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The Soviet Man of Steel
January/February 2011

We are told that under Vladimir Putin the Russian government has sought to restore the reputation of the Soviet era. If so, he is missing a trick: so far as I can find out, the regime is planning no memorial event to mark the 100th anniversary of birth of the man Stalin and his commissars promoted as the personification of Soviet intellectual supremacy and who returned their political investment with interest by holding the title of world chess champion (with brief interruptions) between 1948 and 1963.

This was Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik (1911-1995). By winning the great Nottingham tournament of 1936, level with José Raúl Capablanca and ahead of a number of other ex-world champions, Botvinnik gave the first signal that the development of chess as a sport to symbolise Soviet power internationally would bear fruit. Stalin and Botvinnik exchanged public telegrams of mutual congratulations, with the chess grandmaster insisting that he could not have achieved the success of beating the best of the West without the "Dear Leader".

The literal meaning of that leader's assumed name was "Steel", and the term could be applied even more aptly to Botvinnik. It was not just that he managed to play seven world championship matches in 15 years, in which he twice managed to wrest the crown back from rivals who had thoroughly defeated him, though this alone showed a determination that defied all predictions of his declining mental powers. This steeliness was also manifest in his entire approach to the game, based on — as Botvinnik himself admitted — no startling natural aptitude, but a ferocious work ethic combined with prodigious thoroughness of preparation.

Vladimir Kramnik — himself world champion between 2000-2007 — has said: "Botvinnik's chess career was the way of a genius, although he was not a genius." This was a personal tribute to the Botvinnik method; after he retired from playing chess at the end of the 1960s, the patriarch of Soviet chess devoted much of his time to the "Botvinnik chess school" and its two most notable graduates were Kramnik and Garry Kasparov. When Kasparov recently wrote of his own road to the summit, "The ability to work hard and concentrate for days on end without losing focus is a talent, the ability to keep absorbing information after many hours of study is a talent," you could hear Botvinnik speaking.

Unfortunately, Botvinnik tended to fall out with his protégés. The moment they decided to move away from his exclusive tutelage, he would bitterly declare them to be "lost to chess". Indeed, he said that of Kasparov, although they were eventually reconciled. There was no reconciliation, however, with any of those who had challenged his world title, or had even looked like threatening it. His assistant Lev Khariton tells how Botvinnik had refused to meet one of those, the amiable Estonian Paul Keres, decades after their rivalry had ended: "I was more than surprised by his reaction because their rivalry...had long before become classical history, but later I understood that the world for Botvinnik was divided into two camps. In one camp are his former rivals — Smyslov, Bronstein, Tal, Petrosian — with whom his fight seemed never to have stopped, and in the other are all the other chess players who had never threatened his hegemony."

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