Review of Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi

It should be well known to readers by now that I am a pretty serious fan of the Soviet School of Chess.  As such I have always enjoyed the writings of chess author Genna Sosonko.

As Genna was born in Leningrad and grew up there before emigrating to the West just shy of 30 years of age he has always been uniquely suited to cover the Soviet era for a Western audience.  However, this was mostly done in the form of his articles for New in Chess magazine, which from time to time would be collected into book length compendiums.  In order to get a fuller picture of someone you had to hope that another story would be written in the future.

Then a few years ago I heard that he had written a book about David Bronstein which was out only in Russian at the time.  I was really looking forward to the release of that book in English.  When it came out it did not disappoint (and you will see a review of that book in the future on this blog!) and so I was hopeful that Genna had more in him.

Imagine my delight when just a few months later the book Evil Doer: Half a Century with Viktor Korchnoi was released!

Much has been written about “Viktor the Terrible” including quite a bit by Viktor Lvovich himself.  Of course I recommend to everyone reading this to seek out those works.  Included would be My Life in Chess, his autobiography; Persona Non Grata, (formerly known as Anti-Chess) his book about the 1978 World Championship match with Karpov; and his lengthy Afterword for The KGB Plays Chess written by Gulko, Popov, and Felshtinsky.

While those works are great, and are highly recommended by me, the picture of a person is never completely accurate when it is told only by them.

Enter Genna Sosonko. The “Half a Century” portion of the subtitle could refer to two lengths of time.  The first is from 1957, when the two first played in a simul given by Viktor, through 2008 when they played their last game (both of those games were drawn, though between them were numerous other games, including wins for both, though Korchnoi managed a strong plus score) and the second is from 1969 when the two began a professional relationship which lasted until Viktor’s death in 2016.

Sosonko approaches this book in the same way that he has approached the various pen portraits which he has become so known for – brutal honesty.  However, underlying all of that is what comes across as a very deep respect.

Korchnoi was a rather late bloomer for someone who would become a world championship contender.  While he began playing chess at an early age, he didn’t begin playing seriously until he was around 12 and started going to the Leningrad Pioneer Palace.  There, one of his trainers was the legendary Vladimir Zak who also trained luminaries such as Spassky, Kamsky, Salov, and Yermolinsky.

Even with all of the resources now available to him it was not until age 20 when Viktor achieved his master title.  After achieving this title it was still another nine years until he won his first of four Soviet chess championships in 1960.

By December 1969 when Sosonko first came to work for Korchnoi as a second Viktor had two appearances in the Candidates cycle under his belt.  He would then spend the next 20+ years as a regular fixture in the world championship cycles.

It’s at this point in Korchnoi’s life that the narrative of this book really takes off.

For the next two years Genna and Viktor spent quite a lot of time working together, but during that period Sosonko felt himself growing apart from the Soviet Union and he began to seriously consider emigrating to the West.

In March of 1972 Sosonko visited Korchnoi at his flat and said that he had taken the decision to give up chess and emigrate.

At this time in the Soviet Union chess players received a decent stipend and chess was a well-respected pursuit.  So to walk away from this was a truly monumental decision which was not to be taken lightly.  Once someone emigrated the odds that they would ever see their friends or family again were very slight.

For these reasons Korchnoi tried to talk him out of this decision, but there was no persuading Genna.  His mind was made up.  In August 1972 he left the Soviet Union and headed to Israel, from where he shortly made his way to his long time home in the Netherlands.

While it seems that Korchnoi at first thought the decision to be an incorrect one, it was only a short couple of years later that Viktor began having the same thoughts.

Leading up to the 1974 Candidates Matches a campaign was undertaken in the USSR in which the direction that was being promoted by many, including former World Champion Tigran Petrosian, was one of youth over experience.  As the former generation had lost the title to Fischer, it was Petrosian’s contention that the generation of Karpov should be the one to pursue reacquiring it.

