Huffington: The Adventures of Mikhail Botvinnik (1)

3/19/2014 – He was a man who could seem cold and unapproachable, a devoted communist with ties to highest Soviet officials, including Stalin. He was the world champion for a span of 15 years. In a new book Andrew Soltis describes the Life and Games of World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik – a brilliant, extensive researched account that is reviewed by Huffington Post columnist Lubomir Kavalek.

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The Adventures of Soviet Chess Patriarch Mikhail Botvinnik

By GM Lubomir Kavalek

Chess players around him had disappeared, having been executed or sent to gulags, but he lived. Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) survived because he made himself indispensable. Even the architect of Soviet chess, Nikolai Krylenko, became a victim of Stalin's purges in the late 1930s, having been accused of spending too much time climbing mountains and playing chess. His goal was to export chess as part of Soviet culture and to dominate the chess world. He did not live to see it happen. Botvinnik was the most important chess player of Krylenko's legacy.

In his new book Mikhail Botvinnik, The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion, published by McFarland, Andrew Soltis writes:

"[Botvinnik] was born under a monarchy, lived through a revolution, a civil war, the brutal collectivization and famine, the Terror, a second world war and a cold war, the end of Stalin and a 'thaw', the malaise of the 1960s and 1970s, the Gorbachev reforms of glasnost and perestroika and, at the age of 80, the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of an uncertain new Russia that is still trying to define itself."

Soltis tells a fascinating story of a man who seemed cold, unapproachable, and rather boring. Botvinnik was a devoted and convinced communist with ties to highest Soviet officials, including Stalin. He was the world champion for a span of 15 years and the leading Soviet player for more than 30 years. Generations of talented players, such as the world champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, learned from him how to play the game.

The great mentor with an early, young student and friend

Botvinnik proposed playing rules to FIDE and defined the Soviet School of Chess. Its influence is still seen today: six of the eight participants in the Candidates tournament to establish the challenger to the world champion Magnus Carlsen, underway in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, were born in the Soviet Union. In his youth, Vishy Anand visited the Tal Chess Club at the Soviet Cultural Center in Chennai, India. And Veselin Topalov, no doubt, studied Soviet sources.

But not everything was rosy in Moscow. Boris Spassky once compared the lives of Soviet grandmasters to the lives of spiders in a bottle.

Soltis says his book is an attempt to explain Botvinnik in the context of today. It is a brilliant account, the best book written on Botvinnik by far. Soltis did extensive research, using mainly Soviet sources. Both Botvinnik's friends and critics have a voice in the book.

The games are an important part of the book and Soltis uses mostly Botvinnik's notes. I have included some of them in my commentaries. Botvinnik's game against the Austrian attacker and the author of the classic The Art of Sacrifice in Chess Rudolf Spielmann, played in the first round of the 1935 Moscow tournament, is his most celebrated miniature victory, lasting only 12 moves.

