Riddle solved: Smyslov could have drawn!

by Karsten Müller
12/20/2020 – In game 14 of the 1958 World Championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Vasily Smyslov, Botvinnik played what he called “maybe his most subtle rook ending”. Endgame specialist Karsten Müller asked our readers to help him find any mistakes that might have been made in the game. The verdict? Smyslov could have drawn!

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The drawish nature of rook endings

Mikhail Botvinnik became world champion for the first time in 1948. The Patriarch of Soviet chess defended the title twice, first against David Bronstein (1951) and then against Smyslov (1954). In 1957, he was defeated by a 33-year-old Smyslov, who obtained a clear 12½:9½ victory in Moscow. Then came the 1958 rematch. Botvinnik faced Smyslov once again in a 24-game match, and kicked off with three straight victories — he would go on to win the match 12½:10½.

We presented a riddle from the rematch, 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.”

Even Botvinnik’s “most subtle” rook ending was drawn almost until the end, as the ChessBase readers found out! 

Zoran PetronijevicOnce again, Zoran Petronijevic sent the best solution, explaining in detail why Black cannot defend. These were his conclusions:

  1. The position after 22...Re6 is even.
  2. The game was adjourned after 41.Rh8. Botvinnik in his comments (his latest comments on this game are from 1986) points out that he had found a deep plan for him. However, the position is still even.
  3. Botvinnik criticizes 43...Kg6, which is in fact a good move and leads to even play.
  4. According to Botvinnik, 46...Rd6 loses. In fact, it leads to a very interesting pawn endgame, which is a draw. Botvinnik thought that 46...Ke6 loses due to 47.Rd4 — Charles Sullivan pointed out that this position is still even.
  5. Very interesting is 52...f4. According to Botvinnik, the position is already lost and Smyslov tried to confuse him by making the position more complex. Mikhalchishin has a different opinion: the position is still holdable, although f4 is a dubious move. In my opinion, this was a normal move.
  6. The first real mistake in this game is 54...Kf3. This move leads to a losing position. Neither Botvinnik nor Mikhalchishin evaluate it as a mistake. After 54...Re1 Black can hold.
  7. Botvnnik was right when he wrote that 57.axb5 is a mistake. Better was 57.Rxa6. In his analyses there are some mistakes.
  8. The decisive mistake is 59...Re2. Botvinnik thought that only 59...Re1 leads to draw, and 59...Kxh3 loses. The truth is that both moves lead to draw (see analyses). 

A very complex game with a lot of small imprecisions, which are unavoidable in this kind of positions.


Magical Chess Endgames Vol. 1 & 2 + The magic of chess tactics

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.

In our replay board above there are a large number of functions you can use to really understand the game and the analysis. Recently we published a comprehensive tutorial plus video instructions which tells you about all the powerful features and buttons that make the ChessBase's replay one of the best replay experiences around.

One big advantage is that you can start an engine (fan icon) that will help you to analyse. You can get multiple lines of analysis by clicking the + button to the right of the engine analysis window. The "!" key, incidentally, shows you the threat in any position, which is incredibly useful in the case of unclear moves.

There is one more thing you can do. It is a lot of fun, but also a serious challenge: Click on the rook icon below the notation window. This will allow you the play the above position against Fritz, at your level of playing strength (e.g. "Club Player"), right here on the news page. Note that your analysis, in which you can delete, move or promote lines, is stored in the notation as new variations. In the end you will find the game with your analysis in the cloud. So nothing is ever lost.


Karsten Müller is considered to be one of the greatest endgame experts in the world. His books on the endgame - among them "Fundamentals of Chess Endings", co-authored with Frank Lamprecht, that helped to improve Magnus Carlsen's endgame knowledge - and his endgame columns for the ChessCafe website and the ChessBase Magazine helped to establish and to confirm this reputation. Karsten's Fritztrainer DVDs on the endgame are bestsellers. The mathematician with a PhD lives in Hamburg, and for more than 25 years he has been scoring points for the Hamburger Schachklub (HSK) in the Bundesliga.


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PhishMaster PhishMaster 12/21/2020 03:05
@turok, Lastly, the ability to analyze with a computer is not just about the strength of your computer vs. the other guy's computer. It is can be about understanding and forcing in lines that make sense.

If you start analyzing at, let's say, move 30, and you just let the computer run, it will get, let's say, 10 moves deep. Maybe the other guy's computer is stronger, but at that depth, it still might only get to 11 moves deep. As a Master, if I can force in 5 logical moves (10 ply), aided by what the computer thinks in those first 5 moves, I am starting at move 35 compared to the weak player. That puts me ahead at 15 moves to 11 moves, and makes my analysis, potentially, a lot more accurate. That is a big advantage.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 12/21/2020 02:59
@turok, first the "asking for help" is a euphemism for "give it a shot", or something similar. In other words, it is an open question that anyone can answer, and they will publish the one with the most complete analysis. It is a search for the truth in the position, and not meant to be critical of Smyslov's play. Everyone understands that chess has a practical side for humans: Make the position hard for the opponent, and he may lose regardless of the theoretical result.

As far as these questions go, frankly, I agree that they have become a bit much since you have one guy, who just spits out reams of computer analysis everytime. I am not interested in reading any of it.

As far as GM Karsten Muller (rated 2532) being a leading expert on the endgame, but not being the World Champion, that is just an issue that you clearly do not understand. Rating, and how good you are at chess, is the sum of many components: Opening, middlegame understanding, endgame understanding, calculation ability, age, nerves, and even money (and there might be more).

Let's take the Karpov today, who is now rated 2617, and "only" 185th in the world. I chose him because while his understanding has probably not gotten worse, he surely no longer keeps up with openings to the same degree, and certainly can no longer calculate as quickly now that he is older (both he and Kasparov, who never got in time trouble early in life, started to have problems in their mid to late 40's, showing that they slowed down just a bit). Karpov would surely still be considered one of the great endgame experts on the planet, but he could no longer compete for the world title.

GM Muller has established himself as a leading expert in that phase of the game by virtue of his writings, in particular his books, and that is really indisputable. Your "expertise" with a computer may be one thing, but I doubt that your expertise over the board is in the same league as his.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 12/21/2020 08:34
Karsten Müller is a mathematician by training (he has a doctorate in the subject) and perhaps it is one of the reasons why he is so involved with the endgame. It helps him in one way because both mathematics and the endgame demand precision. His understanding, knowledge and experience of the endgame is fundamental. The use of the computer is secondary. If you read his books and see his DVDs you will know.
It is a good idea to have a collective exercise wherein both professional players and amateurs participate to find out the truth of a position. After all, some of the best engines, Stockfish LeelaZero and Fat Fritz, still don’t agree among themselves. So the human assessment matters.
turok turok 12/21/2020 01:38
I do not mean this as any disrespect BUT when you say you need help from people giving discussions do you know that people just like you will be using a computer to generate their answers. Seriously that is all that is happening. For me I have no interest in all of this or any books because people now grandmasters or local chess club players can write a book and give info based on a computer. Just like in this game so to analyze with a computer if this could've been a draw really has no basis for improvement in a persons play so the only reason we do this is to breakdown a past players mistakes and say "see you could've won or drawn" yet we all know regardless of what we say it really doesn't matter because none of us here during that time would have found it so now to take joy in saying Smyslove could've drawn means nothing other than to say under pressure he missed the move BUT most people back then probably would have and to now have Muller say he could've drawn what value does it have? What rating does Muller if I may ask have to be a premier person in endgames? Just curious that is all. It seems to me his expertise is no better than mine unless his computer is stronger etc. The people that have excelled and competed are the ones who are the experts not those who come after using a computer and love to give advice that they couldn't do over the board themselves. If not Muller would be a world champion by now -just saying