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Saturday, March 3, 2012

English Lessons by Lev Khariton

Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik, (August, 1911 – May 5, 1995) was three-time World Champions. Working as an electrical engineer and computer scientist at the same time, he was one of the very few famous players who achieved distinction in another career while playing top-class competitive chess. He also developed a chess-playing algorithm that tried to "think" like a top human player, but this approach has been superseded by a brute-force search strategy that exploits the rapid increase in the calculation speed of modern computers.

Botvinnik was the first world-class player to develop within the Soviet Union putting him under political pressure but also giving him considerable influence within Soviet chess. From time to time he was accused of using that influence to his own advantage, but the evidence is unclear and some suggest he resisted attempts by Soviet officials to intimidate some of his rivals.

Botvinnik also played a major role in the organization of chess, making a significant contribution to the design of the World Championship system after World War II and becoming a leading member of the coaching system that enabled the Soviet Union to dominate top-class chess during that time. His famous pupils include World Champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik.

Khariton’s Article:
It so happened that I made Botvinnik's acquaintance twice. The first time it was in autumn 1961 when I, among eight other Moscow juniors, played against the World Champion in a simul with clocks. Botvinnik made short work of everyone quickly, but in our game he was going uphill for a long time and it was only after four hours' struggle that Botvinnik managed to extricate himself.

Moscow, 1961

In this position Botvinnik played 35...e5 and after 36.Nxb7 Qxb7
37.Qa6 Qb8 38.b6 exd4 39.Qa7 Be5 40.Qxb8+ Bxb8 as a token of draw he
shook my hand.

I shall never forget the moment when I stayed face-to-face with Botvinnik at the chessboard. On that November evening many chess fans came to the Central Chess Club of the USSR in Gogolevski Boulevard. Full of respect for the World Champion, I was trembling all over; besides, the game was drawing to a close in a mutual time scramble. Quite characteristically, Botvinnik was keeping an eye on my scoresheet, possibly fearing being cheated by his young opponent before the time control.  Sure, this game was not important for him, but if he was so suspicious even in such an insignificant encounter, it is easy to imagine the hard time he was giving to his far more serious opponents.

This sense of suspicion so typical of the people of his generation was accompanying Botvinnik throughout his long chess career. As is known, playing the World Champioship match against David Bronstein in 1951, Botvinnik was occasionally keeping away his sealed move from his second, fearing the "fifth column" in his camp, so that his second had to do a lot of guesswork after the adjournment.

Botvinnik's epoch was in no way easy for his opponents: actually, he was reigning supreme for almost three decades. It can be remembered that in the years of Stalin's personality cult there existed small cults almost in all domains of human endeavor ( Gorky in literature, Stanislavsky in theatre, Lysenko in biology etc; ). Therefore it was quite natural that Botvinnik was universally worshipped. For example, all World Championship matches were organized in such a way that every small caprice of the Champion was satisfied. Mikhail Tal in 1961 and Tigran Petrosian in 1963 wrote letters to the FIDE asking to postpone their matches on account of illness, but nobody would even budge to consider their requests.

Some years ago in a friendly talk with Bronstein I said quite unthinkingly that Botvinnik had broken him down in their match. The usually imperturbable David went berserk with anger: "He broke me down?! It's me who crushed him!" Really, it was Bronstein who first pierced through the armor of the apparently invincible champion, who later went down to other challengers.

Now that ex-Soviet chess players have become literally globetrotters playing in various international tournaments, we can remember that in the 30s Botvinnik was actually the only chess player and one of the very few Soviet people who were allowed to travel abroad. In other words, in the years of the "iron curtain" the trust of the authorities in Botvinnik was never put to suspicion. Having tied for first with Capablanca in Nottingham in 1936, Botvinnik wrote a letter to Stalin thanking "father and teacher" for his chess triumphs. At that time such letters were written by physicists and collective farmers, workers and academicians, and many years later Botvinnik confessed that the letter had been pushed over to him by the KGB agents for signature.

The loyalty of the Soviet champion was never put to doubt in the Kremlin, but it should be noted that there was never any "feedback": being a chess professional, Botvinnik never gave up his scientific research because he, as everyone else in the Soviet Union, did not feel secure about his future. In a state where sport and chess are the servants of political manipulations and ideology, the champion is just a pawn in the hands of bureaucrats; and a person with an iron-clad character, Botvinnik detested even the slightest hint of an unsteady or precarious life. He was fully aware that only day-to-day academic earnings could provide him and his family with a steady income.

It would be, however, unjust and one-sided to characterize Botvinnik as a wholly unimaginative, misanthropic man. He existed in two dimensions. On the one hand, he was living an everyday life in which "nothing human was alien to him". On the other, in the world of chess and chess players he had his own principles; I'd rather say, his own morality. What is more, he wanted these principles to be observed by all other chess players. May be, it was one of the reasons why Karpov and Kasparov who began their careers under Botvinnik's tutorship later found other teachers and trainers who were certainly inferior to him as chess players, but who were incomparably more tolerant. I paid attention to this duality of Botvinnik's character when I met him again 13 years later.

In June 1974 I received a telephone call from the USSR Chess Federation. I was asked if I could give some English lessons to Botvinnik who was to go to the USA and Canada to meet computer chess programmers. Botvinnik had been working for many years on the "silicon" chess player and in the Soviet Union he pioneered the idea of an "artificial intellect" at a time when genetics and cybernetics were considered as "two sold-out call-girls of capitalism". No wonder: even Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were looked upon as dangerous capitalist inventions!

