Commentators choosing the greatest player in the history of chess, never mention Mikhail Botvinnik. Yet he led the Soviet Union’s domination of world chess in the 20th century. In doing so, he became the first resident Russian to hold the title, although Alexander Alekhine had held it as an exile. The Soviet government had emphasized the value of chess in schools and Botvinnik became a symbol of Communist strength.
After winning the world championship in 1948, Botvinnik held it, off and on, for 25 years. In 1951, he barely saved a drawn match with David Bronstein and also drew one with Vasily Smyslov in 1954. He lost the title to Smyslov in 1957 and won it back in 1958. The sensational Mikhail Tal defeated Botvinnik soundly in 1960, but, suffering from kidney disease and possibly alcoholism, succumbed to Botvinnik’s preparation in 1961. Finally, Botvinnik lost the title forever to Tigran Petrosian in 1963, as there was no required return match.
Last year, the Botvinnik Memorial Veterans rapid tournament was held in August. At the same time, in celebration of Botvinnik 100th birthday, the chess enthusiast Alex Lorias produced a video in which many of the celebrated competitors of Botvinnik gave rare intimate glimpses of the legend.
Yuri Averbakh, now 90, recalled how Botvinnik became his idol with victories at Nottingham, England, in 1936. Averbakh said Botvinnik, during training sessions, insisted on having the radio blaring and requiring Yuri to smoke. Mark Taimonov spoke of Botvinnik’s major contribution to Soviet chess by presiding over a school that produced great champions including Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
Botvinnik’s technique as a teacher was to give his students problems, allowing them many days to analyze and then report their findings. It was in this way that he taught the benefits of extended analysis — hard personal work. Taimanov related how Botvinnik exuded kindness during training sessions, but Botvinnik was addicted to secrecy. He greatly feared that his analyses would be leaked to his competitors.
Evgeny Vasiukov, Wolfgang Uhlmann, Lajos Portisch all praised Botvinnik. Portisch quoted Bobby Fischer to the effect that Botvinnik’s play was precise to the very end of his games. Viktor Korchnoi noted that Botvinnik would not sign a letter of condemnation issued by Russian Chess Federation and his fellow Soviet grandmasters when Korchnoi defected.
Botvinnik was a teetotaler and apparently a stern, self-controlled and strict performer; a serious and amicable man, not colorful at all, respected for his chess, but sometimes criticized for his conservative approach to the game. All agreed that he was a precise, abstruse analyst, a survivor, narrowly the greatest of his time, who was able to rebut his challengers, and it is not known how he would have fared against the greats of other generations.
Brevity: L. Aronian vs. A. Karpov (2009) 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.0–0 0–0 6.Qc2 b6 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Nc3 Bb7 9.Rd1 c5 10.d4 Nb4 11.Qb1 Qc8 12.Bg5 Bxg5 13.Nxg5 g6 14.Nce4 Kg7 15.Nd6; (1–0)
Coming Events: New Hampshire Quick Chess Championship, Saturday, Holiday Inn, 300 Woodbury Ave., Portsmouth, N.H., Alex Relyea, firstname.lastname@example.org; Boylston Club Grand Prix, Saturday, and Spring Open, April 28, 240B Elm Street, Somerville, www.boylstonchessclub.org
Winners: Hurvitz Scholastic Team Championships: High School: Newton North (W. Huang, T. Rossi, J. Fauman, R. Han); Middle School: Diamond/Lexington (M. Brattain, V. Amrit, D. Amirault, M. Jones); Elementary School Gates/Acton: (A. Wang, D, Shih, E. Wang, A. H. Zhang); Primary School: Conant/Acton: (A. Yu, A. Ying, J. Cui, E. Zhong.)