Viktor Korchnoi, who turned 80 yesterday, is one of the great figures of twentieth-century chess, but also one of the most controversial. Evgeny Vasiukov, who’s known him for 60 years, felt compelled to voice what he considers the truth about Korchnoi, both as a man and a chess player.
Viktor Korchnoi’s eightieth birthday was celebrated around the chess world yesterday, with glowing tributes appearing, for example, at ChessVibes and ChessBase. Perhaps the one dissenting voice was that of 78-year-old GM Evgeny Vasiukov, who was interviewed by Evgeny Surov of Chess-News. While Korchnoi needs little introduction, it’s worth saying a little about Vasiukov.
Evgeny Vasiukov (b. 5 March, 1933) is a good illustration of the power of Soviet Chess. Despite winning the Moscow Championship six times, reaching 11th in the world in 1962 (according to Chessmetrics), and beating a whole series of World Champions, he never quite emerged onto the world stage in his own right. His compatriots were simply too strong.
Nevertheless, he’s left his mark on chess. A Tal-like player, his best-known game was perhaps his loss to Tal in 1964. Tal made a trademark sacrifice, and later famously revealed that his thought processes had involved wondering how to drag a hippopotamus out of a marsh, before deciding to let it drown. As a second, Vasiukov assisted Mark Taimanov in the match he lost 6:0 to Bobby Fischer, while he was also one of Anatoly Karpov’s trainers at three World Championship matches, and worked with five teams at the Olympiad. Like Korchnoi, he continues to play (with a very respectable 2480 rating), as well as organise senior events.
Near the beginning of the Russian interview at Chess-News, which you can also listen to, Evgeny Vasiukov embarks on a long monologue. I considered skipping it (he gets to Korchnoi later), but in fact it provides a fascinating perspective on another episode of chess history which Vasiukov was directly involved in – Bobby Fischer’s visit to Moscow in 1958 as a 15-year-old.
You were also Korchnoi’s coach?
Yes, at the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse. That’s remembered by all chess fans for the fact that Bobby Fischer withdrew while leading the tournament. There’ve been all kinds of judgements and interesting arguments about that. The older generation of chess players was even familiar with the bulletin that was published at the tournament, and I was the one writing each day about what went on there – as Korchnoi’s second I was in the thick of events. It was very interesting, unusual, and it left a certain trace in chess history. And Fischer himself, of course, was an amazing and out-of-the-ordinary figure.
I had the opportunity to spend time with him on more than one occasion. The first time was in Moscow, when he arrived and was supposed to play two training matches (not many people know about that). The American Chess Federation approached our Soviet one, and two people were supposed to play training matches against Fischer. Those were Boris Spassky, our youngest grandmaster, the World Junior Champion, and the World Student Team Champion (at the time those events were rated very highly after the Olympiads). The second person who was supposed to play Fischer was me. I was the Moscow Champion at the time, and a two-time World Student Champion.
But on his arrival in Moscow, Fischer said that he only wanted to play Botvinnik. That made a lot of people smile, as Mikhail Moiseyevich stood on such a pedestal, and the idea that he would simply play a training game against someone (and an American at that) was inconceivable. For the two weeks that Fischer was in Moscow he played blitz from morning to night, and gave everyone an incredible battering. And then three people were invited, based on the results of the most recent “Vechernaya Moskva” blitz tournament, which was the unofficial Soviet Union blitz championship. They invited the three winners: Petrosian, who came third, Bronstein, who lost a match to me for first place, and myself. But David Ionovich [Bronstein], who had already played a World Championship match, said: sorry, but why should I play a kid? Tigran Vartanovich [Petrosian] and I arrived. We played in the grandmasters’ room, and Petrosian won by a small margin, while I literally crushed Fischer. From that point on whenever we met he always treated me with great respect. There were even situations… for example, the 85th birthday of Andor Lilienthal was being celebrated in Budapest, there were a lot of guests, including Taimanov and the editor of the magazine “64”, Roshal, – but Fischer didn’t want to meet with anyone, while he met me twice. For one of those encounters he invited me to dinner, and we dined together.
