One of the most celebrated players in modern chess history, Viktor Korchnoi is often referred to as one of the strongest players never to win the World Chess Championship. Korchnoi played for the World Championship on multiple occasions, was a ten-time candidate for the title, and remains popular to this day as the oldest active grandmaster in the world.
Victor Korchnoi was born on March 23, 1931 in Leningrad, then part of the USSR – what is now St. Petersburg, Russia. He joined a chess club in the city at the age of 12, and rapidly improved, winning his first USSR Junior Championship in 1947. By the time he was 21, he was able to qualify to play in the overall USSR Championship, finishing 6th on his first entry into the prestigious event. By 1954, Korchnoi had earned the title of International Master, with the Grandmaster title coming along just two years later.
World Class Grandmaster
Korchnoi’s early career was marked by his inconsistency. But by the 1960s, it was clear that he would be a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, as he won his first USSR Championship in 1960. He would following that with three more national titles, winning again in 1962, 1964-5, and in 1970.
These wins unsurprisingly came along with wins in international events, where Soviet players (along with a handful of Western opponents) dominated the scene. After winning the Maroczy Memorial in 1961, Korchnoi was acknowledged as one of the world’s best, and he was first able to qualify as a candidate for the World Chess Championship in 1962.
Korchnoi would become a regular in Candidates’ tournaments and matches over the next few decades. He came up short by losing to Boris Spassky in the 1968 Candidates’ final, and lost in the semifinals in 1971 to Tigran Petrosian – a match some say was fixed before hand between the two Soviet grandmasters, after determining who they felt would have a better chance to defeat Bobby Fischer.
In this period, Korchnoi was also a stalwart for the USSR Olympiad team, playing with them on six occasions. The team would win the gold medals each time, with Korchnoi picking up five individual medals as well.
World Championship Matches
Korchnoi made it to the Candidates’ Final once again in 1975, where he would face the rising star Anatoly Karpov. Although the players may not have realized it at the time, the match was a de facto battle for the World Championship, as Bobby Fischer would choose not to defend his title. Korchnoi fell behind early, but rallied back to make it a tight match with two late wins. Unfortunately, it was not quite enough, and Karpov held on to win 12.5-11.5.
That would be the first of several epic championship encounters between the two superstars of the Soviet chess school. But first, Korchnoi would make a critical decision, choosing to defect from the Soviet Union. In a 1976 tournament in Amsterdam, Korchnoi made his intentions clear to grandmaster Tony Miles. It was a difficult decision for Korchnoi, as he was forced to leave his wife and son behind in the USSR (both his wife and son would later leave the USSR as well, though he and his wife divorced). Korchnoi would eventually settle in Switzerland.
While the political drama may have overshadowed chess for some time, Korchnoi proved he still had plenty of focus on the board by defeating Spassky in the candidates final and qualifying to challenge Karpov again in 1978. The match was to be played until someone scored six wins, and Karpov jumped out to quite the early lead, taking leads of 4-1 and then 5-2 after 27 games. But Korchnoi proved resilient, winning three of the next four games to tie the match at five wins apiece after 31 games. In the 32nd game, though, Karpov achieved the 6th win he needed, retaining the World Chess Championship.
Korchnoi’s final appearance in a World Championship match came in 1981. After defeating Tigran Petrosian and Lev Polugaevsky in the first two Candidates matches, he held a 4.5-3.5 lead over Robert Hubner in the final before Hubner withdraw from the match. That put Korchnoi in the position once again to take on Karpov. This time around, however, the match was rather one-sided. Karpov achieved the necessary six wins in just 18 games, taking the match by a 6-2 score.
Korchnoi was still considered a serious player in the World Championship battle in 1984, but was defeated by the rising Garry Kasparov. He would appear in three more Candidates’ tournaments, but was unable to seriously contend for the title, never coming close to reaching the final match again.
But Korchnoi’s legendary status was not diminished even later in his career. As late as the year 2000, Korchnoi was still ranked among the top 30 players in the world, and even through 2007, he remained in the top 100 at the incredible age of 75 – more than two decades older than anyone else in that group. To this day, he has remained a dangerous opponent, beating younger and higher rated grandmasters on occasion even into his 80s. In 2006, Korchnoi won the World Senior Chess Championship, giving him his only world championship title. He also won the 2009 Swiss National Championship.