The greatest chess player never to lift the world title, Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi, turned 83 yesterday. About 15 months ago he suffered a stroke and many were convinced he would never play again, but remarkably he was seen in action in a small seniors tournament in his adoptive country of Switzerland towards the end of last year. It remains to be seen whether that was his last battle – over the board at least.
Pound-for-pound, I suspect that Korchnoi’s efforts at the 1978 Chess Olympiad (the equivalent of the world national team championships) are as heroic as anything in modern sports and games history. To put this into context, Korchnoi, aged 47, had recently defected from the Soviet Union in the most rancorous circumstances possible. To say that the USSR was not exactly keen that he should defeat their young hero, the defending world champ Anatoly Karpov, in the 1978 world title match between the two, is putting it mildly.
The 1978 title match, in Baguio City in the Philppines, was one of the most extraordinary pageants of suspicion, counter-suspicion, paranoia, mindgames, politicking, counter-politicking, subterfuge and labyrinthine intrigue ever witnessed in sport – and that only covers what happened off the board. Amid this all, Korchnoi appeared to be facing one handicap too many to have a realistic chance of winning the title.
Korchnoi was twenty years older than Karpov, a formidable young champion then even if he (Karpov) had not quite yet peaked as a player. Korchnoi did not have Karpov’s intuitive ability to play lightning-fast moves of high quality: much of Korchnoi’s lifelong success at the board has hung on his abilities as a heavyweight cogitator and concentrator, a double-edged gift given that this process is so time-consuming. (In competitive chess, players have to make a certain number of moves in a certain amount of time – this obviates the process of stalling since it means players can lose via time-out.)
Unlike Karpov, the renegade Korchnoi did not have access to the superb elite set of Soviet players who could provide training, advice and assistance. He did not have the familial support he ideally needed either: he had defected from the USSR in a fit of dudgeon, but at the cost of being separated from his wife and son, who would not be granted the same freedom of movement for some years. (Admittedly not everyone is convinced that Korchnoi is more sinned-against than sinning in this respect, as the linked interview suggests.) Korchnoi would later marry Petra Leeuwerik, who served as head of his entourage during the course of the 1978 match.
At one point in this ‘first-to-win-six’ match, Korchnoi was on the ropes and down 5-2 (not counting the draws which turned the match into a veritable marathon). Out of nowhere, he produced three wins in quick succession. The match appeared to be his for the taking – but in a final game appropriately taking place to the backdrop of one final bout of politicking, Korchnoi played well below his best. Karpov played good, simple, direct chess and won the game and match.
What happened next seems curiously overlooked given the nature of Korchnoi’s response. The match had been quite exhausting, having lasted over three months. One suspects Korchnoi knows this must have been his last chance to claim the world crown (even if he did qualify for a title match with Karpov three years later – a far more succinct and uneventful loss on Korchnoi’s part).
At this point, Korchnoi, still bitterly contesting the match (or rather, the way it had been decided), nonetheless got on an aeroplane to Switzerland (where he had most recently settled), stayed a few days, and then flew to Buenos Aires to represent Switzerland in the Chess Olympiad. In his autobiography, Chess Is My Life, he recalls that within an hour of getting off the aeroplane, he sat down at the board in the confines of the River Plate Stadium, where Argentina had won the football World Cup a few months previously) to play his first game, against Qi Jingxuan of China. Karpov, having represented the USSR on top board in the most recent (relatively) full-strength Olympiad in Nice in 1974, was not participating in the event.
In the course of the next two-and-a-half weeks, Korchnoi won seven and drew four of his games to take the individual gold medal on board one. Switzerland finished a creditable tenth; for the first time in the post-war era, the Soviets failed to capture the team gold medal in an Olympiad where they had been participating. Hungary, led on top board by Lajos Portisch, finished first and pulled off one of the great sporting triumphs for that country (and in Portisch’s case, apparent substantiation of the hypothesis that nice guys do come first).
In Chess Is My Life, Korchnoi states that the quality of the opponents he faced was not great, as for (yes, you guessed it) political reasons he was not matched against opponents from the Soviet bloc. Korchnoi is renowned for being scathingly blunt (and sometimes very magnanimous) about his opponents and for being ready to admit (often too vociferously) when he himself has not played at his best, but one suspects he is not quite being objective here.
En route to the gold medal, Korchnoi played at least five world-class grandmasters: Tony Miles of England (winning), Eugenio Torre of the Philippines (winning), Ulf Andersson of Sweden (drawing), Svetozar Gligoric of Yugoslavia (drawing) and Lubomir Kavalek of the USA. In the last-mentioned of these games (played in the final round), Korchnoi claims he was asked by the USA team not to play as a special favour. At the point, the Americans still had a technical chance of pipping Hungary and the USSR to the team gold medal, and Kavalek would have been heavily favoured to beat anyone taking Korchnoi’s place for Switzerland on board one.
