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Our Tribute to Viktor Korchnoi and Tony Stewart's Immortal Game

It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of one of the giants of the chess world, Viktor Korchnoi, on 6 June 2016.

Viktor is considered by many to be the greatest player never to have won the World Chess Championship. I recall the excitement of Viktor's first World Chess Championship Final against Anatoly Karpov in Baguio City in 1978. Viktor was the underdog against the Champion, who was supported by the Soviet regime. Everything was stacked against Viktor it seemed. Indeed it was looking that way when Karpov won the 27th game of the match to make the score 5-2 in wins in his favour. The first to six wins would be crowned World Champion. I was doing a paper-round at the time (I am the same age as Gary Kasparov in case you wondered) and there was no internet in those days. The only way for me to get "real-time" information on the match was to take a sneaky look at the chess column in one of the few copies of the Times (very posh at the time for my area, which was Daily Express on average) that I delivered on my round before sticking it through a customer's door each day.

Then Viktor won the 28th and 29th games. The 30th was drawn. Was it possible? Oh my goodness, he has won the 31st game too! The match was now tied at 5-5! What a comeback! Come on Viktor!

I can still feel the sadness I felt way back then when I discovered that the 32nd game, 5 days later, had been won by Anatoly Karpov, which meant that he had won the match 6-5 and retained his crown. Viktor, why, oh, why did you play the Pirc as Black in that final game? You were an artist with the French Defence! Alas, it was not to be.

Talking of the French Defence I would like to show you the second game in Viktor's Candidates match with Boris Spassky in 1977 on his way to challenging Karpov. I remember looking at the game in Ray Keene's book "Korchnoi vs Spassky: Chess Crisis". I just loved the way Viktor's queen and rook manoeuvred to hunt down the White king by constantly switching the angle of attack. Engines find defences for White quite deep into the game but it is incredibly hard for a human, even as strong a human as Spassky, to defend with such a vulnerable king. The quality of the game has not faded over the years for me.

Game viewer by ChessTempo

There are various stories about Viktor's sometimes spiky nature and I imagine that many of these are apocryphal. Indeed the following may be of dubious provenance but it is too good not to repeat. The scene is an international tournament where Viktor is playing against an opponent he (presumably) has not met before. Viktor has a great position, so the story goes:

Viktor: "Do you speak English?"

Opponent: "Yes"

Viktor: "Why don't you resign?"

An amusing variant on the more conventional draw offer!

Viktor could apparently also sometimes be a bit off-hand when his opponent got the better of him. A type of back-handed compliment one would imagine. Surbiton Chess Club has prepared its own little back-handed compliment to Viktor. He was almost an octogenarian when he came up against our Tony Stewart, who was one of his opponents, when he was giving a simultaneous display at the London Chess Classic in 2010. Tony won the game and it now features in our club's Immortal Games collection. Well done, Tony!

However, it is presented as part of our tribute to Viktor, a true Immortal of the game!

Paul Shepherd