- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Aside from lots of checking, there isn’t really much that hockey and chess have in common.

But there was a real harmonic convergence with the passing last week of Gordie Howe, the late, great NHL star who earned the nickname “Mr. Hockey” while playing an incredible 26 seasons and still getting it done in his 50s, and Viktor Korchnoi, the Soviet-born Swiss grandmaster who was still playing world-class chess into his 70s — decades after most star players have stopped their clocks on elite competitive play.

Korchnoi, who died at the age of 85 June 6 after a brief illness, was the Soviet junior champion in 1947, won the Soviet championship four times, played two tough title matches with Anatoly Karpov in 1978 and 1981, played in his final Candidates’ cycle in 1991 and was still rated 85th in the world at the age of 75 in the 2007 FIDE ratings list. Perhaps only former world champion Emanuel Lasker comes close to Korchnoi in his ability to remain a strong player late in his life.

A sometimes-irascible character with a prickly, dogged style, Korchnoi defeated virtually all the greats of the postwar era, including Botvinnik, Tal, Smyslov, Fischer and Petrosian. He came up just short of a world title, but he did claim the 16th Senior World Championship at the age of 75, racking up an undefeated 9-2 score. His win there over Italian IM Stefano Tatai is classic Korchnoi, a hard-fought struggle where Black just proves stronger in the game’s critical juncture.

This Taimanov Sicilian takes a while to get going, but Black takes over after turning back White’s queenside ambitions with the well-timed 35Ra8!, when 36. Raa7? Rxa7 37. Rxa7 (Nxa7 Qh4! 38. Qf1 f3 39. g3 Qxe4 wins) Bg4 38. Qf2 f3 39. Ra1 fxg2+ 40. Qxg2 Qe3 is killing.

White can’t make the transition from offense to defense, and falls victim to a killer sequence: 43. Nd5?! (heading the wrong way; defensive measures with 43. Nd3 Bg6 44. Re1 Qg4 45. Qd2 Bxe4 46. Nf2 were in order) Bg6 44. Nc7 Bxe4!, and Korchnoi brushes aside the nice fork with a fine final combination: 45. Ne6 Qd2!! 46. Rf1 (Qxd2?? f2+ 47. Rg2 f1=Q mate) Qxf2 47. Rxf2 Ra8. White’s resignation is a trifle premature, but Black clearly is winning on 48. Kg1 Ra1+ 49. Rf1 Ra2 50. Rf2 Bf5 51. Nc7 e4, and the pawns will soon prove overwhelming.

A master of the difficult defense, Korchnoi could also attack when the occasion warranted. One of his greatest combinations came in his 1967 win over Croatian GM Mijo Udovcic, which we pick up from today’s diagram after Black has just played 22g6. What follows is a clinic of pins as the vulnerable Black king is caught in a vicious crossfire.

White played the surprising 22. Qh4!, meeting 22.g5 (Bxb4?? 23. Qxd8 mate) with the stunning 23. Nxg5!! Ke8 (Bxb4? 24. Nxe6+) 25. Bb5+ Bd7 26. Nxe6!! fxe6 (Bxb5 27. Ng7+ Kf8 [Kd7 28. Qg4 mate] 28. Nf5) 27. Qh5+ Kf8 28. Rc3! (the White rook and queen will be enough to mate the abandoned Black king) Rh7 29. Qg6 Rg7 30. Qxh6 Bxb5 31. Rg3, and the pinned rook can’t be saved; Udovcic resigned.

Tatai-Korchnoi, 16th World Senior Championship, Arvier, Italy, September 2006

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nb5 d6 6. Bf4 e5 7. Be3 Nf6 8. Bg5 Be6 9. Nd2 a6 10. Nc3 Be7 11. Bxf6 Bxf6 12. Bc4 O-O 13. Nd5 Rc8 14. c3 Kh8 15. Bb3 Bg5 16. Nc4 b5 17. Nce3 Na5 18. O-O g6 19. Kh1 Bh6 20. Qf3 Bxe3 21. Qxe3 f5 22. f3 Nc4 23. Bxc4 Rxc4 24. Qd3 Rc5 25. Ne3 f4 26. Nd5 g5 27. a4 g4 28. fxg4 Bxg4 29. axb5 axb5 30. Ra7 Be6 31. Qf3 Qg5 32. Rfa1 Rcc8 33. Ne7 Rce8 34. Nc6 Rg8 35. Rc7 Ra8 36. Na7 Bg4 37. Qf2 Bh5 38. Rg1 f3 39. g3 Rab8 40. Nc6 Rbc8 41. Rxc8 Rxc8 42. Nb4 Rf8 43. Nd5 Bg6 44. Nc7 Bxe4 45. Ne6 Qd2 46. Rf1 Qxf2 47. Rxf2 Ra8 White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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