David Bronstein

Artist among chess grandmasters deemed the finest player never to have won the world championship
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The Independent Online

David Ionovich Bronstein, chess player: born Belaya Tserkov, Soviet Union 19 February 1924; three times married (one son); died Minsk, Belarus 5 December 2006.

Some great chess players take a scientific approach to the game, delving into the intricacies of each position in a search for mathematical precision; others see it as an intellectual sport, with each player straining to overcome the opponent by force of will; but, among all the top grandmasters of the second half of the 20th century, David Bronstein was perhaps the one true chess artist.

In the opinion of many, he was the finest player who never won the world championship (though he came very close when he tied a match 12-12 with Mikhail Botvinnik in 1951); in the opinion of others, he was quite simply the most creative player of all.

He also wrote a number of highly individualistic chess books, of which his Mezhdunarodny Turnir Grossmeisterov account of the 1953 candidates' tournament in Zurich (published in 1956 and translated into English as The Chess Struggle in Practice, 1978) stands out as maybe the finest tournament book ever.

David Ionovich Bronstein was born in the small town of Belaya Tserkov in Ukraine in 1924 but soon moved with his family to Kiev, where he joined the local chess club after good results in tournaments at school. Coming from a Jewish family and related to the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the Bronsteins were viewed with suspicion by the Soviet authorities and in 1937 David's father, Iohonon Boruch Bronstein, was arrested as an "enemy of the people". He was not seen again until freed seven years later on the grounds of ill-health. In those seven years, David had established himself as one of the most gifted chess players of his generation.

Exempted from military service because of his poor eyesight, David Bronstein worked in a military hospital in the Caucasus during the Second World War, which apparently gave him enough time off to indulge his love of chess. His first appearance in the finals of the Soviet Championship was in 1944 when he finished 15th, but the following year he ended in third place and was already established among the top rank of Soviet players.

Stalin, by that time, had already initiated his Five Year Plan for Chess, with the aim of capturing the world championship from the bourgeois masters of the West. This aim was achieved when Mikhail Botvinnik won the world title in 1948, an achievement that was hailed as an example of the superiority of the Soviet system. The apparatchiks of Soviet chess, however, became nervous when David Bronstein won through to become Botvinnik's challenger in 1951.

Botvinnik had been a perfect flag-bearer for Communism: a firm believer in the system, he had even sent a telegram of thanks to Stalin after winning one tournament in England, for the Great Leader's inspiration. How would it look if he was defeated by a Jewish son of an enemy of the people?

The match was very tense with both men making uncharacteristic errors. In the sixth game, in a drawn position, Bronstein thought for 45 minutes on one move, then played an appalling blunder, losing immediately. In the ninth game, a complete miscalculation left Bronstein a rook behind for almost nothing, but his inventiveness was enough to bamboozle the world champion and escape with a draw.

After 22 of the 24 games had been played, however, Bronstein was one up and looked set to capture the title, but a loss and a draw in the last two games left the match tied, and Botvinnik retained his title.

"I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title," Bronstein wrote many years later:

The only thing that I am prepared to say is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various sources . . . I had reasons not to become the World Champion as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character.

Bronstein announced himself satisfied that he had achieved his goals in the 1951 match: to show that his style of fluid, creative chess was fully up to the task of coping with Botvinnik's rigorous scientific approach. In later years he often said that he never missed holding the title of World Champion, which only lasts a few years anyway. What he regretted, he said, was not having the lifelong title of ex-World Champion.

Indeed, as ex-World Champion Bronstein might not have had to endure the indignities heaped on him by the Soviet chess establishment, limiting his freedom to travel to international events.

In subsequent qualifying events for the world championship, Bronstein kept coming up against a rule limiting the number of qualifiers from one nation. He frequently finished in a high place in the Interzonal tournaments, but there always seemed to be too many Russians ahead of him. His nerves also tended to get the better of him at crucial moments. In the Interzonal at Portoroz, Yugoslavia, in 1958, a last-round defeat by an unknown Filipino lost him the coveted qualifying place. In 1964, it was a brilliant loss to the Dane Bent Larsen. On both occasions Bronstein is said to have been in tears after the game.

In 1976, Viktor Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union during a tournament in Amsterdam and David Bronstein was one of the few top Soviet grandmasters who did not sign an official letter condemning him. For this sin, Bronstein was banned from travelling to tournaments in the West. The ban was only lifted with the advent of perestroika in the mid-Eighties.

Even before these restrictions were imposed, his international appearances had been limited, but Bronstein made two trips to Britain in 1975-76. Both his eccentricity and brilliance were in evidence in his very first game at Teesside against the English grandmaster Raymond Keene. Bronstein thought for some 15 minutes over his first move, then played 1.c4, the English opening, out of respect, as he later explained, to his hosts. He seemed to obtain no advantage whatsoever, but after another long think sacrificed a pawn. Some of the world's finest players, seeing this, shook their heads in sad disbelief, but Bronstein had seen more than any of them. A few moves later his attack crashed home and a new generation suddenly realised that the old man had lost none of his imaginative faculties.

I recall another young English player analysing with Bronstein after being beaten by him at Hastings later that year. Eagerly moving pieces at high speed over the board, the Englishman asked, "Did you analyse this? Did you analyse that?"

Bronstein grasped his arm to stop the flow of moves. "Young man," he said, "you do not analyse during a game; you analyse before a game and after a game. During the game, you just play."

William Hartston

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