Lessons from Viktor Kortchnoi

I would have almost forgotten about it if Genna Sosonko had not mentioned it in his recent beautiful book, Evil-Doer, about Viktor Kortchnoi. It was in April 1979 when Viktor Baturinsky, the boss of Soviet chess, gave a press conference in Amsterdam to explain that the boycott of Viktor Kortchnoi was not instigated by the Soviet Chess Federation, but was a free choice of the individual grandmasters, because all of them hated the traitor Kortchnoi so much that they did not want to play with him in a tournament.

Kortchnoi used to call Baturinsky the dark colonel and not without reason, because he was indeed a colonel and had demanded and obtained death sentences in a previous career as a military prosecutor.

In 1976, Kortchnoi had applied for political asylum in Amsterdam. In 1978, he had lost a close match against Anatoly Karpov in the Philippines. While he had been participating in candidates’ matches for the world championship, he could not be boycotted by the Soviets, as they would eliminate their own players that way, but after his loss to Karpov, he was banned. In tournaments to which he was invited, players from the Soviet Union would not participate.

At the press conference in Amsterdam, there was a politely restrained chuckle from the Western journalists when Baturinsky said that his federation had nothing to do with the boycott.

I had the privilege to ask the last question. I had been Viktor’s second during his candidates’ match against Tigran Petrosian in Italy in 1977, and I had come to like and admire him and I was thankful for the lessons he had taught: Analyze to the end, always. Don’t take refuge in easy formulas like “this seems playable,” but go as far as you can.

At the press conference, I asked Baturinsky: “Just like Kortchnoi, Alexander Alekhine used to be considered an enemy of the Soviet Union and now there is an Alekhine Memorial Tournament there every year. It seems to show that things can change in your country too. So may we see a Kortchnoi Memorial perhaps in Leningrad in twenty years time?

That may have been what Soviet politicians used to call a “provocation,” but Baturinsky, after a long pause gave a polite answer: “I cannot look into the future, but I am sure that I will not be around anymore to witness such a thing.”

He died in 2002 and had witnessed Kortchnoi, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, received in Russia and in other former Soviet republics as a prodigal son. Baturinsky had been Viktor’s enemy par excellence. He had been the head of the Soviet delegation during the match with Karpov in 1978, and he had used every trick in the book to make the conditions as unfavorable for Kortchnoi as possible.

As Genna Sosonko relates, Kortchnoi would later recall: “Oh, it was an unforgettable feeling! You walk past a line of hate-filled eyes, and each person in that line wants to cut you into little pieces of meat. You haven’t lived until you have experienced this.” True Viktor, a lesson of life.

Kortchnoi hated Baturinsky, but also admired him. To Sosonko he said that he would have liked to have a Baturinsky as chief of his own team.

And according to Sosonko, after Baturinsky’s death in 2002, Kortchnoi felt a sense of loss, because his enemy had also represented an important part of his past. I can understand that. I have never hated anyone in the chess world, but there were people that I did not like very much. After their death, I missed them, because they had been a part of the world that I had cherished.

I had been a bit loose when, at the press conference, I spoke about a possible Kortchnoi Memorial in twenty years. For a memorial, a person has to die first and Kortchnoi died only in 2016.

Since then there have been several memorial tournaments for him, even as far away from his home turf as India, but the most important of these is of course the Viktor Kortchnoi Memorial in St. Petersburg, the city where he was born and had spent all of his life until his defection in 1976. In that memorial tournament last month a wonderful game was played that can be seen in the viewer.

Click here to view Paravyan-Golubov, 2018 Kortchnoi Memorial