The Soviet Man of Steel

A fiercely loyal Communist with a ferocious work ethic, Mikhail Botvinnik was an unshakeable Grandmaster

Dominic Lawson

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.”

This aspect of Botvinnik’s make-up was in part a reflection of the special strains under which Stalin’s pet high achievers lived; they knew that if they failed, it was not just that they might lose all the state perks bestowed on them but that there could be a heavy political and personal price to pay.  Yet, even after the fall of the USSR, Botvinnik — a Communist Party member since his teens — would not venture any second thoughts about it, let alone his own conduct during those brutal contests for Soviet chess supremacy. In his last years, Botvinnik conducted a series of interviews with Gennadi Sosonko, who recorded: “Any discussion about those times was ruled out. I ran into a wall; his opinion, formed once and for all, remained unshakeable. If I employed what seemed to be strong arguments…[he] simply hung up.” Although in this respect Botvinnik’s unbending nature was a human failing, it was his greatest asset as a chess analyst. Once he had decided what “the truth” was about a particular position, he never allowed himself to be side-tracked by aesthetics. His style of play was what we sometimes call “computer-like”, remorselessly functional.

Indeed, Botvinnik was one of the first to spot the potential of computers to master a game that did not seem susceptible to mathematical analysis. With characteristic doggedness, he spent decades trying to design a computer program which would beat all rivals and thus demonstrate the superiority of his intellectual method to a chess world that had otherwise left him behind. He told Sosonko, in their last meeting: “I have only one desire, to complete the work on my program, but death — I am not afraid of death.” 

He never completed that program or produced a silicon world champion. Never mind; the rest of us would think that being the best in the carbon-based form of the game — as Botvinnik had been for so long — was achievement enough. Indeed, some of us would die happy if we had nothing to our name except this game, in which the then 57-year-old ex-world champion showed the top Hungarian Grandmaster Lajos Portisch that you never took liberties with Mikhail Botvinnik.

1.c4 (the English Opening, a Botvinnik favourite) e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bg2 Be6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.0-0 Nb6 8.d3 Be7 9.a3 a5 10.Be3 0-0 11.Na4 Nxa4 12.Qxa4 Bd5 13.Rfc1 Re8 14.Rc2 Bf8 15.Rac1 Nb8? (Botvinnik observes, in his usual dry manner: “Black’s intention of playing 16…c6 completely cutting short White’s activity on the half-open c-file is laudable, but the consequences of this tactical operation were not calculated with sufficient accuracy”) 16.Rxc7! Bc6 17.R1xc6!! (remarkably, Botvinnik does not use the “trapped” rook on c7 to recapture) bxc6 18.Rxf7!! (This is why: if Portisch takes the second sacrificed rook with 18…Kxf7 then, as Botvinnik observes, “after 19.Qc4+ Kg6 20.Qg4+ Kf7 21.Ng5+ Black has to give up his Queen, since otherwise he is mated.”) h6 19.Rb7 Qc8 20.Qc4+ Kh8 21.Nh4!! (Botvinnik absolutely insists Portisch takes his rook) Qxb7 22.Ng6+ Kh7 23.Be4! (Threatening 24.Ne7+ and 28.Qg8 mate) Bd6 24.Nxe5+ g6 25.Bxg6+ Kg7 26.Bxh6+!! and Portisch resigned, since after 26…Kxh6 27.Qh4+ Kg7 28.Qh7+ Kf6 29.Ng4+ Ke6 (if Kg5 30.Qh5 is checkmate) 30.Qxb7 is execution.

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