Features Feb 21, 2015 | 3:03 PMby chess24 staff

Korchnoi vs. Uhlmann, two legends in Zürich

During the Zürich Chess Challenge festival, we were able to witness a duel of four rapid games between the chess legends Viktor Korchnoi and Wolfgang Uhlmann. 

International Master Pablo Almagro sent us his tribute to these living chess legends, but particularly his hero Korchnoi:

Playing a few games. | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, official website

What can we say about Viktor Korchnoi...Two-time runner-up World Champion, four-time USSR Champion, winner of two Interzonals and of countless tournaments from the 1950a till today. He is, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable faces in the history of chess.

German player Wolfgang Uhlmann may be a little less well known to the broader public, but in the sixties and early seventies he was one of the most respected players in the international circuit. GDR Champion on no less than eleven (!) occasions, Olympic Gold medal at the individual board and candidate for the world title in 1970, Wolfgang was also a famous theoretician who made great contributions to the French and the King's Indian, among others.

Viktor Korchnoi in 1972 | photo: Anefo / Croes, R.C

Grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann in 1967. | photo: Rubinstein Memorial Organisation

Korchnoi's health problems are well known (84 years is a considerable age), and it's a pleasure to see him doing what he has always done: fight at and away from the board.

This match serves as an excuse to pay a little tribute to the man known fondly as:


Is Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi (tell me Russian names don't roll off the tongue) the best player who never became World Champion? Maybe yes, maybe no. Guys like Rubinstein, Bronstein, Keres and others which the reader can add could also deserve this title.

However, in my modest opinion, Korchnoi is the player who most deserves to wear the Champion's crown. He faced the mighty Soviet machinery with such determination and courage that simply undertaking this great challenge already makes him immortal.

Let's imagine the situation; we're in the year 1976 and the young star Anatoly Karpov has been declared the new World Champion the year before, due to the renunciation of the American Bobby Fischer.

Meanwhile, Korchnoi, marginalised by the Soviet authorities, does the unthinkable: after the end of the Amsterdam tournament, he requests political asylum in Holland, becoming from that moment on a traitor, a subversive element who had to be squashed like a bug in order to show the world what happens to enemies of the state.

And so it begins: the implacable Soviet Union puts its entire propaganda and diplomatic arsenal into motion in order to wipe Viktor from the international stage. Man against Empire, David against Goliath, the 300 against the Persians, the final crossover which could well have sprung from the deranged brain of some Hollywood screenwriter.

But here is where you have to take off your hat to him: Korchnoi, already a 50-year-old veteran grandmaster, begins to play the best chess of his life. Although he can't participate in the main tournaments because of the Soviet veto, this irresistible cyclone makes his way to Karpov, after eliminating players like Petrosian, Polugayevsky and Spassky in rough candidates matches.

And now we are in Baguio, 1978, the true match of the century. Yoghurts, parapsychologists, intrigues, sunglasses, miraculous recoveries, the maximum of emotion, all or nothing in one single game, swimming and swimming, just to die on the beach, so to speak.

Maybe you wanted something more? Well yes — a victory for Korchnoi. But in reality, it doesn't matter; he had already won.

He played this game when the score was 4 to 1 for Karpov. Remember, the match would go to the first player to score six victories, draws not counting.

1. c4 ♘f6 2. ♘c3 e6 3. ♘f3 d5 4. d4 ♗e7 5. ♗f4 The popular line in our days.

5... O-O 6. e3 c5

6... ♘bd7 Ultimately, this would mean not playing c5 and the knight is taken first. Is it the right line or just a fashion? Who knows.

7. dxc5 ♗xc5 8. ♕c2

8. a3 In our days, White is considered to be doing well after this modest move, but Anand defended the black cause successfully in his recent match with Carlsen. We will see how the line evolves.

8... ♘c6 9. ♖d1 ♕a5 10. a3 ♖e8 A Novelty (somewhat questionable, all told) by Karpov's mighty team of analysts. To be precise, the team of analysts was like a computer in those days. But not everybody had the same machine and there were also adjournments...Of course, in order to have good analysts, you had to deserve them, but it was still, in a way, an unjust situation.

11. ♘d2 Now b4 or Nb3 is threatened.

