Korchnoi: I’d take the “former World Champion” title away

Victor Korchnoi recently gave a fascinating video interview to Murad Amannazarov, who runs the publishing firm Russian CHESS House. The interview took place on the centenary of Mikhail Botvinnik’s birth, when Korchnoi was in the middle of winning a rapid tournament against nine other legendary players. The highlight is perhaps a wonderfully energetic “rant” against Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s recent proposal to abolish drawn outcomes, but the interview as a whole gives a real insight into how Korchnoi continues to work on chess.

Amannazarov starts by introducing the “unprecedented” career of the 80-year-old Korchnoi and mentioning his recent triumph at the Swiss Championship. He continues (the following transcription/translation isn’t always word-for-word, but should give a good idea of the conversation for those who don’t know Russian):

Aren’t you bored of working on chess every day?

It happens – but you simply need to take a rest. Put your chessboard away for a while and then you recover your fighting spirit – without that it’s impossible to play.

Rubinstein said that he worked on chess for 300 days a year, played for 60, and rested for 5. How do you compare to that?

It seems I work more on chess than Rubinstein, and even on the days when I’m supposed to be resting I rest with a chessboard.

Could you describe your normal working day?

I work as long as a chess game lasts. In my day a chess game lasted at least 5 hours, so you’d work 5 hours. Now they’ve made chess quicker, so you have to play for around 4 hours, and you can also work 4 hours a day. I try to do that every day.

Is it like a violinist practicing his scales?

You need to keep that flexibility and sharpness of reaction. In that regard it’s useful for chess players to play blitz. However, I live in a town where there aren’t any decent opponents. Nevertheless, each day I analyse some positions to the extent that they sometimes even appear in my dreams.

On the subject of blitz, it’s well-known that Botvinnik, whose centenary we’re celebrating today, had a negative opinion on it. You were considered one of the strongest blitz players. Do you think it’s helpful or harmful?

I think a little blitz helps. When I was younger I had a group of friends and we could play for days on end. At my age now that would be excessive but playing a little blitz is fine. And although Botvinnik was against blitz there are witnesses that he did actually play it. He kept it as something of a secret, but he also played. (See, for instance, what Mark Taimanov said on the same day as this interview!)

Do you play blitz on the internet?

I’ve got a negative attitude towards the internet and I don’t play blitz there.

Do you use chess programs in your preparation?

Yes. I use them to get information, both on particular opponents and particular opening systems. Occasionally I even use the programs to see if I’ve correctly analysed a line. Sometimes I give my analysis to the computer so it can also put its stamp on it.

The strongest program nowadays is thought to be Houdini. It’s the World Champion and beat Rybka in a match. Do you make use of it?

I haven’t managed to get round to it. Frankly, Rybka is enough for me. There’s also Fritz. When it comes to computers why do I need the very, very best?  (laughs)

Svidler won the Russian Championship Superfinal which just finished. What’s your score in serious games against Svidler?

We haven’t played very much. He beat me in one of the first games we played and then in 1997 I won a game against him. We only played a few other games which were drawn. I’ve done worse against Morozevich. I lost a few games to him and didn’t get my revenge.

So you’ve got an even score against the Superfinal winner?

True, but it also depends on personal factors beyond the chessboard. I’d say that Peter and I have a great deal of respect for each other.

The Candidates Matches recently finished in Kazan and 27 out of 30 games were drawn, with only three wins. From the perspective of your colossal experience could you comment on that? Do you think any mistakes were made by FIDE? Your opinion’s of great value and interest.

Kasimdzhanov’s letter made a bad impression on me. He asked for, and even demanded, the abolition of draws and the abolition of move repetitions. If the game doesn’t end in a win then you have to replay it at a quicker time control. That made a very, very bad and gloomy impression on me. 25 years ago Mr. Kasimdzhanov didn’t have the opportunity to play either in Linares, or Monte Carlo or Mainz, and now he’s complaining that the tournaments have been cancelled. 25 years ago it didn’t occur to anyone to say that chess was in a crisis.