In Korchnoi’s own words, even detestation of the Soviets, and having the opportunity to indirectly gain some measure of revenge for his defeat to Karpov, could not quench his desire to compete and play against everyone – not just the Soviets. His win over Kavalek secured him the individual gold medal on top board and was the final confirmation that Hungary would be world team champions. Comments on chessgames.com suggest that this book by the late Hungarian grandmaster István Bilek describes in vivid detail the scenes of emotional rapture as the game reached its climax, with numerous members of the Hungarian entourage hovering anxiously over the board.
With hindsight, Korchnoi’s achievements and near-achievements in 1978 look all the more monumental for being remarkably loaded with political subtext and being completely non-political at the same time (certainly as far as the Kavalek game goes). But the interesting Scandi footnote is this: Korchnoi said that the quality of opponents he met wasn’t that high, but he couldn’t beat one player who wasn’t even a grandmaster (never mind world-class).
That man was Denmark’s Svend Hamann, by no means even the strongest player in Denmark at that point. That would have been Bent Larsen, a serious contender for the world title a few years previously, and still a dangerous opponent who would have had a fair chance of beating Korchnoi. Larsen didn’t play in this Olympiad (ironically, he would later settle in Buenos Aires).
The Korchnoi-Hamann game is certainly not without interest (for those readers who can play chess, it’s here). Like most of Korchnoi’s games at Buenos Aires, it is full of fight. What is eye-catching is the way that Hamann does a protracted amount of jumpy back-and-forth stuff with his knights (as if wanting to take moves back) and then starts shoving the pawns in front of his king forward, almost daring his redoubtable opponent to take him on (a sort of mix of the idiosyncratic and the cavalier that is not unlike a hybrid of Larsen-Korchnoi chess).
Position-wise, Korchnoi should still be best placed to take the full point, and battles for 68 moves in a bid to do so. The game simplifies from full-on complex middlegame to endgame where Korchnoi has the marginal advantage of rook and bishop against rook and knight (the kind of territory where he should be in his element), but Hamann keeps scrapping away and holding resolutely firm, and ultimately Korchnoi has little choice but to concede the draw.
To be fair to Hamann, he also drew with Gligoric and Robert Hübner of West Germany at this Olympiad, both of them world-class opponents. Hamann was also good enough to win the Danish Chess Championship five years previously, so his claim to be a worthy member of the Danish team cannot be disputed even in Larsen’s absence.
Hamann had previously played in the 1968 Olympiad in Lugano in Switzerland, when Larsen was present on top board for Denmark. A few years before that, Hamann had beaten Larsen in Halle in the old East Germany – just around the time Larsen was starting to get seriously good and join Bobby Fischer in threatening the USSR domination of the game.
For all this, one can’t help thinking that being an international master (not grandmaster) and having to play with the black pieces against Korchnoi in this form would have been an imposing ordeal, however common draws are in top-flight chess. Of Korchnoi’s five wins against Karpov in the world title match, four were with white (compared to three losses with the white pieces).
In Argentina, Korchnoi clearly pushed for the win against Hamann and wasn’t taking a quick day off via the often-seen (and often notorious) ‘grandmaster draw’. Korchnoi defeated all the other players ranked lower than grandmaster whom he faced at Buenos Aires as well.
All this considered, we salute Svend Hamann. The quirks and caveats of this achievement notwithstanding, in 1978, he had a 50% record with the black pieces against Viktor Korchnoi – something even the mighty Karpov couldn’t manage.
Korchnoi’s achievements at Buenos Aires are a characteristically epic and pugilistic response to defeat: it is as if Spartacus has been rewritten, with the eponymous character allowed to go free by the Romans at the end but saying grimly to the camera in the final shot: ‘Hell, there’s other battles to be won’, and heading for pastures new.
Hamann’s achievement may seem minor by comparison, but in terms of inclusivity within competitive endeavour, it serves as a reminder that there is always room for one more at the table. Scandi chess and sport history would not quite be the same without this one game.
In researching this, we found an article on the main Danish Chess Federation website noting that Hamann was a special guest at the 2011 Danish premiere of the film Bobby Fischer Against The World. In an interview before the screening of the movie, he discussed meeting and playing the legendary Fischer at a tournament in Netanya in Israel in 1968, and then later playing host to Fischer at his home in Lyngby, just north of Copenhagen.
Fischer was a renowned recluse, so any fellow player who in some way entered into his confidence can probably offer recollections that are the historian’s equivalent of golddust – both in and outside the chess sphere. You can read the article about the 2011 premiere here – there’s a picture from it below.