Friday, 29 April 2011

Chess Reviews: 176

My Best Games
Anniversary Edition
By GM Victor Korchnoi
435 pages

I did a little piece on this book here and promised to return to it in due course. GM Korchnoi has always been one of my favourite chess players. The first two serious chess books I owned were 'Korchnoi's 400 Best Games' and 'The Games of Robert J. Fischer' (both Batsford - and still great, inspirational books). It is always a pleasure to revisit his life and games.

This updated collection (formerly available in two volumes) has an additional 10 games with new annotations and was released to commemorate Victor's 80th birthday.

With his his love of chess, pointed observations and often controversial views, the author is never dull and always quotable. His new introduction explains how he chose the selected games from the enormous amount he has played in his lengthy career. There were four criteria:

1) A roughly even spread over the decades from the 1950s to the early 2000s.

2) A diverse range of opponents from 'four generations' of chess players.

3) A wide range of different openings.

4) The quality of the games.

Furthermore, 'If during the course of a game I found there was nothing to disclose to the readers, I rejected it however good the game!'

Next comes a five-page preface from GM Sosonko, a long time friend of GM Korchnoi. He stresses Korchnoi's remarkable fighting spirit, still very much in evidence to this day, when our hero has already passed his 80th birthday.

Korchnoi v Timman at the Staunton Memorial in 2009.
One of Victor's fabulous finishing burst of three straight wins!

There are 110 games, arranged in chronological order (1-55 are with the White pieces and then 56-110 are with Black), 10 of which are new for this updated edition. The opponents include Fischer, Karpov, Botvinnik, Spassky, Petrosian and Tal and the featured openings range, alphabetically, from Alekhine's Defence to the Torre Attack with an understandable bias towards his favourites, including the English Opening, Queen's Gambit and the French Defence.

Every game is full of fighting chess and all are annotated in Victor's inimitable style. There are surprising omissions, which presumably didn't match all four of the criteria given above. For example, his famous win with Black against Kasparov in their 1983 Candidates' match is nowhere to be seen.

Some randomly chosen quotes should demonstrate the tone of the prose:

'Incidentally, I do not think that the computerised commentaries given by some grandmasters are an adornment to chess, or that they are useful to chess players. A player should develop his tactical intuition, whereas catalogues of variations try to replace this with a total calculation of the possibilities'.

'A competent positional player, if he has several plans, does not hurry to carry out one of them. After all, by beginning to implement some plan, he to some extent loses his superiority over the opponent, which in fact consisted of the fact that up till then he had ore possibilities than the opponent!'

After 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6, the initial position of the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defence, he says:

'I consider this move (5 ...a6), which was so popular in the second half if the 20th century, to be a serious mistake. Look what we teach chess beginners: ''Don't make pawn moves in the opening, unless they assist the development of the pieces''. And what do we ourselves do? already on the fifth move Back makes some mysterious little pawn move! Indeed, ''one rule for the rich, and another for the poor'', as my grandma use to say'.

Victor in action during the simultaneous displays
at the London Chess Classic in 2009.

Hard fought games between strong players can be just as fluctuating and prone to errors as those between lesser mortals. Victor often gives his own moves question marks and is forever trying to seek the truth in his annotations - even in games played decades ago. The following sample game (reproduced by kind permission from Olms) is an exceptional case of a 'faultless game'...

Korchnoi – Polugayevsky
Semi-Final Candidates Match
7th Game, Evian 1977
Semi-Slav Defence
(Notes by GM Korchnoi)

During my life I have played more than five thousand games. In choosing the material for my book of selected games, I tried to show the readers my most complicated, fighting encounters, definitely with mutual mistakes, with the intention of explaining these mistakes, affording pleasure, and also raising the standard of the inquisitive reader. But now I am venturing to show the reader one of my so-called faultless games. Since I had a worthy opponent, the game turned out to be entertaining…

1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 e6 3 Nf3 d5 4 d4 c6 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4 b5

The talented grandmaster Lev Polugayevsky possessed a splendid tactical vision and excellent technique in the playing of simple positions. Nevertheless, he had a leaning towards play in very complicated positions. He was a virtuoso of the Sicilian Defence for Black. Once, in 1958, I wanted to test his strength in the Sicilian. I tested it, and in a certain sense I was satisfied with the test – I lost. Against 1 d4 Polugayevsky did not have a crushing weapon, and he tried various set-ups. In the 1970s he placed his choice on the Meran Variation. There is something in common with the Sicilian – for a time Black concedes the centre, but continues to bombard it. The initiative seems to be with White, but after one inaccurate move everything can be overturned…

8 Bd3 Bb7

The modern way of playing the Meran Variation. In the past, since the early part of the 20th century, here 8...a6 was invariably played.

