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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