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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Botvinnik vs. Bronstein 1951 World Champioship Match

     This was one of the most controversial and exciting matches in world championship history. Was Bronstein forced to throw the match, and if he was, did Botvinnik know about it?
     David Bronstein was born in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine in 1924 and showed early promise, debuting in the 1939 Ukrainian Championship at age 15. A year later, his strong 2nd behind Isaac Boleslavsky in the 1940 Ukrainian Championship earned him the Soviet national master title. Four years later he qualified for the USSR Championship (1944), where he finished 15th and notched his first career victory over Mikhail Botvinnik.
     He continued to improve but his performance against the best was not strong enough to achieve the Soviet grandmaster title. FIDE still invited him with six other Soviets to the Saltsjöbaden Interzonal (1948). Surprisingly, Bronstein won and was immediately awarded the Soviet grandmaster title. He continued this excellent form and went on to tie Boleslavsky for 1st in the Budapest Candidates (1950), and won the subsequent playoff match thereby earning the right to face title holder Mikhail Botvinnik in a world championship match. Botvinnik had played no chess in public since he had won the FIDE World Championship Tournament (1948), but he studied thoroughly by annotating every game Bronstein had played since the start of the Saltsjöbaden Interzonal. Beginning in January 1951, Botvinnik began compiling a notebook filled with his latest ideas in all the openings he thought might figure prominently in the match. Bronstein claimed that Botvinnik hadn't played since 1948 "because he did not want to reveal his opening secrets." Botvinnik finalized his preparation just days before the match with two secret training games against Viacheslav Ragozin.
     Match conditions declared the winner would be the first to score 12 1/2 points from a maximum of 24 games, with the champion retaining his title in the event of a drawn match. The time control was 40 moves in 2 1/2 hours, and 16 moves an hour thereafter, with an adjournment to the following day after five hours of play.
     According to FIDE rules, the winner would receive $5,000 and the loser $3,000, but Andrew Soltis maintains that Botvinnik and Bronstein actually got considerably less than this. If the champion lost, he had the right to play the new champion and the winner of the next three year candidates cycle in a three player match tournament for the title. The games were played in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall under the direction of arbiter Karel Opocensky and controller Gideon Stahlberg. The seconds were Ragozin and Salomon Flohr for Botvinnik, and Alexander Konstantinopolsky for Bronstein.
     Bronstein was an energetic player in contrast to the 'scientific' Botvinnik, the patriarch of  Soviet chess. Bronstein opened the match with the Dutch Defense. Botvinnik considered himself an expert on the Dutch, and had not prepared for it. Botvinnik suspected that Bronstein meant to "force me to fight against my 'own' systems," a ploy he dismissed as "naive." After scoring +0 -1 =2 in three attempts with the Dutch, Bronstein abandoned it after game 9.
     By game 22, Bronstein led by a point and needed only to win once or draw twice in the last two games in order to unseat Botvinnik, but Botvinnik responded with one of his best games of the match. Describing the final move of the 23rd game Botvinnik wrote, "Bronstein needed forty minutes to convince himself of the inevitability of defeat."
     There has been suspicion regarding Bronstein sudden resignation in that game where he was a pawn ahead. Botvinnik had two bishops and Bronstein had two knights but Bronstein's pawns were doubled or isolated and weak. Botvinnik's pawns were solid. As it turned out Bronstein did have a lost position; his pawns were going to fall.
     The controversy stems from the fact that Bronstein was ahead in material and not clearly lost but still resigned. Who would do that in such an important game? It was likely because Bronstein knew he was lost and Botvinnik was the strongest endgame player in the world so there was little point in playing on.
     Bronstein could still have become champion by winning the final game, but after pressing with the white pieces for 22 moves, he appeared to be without winning chances and accepted Botvinnik's draw offer.
     Years later, Botvinnik and Bronstein spoke in less than friendly terms about the match. Bronstein complained that "When the 24th game was finished, many journalists came to the stage and asked Botvinnik to hold a press conference. The Champion agreed but 'forgot' to invite me to attend." Botvinnik accused Bronstein of "outrageous" behavior: "He would make a move and quickly go behind the stage, then... suddenly dart out and disappear again. In the auditorium there was laughter, and this hindered my playing."
     Bronstein has controversially hinted that there was government pressure on him to lose the match. In a 1993 interview he explained that "There was no direct pressure... But... there was the psychological pressure of the environment..." in part caused by his father's "several years in prison" and what he labeled "the marked preference for the institutional Botvinnik." Bronstein concluded that "it seemed to me (emphasis mine) that winning could seriously harm me, which does not mean that I deliberately lost."
     Some say Soviet authorities pressured Bronstein to lose in order to keep Botvinnik, a favorite of the Communist Party leadership, on the throne. Luis Rentero, organizer of the Linares tournaments, says Bronstein once told Bobby Fischer after Fischer lost to Spassky, "They forced me to lose an entire match to Botvinnik, and I didn't cry." Years later in an interview Bronstein denied having said it, but eventually conceded that he may have said something to that effect, but too much time had passed.
     In the introduction to his book "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" he writes: "I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not." To which his co-author Tom Furstenberg writes: "Of course David succumbed to that pressure, albeit not voluntarily. However nobody, not even David himself, knows what went on subconsciously in his mind."
     The truth is that Bronstein was not nearly as strong as Botvinnik. The only major tournament that Bronstein ever won was the 1950 Candidates tournament; it was the tournament of his life and he was never again a serious contender for the world championship.  Interestingly, Chessmetrics profile on Bronstein shows:

#1 world rank for 19 different months between June 1950 and December 1951. After that his rating starts falling off. 
His highest rating was 2792 in June 1951 and his best performance rating was at the 1955 Interzonal when he scored 15-5 for a 2813 performance rating. 
During the 1960's his rating averaged in the 2700 range.     
     Some historians claim that Bronstein simply "choked" and was unable to bring home the point (or half-point) when he needed to. This could explain Bronstein's vague claim he was coerced; he simply did not want to admit that he just couldn't score when he needed to. There is an interesting article on 'choking' under pressure on Chessdotcom.
     Botvinnik was a hard line Communist, or at least he claimed to be. During that period everyone had to at least make the profession in order to prosper but Bronstein once referred to Botvinnik as a "good communist." Is it true, or was Bronstein just showing his contempt for Botvinnik? Botvinnik's role in Soviet chess even today is not clearly understood and he was generally disliked by the other Soviet grandmasters.  Huffington Post article on Botvinnik by GM Lubosh Kavalek.

1 comment:

  1. The most sympathetic and insightful treatment of Botvinnik can be found in Genna Sosonko's articles and books, but even there the "Patriarch" seems a cold and somewhat ruthless figure