Of course, I enthusiastically accepted the offer to be Botvinnik's teacher and, certainly, I was very much excited when I pressed the bell and he opened the door of his apartment to meet me. I experienced very much the same feeling as my friend Yuri Razuvayev when he came for the first time to Botvinnik's chess school: all the famous diagrams from Botvinnik's games came dancing into my memory. I thought that this man had played with the legendary Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, that he was a legend himself.

Botvinnik met me with simplicity and hospitality. Without delay we got down to English lessons. I told him that I always thought that he knew English and German. Botvinnik just smiled: "Well, I am a typical child of the "brigade" method. In the 20s and 30s we studied in such a way that the best student of the group answered for the whole group, we all passed exams and got diplomas. Stalin adored figures and he wanted to "bake" as many people as possible with a higher education!" And I was so naïve as to think that Botvinnik knew everything, that he was the most educated man etc. This image was created by Soviet propaganda glorifying the champion, his education and his loyalty to the communist ideas. It is interesting that in everyday life, in a heart-to-heart talk Botvinnik himself laughed at this image, but when he made public appearances he invariably wore, may be by force of habit, the mask of an inaccessible man. But he liked a good joke, he was not indifferent to beautiful women, he enjoyed remembering good old days. In his apartment I noticed an old photograph: Marshal Blucher and Botvinnik, 1936...I don't really know how he managed to keep this photo, the picture of the famous marshal, who fell victim in the first wave of Stalin's purges, but I imagine that keeping such a photograph in Stalin's epoch, could cost the Soviet champion his life.

How did our studies proceed? Botvinnik was a highly organized man, he never wasted a minute. We met three times a week for two hours of studies, and after the first hour he always invited me to the kitchen to drink tea and eat sandwiches. Most of all I remember these tea breaks when, sitting at the kitchen table the first Soviet World Champion told me a lot of interesting things about himself, his rivals, his contemporaries.

Once he asked me to make a short interval in our lessons because he was to go to Tallinn for a few days. "Oh, Mikhail Moiseyevich, - I exclaimed, - you will meet Keres!" "Keres must not know about it!" - Botvinnik's voice was firm and categoric. Frankly speaking, I was more than surprised by this reaction because his rivalry with Keres had long before become classical history, but later I understood that even he chess world for Botvinnik was divided into two camps. In one camp are his former rivals - Smyslov, Bronstein, Tal, Petrosian- with whom his fight seemed to have never stopped, and in the other are all the other chess players who had never threatened his chess hegemony and whom he was always ready to help by word or by deed. Once we were talking about Lilienthal, and Botvinnik said: "He was a very strong player, and I always had difficult positions against him". He only forgot to mention that he had always beaten Lilienthal!

Botvinnik's apparent coldness and arrogance were, in my opinion, his defense not only at the chessboard, but in life as well when he had to prove his supremacy. But as a chess player, he brought up many pupils who became strong masters and grandmasters. Many leading trainers - M.Dvoretsky, A.Nikitin, A.Bykhovsky and others - have more than once relied on Botvinnik's advice and experience.

Botvinnik's modesty was proverbial. You felt it in his manners, in his everyday life (he was washing up and shopping himself!), in the simplicity of his apartment. Me first chess teacher the late and unforgettable Yuri Brazilsky who worked as an editor of chess literature of the Fizkultura and Sport publishers in Moscow, happened to collaborate with Botvinnik editing his chess books. Brazilsky told me with what trepidation and respect he used to watch Botvinnik analyzing chess positions. He was particularly amazed when Botvinnik admitted having made some blunders or mistakes in his commentaries. The courage and modesty showing not only a real chess player but an outstanding personality as well...

Once when were drinking tea in his kitchen Botvinnik began remembering Stalin and his times. "Stalin was a gangster, but a clever gangster", - he remarked. I was surprised to hear this popular phrase from him. When you hear such words from millions of laymen, who during the "thaw" of Khrushchev or in the reign of Brezhnev missed brutal dictatorship - to this I had got used more or less, but to hear the same words from the man who was an intellectual idol of many generations was, to say the least, very strange and disappointing! Possibly, looking in retrospect, this can be explained. The 30s were the years of Botvinnik's youth and chess triumphs, and every man, with years, feels nostalgic about his past.

When in 1976 after Korchnoi's defection almost all Soviet grandmasters signed the letter against the "traitor", Botvinnik was also asked to put down his signature. But at this moment Botvinnik really made the move of his life, the move explaining his supremacy in chess for many years. He said that he wanted to write his own letter denouncing Korchnoi. In my opinion, Botvinnik was well aware that for the bureaucrats of the 70s he was a figure of the past and nobody would ever give him this "privilege". And so, his name cannot be found under this shameful document.

Curiously enough, Botvinnik often liked to assume the role of a prophet, but his predictions very seldom came true. I remember him saying that Taimanov had much of a chance to beat Fischer in 1971. Incidentally, he always believed that Fischer was a mentally sick person; although, Tal or Spassky, for example, who had often met Fischer at the chessboard, would have never shared his opinion. Or Botvinnik was repeating that Karpov was about to lose his chess strength pretty soon, but only today have his results become somewhat shaky.

Some months after our English lessons I met Botvinnik strolling near his house on the bank of the Moskva River. He said that his English had become much better and helped him a lot in his talks with American scientists. I asked him about Gary Kasparov, his best pupil. "He has been taken away from me, - he said bitterly, - I am afraid that now he is lost for chess!" And again the "patriarch" made a mistake...

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