After some public back and forth, Korchnoi was thrown off of the Soviet National Team for the period of one year, ostensibly to teach him his place.  As this precluded Viktor from travelling, and as he understood that his career was fully at the whim of Soviet officials, Viktor decided that it was time for him to leave too.

Unlike Sosonko, who was able to obtain an exit visa and emigrate legally, Korchnoi knew that the only way for him to leave would be to defect.  There was no scenario in which Soviet officials would allow an elite level grandmaster to leave on a voluntary basis.

So it was in July 1976 when Korchnoi learned the phrase “political asylum” from English GM Tony Miles and defected after playing in a tournament in Amsterdam.

With the restrictions of the Soviet Union behind him Viktor was now free to travel and play as he pleased and it was here that his career really took off.  He played in the next two world title matches in 1978 and 1981, and then continued to play in every candidates cycle until 1991.

Once they were both residents of Western nations Korchnoi and Sosonko were able to resume their lifelong friendship, as well as some professional work together as well.

What I have written above is quite well known to me.  What was not so well known to me was the period of Korchnoi’s life after 1991.  Mostly this is due to the fact that I myself stopped playing and following chess from 1992-2011.  However, even since my return details about Korchnoi were always a bit in the background.

Sure, I knew some of the major details, such as Korchnoi’s World Senior title, his win over Caruana in 2011 at Gibraltar when Fabi was 61 years Viktor’s junior and already rated over 2700, and the fact that Viktor became the oldest national champion recorded when he won the 2011 Swiss Championship at the age of 80.  The day to day details though…those I had no idea about.

Genna covers this period of Viktor’s life in great detail.  He discusses how as Viktor aged he cut more and more out of his life until he was only interested in chess.  Gone were former loves for things such as poetry, music, etc.  All were pushed to the side for Caissa.

This single minded focus allowed Viktor to maintain an extremely high level of play.  In fact, at age 75 he was still number 85 on the Top 100 list.  By far the oldest player to be so.  For comparison, today the oldest player on the list is Nigel Short, who at age 53 finds himself in 88th place.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Whether you are like me and consider yourself a student of Soviet Chess history, or if you have no idea at all about the Soviets, but are just a fan of chess and a good narrative, this book will keep you glued to the page.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.


Let Andrzej Show You The Way – With Chessable!

Long time readers of this blog have probably heard me mention Ben Johnson’s podcast Perpetual Chess.

I really enjoy the podcast, and I typically get a lot of interesting tidbits out of the interviews.  There have been interviews with people I have been friends with for years where I still learn all kinds of cool information.

This week’s episode was a bit different from the normal interview of either a titled player or someone running a chess business.  This week Ben kicked off his Adult Improver series where he will conduct interviews from time to time with adults who are working to improve as players.

For the inaugural episode he chose Polish CM Andrzej Krzywda.  Andrzej is an interesting case study.  He’s 38 with a wife and two young kids and spent around 20 years being rated 2100 FIDE.  Three years or so ago he decided to pursue the IM title.

Recently he made an IM norm with a 2579 TPR in a strong round robin event.

He wrote about the experience in this Reddit post.

Here is the interview itself.  Listen to it as you will be amazed by Andrzej and his work ethic and dedication.  I know I was!

One of the things that Andrzej mentions several times in his interview is the site 

I started using this site a few days ago for openings work, and oh wow has it already made a massive difference.

I’ve never been one to enjoy studying openings.  I used to have a phenomenal memory, but these days it’s maybe slightly above average at best, so I just never felt like putting in the work I felt it would take to learn lines cold.

Since I also tend to play really sharp stuff at times this was leading to some truly avoidable issues where I was getting terrible positions making basic mistakes.

So I started using chessable to build a repertoire.  I can tell you that the process will be slow going because it does take a bit of work to add your lines to the site (unless you have pgn files which you can just import) but I can already tell it will be well worth it.

After only four days I have an extremely sharp line I play as White memorized 22 moves deep – and it’s sticking in my memory!

Once I get all of the sharp stuff I play into chessable and get in the habit of drilling it daily until it’s a part of my chessic DNA I’m expecting to finally perform at or above my rating in the openings.

