Korchnoi is one of the true chess legends and many people’s choice as the “strongest player never to become World Champion”. He played three matches that could have given him that title and was at the very top of world chess for 30 years, winning games against all the World Champions from Botvinnik to Kasparov. His four USSR Championships and six Olympiad gold medals for the USSR are all the more remarkable given he famously defected to the West in 1976, at the very height of his powers. In terms of chess longevity he has few rivals, and the furious will to win that saw him nicknamed “Viktor the Terrible” helped him feature in the Top 100 at the age of 75 and beat young star Fabiano Caruana at 79.
Korchnoi’s talent was evident when he won the USSR Junior Championship in 1947, but it was his capacity for hard work and gradual improvement that set him apart. His counterattacking style based on deep calculation rather than intuition gave Korchnoi erratic results in the 1950s, but he was consistently at the top when he turned 30, winning the USSR Championship in 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1970. It’s been suggested that he lost the final Candidates match against Tigran Petrosian in 1971 due to a Soviet agreement that Petrosian would have the best chances against Bobby Fischer, but when Fischer stopped playing it seemed as though it might finally be Korchnoi’s turn to claim the crown.
His great misfortune was that the peak of his career overlapped not with one but two great champions. The young Anatoly Karpov emerged from nowhere to become the darling of Soviet chess, and would prove Korchnoi’s nemesis. In their first match in 1974 Korchnoi suffered three defeats but posted a late recovery to lose only 12.5:11.5. That match effectively gave Karpov the crown when Fischer refused to defend his title. Four years later Korchnoi had defected from the USSR but dismayed the Soviet authorities by qualifying for the next World Championship match against Karpov. Their showdown in the Philippines will be remembered as one of the most bitter and bizarre contests in chess history, with cheating allegations involving hypnotism and coded messages sent by yogurt. On the chessboard Korchnoi again trailed at the start (4:1) but managed to fight back to tie the first-to-six match 5:5 after 31 games, only to go on to lose the next game.
In 1981 Korchnoi turned 50, but yet again qualified to play Karpov. That match was dubbed the “Massacre in Merano” as Korchnoi fell to a 6:2 defeat in the Italian town, although chess events were overshadowed by the imprisonment of his son. The next cycle signaled a changing of the guard, as Korchnoi lost to the young Garry Kasparov.
While he never again managed to challenge for the title, Korchnoi has remained active and strong in competitive chess long after his peers retired. At the age of 80 he told an interviewer he continues to work on chess four hours a day, and his latter achievements include winning the World Senior Championship in 2006 and the Swiss Championship in 2009 and 2011.
In 2012 Korchnoi suffered a stroke, but remained indomitable, returning to play competitive chess in a wheelchair before passing away at the age of 85.