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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Alexander Kotov

         Alexander Alexandrovich Kotov (12 August 1913 – 8 January 1981) was a Soviet Grandmaster. He was Soviet champion, a two-time world title Candidate, and an author. Kotov served in high posts in the Soviet Chess Federation and most of his books were written during the period of Cold War between the US and the USSR. As result, his works tended to be critical of American players. Russian players were described in a favorable light. Kotov's books also included frequent praise for the Soviet system in general. For example, the 1958 book The Soviet School of Chess (which he co-wrote with Mikhail Yudovich) stated that "The rise of the Soviet school to the summit of world chess is a logical result of socialist cultural development." At the time, statements such as this were sufficiently controversial that Western publishers felt compelled to include disclaimers in versions of his books that were translated for distribution to English-speaking countries. Dover Publications, Inc.'s 1961 paperback version of The Soviet School of Chess was distributed primarily to Western countries and included an introduction that stated "...literature of this type, though helpful in our ultimate understanding of the game, is very often riddled with distortion. The publishers of this Dover edition are very much concerned that readers be aware of the propaganda techniques employed, even in the history of chess, by the Soviet Union."
     All this notwithstanding Kotov's books were insightful and were written in a congenial style. He often made his points by citing first-hand stories of incidents involving famous grandmasters, most of whom he knew personally.
     Kotov’s father, Alexander Yegorovich Kotov, was a mechanic in an arms factory and had ten children. Only four, of which Kotov was the youngest, survived into adulthood. Kotov played checkers with his father and learned chess at school from schoolmates. He was champion of Tula in 1929 and 1930 and left Tula for Moscow in 1934.
     Kotov was a good student in math and physics and from1930-34 he attended university, studying mechanical engineering. From 1935 he was employed in an aircraft construction bureau in Moscow.
     During that period his chess skill advanced to “first- category” or approximately 1800 ~ 2000 Elo and he won a number of first-category tournaments and played with success in two Moscow championships. However, Kotov was unsatisfied with his play, especially his inability to analyze variations. Once he identified the problem, he looked for a solution. He turned to studying chess books and often tried to pick the brain of masters but failed to gain any practical advice. Eventually he developed a method, which he later published, where he identified candidate moves and a tree of analysis.
     As a result of his study he made substantial progress and was awarded the title of Soviet Master for his performance in the 1938 Trade Union Tournament. Less than a year after attaining the master title, Kotov was playing Grandmaster level chess. In the 11th USSR championship he finished second to Botvinnik and as a result, Soviet authorities awarded him the Grandmaster title. 
     Shortly after this, WW2 erupted and Kotov worked as an engineer in an armaments factory in Tula. Despite the war, the Soviets held championships in 1940, ‘44, and ’45 and Kotov finished second in all three events. In 1948 at the 16th USSR championships, Kotov shared first with Bronstein and also in 1948 he placed fourth at the Interzonal, Saltsjobaden, Sweden. 
     In 1950, at the Candidates in Budapest, Hungary, Kotov took fifth. The 1952 Interzonal, in Stockholm, Sweden, was Kotov’s highpoint. With Kotov in first, Taimanov, Petrosian, Geller, Averbakh, Stahlberg, Szabo, Gligoric, Unzicker, and Eliskases, were 2nd through 10th.
     Kotov is probably best known for his book, Think Like a Grandmaster. First published in the Soviet Union in 1970, the work’s immediate success brought about its rapid translation into various European languages. By the early 1960’s, Kotov was not very active in tournament play but he still managed to share first at the 1962 Hastings tournament with Gligoric. The 1977 Lord John Cup, in England, was his last major tournament.
     It has been alleged that Kotov was a member of the KGB. There is little question that Kotov was a staunch communist and enjoyed the support and confidence of the Soviet authorities, but there has never been any hard evidence that he was a KGB member.
     The following game is from Round 23 of the 1953 Candidate’s Tournament. It was significant because Smyslov and Reshevsky were tied for first with 13.5 points and in this round Smyslov had a bye, so it was expected Reshevsky would try very hard to win. Kotov found an interesting theoretical novelty against Reshevsky’s Q-Indian and for a long time Reshevsky was under a lot of pressure but finally equalized. When Kotov offered him a draw, Reshevsky decided to play on and chose a risky N ending and ended up losing.

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