11. b4? ♘xb4 12. axb4 ♗xb4 13. ♗e5 ♘e4 14. ♖c1 f6

11... e5 The idea is Re8. Black hopes to use his advantage in development by punishing the White play in a very precise way. The way Korchnoi defends everything becomes praiseworthy. Little wonder Korchnoi is one of the best defenders our game has ever seen.

12. ♗g5 ♘d4 The position is truly complicated; the slightest imprecision by White can be fatal.

13. ♕b1! Very precise.

13. ♕c1 ♗f5

13... ♗f5 14. ♗d3 e4 15. ♗c2

15. ♗f1 Korchnoi commented that this horrible looking move crossed his mind and he didn't see any way to refute it — and indeed, there is none. However, Bc2 seems more prudent, especially considering that Karpov was playing with preparation.

15... ♘xc2+ 16. ♕xc2 In exchange for the pair of bishops and the weaknesses on the light-squares, White possibly wins a pawn, and then e4 or d5 will fall.

16... ♕a6 17. ♗xf6 ♕xf6 18. ♘b3 Karpov did have the brilliant:

18. ♘xd5 ♕g5 19. O-O ♗d6 The two bishops and the pressure on the castling position give Black a lot of compensation. The young Korchnoi would have liked defending a position such as this, but thanks to intense perfecting of his style, he managed to overcome his natural impulses and was able to play in a more active and pragmatic way.

18... ♗d6 seems more natural.

18... ♕g5! 19. ♘xc5 ♕xg2 20. ♖f1 b6 21. ♘b3 ♗h3 with a crazy position.

19. ♖xd5

19. ♘xd5 ♕g6  but allowing Black to continue his desired scheme on the kingside.

19... ♖e5 20. ♘d4 Complications continue to arise, but it seems something went wrong for Black. One of the few failures of Karpov's team of analysts.

20... ♖c8 21. ♖xe5 ♕xe5 22. ♘xf5 ♕xf5 23. O-O! It may not be the best, but I like this move. It returns the pawn and sentences Black to a horrible defence in a difficult ending.

23. ♘xe4 b5 24. O-O ♖xc4 25. ♕d2 ♗c7 26. ♘c3

23... ♖xc4 24. ♖d1 The black pieces are a little uncoordinated now. There are problems with the back rank, e4 is weak and Qd3 is a constant threat.

24... ♕e5 And if he slips through?

24... ♗e7 25. ♖d4 ♖xd4 26. exd4 and e4 falls.

25. g3 a6 26. ♕b3 b5 27. a4 How many games have been won with a breakthrough on a4? Trillions?

27... ♖b4 28. ♕d5 The entirety of White's concept to return the pawn was based on this move.

28... ♕xd5 29. ♖xd5 ♗f8 30. axb5 a5 An interesting option was:

30... axb5 31. ♖xb5 ♖xb5 32. ♘xb5 And that should be a matter of technique, all the more in the era of adjournments.

31. ♖d8

31. b6 ♖xb6 32. ♖xa5 ♖xb2 33. ♘xe4 And White has very good winning chances. Remember that with pawns all on the same flank, the knight is not inferior to the bishop.

31... ♖xb2 32. ♖a8 f5 33. ♖xa5 ♗b4 34. ♖a8+ ♔f7 35. ♘a4 ♖b1+ 36. ♔g2 ♗d6 The ending is more complex than it seems. Here, one of the great virtues of Korchnoi manifests itself: he was a magnificent player of endings, equal to the best in history.

37. ♖a7+ ♔f6 38. b6 ♗b8 39. ♖a8 ♗e5 40. ♘c5 ♗d6 41. b7 ♔e7 42. ♖g8 ♗e5 White's problem is that his king is not working. And in the ending, you have to have an active king...

43. f4 Resolved.

43... exf3+ 44. ♔xf3 ♔f7 45. ♖c8 ♔e7 46. h3 h5 47. ♖g8 ♔f7 48. ♖d8 g5 49. g4 Again the same point: making way for the king.

49... hxg4+ 50. hxg4 ♔e7 51. ♖g8 fxg4+ 52. ♔xg4 ♔f7 53. ♖c8 ♗d6 54. e4 The goal is the bishop who blocks the pawn's way.

54... ♖g1+ 55. ♔f5 g4 56. e5 ♖f1+ 57. ♔e4 ♖e1+ 58. ♔d5 ♖d1+ 59. ♘d3 A nice final detail.