9 0–0 b4

This continuation, along with 9...a6, was fashionable not only in the past, but was also employed many times in the early 21st century.

10 Ne4 Be7 11 Nxf6+ Nxf6 12 e4 0–0 13 Qc2 h6 14 Be3

It often happens in matches between grandmasters that a player prepares one or two lines of defence. And as long as the first line is not breached, he sticks to his defensive course. Polugayevsky chooses the Meran Variation for already the third time in the match! To breach this defensive line White has to work hard! Black is in fact preparing to play …c6-c5 and equalise. There are various ways of opposing this. Here, with my team of helpers (Stean, Murey, Keene), I was able to find a new and interesting move. Would my opponent be able to neutralise this novelty?

14...Rc8 15 Rfd1 c5

All the time the knight move to g4 suggests itself, but if Black plays this immediately, then after 15...Ng4 16 Bf4 c5 17 e5 cxd4 18 Qe2 the knight at g4 ends up in an altogether ridiculous position.

16 dxc5 Ng4

Now this knight thrust is more or less forced. The other move that suggests itself – 16...Qa5 would have led to an inferior endgame for Black: 17 a3! Bxc5 18 Bxc5 Rxc5 19 Qd2 b3 20 Qxa5 Rxa5 21 Nd2!.

17 Bd4 e5 18 h3 exd4 19 hxg4

The resulting pawn structure is obviously advantageous to White. Something similar can occur in the Queen’s Gambit with 5 Bf4. In the game White’s advantage is even more obvious: not only the d4-pawn is weak, but also its neighbour at b4. Black’s only trump is his two bishops. In a difficult endgame they may help him to save the game…

19…Rxc5 20 Qd2 a5 21 Rac1


As it soon transpires, this is an imperceptible mistake with serious consequences. The place for the dark-square bishop is at e7. In the game Nenashev-Novikov (Moscow 1991) Black exchanged on c1. In the subsequent play he lost his d4-pawn, but with tenacious defence he drew the game.

22 Rxc5 Bxc5 23 g5 hxg5 24 Qxg5 Qe7

24...Be7 was no better, since 25 Qxa5 is possible, and the counter-action 25…Ra8 26 Qh5 Rxa2 is parried by 27 Bc4.

25 Qh5 g6 26 Qh6 Qf6 27 Bc4!

Because of the resulting threats to the black king, White is able to regroup his pieces for a decisive attack. Thus here 27...Bxe4 will not do in view of 28 Ng5.


Fully in Polugayevsky’s style: all the same the pawn is doomed, so why not sacrifice it, to activate the bishop on c5?!

28 e5 Qf5

If 28...Qg7, a more or less forced variation arises: 29 Qg5! Bxf3 30 gxf3 Bd4 31 e6 Bf6 32 exf7+Kh7 33 Qf4 and Black is in trouble.

29 Rxd3 Be4

30 Rd6!

This move is not hard to find: if the rook is captured there again follows 31 Ng5!

30…Qg4 31 Rf6 Bf5 32 b3

Black has found the only moves to hold the position, but now the defensive resources have come to an end. The destructive e5-e6 is threatened. For example: 32...a4 33 e6 fxe6 34 Bxe6+ Bxe6 35 Rxg6+.

32…Bd4 33 Nxd4 Qxd4 34 Rxg6+ Bxg6 35 Qxg6+ Kh8 36 Qh6+ Kg8 37 e6

This threat, which for a long time has been hanging over Black’s position, is finally carried out.

37...Qe4 38 exf7+ Rxf7

To avoid a protracted queen endgame, White is forced to play ‘brilliantly’.

39 Qf6! Qb1+ 40 Kh2 Qh7+ 41 Kg3 Qd3+ 42 f3 Qxc4 43 Qd8+ Black resigns

I managed a number of little chats with the great man while
writing articles on the 2009 London Classic for CHESS Magazine.

Going back to the introduction, Victor concluded with:

'Whether I have succeeded with my book, it is not clear. But I very much hope that, as he delves into it, the reader will not be bored...'

There's not much chance of any reader ever being bored by this book.

The focus of attention is firmly on the actual games of chess. Readers who are more interested in the political and autobiographical aspects of GM Korchnoi's life are advised to refer to the companion volume, 'Chess is My Life', which is also available from Olms. Real chess fans will want both books, of course.

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