Historical riddle: Botvinnik’s most subtle rook ending

by Karsten Müller
12/12/2020 – Mikhail Botvinnik became world champion for the first time in 1948. After defending the title twice, he lost it to Vasily Smyslov in 1957. Botvinnik reclaimed the title with a clear victory in a rematch the very next year. In game 14, he played what he called “maybe his most subtle rook ending”. Endgame specialist Karsten Müller now wonders whether a few mistakes have not been discovered yet. You can help him solve the historical riddle! | Pictured: Botvinnik v Smyslov on April 19, 1957 | Photo: Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo

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Reclaiming the title

Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily SmyslovRespectfully known as the Patriarch of Soviet chess, Mikhail Botvinnik became world champion for the first time in 1948, when he won a 5-player quintuple round robin finishing a whole three points ahead of second-placed Vasily Smyslov. Subsequently, he defended the title twice, first against David Bronstein (1951) and then against Smyslov (1954). In 1957, however, he was defeated by a 33-year-old Smyslov, who obtained a clear 12½:9½ victory in Moscow. 

As the FIDE rules allowed at the time, the player who lost the title had a chance to play a rematch against the newly crowned champion. Thus, in March 1958, Botvinnik faced Smyslov once again in a 24-game match. Both times that Botvinnik had defended the title — in 1951 and 1954 — he had only managed to do it by tying the score, as back then this meant the holder retained the championship. This time around, however, Botvinnik kicked off with three straight victories and went on to win the match 12½:10½.

[Pictured: Botvinnik and Smyslov during the 1958 match | Photo: Chess Review, July 1958]

Curiously, this was the second time Botvinnik played without a second, as during the 1954 match he felt that someone was leaking information to Smyslov, who was too ready to face opening variations that he had not used in the past.

Another peculiarity of this match was that Botvinnik lost the 15th game on time, despite having a superior position and only needing to make two moves in three minutes. As published on Edward Winter’s Chess Notes, Botvinnik himself wrote in Botvinnik-Smyslov Three World Chess Championship Matches: 1954, 1957, 1958 (Alkmaar, 2009): 

As I sat there, absorbed in these thoughts, great was my astonishment when the chief arbiter Ståhlberg came over to our table and announced that Black had lost on time. Having two-three minutes for a couple of moves, I had simply forgotten all about the clock and had exceeded the time limit.

However, this article will focus on an earlier game, thanks to a suggestion made by JNorri, who wrote: “For the future: I would suggest the 14th game of the 1958 Smyslov-Botvinnik match. Botvinnik called it maybe his most subtle rook ending.”

In his long career, Botvinnik had many famous rook endings — we have already dealt with his epic fight against Bobby Fischer from 1962. Now comes a duel with another world champion who was also an endgame virtuoso.

It seems that a few mistakes have not been discovered yet. Can you find them?


Please share any analysis you come up with on the comments section. You may also like to use more powerful engines to assist you in your efforts. Fat Fritz, for instance, goes for some unconventional continuations and surprises. I will evaluate your submissions and discuss them with you.

Magical Chess Endgames

In over 4 hours in front of the camera, Karsten Müller presents to you sensations from the world of endgames - partly reaching far beyond standard techniques and rules of thumb - and rounds off with some cases of with own examples.


Karsten Müller, born 1970, has a world-wide reputation as one of the greatest endgame experts. He has, together with Frank Lamprecht, written a book on the subject: “Fundamental Chess Endgames” in addition to other contributions such as his column on the website ChessCafe as well as in ChessBase Magazine. Müller's ChessBase-DVDs about endgames in Fritztrainer-Format are bestsellers. The PhD in mathematics lives in Hamburg, where he has also been hunting down points for the HSK in the Bundesliga for many years.


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Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/20/2020 09:28
For the solution please see
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/17/2020 08:42
malfa: Yes over the board it is not easy to play. So indeed the Patriach has a "practical point"...
malfa malfa 12/16/2020 09:43
@KM: really? You surprise me. Botvinnik was notoriously very tranchant in his judgements, yet after remembering my game I was no longer convinced that exchanging on g4 would have been Black's best winning attempt, but rather a good losing try, and that therefore the Patriarch was right! As usual, a computer would never object entering such a scenario, bit my sad experience suggested me that the position would have been easier to play for White, though requiring tough decisions from both sides. I would have been even unsure whether exchanging on f6 would be better than playing Ba3 or Bd4, in the first place...
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/16/2020 08:20
malfa: Yes indeed after 30...h4 31.g4 fxg4 32.hxg4 Bf6 33.Bxf6 Kxf6 34.f4 I think it should be a draw...
malfa malfa 12/16/2020 03:09
@KM: I did not know this, thanks for the info! Going back to 30...h4, and specifically to the evaluation of the critical 31.g4 fxg4!? 32.hxg4, which Botvinnik considered favourable to White due to his central pawn mass, it occurred to me that once I played a rather similar endgame:

