Viktor Kortchnoï, a life devoted to chess

The grand master ponders his next move. Viktor Kortschnoï

Chess legend and Swiss citizen, Viktor Kortchnoï, will be one of the most prestigious names in the line up for the 36th Biel International Chess Festival.

This content was published on July 27, 2003 - 12:14

Now 72, the twice runner-up in the world chess championships told swissinfo he has no intention of retiring.

Kortchnoï is considered to be among the best chess players in history, although he has never been world champion.

But despite currently being ranked 66 in the world, the so-called “Lion of Leningrad” (today’s St Petersburg) can still get today’s superstars in checkmate.

In 2001, he caused a sensation by swiping the grand prize at the Biel tournament from under the noses of the big players.

In 1976, he escaped political harassment in the then Soviet Union by going to live in Netherlands. He then came to Switzerland, where he was granted political exile in 1978. In 1992 he became a Swiss citizen and now lives in Wohlen, in canton Aargau.

swissinfo: What drives you to continue playing top-level chess?

Viktor Kortchnoï: Chess is my life and my passion. It’s something I’ve played at a professional level since the age of 14. It would be too hard to give it up.

When I was a child, I had three main passions. I wanted to play the piano, but I couldn’t afford to buy one. I also wanted to be an actor, but my pronunciation was not pure enough. So I settled for chess.

swissinfo: You were four times USSR (now Russia) champion, Dutch champion, Swiss champion, and twice runner-up in the world championships. What have you got left to achieve?

V.K.: Most of the time I play against people young enough to be my grandchildren. I am very proud to have played against four generations of chess masters and grand masters.

I show them that they can still learn a lot from me. I have earned respect from them for what I’ve brought to the world of chess. Respect is very important.

swissinfo: Does it bother you that you have never once been world chess champion?

V.K.: Yes, it bothers me even today. But perhaps it wasn’t my destiny. I wasn’t a child prodigy. I didn’t become a master player until I was 25.

By the time I’d had my first big match against [Anatoly] Karpov, I had already passed 40 and had lost a lot of energy after all the political harassment I’d experienced. That’s why I never made world champion.

swissinfo: You now go back regularly to Russia. How do you feel when you’re back in your birthplace, St Petersburg?

V.K.: The people there always make me feel welcome. I think it’s their way of apologising for the way I was treated during the Soviet era, when I was forced to flee the country.

swissinfo: Have you made your peace with the ex-Soviet republic?

V.K.: It wasn’t me that declared war. It was therefore up to the republic’s followers to make the effort.

In 1978, the politburo retracted my Soviet nationality. Then in 1991, the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, offered to give it back to me. I responded diplomatically, but I didn’t accept it. I remain proud to have, in my own way, helped bring about the perestroika [Gorbachev’s policy of reform and openness].

swissinfo: Are you still a close follower of politics?

Yes, but I don’t consider myself an expert. When I talk about Switzerland, I always say that neutrality can become a serious illness.

swissinfo: How would you like to be remembered by the chess world?

V.K.: Once I’m gone, I would like people to say that I was no angel.

swissinfo-interview: Jonathan Hirsch (translation: Joanne Shields)

Key facts

Titles won by Korchnoï:
International Master: 1954.
International Grandmaster: 1956.
USSR champion: 1960, 1962, 1964, 1970.
Dutch Champion: 1977.
Swiss Champion: 1982, 1984, 1985.

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