David Bronstein dies at 82

by ChessBase
12/7/2006 – He came within one draw of becoming world champion, and was one of the strongest players in history to not win the title. David Ionovich Bronstein was a remarkable creative genius and a master of scintillating tactics that enthralled the chess world for many decades. He died on Tuesday in Minsk, in the arms of his wife Tatiana. Looking back, with a video tribute by Yasser Seirawan.

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David Bronstein, 1924–2006

By Frederic Friedel

David Bronstein at the age of 79 (Photo: Anne Fürstenberg)

David Ionovich Bronstein was born on February 19, 1924 in Bila Tserkva (near Kiev) in Ukraine. He won international fame as a chess player at the 1948 Interzonals and the Candidates Tournament in Budapest in 1950, where he defeated Boleslavsky to become a challenger for the world title. He also married Boleslavsky's daughter Tatiana.

A childhood picture of David Bronstein

Bronstein came agonizingly close to actually taking it from Botvinnik in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, when he was leading by a full point up to game 22 (or 24). He lost game 23 and then drew 24 and the match, which left the incumbent world champion Mikhail Botvinnik in place.

Rumours that Bronstein had been forced to lose the match persist until today – they were, for instance, debated during the Kramnik vs Deep Fritz match that ended on the day of his death. He himself wrote in his book "The Sorcerer's Apprentice": "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." Here's a full ChessBase article on the fateful match and game.

In the same book he said “I had reasons not to become the World Champion, as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character.”

Vassily Smyslov, David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Mikhail Botvinnik, part of the Soviet Olympiad team in Amsterdam 1954. Bronstein and Keres were, together with Viktor Korchnoi and Bent Larsen, the stongest players not to have won the world championship title.

When when Viktor Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976 Bronstein was one of the few Soviet grandmasters who refused to sign a letter denouncing him. As punishment his stipend, a salary paid to all chess grandmasters in the USSR, was suspended, and Bronstein was banned from competing in elite national tournaments and from travelling abroad more than once a year.

David Bronstein was also a great chess writer, and his book on the Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 won great admiration, as did the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Chess fans especially appreciated his habit of explaining the ideas behind moves, instead of using the traditional method, which he called "analysis of moves that never made it to the scoresheet." Bronstein was also a pioneer in popularising the King's Indian Defence, which had been considered dubious until he showed how to play it in his games and in a famous book on the King's Indian.

On a personal note

David Bronstein continued to play chess at a very high level until late in life. He became interested in computer chess and played in the Dutch Aegon Mens-Computer Schaaktoernooi, which was staged every year in Den Haag and pitted a team of computers against a team of human players. It was there and on a few other occasions that I had the privilege to meet him and discuss computers and their intrusion into the chess world with the great chess genius.

Bronstein was obsessed with certain endgames, like king, rook and four pawns vs king, rook and three pawns, with three pawns on the kingside and White having an extra passed pawn on b6, with his rook in front of the pawn. Yes, that's how specific his interests could be. I remember David calling Ken Thompson in New Jersey once, asking him if the computer scientist could analyse a position with the endgame databases Ken had just created. Then he started dictating the position, with Ken desperately calling "stop" at six pieces. Bronstein's example contained about eleven, including pawns, which make the position even more difficult. Ken said something like: "Sorry, we can't do that. Maybe in a thousand years, but not at the current time."

David Ionovich was always talking about chess, and interestingly, as John Nunn recalls, always about the future – about plans and projects he still intended to undertake, rather than about his great past. On more than one occasion I pestered him to tell me, in front of a video camera, what exactly had transpired during his match against Botvinnik. He alway balked, and the closest I came was to hear a "maybe someday". That day, unfortunately, will never come.

Seirawan on Bronstein

In ChessBase Magazine 112 there are five interviews which I conducted with GM Yasser Seirawan during a visit in Hamburg earlier this year. Yasser was talking about his role as a new ChessBase multimedia commentator, both on ChessBase Magazine as well as on the Playchess server.

In one segment Yasser told me about the Playchess lessons he was planning, and how they would include famous players like – David Bronstein. In this section Yasser told us a story which reveals the extraordinary personality of this chess legend, with all the narrative skill that only someone like Yasser can muster. You can watch the interview (in lower, compressed quality) here:

You can also get it in full quality, together with all the other material on ChessBase Magazine 112, by buying the DVD (for US $22.87) in the ChessBase Shop.


New York Times article by Dylan Loeb McClain on the death of David Bronstein. You may need a (free) account to read it. Normally these articles also appear in the International Herald Tribune.

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