Naturally I don’t plan on suddenly spending all of my time working on openings.  That would be an anathema to the way I work on chess.  However, with chessable it seems like I won’t have to.  Because of the way it drills you on your lines and then repeatedly has you go over moves that you missed it doesn’t take much time to be able to solidify the ideas in your head.

Of course you can also use chessable for endgames, tactics, books, etc.

I heartily recommend that everyone try it out.  Just join and grab one of their free opening books and go through it.  Right away you’ll have a great feel of how the site works and how they will do the repetitive drilling to help with memorization.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

If you like this blog, please consider becoming a Patreon supporter.  Any money I raise will go towards lessons and stronger tournaments.

If you can spare it, please click here and become a supporter.  Even $1 a month can help me achieve my dream.

An Embarrassment of Podcast Riches

A couple of years ago I stumbled across the chess podcast The Full English Breakfast.  I think I was reading an interview or a profile of Lawrence Trent and it mentioned the FEB in some regard.

So I searched it out and found to my dismay that the last episode was a way back in the past.  This was sometime maybe around late 2015 or so and they hadn’t done anything since Jan 2014.  Even so their last regular episode had been all the way back in 2012.

Nevertheless I devoured those 27 episodes.  I must have listened to them 3-4 times each.  I found them to be enjoyable and insightful even if they were all from a few years earlier.  Events I had forgotten about suddenly seemed contemporary again.

But every time I came to that final episode I was sad to hear it end.

Then, on January 14th of this year the producer of The FEB Macauley Peterson, posted on their Facebook Page “What was your favorite all time FEB episode?  Or favorite individual segment? (BTW…Not just navel gazing here.)”

My immediate thought was “They’re bringing it back!” which was of course instantly followed by “But for how long?”

One of the things that seemed to plague the show was that it was always an on again off again affair.  The show premiered with a pilot episode, then was immediately on hiatus for around a year, then came back and was very intermittent.  Then, at times they tried to get into a regular rhythm but would go off the tracks just when they seemed to be right in the pocket.

We’ll get back to our good friends at The FEB shortly…and now for something completely different.

Flash forward to perhaps a month after Macauley’s semi-cryptic tweet.  The protest of Nazi Paikidze against the FIDE Women’s World Championship event is in full swing.

On one of her posts on either Twitter or Facebook (I don’t recall which) I see this guy named Ben Johnson say some words of support followed by something like “It was great having you on the Perpetual Chess podcast.”

“Woah woah woah!” I told myself.  There’s another chess podcast? Indeed there was!  NM, chess teacher, and former professional poker player Ben Johnson had started a weekly interview podcast.

From what I gather Ben had no former experience in the field of journalistic interviews, but he clearly has a lot of natural talent, which has grown as the show has gotten deeper in to its run.

Ben did the thing that really more of us should do.  He was stunned that there were no chess podcasts since The FEB had gone offline so he started one.  He saw a need and he took steps to fill it.  So kudos to him!

The format of the Perpetual Chess podcast is essentially the same as you would expect on a sports interview show.  Ben has a conversation with the guests on topics crossing many spectrums, those maintaining a chess centric theme.

So you very well may hear about poker, investing, Hearthstone, cooking, and fitness, but all the while never straying too far from the chess.

Back to our good friends at The FEB.  The format of their show has changed somewhat over the years, but the overall structure is relatively similar.  Generally it’s Macauley, Lawrence Trent, and another English player chatting about a topical chess item.

In the original incarnation of the show GM Stevie G (Stephen Gordon) held down the spot quite nicely.  However, he has apparently done the unthinkable and gotten himself a real job 🙂

In the current incarnation GM Simon Williams has been holding the chair and doing so rather well.  It would be nice, however, to hear his name in the introduction!

They now do one show each week.  The trade off is that the shows are much shorter than they used to be, but that’s fine since they are producing regular content!

So far The FEB has had 16 new episodes since their re-launch (although they are talking about a hiatus this Summer), and Perpetual Chess is on episode 29 and counting.