Here Black (me) had no less than three (!) passed pawns in exchange for White's impressing central majority, but they where all separate and although I initially felt optimist, it turned out that, thanks also to the objectively superior strength of my opponent, I even managed to succumb to a mating attack. So I was about to ask your opinion about Botvinnik's evaluation, but in the light of this memory I am afraid I already know the answer...
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/15/2020 09:34
malfa: Good human judgements! That the pawn endgame after 46...Rd6 is a draw was already given by Adrian Mikhalchishin in Mastering essential rook endgames.
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 11:28
Another debatable point occurs on move 46: though Black's 46...Re6 seems perfectly adequate, apparently Botvinnik was wrong when he claimed that 46...Rd6, differently from the line he gave after 43...Rc6!, here loses to 47.Rxd6 cxd6 48.Kd4 Ke6 49.f3 and now, instead of Botvinnik's 49...Ke7?, the engines suggest that 49...f4! (again!) leads to equality, e.g. 50.exf4 Kf5 51.Kd5 Kxf4 52.Kxd6 Kxf3 53.Kc6 Kg3 54.Kxb6 Kxh3 55.c5 Kg3 56.c6 h3 57.c7 h2 58.c8=D h1=D is a drawn queen ending, as it is 51.Ke3!? a5 52.Ke2 Kxf4 53.Kf2 Kf5 54.Ke3 Ke5 55.f4+ Kf6 56.Ke4 Kg6! 57.Kd5 Kf5 58.Kxd6 Kxf4 59.Kc6 Kg3 transposing to 53...Kg3 in the previous line. If this analysis holds, then it seems a further blow, and quite a thunderous one, to the "grand" plan that White conceived... OK, not nearly an obvious one, over the board!
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 10:15
Earlier than these critical points, Botvinnik also signals that 43...Rc6! instead of 43...Kg6 would have frustrated Whites's plan of putting his rook on d4 in order to somehow force Black to play a6-a5 and so deprive himself of the Ra5 counterplay: after 43...Rc6! 44.Rd7 Kf6 45.Rd5 Ke6 White's planned 46.Rd4 would have been countered by 46...Rd6! forcing an equal pawn endgame.
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 09:27
I have read in Botvinnik's own commentary of the endgame that he already pointed out the two critical points on 57.axb5 and 59...Re2, as well as refuting 56...Kg2 on the grounds of a long analysis by Averbach, but twice faulty, according to my comp! However the two mistakes compensate each other and the outcome is the same: White wins anyway.

While checking his and mine analyses with the machine, the silicon monster suggests that Black could have anticipated his f5-f4 counterplay much earlier, i.e. already on move 49 instead of 49...Kf6. This is interesting if related to a comment by the Patriarch on 52...f4, when he observes that, were the black rook not on e6, White could have replied with 53.e4, whereas at that stage the pawn exchange on f4 was forced. This suggests that Smyslov might have avoided 49...f4 exactly because of 50.e4, since at that stage his rook is still on c6. Yet 50...f3! apparently would have yielded him total equality, since it gives room to the king and cuts the e4 pawn from its rearguard, for example 51.Rf7 Rc5 (avoiding 52.Rf5+ which would repel the black king) 52.Kb3 (52.Kc3 b5) Re5 53.Rxc7 Rxe4 54.Rf7 a5! 55.Rxf3 Re1 and the activity of the black rook adequately compensates for the pawn minus. Translated into human terms: as long as the black pieces are tied to the defense of their pawn weaknesses they are passive, but f5-f4 would suddenly activate them on the kingside and it is logical to push that pawn as soon as possible. However this counterattack should have proven itself effective even after its delayed preparation by Smyslov, were not for 54...Kf3?, a mistake which went unnoticed by Botvinnik in his notes.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/14/2020 06:20
albitex: Very good! Well done! You found all points.
albitex albitex 12/14/2020 05:11
54... Kf3? (54. .. Re1= example: 55. Rh7 Kg5 56. Rg7+ Kf5 57. Rf7+ Kg5 58. f4+ Kg6 59. Rb7 Rb1+ 60. Kc3 =)

56... b5? (better is 56. .. Kg2 57. f3 +- but White always advantage)

57. axb5? White loses all advantage (57. Rxa6 Rxc4+ 58. Kxb5 Rc8 +-) After 57. axb5 the situation is again draw.

