Viktor Korchnoi lost the most important games of his chess career. Yet the 85-year-old grandmaster, who died Monday, was an oversized figure: Unlike most Soviet emigres, he got a chance to take on the Communist system in open competition, and he put up a fight that inspired many behind the Iron Curtain. As a Russian who disagrees with the regime that holds power in my country today, I too find belated inspiration in Korchnoi's David vs. Goliath battle.

Korchnoi started playing chess at 13 in Leningrad, then under German siege. He progressed quickly and became one of the most prominent players in the Soviet Union, where chess was gaining importance as a showcase for the country's intellectual advantage. Yet he had an explosive temperament and a penchant for inconvenient truths, and sports officials disliked him. Besides, like many of his peers in the star-studded Soviet chess community, he was Jewish — hardly a point in his favor in a firmly anti-Semitic system.

Korchnoi did his best to advance within the system. He even joined the Communist Party — a prerequisite for being allowed to travel regularly to international tournaments. But by the mid-1970s, when Korchnoi reached the peak of his form and was beating the strongest rivals both inside and outside the country, there was a new kid in town — Anatoly Karpov, an ethnic Russian from a working class family and a model young Communist. The Soviet chess hierarchy rallied behind him.