Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik was born of Jewish parents on August 17, 1911, in Kuokkala, Grand Duchy of Finland (which at the time was part of the Russian Empire). He was the first world-class player to develop within the Soviet Union (Alekhine was a top player before the Russian Revolution), putting him under political pressure but also giving him considerable influence within Soviet chess. He won the World Championship title three times, while working as an electrical engineer, and in fact earning a PhD in 1951.
In autumn 1923, at the age of twelve young Mikhail learnt chess from a school friend of his older brother. He instantly fell in love with the game and a year later won his school's championship. When he finished the school curriculum, he was below the minimum age for the entrance examinations for higher education – while waiting, he qualified for his first USSR Championship final stage in 1927 as the youngest player ever at that time, tied for fifth place and won the title of National Master. The picture on the left is from that year.
In 1928 Botvinnik was admitted to the Leningrad University's Mathematics Department and in the following year played for Leningrad in the student team chess championship against Moscow. Leningrad won and the team manager secured Botvinnik a transfer to the Polytechnic's Electromechanical Department, where he was one of only four students who entered straight out of school. Later he married the daughter of his algebra and geometry teacher, Gayane Davidovna, who was a student at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in Leningrad and later, a ballerina in the Bolshoi Theatre. They had one daughter named Olga, born in 1941.
In 1931, at the age of 20, Botvinnik won his first Soviet Championship in Moscow, and later that year graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering, after completing a practical assignment on temporary transmission lines at the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. In 1933 he repeated his Soviet Championship success, and went on to win further Soviet Championship titles in 1939, 1944, 1945, and 1952, bringing his total to six – a record he shares with Mikhail Tal.
In his first tournament outside the USSR, Hastings 1934–35, Botvinnik had a disappointing result (he only tied for 5th-6th places). Emanuel Lasker told him that his arrival only two hours before the first round began had been a serious mistake and that he should have allowed ten days for acclimatization. Botvinnik said that he would never make that mistake again. In 1936 he was invited to play in a tournament at Nottingham, England, where he took Lasker's advice and arrived ten days before play started. His Soviet rivals forecast disaster for him, but he finished in an undefeated shared first place (+6 =8) with Capablanca, half a point ahead of current World Champion Max Euwe and rising American stars Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky, and one point ahead of ex-champion Alexander Alekhine. It was the first tournament victory by a Soviet master outside his own country.
In 1939 a world championship match in Russia between the reigning champion Alekhine and Botvinnik was agreed, but mainly due to the outbreak of the Second World War it never took place. After Alekhine's death in 1946 a tournament with the world's five strongest players was held in The Hague, in 1948, and it was won convincingly by Botvinnik, with a score of 14/20, three points clear of the field. This made Mikhail Botvinnik the sixth World Champion. He held the title for the next fifteen years, with two brief interruptions, when he lost the title to Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal, regaining it each time in a rematch one year later. Botvinnik played a total of seven world championship matches.
Mikhail Botvinnik [image provided by Edward Winter]
Smyslov, Bronstein, Keres and Botvinnik in 1954
After losing the world title for the final time, to Tigran Petrosian in Moscow in 1963, Botvinnik withdrew from the following World Championship cycle after FIDE declined to grant a losing champion the automatic right to a rematch. 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 Botvinnik School for young talents later turned into the Botvinnik-Kasparov school, with one of its most successful students carrying on the tradition. In the above picture you can see some contemporary players taking part in one of the sessions. [Garry Kasparov has just informed us that it took place in Druskininkai, Lithuania, in August 1987 – he even described some of the games he had played in a simul against these young talents]
In the 1950s Botvinnik became interested in computers, at first mainly for playing chess, but he later also co-authored reports on the possible use of artificial intelligence in managing the Soviet economy. In chess he championed the "selective" approach in which the program was supposed to use general chess principles to decide which moves were worth considering. This method turned out to be a dead end, as computers were powerful enough by the mid-1970s to outperform his selective Pioneer program, which never actually played a game, by using a brute-force search (checking all possible moves). In 1991 he was awarded an honorary degree in mathematics of the University of Ferrara (Italy) for his work on computer chess.
Mikhail Botvinnik in 1994
Botvinnik died of pancreatic cancer in 1995. He remained active until the last few months of his life, and continued to go to work despite blindness in one of his eyes and extremely poor vision in the other.
Yuri Averbakh on Botvinnik
He is a contemporary of Botvinnik – Yuri Lvovich Averbakh, Russian chess player and author, currently at 89 the oldest living chess grandmaster. In an interview with the Russian magazine Sport Express Averbakh remembers his great colleague, whom he had known for sixty years. We bring you excerpts.
I met Botvinnik In 1935, during the second International Chess Tournament in Moscow. We were young lads, addicted to chess, and he was a great example for us. In 1936, at summer camp, I remember how we ran to listen to the radio and rejoiced when Botvinnik won his biggest tournament in Nottingham. As a player I grew up almost simultaneously with the successes of Mikhail Botvinnik.
My first game against him was in the Moscow Championship in 1943. I wrote his name on my scoresheet and had to pinch myself: I was playing Botvinnik one-on-one"! Mikhail Moiseevich had black and played the French Defence. On move forty, after a number of exchanges, he offered a draw. He was very polite about it, and asked me what I did apart from chess. I played him twice in the USSR Championships, with one draw and one loss.
Botvinnik did not play in the first match USSA vs USA, which was held in America, because he was tired from his match against Smyslov, but I think also because he did not like flying. The second match was in Moscow, and our training camp was near Botvinnik's dacha. He invited me to play some training games against him, which I did. At the time I was the USSR champion. He insisted we keep the radio on during the games, to learn how to avoid distraction from noise. He also allowed his coach Ragozin to smoke during training games, to prepare him for opponents who would do the same during a match.
I played two matches against Botvinnik, the first in 1956, consisting of six games. Five were drawn and I lost one. The next was over ten games in 1958. The total score was again plus one for my opponent. I believe this second match played a negative role for his match against Smyslov. It cost too much nerves.
In the beginning I was fascinated by the personality of Botvinnik. He was always interesting and had his own original views on many things. But then I found out that my objections to anything he said usually fell on deaf ears. Basically it was a monolog, not a dialog – I was supposed to listen and admire him.
After Botvinnik became World Champion in 1948 he decided to do his doctoral thesis. He worked on it for three years, but those were three years lost for his chess, and he lost the huge advantage he had. He ceased to be head and shoulders above the others and was only first among equals.
We argued a lot about his computer program. I tried to convince him that his mathematical training did not meet the requirements of the subject – the science of cybernetics was developed after his education has been completed. But he thought he could become an expert in cybernetics. Modern computer scientists used a simple method of exhaustive search, in which the machine does not think, it just calculates. Botvinnik wanted the machine to cut off the options, just like a human in a practical game.
- Full interview with Yuri Averbakh on his memories of Botvinnik (Russian)
The International Chess Festival
"100 years of Mikhail Botvinnik"
is being held in St. Petersburg, Russia, from August 11 - 20, 2011.
Information: +7 903 098 39 44, irina.sudakova @ yahoo.com, Irina Sudakova.
The 11th is the day of arrival and the blitz tournament (at 17:00h), from August 12-20 the classical tournament will be held (Cup Russia) with a prize fund of one million Rubles. The competitions will be held in the Hilti Sport School.