59... Re2?? Lose the game (after 59. .. Kxh3 was draw -Lomonosov tablebase- example: 60. c5 Re1 61. c6 Rb1+ 62. Ka5 Ra1+ 63. Kb6 Rb1+ 64. Kc5 Rc1+ 65. Kd6 Kg2 66. f4 h3 67. c7 h2 68. Rg6+Kf3 69. Rh6 =)
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/14/2020 03:31
malfa: OK good. I am curious, what you will find. 30...h4!? is debatable. I agree with you, while tip4success disagrees. This looks like a matter of taste...
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 02:58
@KM, sorry for possibly duplicated messages: I had problems refreshing the page so meanwhile I took the opportunity to correct a couple of trivial typos. I did not mean to provide any detailed analysis of the developments as yet, just pointing out to what to me seems the beginning of trouble for Black. Since in the end he should have drawn exactly thanks to his h-pawn, I would exclude that pushing it to h4 was the source of all evil, instead. Hope to give you further input as long as I go on looking at the endgame.
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 02:51
@KM: after pondering over all these riddles I came to the conclusion that "solving" them computerwise is rather pointless, since it is humans, not computers, who played these games, so it would be fair to analyze them humanwise and only use the computer to double check the conclusions. Otherwise it is way too easy to claim that, for example, 59...Kxh3 draws: it is the TBs which say that. Not particularly clever.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/14/2020 02:51
malfa: OK good. I am of course also interested in human points. So please continue. The bishop exchange 34...Bf6?! indeed looks like a slight concession seen in that light...
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/14/2020 02:23
malfa: From the human point of view you have a point. But in the eyes of the engines before 34...Bf6 it is 0.00 and afterwards it also is 0.00...
malfa malfa 12/14/2020 01:44
I didn't know this game, having a look at it only now upon solicitation by this article. First of all I wonder how a superb technician like Smyslov managed to lose this endgame, which initially was even in his favour, given Black's superior pawn structure, but of course, still being three points down since the disastrous beginning of the match, he was trying too hard to recover. 30...h4 may well be not bad in itself, but since it creates a permanent point of attrition on f5, Black should have been careful not to give White any chance to exploit it: logical and critical would have been to capture on g4 sooner or later, when I don't totally agree with Botvinnik's evaluation that White's central connected pawns would have been worth more than Black's free h-pawn. However to me the real culprit seems 34...Bf6?! which allows the enemy rook to become active and to infiltrate into the Black's camp, after which it is White the one who plays for a win. I have still to look around for further errors later.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/14/2020 10:49
tip4success: 54...Re1! does indeed draw. But after 55....Re1 White wins: 56.Rxh4 Kxf2 57.a5 +-.
tip4success tip4success 12/14/2020 10:28
54...Re1!? and even 55...Re1!? seems to keep fighting, after 55...Re4?! things go downhill fast for Black. Line with 55...Re1, e.g. ±(0.86) 55...Re1 56.Rxh4 Kxf2 57.Rh6 Rb1+ 58.Kc3 a5 59.Kd4 Kg3 60.Kd5 Rd1+ 61.Ke4 Rc1 62.Kd3 Rb1 63.h4 Kg4 64.Kc2 Rb4 65.Kc3 Rb1 66.Kd3
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/13/2020 12:47
tip4succes: You are right that there is nothing wrong with 52...Rc6. But the game move 52...f4!? is no mistake...
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/13/2020 12:41
tip4success: In my opinion 30...h4!? is a good try. But this is probably a matter of taste as objectivly it should be drawn with or without the move.
tip4success tip4success 12/13/2020 12:08
The "natural" 30...h4 looks more like 30...h4?! creating a permanent weakness in the ending. Also, why 52...f4? instead of repeating the position with 52...Rc6, leaving White to prove the advantage, e.g. 52...Rc6 53.Re8 Rd6 54.Re7 c5+ 55.Kc3 Rd1 56.Rg7+ Kh5 57.Rh7+ Kg5 58.f4+ Kg6 59.Rb7 Rd6; Black had many occasions to play a5 taking the square b4 away from the White king.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 12/13/2020 09:44
Chessoutpost: As challenger you had to win match and rematch to have the right for a rematch yourself.
Chessoutpost Chessoutpost 12/12/2020 11:09
I always found it interesting, that if world champions lost the world championship match they were entitled to a rematch, why wasn't Smyslov granted a rematch after the 1958 match? He was world champion. He lost the match. Smyslov should have been entitled to a rematch. He wasn't granted one. The rules did not appear to be equally applied. I far preferred Smyslov to Botvinnik but would never take anything away from Botvinnik. I think they were the Kasparov/Karpov of the 1950's. They had great rivalries. Played great matches and put a lot of games out there for us to enjoy before computers. When compared to Smyslov I would agree with Botvinnik's assessment he was "first among equals".