I’d say that Mr. Kasimdzhanov doesn’t read the newspapers. He’s got no idea there’s a colossal world financial crisis and a new wave of that is threatened due to the fact that the US is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. Mr. Kasimdzhanov doesn’t know anything about that in his Central Asia. I pity Mr. Kasimdzhanov…

Kasparov wrote an article in New in Chess called “Kirsan’s War on Chess”. People have noted, as you did, that only three games were won – so Ilyumzhinov says we shouldn’t have full-length games. We’ll have rapid chess instead. Kasparov describes that approach, using some French humour, as similar to claiming the best cure for dandruff is the guillotine. I’d translate that article by Kasparov and place it in a lot of cultural (and non-cultural) publications, in newspapers and magazines.

Only three games ended decisively, but you get games that end in draws and are extremely pleasant to watch, while there are games that end in quick wins that are unpleasant. There’s no crisis in chess and proposals like Kasimdzhanov’s are terrible. I’d take the “former World Champion” title away from that man.  Even the “former”.  (laughs)

Do you keep in contact with Kasparov nowadays?

No, I can't say I do. True, he did come to my eightieth birthday party and gave a speech. But our relationship’s normal. He treats me with the respect due to elders.

You don’t have any contact with Karpov?

None at all.

Do you have any plans for upcoming tournaments? Russian chess fans would like to know when we can root for you again.

Unfortunately the man who fought with all his energy for my place in world and Russian chess, and he did that successfully, has died. A man called Khropov. No-one gives me any particular support. I’ve been invited to one tournament because it’s being run by my old friend Levant. He’s also elderly now, and it seems it’s going to be the last tournament he organises in his life. He’s invited me to Israel at the end of November.

I was also invited to relax and become part of a tournament at Lake Issyk Kul. But that’s only distantly related to chess because the chess players there simply want to see me at Lake Issyk Kul.

Korchnoi remembers Botvinnik on the centenary of his birth. Photo: Anna Burtasov, RCF website

Given our site is a publishing house, and we recently published your book on the French Defence, let’s talk a little about books. What was your first chess book? For example, I know that for Kasparov his first book was “Chess” by Maizelis, a big yellow book. Incidentally, we recently also republished that. It came out in 1960. Back then you’d just become USSR Champion, so your first book was no doubt something else?

But wasn’t Kasparov 4 years old in 1960?

That was when it was released, but he probably read it a little later.

My first books were Emanuel Lasker’s Manual of Chess, and also Capablanca’s. I learned from those books. The war had just ended, there was an odd selection in the bookshops, and I found those two books.

Which book had the greatest influence on you?

Bronstein’s book on the International Tournament in Zurich. A beautiful and well-known book. It impressed me, as did my personal contacts with Bronstein, who taught me a lot about chess. First he wrote the book, then we studied a little together, and we also played chess. So he more or less taught me to play.

Are there any other books you’d consider the best of chess literature? Ones you’d recommend?

A great number of books have been published in recent years, but in recent years I haven’t read very much. I can’t really say.

Other books?

I enjoy reading detective novels. I also like reading books on psychology. Unfortunately there aren’t that many books in Russian, but I enjoy reading books on psychology in English. I’d also recommend them to chess players, as they help to develop a psychological view of chess in general, and also of your opponents in particular.

Are there any particular books you could mention?

I read a book entitled, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself. It turns out that by talking to yourself you can talk to your subconscious. And if you do it skilfully then it can be a powerful way of changing things in your consciousness.  15 years ago I gave up smoking. So it’s interesting, for instance, for someone who wants to give up smoking. It was by some American author.

Let me know if this isn’t a polite question, but there were some rumours about your health. How do you feel at the moment?

Well, you can see I’ve got a walking stick. I’ve got an acquaintance of about the same age and I told her that a stick spoils your gait, but she replied that even without a stick your gait deteriorates. I walk with a stick and it’s not so easy. I tried to do some exercises to improve my gait, but it turns out I’ve also got problems with my heart. So I started to do less of those important exercises. But at my age if nothing hurt it wouldn't be normal. (laughs)

It turned out just before the tournament that Boris Spassky couldn’t make it because he doesn’t feel too well, and he’s in hospital at the moment. What would you like to wish him? Perhaps you’ve got something you'd like to say to him?

It’s a great pity that Spassky couldn’t come. We made up a pair in the chess world. We talked together, and played together at various events. I’ve lost a partner. It’s a pity. You could say I could find another partner, but that’s possible to say but impossible to do at my age.

So Boris Vasilievich, you’ve got no option. You have to get better.  (laughter) Thank you.    

Video interview at Russian CHESS House