[Event "Moscow"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "1935.02.15"] [Round "1"] [White "Botvinnik, Mikhail"] [Black "Spielmann, Rudolf"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B13"] [Annotator "GM Lubomir Kavalek/The Huffington Post"] [PlyCount "23"] [EventDate "1935.02.15"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "19"] [EventCountry "URS"] 1. c4 c6 2. e4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. d4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bg5 Qb6 $6 {This aggressive move was recommended by the Czech master Karel Opocensky in his chess column in Narodni politika and it was used for the first time by Josef Rejfir against Spielmann in Maribor 1934. 'Surprising and good,' wrote Rejfir in Ceskoslovensky Sach 8-9/1934 about Opocensky's invention. The Wiener Schachzeitung called it the Prague variation.} 7. cxd5 $1 ({According to Rejfir, after} 7. Bxf6 Qxb2 8. Nxd5 exf6 $1 {and because of the threat Bf8-b4+, white is unable to win the rook on a8. Today's computers confirm it:} 9. Rb1 Qxa2 10. Nc7+ $2 Kd8 11. Nxa8 Bb4+ 12. Rxb4 Nxb4 13. Be2 Bf5 {and black wins back the knight on a8 with dividends.}) ({Spielmann played the weak} 7. c5 $6 Qxb2 8. Nge2 (8. Nb5 $2 Ne4 $1 9. Be3 Nc3 $1 $17) 8... Bf5 $1 (8... Nxd4 $2 9. Rb1 Nc2+ 10. Kd2 $18) 9. Qc1 {'In a desperate situation white is trying to save himself by exchanging queens, because the threats Nc6-b4 or Nc6xd4 are deadly,' said Rejfir.} Qxc1+ 10. Rxc1 O-O-O {'Black is a pawn up and has beter chances,' wrote Rejfir. 'The threat is Nc6-b4. In order to move the knight on e2, white has to protect the pawn on d4.'} 11. Be3 Ng4 12. Ng3 Bg6 13. Be2 Nxe3 14. fxe3 e5 $1 {Black has to destroy white's central pawns. The pawn on d5 is not weak.}) 7... Qxb2 $2 {Losing outright. Taking the d-pawn with the knight 7. ..Nxd4 was considered the only alternative.} (7... Nxd4 8. Be3 $6 {originally thought to be the refutation} e5 9. dxe6 Bc5 10. exf7+ Kxf7 $1 (10... Ke7 11. Bc4 Qxb2 (11... Bg4 12. Qxg4 Qxb2 13. Bxd4 Qxa1+ 14. Ke2 Nxg4 15. Nd5+ Kxf7 16. Bxa1 $14) 12. Nge2 Nc2+ 13. Qxc2 $1 Qxa1+ (13... Qxc2 14. Bxc5+ Kd7 15. Rd1+ $18) 14. Bc1 $18) 11. Bc4+ Be6 $11) (7... Nxd4 8. Nf3 $1 {First played in the game Kavalek-Trapl, Vrbno pod Pradedem, 1959.} e5 (8... Qxb2 9. Rc1 Nxf3+ 10. Qxf3 a6 (10... e5 11. Rb1) 11. Bd3 {and white has good compensation for the pawn.}) 9. Nxe5 $16) 8. Rc1 $1 ({Botvinnik's improvement on} 8. Na4 $2 Qb4+ 9. Bd2 Qxd4 10. dxc6 Ne4 11. Be3 Qb4+ 12. Ke2 bxc6 $1 (12... Qxa4 $2 13. Qxa4 Nc3+ 14. Ke1 Nxa4 15. Bb5 $18) 13. Rc1 Qb5+ 14. Ke1 (14. Kf3 Qh5+ 15. Kxe4 Bf5+ 16. Kd4 Rd8+ $19) 14... Qa5+ 15. Nc3 Nxc3 16. Qd2 e5 17. Ne2 Bf5 18. Nxc3 (18. Rxc3 Rb8 19. Rb3 Bb4 20. Rxb4 Qxb4 21. Qxb4 Rxb4 22. Nc3 $11) 18... Ba3 $17) 8... Nb4 {Other moves are also inadequate:} (8... Na5 9. Qa4+) (8... Nb8 9. Na4 Qb4+ 10. Bd2 Qxd4 11. Rxc8+ $18) (8... Nd8 9. Bxf6 exf6 10. Bb5+ Bd7 (10... Ke7 11. Rc2 Qb4 12. Qe2+) 11. Rc2 Qb4 12. Qe2+ Be7 (12... Qe7 13. d6 Qe6 14. d5 $18) 13. Bxd7+ Kxd7 14. Qg4+ Ke8 15. Qxg7 $18) 9. Na4 Qxa2 10. Bc4 Bg4 11. Nf3 Bxf3 12. gxf3 (12. gxf3 Qa3 13. Rc3 {wins}) 1-0

There was a controversy in this tournament concerning the game Botvinnik needed to win to share first place with with Salo Flohr of Czechoslovakia. Soviet master Nikolai Ryumin, known for creating brilliant attacks, allegedly composed the 22-move mating combination for the game Botvinnik-Chekhover. These things are difficult to prove but Soltis shows that Botvinnik never really denied it outright. It remained a mystery as did his 4-1 score against the Estonian hero Paul Keres in the 1948 World Championship tournament.

Soltis does not overburden the reader with long variations. His notes are guiding the games gracefully. Here and there he could have revealed more. For example, he does not mention a major discovery by the late Richard Cantwell, an American dentist and a strong chess amateur, who found a more precise continuation in Botvinnik's most famous encounter.

