Bronstein's fateful 23rd game

by ChessBase
5/10/2003 – Bobby Fischer was teary-eyed when lost a game to Boris Spassky in 1960. "Listen," said Soviet GM David Bronstein, "they forced me to lose an entire match to Botvinnik, and I didn't cry." In 1951 Bronstein narrowly failed to beat Mikhail Botvinnik and become the 7th world champion. But was he pressured into losing, as the Moscow Times suggests? Let us take a closer look.

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We briefly posted a link to Moscow Times article, which essentially tells the following tale:

In 1951 David Bronstein, playing a challenge match against reigning world champion Mikhail Botivnnik, needed just one point from the last two games to become world chess champion. Bronstein was an energetic player, hs creative and unexpected ideas on the board presented a stark contrast to the "chess as science" trend pushed by Botvinnik, the patriarch of the Soviet chess school. And ever the romantic at the board, Bronstein refused to play conservatively. He lost both games [sic] and never again played for the world championship.

David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Mikhail Botvinnik in Amsterdam 1954

For years rumors persisted about why he lost. Some say Soviet authorities pressured him to lose in order to keep Botvinnik, a favorite of the Communist Party leadership, on the throne. Chess writer Lev Khariton described an interview with Luis Rentero, longtime organizer of the prestigious annual Linares chess tournament, in which Rentero tells how Bronstein consoled a young Bobby Fischer, who was teary-eyed after a loss to Boris Spassky in the 1960 Mar del Plata tournament. "Listen," Bronstein said to the future world champion. "They forced me to lose an entire match to Botvinnik, and I didn't cry."

In an interview in the journal Chess in Russia, Bronstein initially denied having said it, but eventually conceded that he may have uttered something of that nature. "Too much time has passed," he said. Though Bronstein went on to have a successful career, winning many Soviet and international tournaments, he will likely be remembered more for what he didn't accomplish rather than what he did.

After our news link had been up for about an hour the letters started pouring in. The first was from GM Raymond Keene, a prolific chess author and highly knowledgeable in historical chess matters. Ray wrote:

The article in the Moscow Times is seriously flawed, which really should know better. First of all David Bronstein was leading the match by one point when game 23 started. Bronstein was black and he lost. The match was now level. In game 24 the, final game, Botvinnik was black and he drew, thus retaining the world title because the match was a tie (the world champion had draw odds).

So Bronstein absolutely did not lose the last two games! Also the contention played up by the Moscow Times writer that Bronstein was forced to lose the match is pretty doubtful. Botvinnik adjourned the 23rd game in a good position, but he sealed the wrong move and was very lucky to win. Here is the critical position:

The story about it is told by Genna Sosonko in New in Chess, in his recently essay on Salo Flohr. The 23rd game was adjourned with Botvinnik's two bishops clearly stronger than Bronstein's knights. After thinking for a long time Botvinnik sealed his move and left the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall with Flohr. After dinner they analysed the position, and Salo continued polishing the variations at home.

The following day Flohr went to Botvinnik's place, where the defending champion said: "Salo, could you show the variations to Gannochka." Flohr was dumbfounded, since Botvinnik's wife barely knew the moves of the pieces. Botvinnik watched the lines. The two then had lunch and proceeded to the playing venue. Before climbing up onto the stage Botvinnik whispered: "You know, Salo, I sealed a different move..."

Sosonko says that when this happened Flohr had tears in his eyes, because of the suspicion and mistrust Botvinnik had shown towards him. The way I read Botvinniks behaviour is that he was saying goodbye to his title, because he had not sealed the winning move. But then one error by Bronstein in session two gave him fresh hope.

One should note that if you are being forced to lose a match, this is a strange way to go about it. I dont recall Bronstein ever making such a claim before. If its true that he is now claiming this, then it's time for an extended interview with chapter, verse and variations. Botvinniks actions, on the other hand, make it seem that if he was being made a gift of the match, then he did not know anything about it.

What does David Bronstein himself say about the fateful 23rd game in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall? In the introduction to his book "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" he writes: "I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not." To which his co-author Tom Furstenberg writes: "Of course David succumbed to that pressure, albeit not voluntarily. However nobody, not even David himself, knows what went on subconsciously in his mind."

David Bronstein, now 79, a few days ago in Moscow | Photo: Anne Fürstenberg

The author of the original article that is quoted in the Moscow Times article, Lev Khariton, was not at all satisfied by the interpretation in the Russian newspaper. To shed some light on the 23rd game Lev dug out a little-known work by Botvinnik which contains the world champion's notes on the game. The book by Botvinnik was published after his death by his nephew Igor Botvinnik. You can replay the game and the analysis on our Javascript board given below.

