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Friday, September 20, 2013

Smyslov – Botvinnik

     The 1948 World Championship was played to determine a new World Champion following the death of Alekhine in 1946. The tournament also marked the passing of control of the championship title to FIDE which had been formed in 1924. Botvinnik won the five-player tournament, beginning the era of Soviet domination of international chess that would last over twenty years.

Mikhail Botvinnik (USSR) 14
Vasily Smyslov (USSR) 11
 Paul Keres (USSR) 10½
 Samuel Reshevsky (USA) 10½
 Max Euwe (NED) 4

The tournament also began a controversy involving Keres and Botvinnik. Because Keres lost his first four games against Botvinnik, suspicions have been raised that Keres was forced to throw games to allow Botvinnik to win the Championship. Chess historian Taylor Kingston investigated all the available evidence and arguments, and concluded that Soviet chess officials gave Keres strong hints that he should not hinder Botvinnik's attempt to win the World Championship. Botvinnik claimed he discovered this about half-way through the tournament and protested so strongly that he angered Soviet officials. If it means anything, Samuel Reshevaky once stated he did not think Keres was strong enough to ever become world champion.  Keres-Botvinnik Controversy

     Botvinnik's domination of the chess world began with this tournament. Older readers will remember when Botvinnik was The Man. His books were highly influential on most young masters back in the 50s and 60s. I remember a lot of players, including myself, who played the French Defense, Winawer Variation or the Dutch Defense just because Botvinnik did. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the standard by which players measured themselves. In an attempt to appear modest, Botvinnik claimed he was only “first among equals.”
      In match play things weren’t quite so clear. He played in seven world championship matches: first against Bronstein in 1951, drawing 12-12. There is also some argument that Bronstein was influenced to throw the match. Next came Vassily Smyslov, one of the greatest players in history.
      The Botvinnik- Smsylov encounters produced tremendous chess. Botvinnik drew his first match with Smyslov (who had won the Zurich 1953 candidates tournament), thus retaining his title. Smyslov was back in 1957 and beat Botvinnik decisively, +6 -3 =13. Under the rematch rules, Botvinnik was entitled to a return match which he won +7 -5 =11 in 1958. So, over the three-game match, Smyslov was actually plus one.
      Then in 1960 Mikhail Tal soundly defeated The Man by +6 – 2 =13. Botvinnik easily won the rematch with +10 -5 =6.
      All of these matches can only be described as “brawls,” especially the one with Tahl. Generally Botvinnik was considered the ultimate positional player and Tahl the ultimate tactician. Play over those games and you’ll see both players hammering away at each other with every weapon available regardless of their style: positional chess, tactical chess and endings.
      Botvinnik lost his last match to Petrosian in 1963 with a +2 -5 =15. There was no rematch clause and Botvinnik knew better than to, at the age of 52, try and slog through the candidates to play another match. He was done. His match record for the world championships was 36 wins, 39 losses and 82 draws. Botvinnik’s last tournament win was at Beverwijk in 1969. He died in 1995. Here’s an exciting game from the 1948 tournament.

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