OBITUARY : Mikhail Botvinnik

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The Independent Online
The old Soviet Union produced a long and impressive series of world chess champions that stretched, with only one brief interruption, from 1948 to the present day. All were men of great chess genius and, during their reigns, unmatched stature, but Mikhail Botvinnik was the only true giant.

Not only was Botvinnik the first Soviet world chess champion, but his profound analytic style laid the groundwork for a national domination that lasted longer than the Soviet Union itself. Indeed, if Botvinnik had not succeeded in fulfilling the aims of Stalin's "Five-Year Plan" for chess, perhaps the state support essential to Soviet chess success would not have been sustained.

Twice coming back from defeat to regain the world title - the only man to do so - Botvinnik between 1948 and 1963 exerted an air of superiority over the chess world that has never since been matched. Even when, in the late 1950s, he commented that the days of a supreme world champion were long gone and described the reigning champion as "primus inter pares", everyone knew that Botvinnik himself was primus and the rest of them were the pares.

Mikhail Botvinnik grew up in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution. While other chess masters - an apolitical breed in general - were happy to pay lip service to the Communist regime in exchange for state subsidy of their favourite game, Botvinnik was a true believer in the ideas of the Soviet state. As a young man of 16, he played in his first Soviet championship in 1927, just as the two greatest Russian players, Alexander Alekhine and Yefim Bogoljubow, were defecting to France and Germany and making profoundly anti-Soviet statements.

Botvinnik was clearly identified as the great hope for Soviet chess and was groomed to spearhead the attack on the "bourgeois" players of the West. The Leningrad city council even ordered two suits to be specially made for him when he was invited to the Hastings tournament in 1933.

When he shared first place with Capablanca at the Nottingham tournament of 1936, Botvinnik sent a personal telegram to Stalin: "Dear beloved teacher and leader," it began, going on to talk of "my ardent desire to uphold the honour of Soviet chess" and to claim that his victory was possible only "because I sensed behind me the support of my whole country, the care of our government, and our party, and above all that daily care which you, our great leader, have taken and still take, to raise to unprecedented heights our great motherland and to rear in us representatives of Soviet youth a healthy and joyful generation in all fields of our socialist construction."

Only half a century later - long after it had become safe to do so - did Botvinnik suggest that the infamous telegram had been written not in Nottingham but Moscow.

By 1939, negotiations were in progress for Botvinnik to challenge Alekhine for the world championship, but the outbreak of war put an end to all international chess. After winning the Soviet championship in 1939, he slipped to fifth place in 1940, because, as he explained, "the conditions were not very propitious for creative concentration". He re-established his creative credentials with a powerful win in the "Absolute Championship" of the Soviet Union in 1941. After a personal appeal to the defence minister, V. Molotov, he was then exempted from war work for three days a week in order to concentrate on chess preparations.

Botvinnik's employers must have been astonished to receive a letter from Molotov saying: "It is absolutely essential to maintain Comrade Botvinnik's readiness to play chess and ensure that he has the time for further improvement." From any other player, such a request would have been purely an attempt to avoid hard work, but Botvinnik genuinely, and probably correctly, believed that his chess was of more potential benefit to his country that anything else he could be doing.

Further Soviet championship victories in 1944 and 1945 confirmed his position as world championship challenger designate, but Alekhine's death in 1946 left the world title vacant.

Botvinnik's chance finally came in 1948 when the world's five leading grandmasters were invited to contest a match- tournament in Moscow and The Hague. Botvinnik won by a three-point margin over Smyslov, Keres, Reshevsky and Euwe, thus beginning a long and remarkable reign.

The rules for the championship specified a challenge match every three years. In 1951, Botvinnik scraped home against David Bronstein, maintaining his title in a 12-12 draw. In 1954, he did the same against Vassily Smyslov. Three years later, he was convincingly beaten 121/2-91/2 by Smyslov, but regained the title 121/2-101/2 a year later.

In 1960, he lost by 121/2-81/2 to Mikhail Tal but again bounced back to win the title for the third time, by a massive 13-8, in 1961. With hindsight, it was clear that Botvinnik had used the first matches simply to size up the opposition and plan victory in the return. Finally, the International Chess Federation abolished the clause that gave a defeated champion automatic right to a return match. So when Botvinnik lost to Tigran Petrosian in 1963, it was the end of his reign. He toyed briefly with the idea of playing through the laborious series of matches required to earn the right to another crack at the title, but indifferent results in several international events convinced him that it was time to hang up his crown. He retired from all competitive play in 1970, to concentrate on his work on a computer chess program (which promised a great deal but never quite delivered the goods), his chess school (whose graduates were to include today's champions Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov) and his career in electronic engineering, which he had maintained even during his most successful days as a chessplayer.

Botvinnik's success at chess was the result of a profoundly scientific approach and a compulsive dedication to the task of eradicating all possible weaknesses from his game. When Botvinnik played poorly in the opening rounds of one Hastings tournament, he decided it was due to problems of acclimatisation. Thereafter he, and all other Soviet grandmasters, would always arrive at least eight days before the first round of any event. When Botvinnik was about to face a heavy smoker in a tournament, he played a training match with a colleague, who was instructed to blow smoke in his face during the games. Apparently Botvinnik never played a friendly or casual game; every move on every chess board was, to him, a contest, a piece of scientific research, or part of a designated training programme.

When Botvinnik was discussing conditions for a world title match, negotiations could become bogged down for hours over the procedure for adjourning unfinished games, or which hotel lifts could be used by which player's delegations. In the first world title match of the post-Botvinnik era, it was said that Spassky and Petrosian had agreed the entire match conditions in a shorter time than Botvinnik and Smyslov had taken to agree on the location of the players' lavatories.

But that meticulous attention to detail, combined, perhaps, with a total lack of humour, was what gave Botvinnik his almost regal status in the chess world.

"If you play Botvinnik," wrote Hugh Alexander, "it is even alarming to see him write his move down. Slightly short- sighted, he stoops down over his score-sheet and devotes his entire attention to recording the move in the most beautifully clear script; one feels that an explosion would not distract him and that examined through a microscope not an irregularity would appear. When he wrote down 1.c2-c4 against me, I felt like resigning."

William Hartston

Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik, chess player and engineer: bornnear St Petersburg 4 August (17 August New Style) 1911; world chess champion 1948- 57, 1958-60, 1961-63; married; died Moscow 5 May 1995.