Mikhail Botvinnik

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Mikhail Moiseevich Botvinnik (Михаи́л Моисе́евич Ботви́нник) (August 17, 1911 - May 5,1995) was a Jewish Russian International Grandmaster and long-time World Champion of chess.

Born in Kuokkala, near Vyborg, the son of a dental technician, he first came to the notice of the chess world at the age of 14, when he defeated the world champion, Jos Ral Capablanca, in a simultaneous display.

Progress was fairly rapid and by the age of 20, Botvinnik, already a Soviet Master of some years standing, won his first Soviet Championship in 1931. This feat was to be repeated in 1933, 1939, 1941, 1945 and 1952.

At 24 years of age, Botvinnik was competing on equal terms with the world's elite, chalking up international tournament successes in some of the strongest tournaments of the day. First (equal with Salo Flohr) at Moscow 1935, ahead of Emanuel Lasker and Capablanca. First (equal with Capablanca) at Nottingham in 1936 and equal third (behind Paul Keres and Reuben Fine) at the prestigious AVRO tournament of 1938.

Not surprisingly, Botvinnik continued to build on these successes and went on to hold the title of World Champion on three separate occasions (1948-57, 1958-60, 1961-63). His longevity at the top level of chess is attributed to his astonishing dedication to study. Pre-match preparation and post-match analysis had not featured quite so prominently in the armoury of many of his predecessors, but this was Botvinnik's real strength. Technique over tactics, endgame mastery over opening traps. His adoption and development of solid opening lines in the Nimzo-Indian, Slav Defence and Winawer French Defence stood up to the severest scrutiny and he was able to focus on a narrow repertoire of openings during his most important matches, frequently guiding the game into well chosen areas of preparation. There were many "secret" training matches against masters of the calibre of Salomon Flohr, Yuri Averbakh and Viacheslav Ragozin. It was the unveiling, many years later, of the details of these matches that provided the chess historian with a fascinating new insight into Botvinnik's reign.

It is perhaps surprising that Mikhail Botvinnik is not widely regarded as a contender for the title of best player of all time. On the one hand, his achievements were undoubtedly impressive and it should be remembered that his main rivals, the younger Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian were all formidable players in their own right. He also inaugurated a new trend with his deep opening preparation and training system.

On the other hand, critics point to his rare appearances in post-World War II tournaments while world champion, and his mediocre record in world title defence matches - out of five title defences, he lost three matches (to Smyslov in 1957, Tal in 1960 and Petrosian in 1963) and struggled to draw the other two (against David Bronstein in 1951 and Smyslov in 1954). He did, however, win two world title matches as the challenger, beating the reigning world champions Smyslov in 1958 and Tal in 1961.

There is also a popular perception that Botvinnik's play was based on correctness rather than the intuitive or the spectacular, an opinion not improved by accounts of his often gruff demeanour and seemingly cold, calculating personality when compared to the genial Tal - although Reuben Fine, one of the strongest players in history not to have won the world title, wrote that Botvinnik's collection of best games was one of "the three most beautiful".

Three factors contributed to his patchy record. Firstly, World War II broke out just as Botvinnik was entering his prime - had the war had not interrupted international chess competition, Botvinnik would almost certainly have challenged Alexander Alekhine to a world championship match in the early 1940s, and might therefore have won the title as many as eight years before he eventually claimed the crown in 1948. Secondly, he was one of the only world-class chess players who at the same time had a long and distinguished career in another field - the Soviet government decorated him for his achievements in engineering, and Fine has recounted stories which strongly imply that Botvinnik was as committed to engineering as he was to chess. Finally, previous world champions had been free to avoid their strongest competitors, in much the same way heavyweight boxers do to-day; Emanuel Lasker became notorious for holding on to his title for as long as possible, repeatedly ducking title matches from the likes of Jos Ral Capablanca. When FIDE took control of the world championship in 1948, Botvinnik became the first world champion who was forced to play his strongest opponent every three years; even with this added challenge, Botvinnik still held the world title longer than any of the players who followed him, other than Kasparov.

After losing the world title to Tigran Petrosian for the final time in Moscow in 1963, Botvinnik remained involved with competitive chess, appearing in several highly-rated tournaments and continuing to produce memorable games, though without ever looking likely to challenge for top honours. He retired from competitive play in 1970 aged 59, preferring instead to occupy himself with the development of computer chess programs and to assist with the training of younger Soviet players, earning him the nickname of 'Patriarch of the Soviet Chess School'; the famous three K's (Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik) were just three of the many future grandmasters to have studied under Botvinnik. The young Kasparov in particular seems to have formed a close relationship with Botvinnik; his 2004 book On My Great Predecessors II dedicates several pages to Kasparov's own personal fond memories of his former tutor and friend. Kasparov's account, in which Botvinnik appears almost as a kind of father figure, goes some way towards providing a warm and human side to balance the previous public perception of Botvinnik's dour personality.

Botvinnik's autobiography, K Dostizheniyu Tseli, was published in Russian in 1978, and in English translation as Achieving the Aim (ISBN 0-08-024120-4) in 1981. A staunch Communist, he was noticeably shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union and lost some of his standing in Russian chess during the Boris Yeltsin era. Botvinnik died of natural causes in 1995.


Further reading

Preceded by:
Alexander Alekhine
World Chess Champion
Succeeded by:
Vasily Smyslov
Preceded by:
Vasily Smyslov
World Chess Champion
Succeeded by:
Mikhail Tal
Preceded by:
Mikhail Tal
World Chess Champion
Succeeded by:
Tigran Petrosian

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External links

de:Michail Moissejewitsch Botwinnik es:Mijal Botvnnik fr:Mikhal Botvinnik he:מיכאל בוטביניק nl:Mikhail Botwinnik no:Mikhail Botvinnik pl:Michaił Botwinnik ru:Ботвинник, Михаил Моисеевич


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