WHAT WE DON'T KNOW ABOUT BOTVINNIK, BUT WOULD LIKE TO LEARN

by Sam Sloan
Mark Crowther has written an excellent article about the life of former world chess champion M. M. Botvinnik, which was published both on the Internet at the time of his death and later in Inside Chess. However, I was frankly disappointed because the article failed to answer any of the questions which I have always had about Botvinnik. Therefore, in the spirit of trying my best, as usual, to stir up some trouble, I have decided to write about what some of those questions are.

Most of Mr. Crowther's article recounts facts well known to everybody who has read the published writings of Botvinnik himself about his early life, about his important chess matches and so on. However, I learned for the first time from Mr. Crowther's article that there was a meeting in 1952 among the top Soviet grandmasters in which it was decided to leave the then World Chess Champion Botvinnik off of the Soviet Olympic Team in Helsinki. How was such a thing possible? Kotov, who, it is said, organized the meeting, was a strong player, but he was not nearly in the class of Botvinnik. How could Kotov possibly have had any influence over whether Botvinnik played on the team or not, especially when Botvinnik is said to have virtually controlled Soviet chess during this period?

I have always either assumed or was told that Botvinnik simply chose not to play on the early Soviet Olympic Teams, either because he felt that it was denigrating for a world champion to play on a team or because he considered his work as an engineer to be of greater importance. I never previously knew that it had been decided by some committee that Botvinnik was not strong enough to play on the team.

I was also surprised to learn that most of what Botvinnik has written has never been translated into English and published in the West. I did not realize that Botvinnik had written quite as extensively as he has.

I was also intrigued by the question Mr. Crowther raised, without explanation, of whether Botvinnik "saved" Keres.

It appears that Botvinnik was a hard line Communist, or at least that he said that he was. Of course, it is well known that during that period, everyone had to profess to be a Communist in order to prosper and even to survive under the Soviet system. It is difficult to imagine that a deep thinker and intellectual such as Botvinnik could really believe in such a ridiculous concept as Communism. However, it seems possible that Botvinnik really did believe in Communism.

Regarding his first drawn match for the world chess championship, there has always been suspicion surrounding the 23rd game of his match against Bronstein. In that game, Bronstein suddenly resigned in an endgame in which he was a pawn ahead. The reason for the resignation was said to be that Botvinnik had two bishops, whereas Bronstein had two knights. More than that, Bronstein's pawns were doubled or isolated and weak. Botvinnik's pawns were solid. Subsequent analysis in fact proved that Botvinnik really had a winning position. Bronstein's pawns were going to fall, one by one.

Still, nobody can remember a game in the entire history of grandmaster chess in which a player who was ahead in material and not clearly lost nevertheless resigned. The fact that this particular game was the deciding game in the match for the chess championship of the world has led many to suggest that Bronstein had been ordered by the higher Soviet authorities to dump.

I personally believe that this is not true. Bronstein was really lost in the position in which he resigned. Botvinnik was known to be the strongest endgame player in the world. Out of sheer respect, Bronstein no doubt felt that he had to resign. The final position has been analyzed and re-analyzed again and again by both humans and computers and each time they have come to the same conclusion, that Bronstein was lost.

A further interesting factor was that Chess Grandmaster David Bronstein was the second cousin of Trotsky, whose fatherís name was also David Bronstein. The real name of Trotsky was Lev Davidovitch Bronstein. Trotsky, of course, was not a popular personality in the Soviet Union and one wonders how this affected the chess career of his second cousin, the chess grandmaster David Bronstein.

However, the bottom line is that Bronstein was not nearly as strong at chess as Botvinnik. The only major tournament which Bronstein ever won was the 1950 Candidates tournament, and that was really only a fluke tie for first with Boleslavsky. After he drew his 1951 world championship match with Botvinnik, Bronstein was never again a major threat to become world chess champion.

When Botvinnik also drew the next world championship match in 1954, this time with Smyslov, the rumor then was that these drawn matches were all prearranged as proof of the innate superiority of the Soviet system. Under Communism, all players will eventually rise to equal rank. All men are the same, or so says Marxist theory. Botvinnik was merely equal to the others, except that he was "the first among equals."

Later, in the 1960s, Fischer tried to have a match arranged with Botvinnik. Fischer's belief was that Botvinnik was really still the chess champion of the world. In the mean time, in the 1950s, Botvinnik had adopted the monotonous practice of losing his first match for the world chess championship, only to come back and win the rematch.. It began to appear that Botvinnik was using the first match for the world chess championship as essentially a "warm up" and it was only in the second match that he got serious. Meanwhile, his opponent, believing that Botvinnik was finished, was psychologically unprepared to face such a strong and rejuvenated opponent.

Because the rematch clause seemed to give the champion an unfair advantage, FIDE voted to change the rules and strip the world chess champion of that right. Thus, when Botvinnik lost to Petrosian in 1963, he, for the first time, did not have the opportunity for a rematch. Botvinnik was always bitter at having lost the world chess title in this way.

One person who agreed with him was Fischer. Fischer felt that Botvinnik was really the strongest player and was morally still the chess champion of the world. Fischer therefore wanted a match with Botvinnik. However, the match never came off.