I urge everyone reading this to support both of these efforts.

For The FEB you can become a patron for as little as $1 a month!  I personally do the $5 a month donation and I really wish that more people would.

For Perpetual Chess you can purchase books from Amazon using the links from the Perpetual Chess Books page.  These are books either written or recommended by guests of the show.

Someday, when Ben adds a donate button I’ll become a patron of that show too 🙂

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

Review of The Fighting Dragon by Paul Powell

Well here it is…the last review I’m likely to be doing for a while since I’m using only QC products for a while.

For the record I was working on this one for a bit.  In fact I nearly had it completed when my site crashed and I lost everything.

So here we go…

This book which was recently released by NM Paul Powell is subtitled “How to Defeat the Yugoslav Attack” which is of course the most critical line against the Dragon.

While Fischer may have once claimed the Dragon was a bust (“sac, sac, mate” anyone?) the truth is much more complex.  The Dragon remains one of the most critical and deeply analyzed openings in chess.

It also seems to be a favorite for lower level players.  I have a few thoughts as to why that is, and I think that they are relevant for this review.

First of all, I think that the Dragon seems “easy” to play due to it’s somewhat systemic nature.  The first 10-11 moves are pretty easy to remember unlike many other openings.

Secondly, I think that the Dragon (along with most lines of the Sicilian) comes with reasonably easy to understand plans.

Those two things combine to make this opening very popular among certain groups of players.

Seizing on that opportunity, Paul and his publisher, Mongoose Press, have written a book that speaks to those players.

Let’s be perfectly clear about what this is not.  This is not a book designed to show you the latest intricacies on move 22 against the 9.0-0-0 variation of the Yugoslav.  Books like that exist and if you are a player around the Class A or above level then those books are really what you want.  But if you are not (and let’s face it, the majority of chess players are not) then this book is the book for you.

Really the book is split in to two distinct books.  “Book 1: Ideas and Patterns” and “Book 2: Quizzes.”

The first book is composed of chapters which cover a particular variation through the annotation of sample games.  Lines include 9.Bc4 Nd7; 9.0-0-0 Nxd4; 9.g4 Nxd4; 9.g4 Bxg4; 9.Bc4 Nxd4; 9.0-0-0 d5; 9…a5; 9…Qa5; 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rb8; 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Qb8; 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Qc7, and an odds and ends chapter.

There is also a very nice interlude piece where the author discusses transpositions.  I think that concept is very undercovered as relates to club level players, so it’s nice to see it here.  In some cases it’s important to know what line is likely to transpose into a different line since it helps a player feel a bit more familiar in various move orders.

NM Powell’s annotations are to my taste perfect for what he is trying to achieve.  Often they are along the lines of “White should reject this move on principle as it weakens the c3-knight” or “As we have seen in many games, the pattern of sacrificing a knight at g4 or e4 is a common theme for launching an attack.  If you embed the search for these kinds of opportunities into your DNA you’ll win some spectacular games over your chess career.”

This is not to say that the analysis shies away from variations.  It does not. In fact, when it is needed, the author goes in to some quite deep analysis to show his point.  However where possible to explanations tend to be more verbal than variational, which I believe will serve readers of this book quite well.

It’s also important to point out that with so many variations covered in a 184 page book, nothing is covered deeply.  Then again, I don’t believe it’s intended to be. As near as I can tell it’s intended to lightly cover a wide range of topics which will give the reader a nice broad background from which to grow.

The second book – quizzes – also offers up a nice selection of typical Dragon positions and tactics to help the reader understand how to unleash the latent power in this opening.

Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of the things that I really enjoyed about this book is the mention of Israel Zilber in the dedication.  If you don’t know who Zilber was then do yourself a favor and read Searching for Bobby Fischer by Fred Waitzkin.

All in all I think that this book achieves it’s goal and should be read by anyone lower rated than Class A who plays or is thinking about playing the Dragon.  It should also be read by anyone who prefers verbal explanatory analysis regardless of what openings they play.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott