The old riddle of Botvinnik vs Fischer

by Karsten Müller
5/21/2020 – Let us remind you: In 1958 the 15-year-old US champion Bobby Fischer had refused to play in the Munich Olympiad, because his demand for board one ahead of Samuel Reshevsky was rejected. After that Fischer represented the United States on first board at four Men's Chess Olympiads. In Varna, Bulgaria, he outplayed world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, and in a winning position blundered it to a draw. He left the hall with tears in his eyes. Can you help GM Karsten Müller to find the win that Fischer missed?

Master Class Vol.1: Bobby Fischer Master Class Vol.1: Bobby Fischer

No other World Champion was more infamous both inside and outside the chess world than Bobby Fischer. On this DVD, a team of experts shows you the winning techniques and strategies employed by the 11th World Champion.

Grandmaster Dorian Rogozenco delves into Fischer’s openings, and retraces the development of his repertoire. What variations did Fischer play, and what sources did he use to arm himself against the best Soviet players? Mihail Marin explains Fischer’s particular style and his special strategic talent in annotated games against Spassky, Taimanov and other greats. Karsten Müller is not just a leading international endgame expert, but also a true Fischer connoisseur.


In 1962 the Chess Olympiad took place in September/October in Varna, Bulgaria. There were a total of 37 teams. The Soviet Union took first place in group 1, scoring 31½ points. Second was Yugoslavia, with 28, third Argentian, with 26, followed by the US with 25 points. The Soviet team consisted of Botvinnik, Petrosian, Spassky, Keres, Geller, and Tal; the American team of Fischer, Benko, Evans, R. Byrne, D. Byrne and Mednis. Fischer personally scored 88.23%, narrowly missing the individual gold medal (Tigran Petrosian had 88.46%)

Garry Kasparov in his book On my great Predecessors IV says: "The central event of the [Varna] Olympiad was, of course, the Botvinnik-Fischer game." And this has a point: the Soviet Union was such a favorite that the outcome of the Olympiad was never in doubt. But in one individual game, of course, Bobby could harbor hopes to win.

The game almost did not take place, since the Soviets considered "resting" Botvinnik in the round against the US. But then he did turn up and the world was treated to an truly exciting game.

Bobby Fischer's encounter with Mikhail Botvinnik made the cover of Chess Life (October 1962). In Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games it is number 39 and gets 14 pages of notes and analysis.

In his introduction to the game GM Larry Evans writes:

This dramatic meeting between the generations took place on board 1 after it was rumored that Botvinnik would be given a "rest day" against the American team. But it was fated that Fischer, at last, albeit with Black, would have a crack at the world champion.

Walking into a prepared variation, Fischer promptly refutes it. "The reader can guess that my equanimity was wrecked," confesses Botvinnik, whose notes are incorporated here. Nervously, he proceeds to run his still tenable position downhill.

But Fischer, instead of nursing his winning advantage, simplifies too quickly and reaches an adjournment where victory is problematical. After a sleepless night of analysis, Botvinnik finds a stunning defense. Fischer engages in a seemingly harmless transposition of moves (51 . . . P - QN4), and falls into a pit—throwing away the win he maintains was still there. – Evans, in In Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, p.240.

Sample of the Botvinnik-Fischer analysis in My 60 Memorable Games

Fischer came well out of the opening in his game against Botvinnik and was winning after the time control. But then strange and puzzling things happened. Bobby put it like this in a letter to Bernard Zuckerman:

"The first half of the tournament I played well, but in the second half I really patzed up one game after another. Botvinnik could have safely resigned against me but I fell into the obvious silly chepo [sic] you can imagine. He looked like he was dying all through the game. He was gasping, turning colors and looked like he was ready to [be] carried out on a stretcher. BUT - when I blundered and he caught me in his trap he was the old Botvinnik again. He buffed his chest out, strode away from the table as if he were a giant, etc."

The deep endgame has been discussed in many sources since then. But it seems that it has not given away all its secrets yet. So I need your help. The most interesting phase starts with Bobby's 41st move:

[Event "Varna ol (Men) fin-A"] [Site "Varna"] [Date "1962.??.??"] [Round "10"] [White "Botvinnik, Mikhail"] [Black "Fischer, Robert James"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D98"] [Annotator "Karsten Müller"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/p6p/1p4p1/2n3k1/3r4/2R3KP/P1B2P2/8 b - - 0 41"] [PlyCount "54"] [EventDate "1962.09.16"] [EventType "team"] [EventRounds "11"] [EventCountry "BUL"] [SourceTitle "MCD"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] [SourceVersion "1"] [SourceVersionDate "1999.07.01"] [SourceQuality "1"] [WhiteTeam "Soviet Union"] [BlackTeam "US of America"] [WhiteTeamCountry "URS"] [BlackTeamCountry "USA"] {The old riddle of Botvinnik vs Fischer Garry Kasparov in On my great Predecessors IV goes as far as to say: "The central event of the Olympiad was, of course, the Botvinnik-Fischer game." The deep endgame has been discussed in many sources since then. But it seems that it has not given away all its secrets yet. So I need your help. The most interesting phase starts with Bobby's 41st move:} 41... Ne4+ 42. Bxe4 Rxe4 43. Ra3 Re7 44. Rf3 Rc7 45. a4 { The game was adjourned and Fischer sealed} Rc5 46. Rf7 Ra5 47. Rxh7 Rxa4 48. h4+ Kf5 49. Rf7+ Ke5 50. Rg7 Ra1 51. Kf3 b5 $6 ({In his epic work My 60 Memorable Games Bobby gave a proof that} 51... Kd4 {wins. Is this correct?}) 52. h5 $1 {Geller's fantastic idea, which was found in the middle of the night in the analysis of the adjournment.} Ra3+ 53. Kg2 gxh5 54. Rg5+ Kd6 55. Rxb5 h4 56. f4 Kc6 57. Rb8 h3+ 58. Kh2 a5 59. f5 Kc7 60. Rb5 Kd6 61. f6 Ke6 62. Rb6+ Kf7 63. Ra6 Kg6 64. Rc6 a4 65. Ra6 Kf7 66. Rc6 Rd3 67. Ra6 a3 68. Kg1 {"With a face as white as a sheet, Fischer shook my hand and left the hall with tears in his eyes." (Botvinnik) So your job is: Was 41...Ne4+ a mistake which leads from a winning position to a drawn rook ending ? Was the rook ending always drawn ? Does Fischer's suggestion 51...Kd4 win ?} 1/2-1/2

You probably know that in our replay boards there are a Aftlarge number of functions you can use to really appreciate the games. Recently we published a comprehensive tutorial on how to get the most out of the live broadcast game viewer. Learn about all the powerful features and buttons that make the ChessBase's replay one of the best watching 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 shich 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.

Please send any analysis you have, or the games you played from the above position against the built-in engine, to Karsten Müller 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.

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The best contribution to our final appraisal of the position will receive a ChessBase software product, signed by at least one World Champion.

Fischer's challenge

Incidentally, Botvinnik tells us that after the game in Varna Fischer's face was white as a sheet. He shook Botvinnik's hand, and "with tears in his eyes he left the hall." Later in the year he published an article entitled "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess" in which he challenged the World Champion:

"I personally would be willing to play a match with Botvinnik at any time, letting him decide the minimum and maximum stakes we would play for, and the time and place. I would go so far as to spot him the advantage of two points in a match of 24 points. It isn't conceit that leads me to say I could come out the victor with ease in such a competition; it is simply that Botvinnik has been world champion too long, his reign perpetuated by the system that selects his opponents, and he is no longer a chess master of championship caliber."

The British newspaper The People offered to cover the costs of a match in London. But Botvinnik was not interested. He commented the challenge with a touch of humour: "If Fischer wants to spot me two points, I'll spot him two pawns in each game." The match, of course, never took place.

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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Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 5/25/2020 08:56
Good that deep stockfish confirmed those wins. But the deepest question seems to be, if 44...Kh6!! wins (instead of the game continuation 44...Rc7?). I think that it does. Can you check that with deep stockfish ?
One minor correction: Fischer sealed 45....Rc5.
Lexionius2384 Lexionius2384 5/23/2020 12:47
0.25 Stockfish 11 64 pop(21. Bxb2 OM) 21. Nca4 22. O-O Nxb2 23. Rb1 N2c4 24. Rfd1 Be5 25. Bxe5 Nxe5 26. Kg2 h5 27. Rbc1 f6 28. Rd4 Nf7 29. Rcd1 Rxd6 30. Rxd6 Nxd6 31. Rxd6 -0.48/17

-0.49 Stockfish 11 64 pop ( 41. Ne4+OM ) 41. Kf6 42. Rf3+ Ke6 43. Re3+ Kd6 44. Re2 Ne6 45. Re4 Rd2 46. Bb3 Nc5 47. Rh4 Nxb3 48. axb3 a5 49. Rxh7 Rd3+ 50. f3 Rxb3 51. Rg7 a4 -2.12/16

0.00 Stockfish 11 64 pop (45. Rc5 OM) 45. Kh6 46. Rf4 a5 47. Rf6 Rc3 48. f3 Rb3 49. h4 Rb4 50. Re6 Kg7 51. Rd6 Kf7 52. f4 Ke7 53. Rc6 Kd7 54. Rf6 Kc8 55. Kf3 Rxa4 56. Rxb6 -1.35/24

0.00 Stockfish 11 64 pop (51. b5 OM) 51. Kf6 52. Rb7 Ra4 53. Kg3 Ke5 54. Rg7 Ra1 55. Kf3 Ra3+ 56. Kg4 Kf6 57. Rb7 Ra2 58. f4 Ral 59. Kf3 Kf5 60. Rf7+ Ke6 61. Rg7 b5 62. Rxg6+ Kd5 63. h5 b4 64. Rg7 a5 65. h6 Rh1 66. Rg5+ Kc4 67. Rxa5 b3 -0.62 /22
Omega2384 Omega2384 5/22/2020 07:44
During analysis the computer considered the pawn on a3 really dangerous could have fischer won its uncertain his opponent would have to blunder to computers playing from aforementioned position it's a draw so it's far from conclusive
catalanFischer catalanFischer 5/22/2020 11:45
@albitex: yes all of us know the principle :" if u r winning exchange pieces, if u r losing take pawns". But principles r not rules, u must adapt them to the actual position. Another example is "OCB is a dead draw". Well mostly is a draw but no so simple if there r other pieces OTB.
Here u must liquidate in the most favorable circumstances. With the Qside majority far advance u can liquidate all and go to a K+pawns ending where a mutual breakthrough will allow black to promote first and win.
albitex albitex 5/22/2020 04:43
So your job is: Was 41...Ne4+ a mistake which leads from a winning position to a drawn rook ending ?
* Yes theoretically *
Was the rook ending always drawn ? * Yes, if perfect game, but after Botwinnik's imprecision 43. Ra3?! Black had win again with 43...a5 -+ (43. Rc7 draw) *
Does Fischer's suggestion 51...Kd4 win ? * No, 51...Kd4 draw, and also 51. Kf5 draw *
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 5/22/2020 04:40
In “My 60 Memorable Games” Fischer wrote,
After 51...Kd4 52.Rxg6 b5 53.h5 b4 54.h6 b3 55.Rg4+ Kc5 56.Rg5+ Kc6 57.Rg6+ Kb7 58.Rg7+ Ka6 59.Rg6+ Ka5 60.Rg5+ Ka4 61.Rg4+ Ka3 62.Rh4 b2 63.h7 b1Q 64.h8Q Qb3+ 65.Ke2 Qd1+ 66.Ke3 Rb1 67.Qf8+ 67...Ka2 and "White's King cannot escape the coming avalanche of checks" Back in 1977 the Moscow master, Anatoly Kremenetsky had demonstrated that 68.Qc5 was a draw for the same reasons fellow reader marcguy has given here. It’s to be found in the now defunct Chess in USSR Magazine (02-1977 issue)

However, Botvinnik’s 13-year-old pupil Garry Kasparov found an elegant line after 66 Ke3 Rb1.

67.Rc4! Rb3+ 68.Rc3 Qe1+ 69.Kd3 Qf1+ 70.Kd2! (not 70.Ke3?? Qh3+!–+) 70...Qxf2+ 71.Kd3=
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 5/22/2020 04:39
Botvinnik’s claim that there were tears in Fischer’s eyes at the end of the game should be taken with a pinch of salt.*
There are other accounts of this game (including one by Tal) and none of them corroborates Botvinnik’s version. Bobby was made of sterner stuff and here he was not even losing the game. He had allowed Botvinnik to escape. It made him frustrated and angry, not have tears in his eyes.
*The YouTube footage kindly provided by our fellow-reader here (Jarman, Thank you!) shows nothing of the sort.
Lexionius2384 Lexionius2384 5/22/2020 04:38
i agree with fishmaster a5 instead of Ne4+ is much better Ne4 is a terrible blunder on Fischer's part allowed a rook endgame draw when he had winning chances it is to note despite the final position being a dead draw the a3 pawn was considered a threat some alternatives to move 51 Rd4 52 Rxg6 b5 53 h5 b4 54 h6 b3 55 Rg4+Kc5 56 Rg5+ Kc4 57 Rg4 Kb5 58 Rg5+ Kb4 equalizes the position but its far from certain if its winning you also have 51 Kf6 Rb7 52 Kf5 Rf7+ 53 Ke5 Rg7 54 Ra3 Kg4 55 Kf6 Rb7 56 Ra2 Kf3 57 Ra1 Kf4 58 Ke6
albitex albitex 5/22/2020 03:35
Yes @PhishMaster Yes 41 ... a5 wins, but after 41 ... Ne4?! 42. Bxe4 Rxe4 White draw with 43. Rc7, while after 43. Ra3?! played by Botwinnik Black wins again with 43 ... a5. I cannot consider the change as a mistake, but a practical evaluation.
marcguy marcguy 5/22/2020 03:05
In Fischer's book he gives the following line after Kd4 and claims a win: 52.Rg6 b5 53.h5 b4 54.h6 b3 55.Rg4+Kc5 56.Rg5+Kc6 57.Rg6+Kb7 58.Rg7+Ka6 59.Rg6+Ka5 60.Rg5+Ka4 61.Rg4+Ka3 62.Rh4 b2 63.h7 b1(Q) 64.h8(Q) Qb3+ 65.Ke2 Qd1+ 66.Ke3 Rb1 67.Qf8+Ka2 and "White's King cannot escape the coming avalanche of checks". However, White seems to hold after 68.Qc5 Rb3+ 69.Kf4 Qd2+ 70.Kf5.
I agree with @catalanFischer, Fischer blew it at move 41. Botvinnik's suggestion of 41...Rb4 42.a3 Rd4 43.f3 a5 looks pretty good, but 43...h5 looks winning too, e.g. 44. h4+Rh4 45.Bg6 Rd4 followed by h4.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/21/2020 11:21
@albitex You take a general rule too literally. Ne4 was a mistake there. That is not in dispute. Black had a large advantage, and none after the exchange of the minor pieces.
Jarman Jarman 5/21/2020 10:22
Rare and short footage of the end of the game:
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 5/21/2020 07:31
Yes you are right. This indeed refers to the Havanna Olympiad 1966.
AVRO1938 AVRO1938 5/21/2020 07:09
"Fischer personally scored 88.23%, narrowly missing the individual gold medal (Tigran Petrosian had 88.46%)". You are confused. This refers to the 1966 Olympiad.
albitex albitex 5/21/2020 07:03
No @catalanFischer, when you are in advantage of material it is a general rule to simplify changing. Fischer might have won the rock ending , but he made some inaccuracies.
ARK_ANGEL ARK_ANGEL 5/21/2020 06:41
Fisher was a genius. So as Botvink....And Fisher legend and a hysterical bad looser much like Kochnovi..
catalanFischer catalanFischer 5/21/2020 05:02
41....Ne4? is a mistake. The way to go was 41... a5 42. a3 Rd5 43. f4+ {!?} 43... Kf6
44. h4 {!?} 44... Ne6 45. Kf3 b5 46. Be4 Rc5 {!?} 47. Rd3 Ke7 48. Bd5 Ng7 49.
Be4 a4 50. Kf2 Nf5 51. Ke2 h5 52. Bxf5 Rxf5 53. Rd4 Ke6 54. Rb4 Rc5 -+
43....Re7?! is another innacuracy. The way to go is again 43....a5: 43... a5 {!} 44. Rd3 Rb4
45. h4+ Kf5 46. h5 a4 47. hxg6 hxg6 48. Rd5+ Ke6 49. Rg5 Kf6 50. Rd5 Rb2 51.
Rd6+ Kf5 52. f3 b5 53. a3 Rb3 54. Rd5+ Ke6 55. Rg5 Kd6 56. Rxg6+ Kc5 57. Rg5+ and black wins
45....the seal move 45...Rc5 is another innacuracy. Better was Kh6 to protect the h7 pawn.
This leads to a drawn position.
51.......Kd4 is not better than 51...b5. The position is a dread draw since the adjourment. Fischer threw the win before the adjournment. The lesson I get is to advance your connected passers as much as u can and only then liquidate material.
albitex albitex 5/21/2020 03:43
No, after move 51 ... Kd4 was always a draw. Hope after the change of the Knight, Black could win, but I still have to analyze well.