviet Union, call me before going to a tournament and ask, “would you mind if I spend the night at your house?” I’d say, “come round”.
So he was superstitious?
Yes, that showed at times.
Or, perhaps, he not only was, but still is superstitious?
I think so, yes. But that was particularly illustrative, you might say, because it continued over the course of many years. And I’ll say, getting ahead of myself, that when Korchnoi emigrated and then in his book, “Anti-Chess”, unfortunately portrayed many of his colleagues in far from the best light, the only one who he cast no stones against, was me. And I was asked at the time why that was. I think it was simply that the relationship we’d had until that point provided no impetus at all for a release of negative emotions.
And if they asked you that must have meant, no doubt, that there could have been reasons of some sort?
They were amazed, because almost all (in any case, most) of his colleagues… I’d say that Viktor Lvovich never appreciated his colleagues. For example, Tal, a brilliant, fascinating chess player. He called him something like “a routine attacker”. Words like that. That’s somehow just diminishing the perception of Tal.
To be fair, Tal was Korchnoi’s client! Between 1954 and 1970, Korchnoi had won 14 times and lost only twice! (draws not counting)
Interesting. And did you know any chess players who Korchnoi had a good opinion about?
[Long pause] It’s a little hard to reply off the top of my head… Among contemporaries, among those who were alongside him…
Yes, among those he played.
I can’t really remember anything in particular. From his very earliest days he had a very cautious and negative perception of many people. And it’s no accident than when he was still a young man people began to whisper: they called him “bad-tempered Viktor”. That was the name he had behind his back, among colleagues. “Bad-tempered Viktor”. I think something like that has to be earned… You don’t simply acquire such things. His instability is well-known…
I know that, all things considered, you’ve got a difficult relationship with him.
The thing is that he was far from the only one in those years who was invited to stay, to play for some other country. Many people nowadays, not knowing the ins and outs of the context, say, “ah, what a hero Korchnoi is”. I don’t agree with that position.
Few know that doing what he did he was, above all, trampling on his family. Tal told me that when Korchnoi’s wife and son were allowed to leave [the Soviet Union] (and his son had already been to prison before that), he didn’t even meet them. Instead they were met by his lawyer with a divorce letter.
And Tal once asked Korchnoi’s son, “Igor, what’s your relationship with your father like?” To which the son replied, “I don’t want to hear or speak about Mr. Korchnoi”. So there’s that side of life… Everyone talks only about the chess side, but life – it doesn’t end with chess. After all, we live among people, both those close to us, and distant…
To be fair, Korchnoi campaigned openly to have his family leave the Soviet Union. Here is Korchnoi in London 1982.
Of course, as a chess player he achieved a great deal. It was even difficult to imagine that he’d achieve all that. But a whole series of things went along with it. Why did he have such a negative impression of Karpov? When Fischer defaulted his World Title in 1975, Korchnoi’s chances of becoming Champion increased
Because when Fischer, at that moment the strongest player in the world, stopped playing, a certain vacuum was formed at the top. Spassky, Tal and Petrosian, who in terms of talent – I emphasise, in terms of chess talent – were far above Korchnoi, had already passed the peak of their achievements, and weren’t competing the way they’d competed before then.
Petrosian (foreground), Spassky and Korchnoi arriving in Havana in 1966
And Korchnoi, thanks to his single-mindedness, seemed to be if not the only, then one of the closest contenders out of all the rest for the chess crown. And that’s when Karpov unexpectedly appeared on the scene. Completely unexpected. If it wasn’t for that Korchnoi would have had chances.
Unfortunately for Korchnoi, Karpov appears – at the least convenient moment, when Korchnoi’s at the height of his game.
Yes. I was close to Tal, and Petrosian, and Spassky, and know Karpov very well, as I was his trainer for three matches. And I know Korchnoi very well. Of course, in terms of pure chess talent he’s inferior. Simply of a different magnitude. But in terms of sporting animosity he was, perhaps, superior to them all.
But surely sporting animosity alone isn’t enough to explain his success?
No, I’d say hard work, as well, of course. Without that it’s impossible. The combination of those qualities.
But you can see that in terms of playing longevity he has, of course, superseded everyone. It’s simply phenomenal for an 80-year-old to be still be playing and demonstrating a decent level.
That’s connected to other things. The point is that for his whole life he’s been egocentric. He strove for the goal he wanted to achieve at any cost. A whole series of people – again Petrosian, Karpov – they spent a lot of time on public activities. That demands a great deal of effort. I can tell you as I’ve also had some experience of it.
Korchnoi was (and probably still is!) the hardest working GM of his generation, constantly analyzing and looking for new ideas.
I spent eight years as the president of a veterans’ commission, and because of that I haven’t taken part in a lot of tournaments. Organisation, if you do it in good faith, demands a lot of time and effort. Korchnoi always only took care of himself, his own problems. Perhaps, in relation to himself, he was right.
But I think, it’s my credo, that a chess player at grandmaster level should nevertheless be a public figure as well. He should give lectures or simuls somewhere, or run something, coach a team… He should do something in a wider context. “For yourself”, on the other hand, is an ideal platform, very convenient. And, as they say, good luck to him, if he’s got such a possibility and goal.
What sort of relationship do you have with him now?
Almost none. I was surprised by what he did at the World Senior Championship, when he behaved incorrectly. But I don’t want to go into any detail about it – after all, it’s his birthday now, and I don’t want to… It’s no secret for anyone that the relations between Korchnoi and his colleagues away from the chessboard were far from unequivocal. I don’t understand those people who, not knowing many things connected to him, go, “hurrah, hurrah, how wonderful he is!”
Well, hurrah because they don’t know. It would be worse if they knew but pretended.
There’s a Latin saying: speak well of the dead, or not at all. But they forget there’s another saying: speak the truth about the dead. And I think it’s even more the case that you should also speak the truth about the living, because later biographies will appear where the person’s almost unrecognisable. Korchnoi is a good chess player, who achieved much more than his chess abilities promised. They were great, but not on the level of the players I talked about. Nevertheless, he played two World Championship matches.
Korchnoi played 2 Title matches with Karpov (1978 and 1981) He narrowly lost the former, but was outclassed in the latter.
So that’s what you single out as the main thing: his achievements don’t correspond, in your opinion, to the chess abilities he started out with?
Of course. Undoubtedly. Yes, and one more thing: he was teachable. He was teachable.
In 1978 in the Philippines, Korchnoi practiced yoga daily. He has always been careful with his health, something that not all of his competitors could say.
The ability to learn – that’s a very important thing.
Yes, yes. A documentary’s just been shown, where he says that Kasparov stopped playing at the age of 42, while he was still learning at 46. That really is true. He’s always got something to learn. What contrasts there were between the chess players of my generation! We’d talk about who Korchnoi was, and who Karpov was. With Karpov you won’t find a single piece on the board that’s badly placed, while with Korchnoi you might well find them. That’s because there are many things he doesn’t sense, he has no internal harmony. But as a fighter, as a sportsman, he overcomes that and achieves success.
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS