The Candidates Tournaments 1950, 1953, and 1956

by Johannes Fischer
3/7/2018 – On March 10th, the Candidates tournament 2018 will begin in Berlin. In November, the winner of this tournament will play a match for the world championship against Magnus Carlsen in London. Candidates tournaments have always been special, providing memorable moments in chess history, with scandals, drama and, of course, brilliant games. In the run-up to the start of this year's tournament, it's a good time to take a look at some previous classics. | Photo: Herbert Behrens (ANEFO) (Cropped from GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL)) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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History and games

For a long time, the world chess title was a private affair and the reigning World Champion could choose when and against whom he wanted to risk his title. In 1946, Alexander Alekhine had died as the reigning world champion and FIDE took over responsibility for organising the World Championships. This started with the world championship tournament in Moscow and The Hague which was won by Mikhail Botvinnik. From then on, the world champion would have to defend his title every three years though not against a player of his choice but against the winner of candidates tournaments in which the best players of the world would fight for the right to challenge the world champion.

Budapest 1950

The first official candidates tournament took place in Budapest, in 1950. Ten players started in a double-round-robin, organised by FIDE. However, this first tournament was not decided by strong play alone. After 18 rounds the Soviet players Isaak Boleslavsky and David Bronstein shared first place with 12.0 / 18 each, but Bronstein later admitted that the tournament finish was manipulated. After 16 rounds, Boleslavsky was sole leader and one point ahead of Bronstein but then he slowed down. In round 17, he drew with Alexander Kotov and in the final round, he made a quick draw against Gideon Stahlberg from Sweden, one of the weaker players in the field. This allowed Bronstein to catch up. He won in round 17 against Stahlberg and in the final round defeated Paul Keres:

 

Final standings

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Pts.
1 David Ionovich Bronstein   ½½ 10 11 01 ½½ 12.0 / 18
2 Isaak Boleslavsky ½½   ½½ ½½ ½½ ½1 11 12.0 / 18
3 Vassily V Smyslov 01   ½½ ½1 10 ½1 ½½ ½½ 10.0 / 18
4 Paul Keres ½½ ½½   ½½ 10 ½1 ½½ ½1 ½½ 9.5 / 18
5 Miguel Najdorf 00 ½½ ½0 ½½   ½½ ½½ 11 ½1 ½½ 9.0 / 18
6 Alexander Kotov 01 ½½   ½1 10 10 ½1 8.5 / 18
7 Gideon Stahlberg 10 ½½ 01 ½0 ½½ ½0   ½½ ½½ ½½ 8.0 / 18
8 Andor Lilienthal ½½ ½0 ½½ 00 01 ½½   01 ½½ 7.0 / 18
9 Laszlo Szabo ½0 ½½ ½0 ½0 01 ½½ 10   01 7.0 / 18
10 Salo Flohr 00 ½½ ½½ ½½ ½0 ½½ ½½ 10   7.0 / 18

Bronstein and Boleslavsky might have hoped that the tie in the candidates tournament would lead to a three-player world championship match between Botvinnik, Bronstein and Boleslavsky but of course, Botvinnik was not particularly fond of this idea. Therefore, Bronstein and Boleslavsky, who were close friends and training partners — Bronstein later even married Boleslavsky's daughter Tatjana — were forced to play a tie-break to establish the challenger. Bronstein won this play-off which in all likelihood had also been pre-arranged.

In a confidential conversation with his fellow Minsk resident and favourite pupil Albert Kapengut, Boleslavsky admitted that just a few of those games were genuine, and to make the last game more convincing the players even had to employ a novelty that they had discovered. (Genna Sosonko, The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein, Elk and Ruby 2017, p. 50)

However, these manipulations brought Bronstein no luck. In 1951, he played a world championship match against Botvinnik but missed the title by half a point (the match ended in a 12 : 12 tie and because the challenger as challenger had to score at least 12½ points Botvinnik defended his title) and this missed chance haunted Bronstein for the rest of his life.

David Bronstein 1968 | Photo: Eric Koch / Anefo CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Zurich 1953

In 1953, three years after the tournament in Budapest, the second candidates tournament took place in Zurich. It was a gigantic event: 15 participants played a double-round-robin, that is, each participant had to play 28 games. Zurich 1953 is still one of the most famous tournaments in chess history, not least because of the legendary tournament book by Bronstein which many chess players consider to be one of the best chess books ever written. But though Bronstein is officially the author of this chess classic the idea to this book goes back to Bronstein's mentor Boris Vainshtein, a high-ranking and influential KGB officer. Vainshtein also wrote "the entire narrative part", Bronstein contributed only the analyses. (Cp. Sosonko, The Rise and Fall, p. 139)

This tournament book made some of the games played in Zurich 1953 famous. For example Euwe's win against Efim Geller, in which the former Dutch world champion comes up with one of the most stunning rook sacrifices in chess history:

 

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Another legendary game is Kotov's win against Yuri Averbakh in which the black queen sacrifices itself to question the white king deep in Black's camp.

 

But in Zurich Bronstein could not repeat his success from Budapest. He scored 16.0 / 28 to share second to fourth place with Keres and Samuel Reshevsky. The tournament was won by Vassily Smyslov.

Final standings

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Pts.
1 Vassily V Smyslov   11 ½½ ½1 ½½ ½½ 11 ½0 ½½ ½½ ½½ ½½ 11 18.0 / 28
2 Paul Keres 00   ½½ ½1 ½½ ½1 ½½ ½½ 11 ½1 ½½ 11 16.0 / 28
3 David Ionovich Bronstein ½½   11 ½½ ½½ ½0 ½½ ½½ ½½ 01 ½½ ½½ 16.0 / 28
4 Samuel Herman Reshevsky ½0 ½½ 00   ½½ ½½ ½½ 10 ½½ ½1 ½1 ½1 11 16.0 / 28
5 Tigran V Petrosian ½½ ½0 ½½ ½½   ½½ ½½ 00 ½½ ½½ 11 ½1 11 15.0 / 28
6 Miguel Najdorf ½½ ½½ ½½ ½½   00 ½0 ½½ ½½ ½½ 11 14.5 / 28
7 Efim P Geller 00 ½0 ½1 ½½ ½½ 11   ½0 01 ½½ 01 ½1 01 ½½ 14.5 / 28
8 Alexander Kotov ½1 ½½ ½½ 01 ½½ ½1   10 00 10 01 14.0 / 28
9 Mark E Taimanov ½½ ½½ ½½ 11 10 01   10 ½½ ½½ ½0 11 14.0 / 28
10 Yuri L Averbakh ½½ ½½ ½0 ½½ ½1 ½½ 01   ½½ ½½ 11 00 13.5 / 28
11 Isaak Boleslavsky ½½ 00 ½½ ½0 ½½ ½½ 10 11 ½½ ½½   ½0 ½½ ½1 ½½ 13.5 / 28
12 Laszlo Szabo ½½ 10 00 ½½ 01 ½½ ½½ ½1   ½½ 13.0 / 28
13 Svetozar Gligoric ½0 ½0 ½0 ½½ ½0 ½1 ½½   ½1 11 12.5 / 28
14 Max Euwe 00 ½½ ½½ 00 10 00 ½0 ½½ ½0   11.5 / 28
15 Gideon Stahlberg 00 ½½ 00 00 ½½ 10 00 11 ½½ 00   8.0 / 28

However, Smyslov failed to overcome Botvinnik: just like Bronstein in 1951 he "only" tied the world championship match 1954 against Botvinnik and Botvinnik once again narrowly defended the title.

Amsterdam 1956

Missing the title narrowly must have been a bitter disappointment for Smyslov but he did not lose heart. After winning the candidates tournament in Zürich 1953 he also won the next candidates tournament in Amsterdam 1956 — a remarkable success.

Final standings

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Pts.
1 Vassily V Smyslov   ½½ ½½ ½1 ½½ 11 ½1 ½1 ½1 11.5 / 18
2 Paul Keres ½½   ½½ ½½ ½½ ½½ ½0 10.0 / 18
3 Tigran V Petrosian ½½ ½½   ½½ ½0 ½½ 01 ½½ 9.5 / 18
4 Boris Vasilievich Spassky ½½ ½½   ½1 ½0 ½0 ½½ ½½ 9.5 / 18
5 David Ionovich Bronstein ½0 ½1 ½0   ½½ ½½ 9.5 / 18
6 Laszlo Szabo ½½ ½½ ½½ ½1 ½½   ½½ 01 9.5 / 18
7 Efim P Geller 00 ½½ 10 ½1   11 9.5 / 18
8 Miroslav Filip ½0 ½1 ½½ 00   01 8.0 / 18
9 Oscar Panno ½0 ½½ ½½ ½½ ½½ 10   8.0 / 18
10 Hermann Pilnik ½0 10   5.0 / 18

Smyslov lost only one game in Amsterdam – against the 19-year old Spassky who made his first attempt to become world champion. In the end, Spassky shared third to seventh place but after this promising beginning, another nine years should pass before Spassky became a candidate again after sharing first to fourth place at the Interzonal Tournament 1964 in Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam 1956 Smyslov was particularly successful against his fellow Soviet player Efim Geller — Smyslov won 2-0. In candidates tournaments Geller always had problems against Smyslov: they played four games in two candidates tournaments against each other and Smyslov won all four of them. In other events Geller fared much better against Smyslov: the ChessBase Mega Database contains 56 games of Geller vs Smyslov. Geller won 11, Smyslov 8, 37 ended in a draw. And in their candidates match 1965 Geller was almost as dominant as Smyslov had previously been in the candidates tournaments: Geller won the match 5½ : 2½ (3 wins, 5 draws).

Winning his second candidates tournament in a row gave Smyslov to play another world championship match against Botvinnik in 1957. Smyslov's second attempt went much better than the first and he won the match 12½-9½ and became new World Champion. However, his luck did not last long because in the return match in 1958 Botvinnik regained the title with a 12½-10½ win. Botvinnik was world champion again and Smyslov had to play another candidates tournament — in Yugoslavia 1959.