As for Sousse, I was Korchnoi’s second there. To a certain degree that was unexpected, as during that period his permanent trainer was Semen Abramovich Furman. He was unwell at the time, however, and Korchnoi approached me to help him at the tournament. We’d had a normal relationship up to that point as well, but somehow it was strengthened there. Korchnoi was satisfied with the way things went. It struck me that he wasn’t very well prepared, but we did a lot of work, and often managed to come up with the right thing to play. As a result Korchnoi got into the Candidates Tournament. I was told that in the chess federation (and back then every performance would be carefully analysed at that level) he had a very high opinion of how I’d helped him.
There was another curious thing. To get to that tournament it was more convenient to drive to the airport from my house. It’s interesting that from that point onwards Korchnoi would, over the course of many years while he was living in the Soviet Union, call me before going to a tournament and ask, “would you mind if I spend the night at your house?” I’d say, “come round”.
So he was superstitious?
Yes, that showed at times.
Or, perhaps, he not only was, but still is superstitious?
I think so, yes. But that was particularly illustrative, you might say, because it continued over the course of many years. And I’ll say, getting ahead of myself, that when Korchnoi emigrated and then in his book, “Anti-Chess”, unfortunately portrayed many of his colleagues in far from the best light, the only one who he cast no stones against, was me. And I was asked at the time why that was. I think it was simply that the relationship we’d had until that point provided no impetus at all for a release of negative emotions.
And if they asked you that must have meant, no doubt, that there could have been reasons of some sort?
They were amazed, because almost all (in any case, most) of his colleagues… I’d say that Viktor Lvovich never appreciated his colleagues. For example, Tal, a brilliant, fascinating chess player. He called him something like “a routine attacker”. Words like that. That’s somehow just diminishing the perception of Tal.
It’s perhaps worth quickly interrupting the interview to point out something similar GM Genna Sosonko had to say when talking to Ilya Odessky at last year’s Tal Memorial. Note, however, that Sosonko sees Korchnoi only as an example of what all the players felt:
The kid, and Tal was 23 when he became Champion – simply burst into the world ruled by Botvinnik, Keres, Bronstein… And Korchnoi’s question: “But why? Why him?” he asked before my very eyes (back then I was still just a boy), of my trainer, the famous Zak. “Why? Does he really understand chess better than I do?” That question, I think, was on the lips of all the leading chess players of the time [...]
Back to Surov talking to Vasiukov:
Interesting. And did you know any chess players who Korchnoi had a good opinion about?
[Long pause] It’s a little hard to reply off the top of my head… Among contemporaries, among those who were alongside him…
Yes, among those he played.
I can’t really remember anything in particular. From his very earliest days he had a very cautious and negative perception of many people. And it’s no accident than when he was still a young man people began to whisper: they called him “bad-tempered Viktor”. That was the name he had behind his back, among colleagues. “Bad-tempered Viktor”. I think something like that has to be earned… You don’t simply acquire such things. His instability is well-known…
I know that, all things considered, you’ve got a difficult relationship with him.
The thing is that he was far from the only one in those years who was invited to stay, to play for some other country. Many people nowadays, not knowing the ins and outs of the context, say, “ah, what a hero Korchnoi is”. I don’t agree with that position. Few know that doing what he did he was, above all, trampling on his family. Tal told me that when Korchnoi’s wife and son were allowed to leave [the Soviet Union] (and his son had already been to prison before that), he didn’t even meet them. Instead they were met by his lawyer with a divorce letter. And Tal once asked Korchnoi’s son, “Igor, what’s your relationship with your father like?” To which the son replied, “I don’t want to hear or speak about Mr. Korchnoi”. So there’s that side of life… Everyone talks only about the chess side, but life – it doesn’t end with chess. After all, we live among people, both those close to us, and distant…
Of course, as a chess player he achieved a great deal. It was even difficult to imagine that he’d achieve all that. But a whole series of things went along with it. Why did he have such a negative impression of Karpov? Because when Fischer, at that moment the strongest player in the world, stopped playing, a certain vacuum was formed at the top. Spassky, Tal and Petrosian, who in terms of talent – I emphasise, in terms of chess talent – were far above Korchnoi, had already passed the peak of their achievements, and weren’t competing the way they’d competed before then. And Korchnoi, thanks to his single-mindedness, seemed to be if not the only, then one of the closest contenders out of all the rest for the chess crown. And that’s when Karpov unexpectedly appeared on the scene. Completely unexpected. If it wasn’t for that Korchnoi would have had chances.
