Flourishing a disposable lighter in his chess-playing right hand and a Swiss cigarette in his left, Viktor Korchnoi plops down onto a couch in his apartment near Zurich and expounds on a recent happenstance. The Kremlin has restored Korchnoi's Soviet citizenship, clearing the way for him to return to the U.S.S.R. 14 years after he defected. "It was very nice of President Gorbachev to bring back justice," he says, firing up his cigarette. "But I must decline his invitation to return. O.K., everything's over and I don't have any resentment, especially to the government that rules at the moment. But why leave here? I'm happy."
Korchnoi has long been an irritant to the Soviet chess establishment, which he has accused of bombarding him with radiation and psychic whammies. The challenger for the world title in 1978 and '81 has dark, emphatic-eyebrows and a mordant cast of eye. At 59, an age at which grandmasters are supposed to be annotating the memorable matches of their youth, Korchnoi's game retains its tactical fireworks: the jabbing and probing, the traps and last-minute counterattacks. But among the players immune to Korchnoi's reckless adventurism are countrymen Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, who will begin their fifth meeting for the world championship on Oct. 8 in New York City.
"Karpov is the enemy of my life," says Korchnoi. "To me, he is gadyonish." That's Russian for "spawn of a viper." The two have been feuding since 1974, when Karpov narrowly beat Korchnoi in a match for the right to play for the world title against Bobby Fischer, who eventually defaulted to Karpov after a dispute over playing conditions. Korchnoi blamed his defeat on Soviet officials who, he says, wanted Karpov to win for political reasons. Korchnoi, who felt that Soviet authorities had been harassing him because of his Jewish heritage, sought asylum in the Netherlands in 1976, leaving his wife, Bella, and son, Igor, behind in Leningrad. It took six years of diplomatic wrangling to get them permission to emigrate.
After his defection, Korchnoi became a nonperson, stripped of his titles. Still, he won a series of matches to qualify to play Karpov for the 1978 world championship in the Philippines. But play there was overshadowed by psychological manuevering that Korchnoi calls antichess.
September 30, 1990
Korchnoi believed that coded instructions were being sent to Karpov via the yogurt he ate during the games in Baguio and that Karpov's aide, parapsychologist Vladimir Zoukhar, was trying to hypnotize Korchnoi. The tournament officials, to appease Korchnoi, ordered Zoukhar to the back of the hall.
Reeling, and down four games to one, Korchnoi enlisted two saffron-robed yogis who were out of jail after being accused of stabbing an Indian Embassy official. The mystic pair calmed him with a regimen of yoga and meditation. Revived, Korchnoi mounted a stunning comeback, tying Karpov at 5-5. But the yogis eventually were banned from the playing hall, and during the final game Zoukhar was back near the stage, staring malevolently-Though Korchnoi lost his nerve and the match, he doesn't believe he overreacted. "To say I was paranoid because of KGB," he says, "is to underestimate KGB's achievements."
At the rematch in Italy three years later, Korchnoi placed a yogi in the front row to annoy Karpov and anticipate Zoukhar. Karpov's psychic didn't show, but Korchnoi lost anyway. "Gallery was crawling with telepathists," he says. "Unfortunately, I could not capture them."
His approach to chess continues to be highly spiritual. He's currently winning a game he has been playing for four years against the Hungarian grandmaster Gèza Maróczy, who died 39 years ago. A Swiss mediator had asked Korchnoi, "If you could play anyone in the hereafter, who would it be?"
Korchnoi named Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba (1888-1942), Paul Keres of Estonia (1916-75) and Maróczy. The mediator contacted a psychic who said he would see what he could do. A week later the mediator told Korchnoi the psychic "can't find Capablanca or Keres, but Maróczy is available."
Korchnoi and Maróczy play intermittently through the psychic, who doesn't even know chess. Korchnoi steered the game to a French defense, an opening with two main lines—one of which wasn't analyzed until after Maróczy's death in 1951. The dead man's choice of the newer variation may ultimately prove fatal, "I'm a professional," Korchnoi says. "I take advantage of everything, even when playing a nonperson."
It takes one to know one.