Botvinnik,M – Bronstein,D [D71] Wch19-Moscow (23), 1951 [annotations by Botvinnik]: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 c6 4.Bg2 d5 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nh3 Bxh3 8.Bxh3 Nc6 9.Bg2 e6 10.e3 0-0 11.Bd2 Rc8 12.0-0 Nd7 13.Ne2 Qb6 14.Bc3 Rfd8 15.Nf4 Nf6 16.Qb3 Ne4 17.Qxb6 axb6 18.Be1 Na5 19.Nd3 Bf8 20.f3 Nd6 21.Bf2 Bh6 22.Rac1 Nac4 23.Rfe1 Na5 24.Kf1 Bg7 25.g4 Nc6 26.b3 Nb5 27.Ke2 Bf8 28.a4 Nc7 29.Bg3 Na6 30.Bf1 f6 31.Red1 Na5 32.Rxc8 Rxc8 33.Rc1 Rxc1 34.Nxc1 Ba3 35.Kd1 Bxc1 36.Kxc1 Nxb3+ 37.Kc2 Na5 38.Kc3 Kf7 39.e4 f5 40.gxf5 gxf5 41.Bd3.

Here I had to seal the move. The plan is obvious. One bishop should be placed on d6, after White has to play Bb1, exchange the pawns on d5 and win pawn d5. For twenty minutes I was thinking which was stronger: 42.Bd6 or 42.Bb1. Finally, I decided to choose 42.Bd6.

However, the overnight analysis revealed that in case of 42...Nc6 43.Bb1 Kf6 White could not make headway, for example, 44.exd5 exd5 45.Ba2 Ke6. Also, I found that after 42.Bb1 (the move I did not seal) 42…Nc6 43.exd5 exd5 44.Ba2 Nab4 45.Bb3 or 44…Ne7 45.Bh4 Black loses the pawn. If Black chooses 42...fxe4 (instead of 42...Nc6), then the game opens up after 43.fxe4 dxe4 44.Bxe4+ Kg7 and White's bishops obviously prevail. An interesting variation was found by Flohr: 45.Bxb7 Nxb7 followed by Kc3-c4-b5-a6-b6 and the a-pawn eventually queens. But unfortunately, I sealed 42.Bd6.

42…Nc6 43.Bb1 Kf6. The previous two moves had been found the best and they were made immediately upon the resumption. However, Black's last move was not the only solution. All night I was trying to find the way to continue the game. Only at 8 o'clock in the morning I was lucky to find a remarkable idea which I employed during the adjournment. If Bronstein had suspected about the surprise move, he would have found the line 43...Na7 (honestly, I did not find this move during my analysis) 44.exd5 exd5 45.Ba2 b5 46.a5 b4+! 47.Kd3 Nb5 48.Be5 Nac7 49.Kc2 Kf7 50.Kb3 Na6 thus drawing the game and, most likely, becoming the 7th World Champion. However, after the natural 43...Kf6 an unplesant surprise lay in store for him.


Zugzwang! Now 44...Nab4 is met by 45.Be5+! and Black's King is pushed to g6, after which White wins by 46.Bd6 Na6 47.exd5 exd5 48.Ba2 (in passing, I would note that 45.Bc7 would lead only to a draw after 45...dxe4 46.fxe4 fxe4 47.Bxe4 Nd5+).

44…fxe4 45.fxe4 h6 46.Bf4 h5 47.exd5 exd5 48.h4 Nab8 49.Bg5+ Kf7 50.Bf5 Na7. More resistant was 50…Ne7, but White had a good choice anyway: 51.Bxe7 Kxe7 52.Bg6 Nc6 53.Bxh5 Na7 54.Kb4 or 51.Bh3 Nbc6 52.Bg2 Kg7 53.Bxe7 Nxe7 54.Kb4 Nc6+ 55.Kb5 Nxd4+ 56.Kxb6.

51.Bf4 Nbc6 52.Bd3 Nc8 53.Be2 Kg6 54.Bd3+ Kf6 55.Be2 Kg6 56.Bf3 N6e7. Or 56…N8e7 57.Bg5 Nf5 58.Bxd5 Nfxd4 59.Be4+ Kf7 60.Kc4.


Here Bronstein resigned. Although Black still has an extra pawn, he loses because of the zugzwang, the second zugzwang in this game. The continuation could be 57…Nc6 58.Bxd5 Nd6 59.Bf3 Kf5 60.Bc1 b5 61.Bxc6 bxc6 62.a5.

Click here to replay the above game and analysis


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