Vassily Smyslov 1977 | Photo: Koen Suyk, via Wikimedia Commons)

Next: the candidates tournaments 1959 and 1962...

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Johannes was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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Peter B Peter B 4/3/2018 05:41
@marcguy but I suspect it's harder to get sponsorship for the Candidates quarter final round. Because whereas a tournament has one winner who is the official challenger, the quarter finals produce 4 winners, who then proceed to the next stage. I think matches might be easier to stage if there were only 2 rounds, i.e. only 4 Candidates. I think that is doable: 2 qualify on ratings, 1 on the World Cup, and 1 on the Grand Prix or some tournament equivalent. There's no need for a wild card entry or automatic entry to the loser of the last match.
marcguy marcguy 3/10/2018 06:03
@Peter B: I thought cost was an advantage for matches, since its less expensive for a single venue to host a single match than an entire tournament, of course the logistics is harder having several matches in different locations. I guess the financing is different now than it was 30-40 years ago. Also, having matches eliminates drawing tactics used in a tournament.
Peter B Peter B 3/8/2018 11:17
@marcguy I suspect it's cost. No one wants to finance the matches. Which is a pity, because from a "find the best candidate" angle they are far superior.
marcguy marcguy 3/8/2018 08:54
Does anyone know why FIDE abandoned knock out matches in the Candidates qualifying and went back to a tournament some years ago?
koko48 koko48 3/8/2018 08:16
"Why are we even playing this match, Davy? We will lose to Botvinnik anyway."

Maybe because they were supposed to lose to Botvinnik...From the chessgames.com page of the Botvinnik-Bronstein 1951 match:

'Bronstein has controversially hinted that there was government pressure on him to lose the match. In a 1993 interview he explained that "There was no direct pressure... But... there was the psychological pressure of the environment..." in part caused by his father's "several years in prison" and what he labeled "the marked preference for the institutional Botvinnik." Bronstein concluded that "it seemed to me that winning could seriously harm me, which does not mean that I deliberately lost." '

Those who were 'allowed' to beat Botvinnik (Smyslov and Tal) promptly lost the title back to him due to the highly beneficial rematch clause....a much greater statistical advantage for the champion than anything Fischer ever asked for in 1975, that was only granted to Soviet World Champions

Even Karpov was granted an automatic return match if he lost...after he won the title by forfeit....Because Fischer's 'Champion retain title on a 9-9 tie' clause was deemed "too unfair"
daftarche daftarche 3/8/2018 02:00
those old days when they played another 14 games just because they shared the first place.thank god for tiebreaks. also i believe we need more evidence to say the match was prearranged.
Johannes Fischer Johannes Fischer 3/8/2018 10:28
@genem
Of course it would be good to know why Boleslavsky accepted to waive his chance to play for the world championship. Sosonko offers the following explanation: "Isaac Boleslavsky possessed an amazing talent for chess, but he didn't have much of a fighting spirit. He said to his friend before the match: 'Why are we even playing this match, Davy? We will lose to Botvinnik anyway.'" (The Rise and Fall, p.49)
Bronstein, however, was much more optimistic about his chances against Botvinnik. Sosonko quotes him: "I don't think that Isaac was too upset at losing the match to me. In fact, probably the opposite. Losing the match was to some extent a weight off his shoulders." (The Rise and Fall, p.50)
cashparov1 cashparov1 3/8/2018 08:33
And here we are 2 days away from the 2018 Candidates and I haven't even seen a "live" picture of the venue.
One of the premier chess events of the year ressembles a top-secret meeting of a masonic lodge. Way to go FIDE and AGON.
RayLopez RayLopez 3/8/2018 08:16
Indeed, paranoid B. Fischer was right (DrChesspain from chess.com): 'a statistical analysis of the Soviets' play in FIDE qualification tournaments strongly suggests that they played as a "cartel." ' http://www.fsb.muohio.edu/moulcc/sovietchesscartel.pdf ("Simulations of the period’s five premier international competitions (the FIDE Candidates tournaments) suggest that the observed Soviet sweep was a 60%-probability event under collusion but only a 25%-probability event had the Soviet players not colluded")
genem genem 3/8/2018 07:37
But why did Boleslavsky throw games and purposely do less than his best?
Peter B Peter B 3/8/2018 12:19
It would be nice to show the crucial Keres-Smyslov game from 1953. Smyslov won the tournament by 2 points in the end, but it would have been much closer if not for that game. Then in 1956 Keres' only loss was to Filip and I believe that was very late in the tournament too.
Peter B Peter B 3/8/2018 12:13
In the Averbakh Kotov '53 game, it looks like Kotov repeated moves between 35 and 41 just to make it to the adjournment on move 40, so he could analyse it during adjournment. Still a very nice sac, but it takes the shine off it a bit if he didn't work it all out at the board.
koko48 koko48 3/7/2018 10:32
A history of Soviet chess rigging
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