07 June 2016

My Two Encounters with Korchnoi

Yesterday GM Viktor Korchnoi passed away. I'll leave it to his world class opponents and to the professional journalists to relate his enormous importance to the chess world. Instead I would like to relate two small, personal stories about him.

The occasion was the 2nd SWIFT International Tournament (1986) -- Karpov, Korchnoi, Timman, Miles, eight other players -- and I was invited to the opening ceremony at the Sheraton Hotel next to Place Rogier in downtown Brussels. A good friend of mine, a non-chessplayer, was working as a consultant at SWIFT, the well known operator of a network for financial transfers, and knew about my lifelong interest in chess. He asked me if I was interested in attending the ceremony and we met there along with a SWIFT colleague of his, a Russian named Slava.

I recall that Bessel Kok, one of SWIFT's founders, made a wonderful introductory speech in three languages -- English, Dutch, and French (maybe it was four languages: German as well) -- where he said that SWIFT and chess were a good match. They were both young and dynamic; they were both international; and they both relied on technology.

I also recall standing at the reception (champagne? everything was first class that day) chatting with my friend and with Slava about chess. Korchnoi was standing nearby chatting to someone else, when Slava went over to him and said something. Korchnoi looked startled, hurried away, and hid behind a pillar in the reception room.

'What did you say to him, Slava?' • 'I told him how much I admired his play.'

A minute or two later Korchnoi came back to our group, said something to Slava in Russian, and hurried off again.

'What did he say to you, Slava?' • 'He said, "You should know better than to go up to another Russian who is a complete stranger and start talking in Russian."'

I understood that in the ten years since his defection from the USSR, Korchnoi had been constantly vigilant about Soviet security.

During the next two weeks I managed on several occasions to get away from work and from personal responsibilities to visit the tournament and watch the games.

On one of the last days of the event I wandered out of the spectator area into the lobby and saw Korchnoi standing there alone, smoking a cigarette. I hurried over to the chess book seller on the side of the lobby and bought the first book I could find about him.

I went back to where Korchnoi was standing -- fortunately he was still there -- and asked him for his autograph. I'm glad he dated it (3 April 1986), because it tells me that it was the tenth round, when he drew with Black against Timman.

On top of getting Korchnoi's autograph, I also got a great book. May the great man rest in peace.

No comments: