Mikhail Botvinnik – A Chess Giant

Mikhail Botvinnik was arguably the most influential world chess champion of the 20th century. A leading influence in the Soviet School of Chess, Mikhail Botvinnik brought a scientific approach to chess.

Thanks to his psychological and scientific approach to chess, he would dominate the World Chess Championship from 1948 to 1963. He briefly lost his hold on the title to Smyslov and Tal but won both rematches the following year.

Mikhail Botvinnik’s Early Years

Mikhail Botvinnik was born in St. Petersburg on August 17th, 1911. Nowadays, we have players obtaining titles at the age Mikhail Botvinnik played his first game – 12!

mikhail botvinnik 1962
Mikhail Botvinnik 1962

Fortunately for Mikhail Botvinnik, his progress was rapid for the next eight years. With the help of his coach Abram Model, he became the youngest player to win the USSR Championship in 1931.

Five years later, he tied with Capablanca for first place in the 1936 Nottingham Tournament, ahead of Alexander Alekhine.

The tournament was regarded as one of the strongest of all time because it featured five players who had or would hold the title of World Chess Champion – Mikhail Botvinnik, Jose Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, and Emmanuel Lasker.

Botvinnik’s win against Tartakower won the brilliancy prize.

Mikhail Botvinnik – Savielly Tartakower, 1936.08.13, 1-0, Nottingham Round 4, Nottingham ENG

Botvinnik’s dominance of the 1936 Nottingham Tournament was confirmed when he won a second brilliancy prize for his win against Milan Vidmar.

In 1948 Mikhail Botvinnik Became the Sixth World Chess Champion

Shortly after the Second World War ended, the current World Chess Champion, Alexander Alekhine, died on March 23rd, 1946. In July of the same year, FIDE proposed a round-robin tournament for the vacant title to be held in the Netherlands in June 1947.

The five contestants were Paul Keres, Vassily Smyslov, Samuel Reshevsky, Max Euwe, and Botvinnik. The tournament was partly delayed because Russia was not a member of FIDE.

It wasn’t until the next FIDE congress in The Hague in August 1947 that the contestants agreed to the conditions of the tournament. At this time, Russia was a member of FIDE.

This round-robin tournament would comprise twenty-five rounds, with the first ten rounds played in the Netherlands and the other fifteen in Moscow.

Mikhail Botvinnik was in the lead by one point when he played Paul Keres in the tenth round. Because of how the games got scheduled, Keres played after six days of rest.

While traveling to the Netherlands, Botvinnik noticed this and predicted whoever was unfortunate enough to get this six-day break would lose their game quickly.

Paul Keres proved Botvinnik correct and lost in only twenty-three moves!

Here is the final position of the game. Keres resigned because checkmate can only be delayed by giving up a lot of material, with moves like …Qxh2 and …Ng4.

Botvinnik Keres final position 1948

This win gave Mikhail Botvinnik a 1.5-point lead heading to the second leg in Moscow, a lead that he would build on to win the title within the scheduled twenty-five games.

In twenty games against the best chess player in the world, Mikhail Botvinnik only suffered two defeats. His final score was +10 -2 =8, three points clear of Vasily Smyslov.

Mikhail Botvinnik – Paul Keres, 1948.03.25, 1-0, FIDE World Championship Tournament Round 10, The Hague NED / Moscow URSB

Botvinnik Defended His Crown in 1951

The preparation Mikhail Botvinnik became known for was displayed when he defended his title in 1951 against David Bronstein.

Creative-genius-gm-david-bronstein
Creative genius GM David Bronstein

Since he won the title in 1948, Botvinnik had not played any games in public. Mikhail Botvinnik prepared for his match against David Bronstein by analyzing every game Bronstein had played since the Saltsjobaden Interzonal in 1948!

Botvinnik also began making notes about all the openings he thought would get played in the match; this opening research began in January 1951 and continued until the match started in March.

A lack of tournament play meant Botvinnik placed a lot of faith in his ability to prepare well enough to retain his title. He would need at least a tie to keep the crown.

David Bronstein would prove a worthy challenger and push Mikhail Botvinnik. With twenty-two of the twenty-four games completed, Bronstein led by a point and was one win or two draws away from becoming world chess champion.

Even after his loss in game twenty-three Bronstein had a chance to win the title by winning game twenty-four. Botvinnik held his nerve and earned a draw in the last game to tie the match.

In the critical twenty-third game, Mikhail Botvinnik created an incredible zugzwang position. Bronstein spent over thirty minutes trying to find a way to save the game but was forced to admit defeat.

Mikhail Botvinnik – David Bronstein, 1951.05.08, 1-0, Botvinnik – Bronstein World Championship Match Round 23, Moscow URS

Mikhail Botvinnik Reclaims the Title from Smyslov

During the first eight years as a world chess champion, Mikhail Botvinnik did not win a championship match. He retained the title by drawing against Bronstein in 1951 and Smyslov in 1954.

Then he lost the title to Smyslov in 1957. When it counted the most, Mikhail Botvinnik showed he was more than capable of winning a match outright, as his two rematches for the title demonstrate.

Fortunately for Mikhail Botvinnik, part of the previous championship matches gave him the right to a rematch. The right to a rematch was a custom FIDE continued from previous world championship matches.

548px vasily smyslov 1964
Vasily Smyslov 1964

Alekhine, Lasker, and Capablanca all played matches where the right to a rematch was included in the conditions of their championship matches.

It was not until 1956 that FIDE made this custom official by writing it into their rules. Mikhail Botvinnik would twice make good use of the rule.

Smyslov suffered tremendous hardship shortly after winning the title in 1957. His stepson Vladimir Selimanov took his own life after returning from the 1957 World Youth Championship in Toronto.

Although the Smyslov family never revealed the reason for the suicide, it was attributed to pressure placed on Vladimir because he finished a “disappointing” fourth.

Mikhail Botvinnik found himself under pressure of a different sort – political. People were concerned the rematch might result in an embarrassing loss and didn’t want Botvinnik to request a rematch.

The pressure didn’t seem to affect Botvinnik, who won the first three games. Perhaps the stress caught up with him later when he forfeited game 15 on time.

Botvinnik needed to make two moves in three minutes to reach an adjournment. Here is the final position of the game, which Stockfish evaluates as clearly favoring Botvinnik, who was playing black (-2.3).

Botvinnik loses on time

Despite this loss, Mikhail Botvinnik would win the match by two points, 12½ to 10½ points.

In game three, Smyslov overlooked that 28.Ne5 gave Botvinnik the chance to win two minor pieces for the rook. This win gave Mikhail Botvinnik the ideal start of three wins in the first three games.

Vasily Smyslov – Mikhail Botvinnik, 1958.03.11, 0-1, Smyslov – Botvinnik World Championship Rematch Round 3, Moscow URS

Botvinnik’s Second Rematch – This Time Against Tal

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When Tal won the title in 1960, he and Botvinnik had rooms next to each other. Before the games, Koblenz, Tal’s second, helped motivate Tal by singing.

Tal believed that although the songs helped him, they demoralized Botvinnik. This could explain why Mikhail Botvinnik chose rooms in a different hotel for the rematch.

During this rematch, both contestants were dealing with health issues.

Tal asked for a postponement and submitted a certificate from a doctor in Riga. Mikhail Botvinnik insisted Tal get examined by a doctor in Moscow to confirm the diagnosis.

In response to this request, Tal started the match on time. Many years later, during an interview, Tal would say his only regret in life was not postponing the start of this rematch.

Mikhail Botvinnik was forty-nine at this rematch and dealing with short-sightedness but in much better health than Tal.

Once again, Botvinnik got off to an excellent start and won two of the first three games. The following three games ended in draws before a string of seven decisive games.

Of these seven decisive games, Mikhail Botvinnik won five and Tal two. Botvinnik would win this rematch by five points – 13 to 8.

Some might say Mikhail Botvinnik was fortunate that Tal misplaced his lucky pencil from game eight. Tal left it on the table, and it was gone when he returned for the pencil.

In this rematch, Mikhail Botvinnik did his best to keep the positions closed and head for the endgame. However, this plan did not stop him from playing attacking chess, as he did in round 7.

Mikhail Botvinnik – Mikhail Tal, 1961.03.29, 1-0, Tal – Botvinnik World Championship Rematch Round 7, Moscow URS

In Conclusion

Apart from his excellent play, Mikhail Botvinnik’s legacy includes his influence on the organization of the World Chess Championship matches and the great players he coached, including world champions Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, and Vladimir Kramnik.

A lot of professional players today still make use of Mikhail Botvinnik’s approach to chess. He placed a lot of emphasis on thorough preparation before a game and believed being physically fit was necessary.

Mikhail Botvinnik is regarded as the patriarch of the Soviet School of Chess that dominated world chess for several decades. The success of the Soviet chess players is perhaps the clearest example of the effectiveness of Botvinnik’s approach to chess.

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