Famous Fixed Games of Chess - Keres vs. Botvinnik - World Championship 1948

Chess, too, has its conspiracy theories.

One of the most persistent rumors in chess concerns the 1948 World Chess Championship, held in Amsterdam and The Hague. This event was made possible by the death of World Champion Alekhine in Portugal in 1946, which gave FIDE the opportunity to organize a world championship for the first time.

[Position after 52. ... hxg5]
What possible reason could Keres have had for playing 53. Rd3 in this position, unless he was trying to lose the game?

Six players were invited. However, Fine of the USA refused to play for reasons which have been disputed ever since. The remaining players were Reshevsky of the USA, Botvinnik, Keres and Smyslov of the USSR and Euwe of the Netherlands. Each played five games against each other.

As it turned out, although Euwe had clearly been one of the strongest players in the world right up until the 1948 event, he proceeded to lose almost all of his games. This meant that there was really just one American against the three Soviets.

One of the Soviets was Keres of Estonia. Some Estonians had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, as did many Latvians. One of the world's strongest chess players was a Latvian named Petrov. Shortly after the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia at the end of World War II, Petrov and many other Latvians were rounded up and shipped to Siberia. None of them ever returned. All are presumed to have been executed by Stalin.

Exactly what happened to Petrov is another subject of dispute. Some say he was executed. Others say he died in prison of natural causes. Anyway, he was dead.

Petrov, however, was not a member of the world's very top elite in chess. Keres, on the other hand, unquestionably was. Keres had tied for first with Fine in AVRO 1938, which was the strongest chess tournament ever played. Had it not been for the war, Keres quite likely would have become world champion shortly thereafter some time in the early 1940s.

Stalin was a chess player and an admirer of Keres. On the basis of this, the rumor has been that Stalin made a deal with Keres. The life of Keres would be spared. Keres, the Estonian, would not be executed the way that Petrov, the Latvian, had been. In return for sparing his life, Keres agreed that a Russian player would become World Chess Champion and that Keres would never be world champion.

Was such a deal really made? Nobody will ever know, but here is the game:

Because of the way the tournament was organized, it was always difficult to say who stood better in the standings. Because there were five players, an odd number, one player always had the bye. In addition, usually another player had Euwe as an opponent, which was almost the same as a bye, except that occasionally Euwe would get uppity and draw a game.

The real race was between Botvinnik and Reshevsky. Soviet commentary which has been made public since that time reveal that the Soviets felt that Reshevsky was the more talented player of the two.

Fischer has since stated that Reshevsky would easily have defeated Botvinnik in a match.

As it turned out, Reshevsky failed to win the crucial games and finished several points behind Botvinnik in this tournament. However, while the tournament was going, it was not known that this would be the end result.

The five games between Botvinnik and Keres were remarkable because they have to be the worst series of five games ever played between two grandmasters. Even the strongest grandmaster will occasionally make a horrible blunder. However, these games between Keres and Botvinnik did not merely contain a few outright blunders. Rather, they exuded weakness throughout. They looked like games between two Class A players, or possibly between two experts having a bad day. However, Keres and Botvinnik were two of the strongest players in the world.

By far the worst game of the five was the last game, in which Botvinnik lost to Keres. By winning this game, Keres was able to catch up with Reshevsky and tie for third. Keres played a patzer opening, always known to be bad. Botvinnik played like an absolute rank beginner. The presumed reason: Botvinnik had already clenched first place and the World Chess Championship. Since Keres had thrown the first four games to Botvinnik, Botvinnik was obliged to throw one back to make the final result of 4-1 in favor of Botvinnik look more reasonable and to give Keres a share of third-place prize money.

Consider the third game, which was as follows:

[Event "1948 World Championship Match-Tournament"]
[White "Keres Paul "]
[Black "Botvinnik M "]