Unfortunately for Korchnoi, Karpov appears – at the least convenient moment, when Korchnoi’s at the height of his game.
Yes. I was close to Tal, and Petrosian, and Spassky, and know Karpov very well, as I was his trainer for three matches. And I know Korchnoi very well. Of course, in terms of pure chess talent he’s inferior. Simply of a different magnitude. But in terms of sporting animosity he was, perhaps, superior to them all.
But surely sporting animosity alone isn’t enough to explain his success?
No, I’d say hard work, as well, of course. Without that it’s impossible. The combination of those qualities.
But you can see that in terms of playing longevity he has, of course, superseded everyone. It’s simply phenomenal for an 80-year-old to be still be playing and demonstrating a decent level.
That’s connected to other things. The point is that for his whole life he’s been egocentric. He strove for the goal he wanted to achieve at any cost. A whole series of people – again Petrosian, Karpov – they spent a lot of time on public activities. That demands a great deal of effort. I can tell you as I’ve also had some experience of it. I spent eight years as the president of a veterans’ commission, and because of that I haven’t taken part in a lot of tournaments. Organisation, if you do it in good faith, demands a lot of time and effort. Korchnoi always only took care of himself, his own problems. Perhaps, in relation to himself, he was right. But I think, it’s my credo, that a chess player at grandmaster level should nevertheless be a public figure as well. He should give lectures or simuls somewhere, or run something, coach a team… He should do something in a wider context. “For yourself”, on the other hand, is an ideal platform, very convenient. And, as they say, good luck to him, if he’s got such a possibility and goal.
What sort of relationship do you have with him now?
Almost none. I was surprised by what he did at the World Senior Championship, when he behaved incorrectly. But I don’t want to go into any detail about it – after all, it’s his birthday now, and I don’t want to… It’s no secret for anyone that the relations between Korchnoi and his colleagues away from the chessboard were far from unequivocal. I don’t understand those people who, not knowing many things connected to him, go, “hurrah, hurrah, how wonderful he is!”
Well, hurrah because they don’t know. It would be worse if they knew but pretended.
There’s a Latin saying: speak well of the dead, or not at all. But they forget there’s another saying: speak the truth about the dead. And I think it’s even more the case that you should also speak the truth about the living, because later biographies will appear where the person’s almost unrecognisable. Korchnoi is a good chess player, who achieved much more than his chess abilities promised. They were great, but not on the level of the players I talked about. Nevertheless, he played two World Championship matches.
So that’s what you single out as the main thing: his achievements don’t correspond, in your opinion, to the chess abilities he started out with?
Of course. Undoubtedly. Yes, and one more thing: he was teachable. He was teachable.
The ability to learn – that’s a very important thing.
Yes, yes. A documentary’s just been shown, where he says that Kasparov stopped playing at the age of 42, while he was still learning at 46. That really is true. He’s always got something to learn. What contrasts there were between the chess players of my generation! We’d talk about who Korchnoi was, and who Karpov was. With Karpov you won’t find a single piece on the board that’s badly placed, while with Korchnoi you might well find them. That’s because there are many things he doesn’t sense, he has no internal harmony. But as a fighter, as a sportsman, he overcomes that and achieves success.
The interview ends with Surov thanking Vasiukov for his honesty. Of course, it almost goes without saying that many of the judgments above can be challenged, and no doubt will be (Boris Kletinich has begun, for instance, at Chess-News). For now, however, I’d simply like to wish Viktor Korchnoi a happy birthday!