At about that time, Botvinnik "retired" to devote himself to computer chess. Botvinnik wrote extensively on this subject. He also developed computer chess playing programs. The first world computer chess championship was won by a program developed by a team headed by Botvinnik.

Although I have personally met and spoken to almost all of the world's top chess grandmasters (except for the newest, youngest ones) I never met Botvinnik. I missed one chance when he attended a computer chess conference in Montreal, which I decided not to attend. Unfortunately, after that, Botvinnik no longer entered programs into the world computer chess championship. The reason was obvious. Botvinnik was working with old style computers using vacuum tubes, which had limited speed, computing power and memory. Integrated circuits were not available in the Soviet Union. It is a wonder that the computers which the Soviets had were even able to play chess at all, much less compete for the world championship. Botvinnik was not going to enter a computer program into a competition unless he felt that his program had a good chance to win.

Botvinnik nevertheless wrote about computer chess. Every serious chess computer programmer in the world has studied his works. Hans Berliner recently characterized Botvinnik as a "fraud" in the fiend of computer chess. I disagree. I do agree, however, that what Botvinnik wrote has little value to chess computer programmers today. Botvinnik wrote about the "Minimax" theory, which is the cornerstone of every strong computer chess program in existence. He used as an example to explain this theory his famous win over Capablanca. However, I feel certain that Botvinnik did not invent the minimax theory. He merely explained it to the layman.

Botvinnik was working with "selective search" computer programs. We now know that such programs do not work. All strong chess playing programs today use "full breath search", which means that the computer searches every possible legal move and every possible legal position for several ply deep, before even starting to evaluate the resulting positions.

However, with the equipment which Botvinnik had, it was not possible to run a full breath search program. Today, every computer chess program analyzes millions of positions per second. The machines Botvinnik had could only analyze a few positions per minute. Therefore, Botvinnik had to try to develop general principles which his computer could understand and follow. Even though his programs were weak by modern standards, they still produced a number of remarkable and interesting games.

Having never met Botvinnik, I do not know what kind of man he really was. However, my perception based open what I have read and have been told about him is that he was extremely serious, that he never told a joke, that he had few personal friends and that he must have spent his days sitting around his apartment thinking pure thought. He was indeed a great thinker. His writings show that. At chess, he was a profound strategist.

One story which Botvinnik wrote has always stuck in my mind. It was how, as a young man, he had defeated Grandmaster Spielmann in just 12 moves. The way this happened was that Botvinnik published an article about the Gruenfeld Defense. He included analysis about a new move that he had discovered. However, his published analysis was not complete. Instead, he deliberately left out one move from his analysis. This was a promising looking move for Black which he did not discuss. Botvinnik had seen that move and had found a refutation. However, in his article, Botvinnik had discussed neither the move or its refutation.

Later, Botvinnik played Spielmann. Spielmann, of course, had seen the article. Spielmann had also noticed the move for Black which Botvinnik had failed to mention. Needless to say, Spielmann thought that this was an oversight on the part of Botvinnik. Spielmann played the move, and Botvinnik immediately played the refutation. Grandmaster Spielmann was forced to resign on the very next move, which was move number 12.

Ever since then, generations of chess grandmasters have followed this fine example established by Botvinnik. This is the reason that one can never completely trust published grandmaster opening analysis. Grandmasters are paid to write chess articles, but they are also paid to win chess games. Sometimes, these two objectives conflict.

I personally see nothing ethically wrong with this practice. Grandmasters devote their entire lives to looking for and finding these little traps and tricks. When some chess editor hires them to write an article, they are under no moral or ethical obligation to spill their guts and reveal everything they know in detail about chess.

Mr. Crowther, at the end of his article, left a suggestion hanging that Botvinnik might have "saved" Keres. This is something that I would like to learn more about. This concerned a difficult period in history. During the Second World War, Petrov, a grandmaster strength player from Latvia, was executed by the Soviets. Keres, as Estonian player only slightly stronger than Petrov, could have been executed as well.

It must be explained that at this time, the official grandmaster title did not exist. The title of "Grandmaster" had been conferred by the Czar of Russia upon the five finalists at the great tournament of St. Petersberg, 1914. By this criteria, Frank Marshall of the U.S.A. was a grandmaster, but Rubinstein of Poland, who did not make the finals but was probably stronger, was not.

These titles were not conferred by any official body, however. Then, in about 1950, FIDE conferred the title of "grandmaster" on about 80 players. This number has increased every year since. Therefore, strictly speaking, both Petrov and Spielmann were never grandmasters, because they died too soon. By modern day standards, they were clearly grandmasters, however.

In the case of Keres, there was a thin line between whether he would be executed by a firing squad, as Petrov was, or allowed to compete for the world chess championship. One wonders: was the fact that Keres was the stronger player and, as the winner of AVRO 1938, both a well known chess personality in the West and a likely candidate for the world chess championship, the factor which saved his life.

Botvinnik was a mysterious man. Why did he virtually stop playing chess, except to defend his world title, after he first won the world chess championship in 1948? What did Botvinnik really do? What was his true role in the Soviet system? Why was he apparently so disliked by the other Soviet grandmasters? These are just a few of the questions to which we would like to know the answers someday.

Lastly, it is known that Botvinnik played a number of secret training matches during the period when he was world chess champion. Neither the results of these matches nor the games have ever been published. Now that he is deceased, will these games now be made available to the public?


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