59... ♖xd3+ 60. ♔c4


After winning this fight, Korchnoi showed a little emotion, but after he lost the 27th game, it all seemed decided. However, Viktor was able to recover and equalise at 5-5... And we already know the final link.

Later, there was another match with Karpov, other candidate cycles and numerous tournaments and victories…and in all of them, Korchnoi's extraordinary activity and longevity stands out.

Viktor is not the first player who has managed to stay in the elite at an advanced age (Lasker or Smyslov are other examples), but nobody has combined such a high level with such frenetic activity. And sometimes it has almost seemed as if the great Korchnoi would be active and over 2600 up to the age of 100.

Educating the younger generation. | photo: Stewart Reuben, website Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival 2011

And now,one of these generational fights which are so attractive to watch, from the 2011 Gibraltar Masters. Fabiano Caruana, just 18 years old at the time, and sixty years difference between the two players...

1. e4 e5 2. ♘f3 ♘c6 3. ♗b5 a6 4. ♗a4 ♘f6 5. d3 Did Fabiano fear Korchnoi's open Spanish?

5... d6 6. c3 ♗e7 7. O-O O-O 8. ♖e1 ♘d7 9. ♗e3 ♘b6 I don't like this plan to place the knight on b6. But who am I to criticize Korchnoi?

10. ♗b3 ♔h8 11. ♘bd2 f5 12. ♗xb6 cxb6 13. ♗d5 What kind of strategy should a venerable 79-year-old grandmaster adopt against a young, 18-year-old star with a 2700 rating? I know what you're thinking, close everything, play very calmly so that I don't fall into a trap, try to use my positional knowledge...

13... g5 Well, no such thing, directly for the neck. If one observes the games of the veterans who maintain a good level, one can see that they don't play calmly at all. They continue to fight just like in their good times.

14. h3 It's not desirable to give up on the g4 break, but you have to put the knight somewhere.

14. ♘f1 g4 15. ♘3d2 f4 And this causes sufficient fear.

14... g4 15. hxg4 fxg4 16. ♘h2 ♗g5 Suddenly, Black has a very interesting position.

17. ♘c4 b5 18. ♘e3 ♗xe3 A difficult move. Black exchanges his potent bishop so as not to lose the initiative and to continues to accumulate threats.

19. ♖xe3 ♕f6 20. ♕e1 ♘e7 21. f3

21. ♗b3 ♘g6 And the number of pieces close to the white king increases.

21... ♘xd5 22. exd5 ♖g8 The energy with which Viktor plays is admirable. He causes more problems for White with every move.

23. ♕g3 An ugly move, but the threat on g3 was uncomfortable.

23... gxf3 24. ♕xf3 ♗f5 Better bishop, open files against the king, weak pawn on d3...

25. ♖f1 ♖g5 26. ♔h1 ♕h6 Threatening Rh5. Maybe White isn't totally lost, but the defence is very difficult.

27. ♖f2 ♖ag8 28. ♖e1

28. ♔g1

28... ♕g6 29. ♖e3 Turns out the youngster is the one who walks into a trap.

29... ♗xd3 30. ♔g1

30. ♖xd3 e4

30... e4 31. ♕h3 ♖xd5 With two clean pawns extra and better pieces, the rest is just a question  of not letting go. Although there follow a few mistakes, Viktor never loses his advantage and finishes his opponent off convincingly.

32. ♕d7 ♖g5 33. g4 ♕h6 34. ♖f7 ♖5g7 35. ♖xg7 ♖xg7 36. ♕d8+ ♖g8 37. ♕b6 ♕f6 38. ♕xb7 ♖f8 39. ♕a7 b4 40. ♖h3 ♕g7 41. ♕e3 bxc3 42. bxc3 ♕xc3 43. ♖h5 d5 44. g5 ♕a1+ 45. ♔g2 ♗f1+ 46. ♔g3 ♕e5+ Mate on both sides. A fantastic demonstration of power by the veteran.


We will conclude this little tribute with a nice tweet we read a few days ago, which illustrates the respect the immortal Viktor Korchnoi has won over the years:

‌"For those of us who substitute chess for God, being one metre away from Viktor Korchnoi in the Savoy hotel in Zurich is like going to mass." 

What's your favourite Korchnoi game? Let us know in the comments:

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