1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.ed5 ed5 5.Ngf3 a6 6.dc5 Bxc5 7.Nb3 Ba7 8.Bg5 Nf6 9.Nfd4 O-O 10.Be2 Qd6 11.O-O Ne4 12.Be3 Nc6 13.Nxc6 Bxe3 14.fe3 bc6 15.Bd3 Nf6 16.Qe1 Ng4 17.Qh4 f5 18.Rf4 Ne5 19.Qg3 Ra7 20.Raf1 Raf7 21.Nd4 Nxd3 22.cd3 c5 23.Nf3 Qb6 24.Rh4 h6 25.Ne5 Rf6 26.d4 cd4 27.Rxd4 Qxb2 28.Rxd5 Be6 29.Rd4 Kh7 30.Nd7 Bxd7 31.Rxd7 Rg6 32.Qf3 Qe5 33.Rd4 Rb8 34.Qf4 Qe6 35.Rd2 Rb5 36.h3 Re5 37.Kh2 Rf6 38.Rfd1 Re4 39.Qb8 Rxe3 40.Rd8 Qe5 41.Qxe5 Rxe5 42.R1d2 g5 43.g4 Rf7 44.R8d7 Kg7 45.gf5 Rxf5 46.a3 Rf2 47.Kg3 Rxd7 48.Rxd7 Rf7 49.Rd4 Rf6 50.a4 Kg6 51.h4 Kh5 52.hg5 hg5 53.Rd3 Rf4 54.Ra3 a5 55.Kh3 Rb4 56.Kg3 Rf4 57.Ra1 Rg4 58.Kh3 Re4 59.Ra3 Kg6 60.Kg3 Kf5 61.Kf3 Ke5 62.Kg3 Rd4 63.Ra1 Kd5 64.Rb1 Rb4 65.Rf1 Ke5 66.Re1 Kd4 67.Kh2 Rxa4 68.Rg1 Rc4 69.Rxg5 a4 70.Kg2 Kc3 71.Kf3 a3 72.Ra5 Kb3 0-1

There were a lot of bad moves in this game. Botvinnik missed an outright win with 28. ... f4, because of 29. exf4 Rxf4 30. Rxf4 Qc1+ followed by checkmate. After that, the game boiled down to a clear draw, but Keres generously gave away a pawn for no particular reason. After move 52, the following position was reached:

White pieces: Pawn on a4, Rook on d4, King on g3
Black pieces: Pawn on a6, Rook on f6, Pawn on g5, King on h5

Although White is a pawn down, this is a standard textbook drawn position. This position has occurred, in minor variations, tens of thousands of times.

Every tournament chess player, while working his way up, finds it necessary to learn certain basic positions. This is one of those positions. Every player, by the time he has reached about 1600 in chess strength, should be expected to know this position cold.

The drawing technique is simple. White leaves his rook on the fourth rank. Eventually, to make progress, Black must advance his pawn to g4. White then must immediately move his rook to the eighth rank and start checking from behind. The Black king cannot escape the checks and the game is a draw.

What did Keres do? He made a move that even a 1600 player would be embarrassed to make. He retreated his rook back to d3, allowing Botvinnik to seize the fourth rank with 53. ... Rf4.

The game was still probably not completely lost, but a few more bad moves by Keres caused the game to be lost.

Anybody can make a blunder. However, when a player blunders, almost always there is a reason. What possible reason could Keres have had for playing a move like 53. Rd3? The answer is obvious. He must have dumped.

The theory that these games were fixed is not new. Ever since the days these games were played, observers have remarked that these games were obviously fixed.

Let's put this game in context. Suppose that this game had been the deciding game for the first prize of $10,000 in the Under-1800 section of the World Open in Philadelphia on July Fourth weekend. The situation is that the winner of this game gets $10,000, but, if there is a draw, the two players must split the money with 23 other players who all have 7 1/2 points. After this game, one of the 23 left out in the cold complains to the tournament director, Bill Goichberg. Bill Goichberg demands the scoresheets and plays over this game. How would Bill Goichberg rule?

I believe that if this game had been played in that context, Bill Goichberg would rule that the game was fixed and would double forfeit both players.

Sam Sloan

Here are the remaining four games between Botvinnik and Keres in the World Championship Match Tournament, 1948.

[Event "1948 Match-Tournament"]
[White "Keres Paul "]
[Black "Botvinnik M "]

1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 d4 4.b4 c5 5.b5 e5 6.d3 Bd6 7.e4 Qc7 8.Ne2 h5 9.h4 Nh6 10.O-O Bg4 11.f3 Be6 12.f4 Bg4 13.f5 Nd7 14.Nd2 g6 15.fg6 fg6 16.Nf3 Be7 17.Rf2 Qd6 18.Bxh6 Rxh6 19.Qd2 Rh8 20.Ng5 Nf6 21.Re1 Qb6 22.Nf3 Nd7 23.Ng5 Rf8 24.Rxf8 Bxf8 25.a4 Bh6 26.a5 Qf6 27.Nc1 O-O-O 28.Nb3 Rf8 29.Ra1 Qe7 30.Qc1 Kb8 31.Ra2 Rf7 32.Qa3 Bxg5 33.hg5 Bd1 34.Qc1 Bxb3 35.Rb2 Bd1 36.Qxd1 Qxg5 37.Qe1 Nf8 38.Kh2 Qf6 39.Bh3 Nh7 40.Qd1 Ng5 41.b6 h4 42.Qg4 hg3 43.Kxg3 Rf8 44.ba7 Kxa7 45.a6 Nxh3 46.Qxh3 Qf4 47.Kg2 Qf1 48.Kh2 Rf2 49.Rxf2 Qxf2 50.Kh1 Qe1 51.Kg2 Qe2 52.Kg1 Qe3 53.Qxe3 de3 54.ab7 Kxb7 55.Kg2 Kb6 56.Kf3 Ka5 57.Kxe3 Kb4 58.Kd2 g5 0-1

[Event "1948 Match-Tournament"]
[White "Botvinnik M "]
[Black "Keres Paul "]

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 O-O 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bc3 Re8 7.Ne2 e5 8.Ng3 d6 9.Be2 Nbd7 10.O-O c5 11.f3 cd4 12.cd4 Nb6 13.Bb2 ed4 14.e4 Be6 15.Rc1 Re7 16.Qxd4 Qc7 17.c5 dc5 18.Rxc5 Qf4 19.Bc1 Qb8 20.Rg5 Nbd7 21.Rxg7 Kxg7 22.Nh5 Kg6 23.Qe3 1-0

[Event "1948 Match-Tournament"]
[White "Botvinnik M "]
[Black "Keres Paul "]

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bf5 3.c4 e6 4.cd5 ed5 5.Qb3 Nc6 6.Bg5 Be7 7.Bxe7 Ngxe7 8.e3 Qd6 9.Nbd2 O-O 10.Rc1 a5 11.a3 Rfc8 12.Bd3 a4 13.Qc2 Bxd3 14.Qxd3 Nd8 15.O-O Ne6 16.Rc3 b5 17.Qc2 Rcb8 18.Ne1 Nc8 19.Rc6 Qe7 20.Nd3 Nb6 21.Nb4 Rd8 22.Qf5 Rd6 23.Rfc1 Rxc6 24.Rxc6 Rd8 25.Rxb6 cb6 26.Nc6 Qc7 27.Nxd8 Qxd8 28.Qc2 Qc7 29.Qxc7 Nxc7 30.Nb1 Kf8 31.Kf1 Ke7 32.Ke2 Kd6 33.Kd3 Kc6 34.Nc3 Ne8 35.Na2 f6 36.f3 Nc7 37.Nb4 Kd6 38.e4 de4 39.fe4 Ne6 40.Ke3 Nc7 41.Kd3 Ne6 42.Nd5 Kc6 43.h4 Nd8 44.Nf4 Kd6 45.Nh5 Ne6 46.Ke3 Ke7 47.d5 Nc5 48.Nxg7 Kd6 49.Ne6 Nd7 50.Kd4 Ne5 51.Ng7 Nc4 52.Nf5 Kc7 53.Kc3 Kd7 54.g4 Ne5 55.g5 fg5 56.hg5 Nf3 57.Kb4 Nxg5 58.e5 h5 59.e6 Kd8 60.Kxb5 1-0

[Event "1948 Match-Tournament"]
[White "Keres Paul "]
[Black "Botvinnik M "]

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2 de4 5.Qg4 Nf6 6.Qxg7 Rg8 7.Qh6 Nc6 8.O-O-O Rg6 9.Qh4 Bxc3 10.Bxc3 Qd5 11.b3 Ne7 12.f3 Bd7 13.Bb2 Bc6 14.c4 Qf5 15.d5 ed5 16.fe4 de4 17.Nh3 Ng4 18.Qg3 Qc5 19.Qxc7 Rc8 20.Qf4 Qe3 21.Rd2 Qxf4 22.Nxf4 e3 23.Rc2 Rg5 24.Be2 Nf2 25.Re1 Rd8 26.g3 Rf5 27.Bf1 Rxf4 28.gf4 Nd3 29.Bxd3 Rxd3 30.Rc3 Rxc3 31.Bxc3 Nf5 32.Bd2 Kd7 33.Bxe3 b6 34.Bf2 f6 35.Kd2 h5 36.Kd3 Nh6 37.Bh4 f5 38.Re7 Kd6 39.h3 1-0

For a contrary view, see: The Keres-Botvinnik Case: A Survey of the Evidence .

Here is a link: Anand Wins Linares .

Here are links:
Sam Sloan's Chess Page

Contact address - please send e-mail to the following address: Sloan@ishipress.com