[Event "AVRO"] [Site "Rotterdam"] [Date "1938.??.??"] [Round "11"] [White "Botvinnik , Mikhail"] [Black "Capablanca, Jose Raul"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E49"] [Annotator "GM Lubomir Kavalek/The Huffington Post"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "4q3/p5kp/1p2Pnp1/3p4/2pP1Q2/1nP3N1/1B4PP/6K1 w - - 0 29"] [PlyCount "25"] [EventDate "1938.??.??"] 29. Qe5 $6 ({Cantwell wrote in the 2002 March issue of Chess Life that white wins with} 29. Qc7+ $1 {a tactical maneuver to gain an important tempo after} Kg8 30. Qe5 {After} Kg7 {white reaches the same position as in the game, but it is his move and he can continue} ({Whether Garry Kasparov read Cantwell's findings or not, he concurs with him that after} 30... Qe7 31. Ba3 Qxa3 32. Qxf6 Qf8 33. Qe5 Qe7 34. Qxd5 b5 35. Ne4 {white wins.}) 31. Ba3 $1 {[the bonus move]} Na5 32. Qc7+ Kg8 33. Be7 $1 {and black is in trouble, for example} Ng4 34. h3 Nc6 35. Bg5 h6 36. Bd2 Nf6 37. Bxh6 {and white should win.}) 29... Qe7 ( {Playing into Botvinnik's wonderful combination. In 1988, the Moscow master Vladimir Goldin suggested the defense} 29... h6 {controlling the square g5. When he informed Botvinnik about it, the former world champion suggested 30. Ba3, to which Goldin's 30...Qd8! prevents the queen invasion.} {But Cantwell found that} 30. Qd6 $1 {dominating the black queen, gives white excellent winning chances, for example} Na5 (30... a5 31. Ba3 b5 32. Qc7+ Kh8 33. Be7 Ng8 34. Qe5+ Kh7 35. Bd6 a4 (35... b4 36. Nh5) 36. Nh5 $3 gxh5 37. Qf5+ Qg6 38. Qf7+ {and white wins.}) (30... Qf8 31. Qc7+ Kh8 (31... Kg8 32. Ba3) 32. Qe5 Kg7 33. h4 Na5 34. h5 Nc6 35. Qc7+ Ne7 36. Ba3 Nfg8 37. Qd7 {and black is tied up.} gxh5 38. Bd6 h4 39. Nh5+ Kh7 40. Nf4 $18) 31. Bc1 $1 {[threatening 32.Qc7+ and 33.Bxh6, winning.]} Nc6 32. Qc7+ Ne7 33. Qxa7 $18) ({White can still try to win after} 29... h6 30. Ba3 Qd8 $1 {with} 31. Qf4 b5 32. h4 a5 33. Ne2 $1 (33. Qe5 {Goldin} b4 34. cxb4 Qe7 35. h5 Nxd4 36. Bb2 Qxe6 (36... Nxe6 37. bxa5) 37. Qxd4 axb4 38. Qa7+ $14) 33... b4 34. cxb4 Qe7 35. bxa5 Qxa3 $2 (35... Qxe6 36. Qc7+ Kg8 37. Qe5 $18) 36. Qc7+ Kh8 37. Nf4 $18) 30. Ba3 $3 {[#] (A wonderful deflection. Nunn calls it one of the most famous combinations of all time. During the 1954 Chess Olympiad in Amsterdam the celebrated position made it onto an enormous cake displayed in the window of a local bakery. Botvinnik tells a story how the Russian computer "Pioneer" analyzed this position in 1979. To Botvinnik's disappointment it first suggested 30.Nf5, but later it found 30.Ba3!!)} Qxa3 31. Nh5+ $1 {Before Botvinnik could play this move, one of the spectators in Rotterdam shouted it out loud. The knight sacrifice is the key to Botvinnik's combination allowing the white queen to help promote the e-pawn.} gxh5 32. Qg5+ Kf8 33. Qxf6+ Kg8 34. e7 ({Kasparov gives another win:} 34. Qf7+ Kh8 35. g3 $1 {and the white king hides on h3.}) 34... Qc1+ 35. Kf2 Qc2+ 36. Kg3 Qd3+ 37. Kh4 Qe4+ 38. Kxh5 Qe2+ ({Botvinnik gives} 38... Qg6+ 39. Qxg6+ hxg6+ 40. Kxg6 {and 41.e8Q mate.}) 39. Kh4 Qe4+ 40. g4 Qe1+ 41. Kh5 1-0

A postage stamp from the Republic of Central Africa celebrating Mikhail Botvinnik and one of the most celebrated combinations in chess history.

Botvinnik himself dedicated a good part of his retired life trying to program a computer to understand chess dynamics and strategy to the extent that it would find the key move of this combination. He did not succeed. It is a sobering to discover that today's chess engines – Fritz, Rybka – find it in a matter of seconds.

– Part two to follow soon –

Original column hereCopyright Huffington Post


The Huffington Post is an American news website and aggregated blog founded by Arianna Huffington and others, featuring various news sources and columnists. The site was launched on May 9, 2005, as a commentary outlet and liberal/progressive alternative to conservative news websites. It offers coverage of politics, media, business, entertainment, living, style, the green movement, world news, and comedy. It is a top destination for news, blogs, and original content. The Huffington Post has an active community, with over over a quarter of a billion visits per month (according to Quantcast), making it the number 73 ranked web site in the world (Alexa, January 2014)..


Topics: Huffington, Kavalek
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