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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Botvinnik and Politics

    It was Botvinnik who, as a result of the 1948 world championship tournament at The Hague and Moscow, established Soviet domination of world chess. Botvinnik became the darling of Stalin and the second most powerful man in Soviet politics at the time, Andrei Zhdanov. Part of Zhdanov's empire was propaganda and culture and that included chess.
     Before the Moscow half of the tournament started Botvinnik was summoned to Zhdanov's office for questioning. It seems Zhdanov was afraid Reshevsky would win the tournament and become world champion, but Botvinnik assured him it wouldn't happen because of a) Reshevsky's chromic time troubles and b) Reshevsky lacked deep positional understanding. By the way, many people think Reshevsky was a positional player, but all his peers pointed out he was really a superb tactician, especially in the endgame. Assured that there was no danger of Reshevsky winning the tournament, Zhdanov sent Botvinnik on his way.
     In the meantime Paul Keres was under suspicion because he had spent the war years playing in Nazi tournaments and rumor had it that as part of his "rehabilitation" he was forced to lose to Botvinnik.

     At the outbreak of World War II, Keres was in Buenos Aires for the Olympiad and he remained there to play in a tournament where he tied for first with Najdorf. His next event was a 14-game match with former World Champion Euwe in the Netherlands which Keres won.
     When the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939 Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union the following year and Keres began playing in Soviet tournaments. The Nazis invaded Estonia in 1941 and the 25-year old Keres then began playing in Nazi tournaments. That put Keres in danger at the end of World War 2. Estonia had been under Russian control when Keres was born in 1916, but it was an independent nation between the two world wars.
     Not only had he played in Nazi tournaments, but in 1942 he had done an interview for a Nazi newspaper that had been used for anti-Soviet propaganda. As a consequence, he was suspected of collaboration with the Nazis and questioned by the Soviet authorities. Keres managed to avoid the fate of his countryman, Vladimirs Petrovs.
     When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Petrovs was in Russia and was unable to return to his wife and daughter at home in Latvia. He remained in Russia and was arrested where on 31 August 1942 under Article 58 for criticizing the decreased living standards in Latvia after the Soviet annexation of 1940 and he was sentenced to ten years in a corrective labor camp. In 1989 it became known that he had died at Kotlas in 1943 from pneumonia. At least that's the official version. Once in the 1970's in a conversation with GM Edmar Mednis, when asked what happened to Petrovs, Mednis' comment was, "The Russians shot him."
     After the War Keres' return to the international chess was delayed, possibly for political reasons. Keres returned to international play in 1946 in the Soviet radio match against Great Britain, but even after he resumed a relatively normal life and chess career, his play at the highest level appears to have been affected.
     Fifty years later in an interview Botvinnik claimed that unbeknownst to him both Keres and Smyslov, on orders of Stalin himself, had been instructed to lose to him. In an interview GM Yuri Averbach said he didn't believe it, claiming it was too farfetched, but he did concede that officials lower down in the hierarchy may have ordered them to lose.  For more information on the Keres-Botvinnik controversy, read the article HERE.
      I was reading Russian Silhouettes by Genna Sosonko and came across the following quote by Botvinnik concerning blitz:  'Young man,' replied Botvinnik, not looking at him, 'Remember this: I never played chess for pleasure.' Botvinnik did not play for pleasure, but was believed that he was fulfilling his life's work, work which had been entrusted to him by his country.
     Sosonko wrote, "On many pages of Botvinnik's books one finds situations where it is suggested that the outcome of a game was not decided at the chess board, because the prestige of Soviet chess, and hence of the entire Soviet state was at stake."
     In the book Sosonko wrote that when Botvinnik was summoned to a meeting with Zhdanov, the meeting went like this: "How would you regard it if the Soviet participants were to lose to you deliberately?' I lost the power of speech. Why did Zhdanov want to humiliate me? During the previous few years I had played in seven tournaments and in all of them I had finished first, demonstrating a clear superiority over my rivals. On again acquiring the power of speech, I refused point-blank. But Zhdanov continued to insist, and I to refuse. The conversation reached an impasse. In order to conclude the argument, I offered a compromise: 'Very well, let's leave the question open. Perhaps it won't be needed? 'Zhdanov was clearly pleased with the possibility of such a decision. 'Agreed' said Zhdanov, 'We are behind YOU' - he emphasised this word - 'we wish you victory.' 
     So, the Russians were afraid that Reshevsky would win the world championship...that's how good he was. The players named to compete for the championship in 1948 were Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky, Reuben Fine and Miguel Najdorf.
     Many difficulties plagued the tournament. FIDE convened in 1947 with the result being that Najdorf was dropped from the list since the Prague tournament that that he won and originally qualified him was too weak to merit his inclusion. Fine dropped out for personal reasons. So, the final players were: Botvinnik, Euwe, Keres, Reshevsky and Smyslov.
     The Hague and Moscow match/tournament, was to be held from March 2 to May 16, 1948 to determine the new World Champion. The winner was, of course, Botvinnik (14 points out of 20), followed by Smyslov (11); Reshevsky and Keres tied (10 ½); and Euwe (4)the disappointment of the tournament, trailing far behind. Botvinnik thus ushered in the era of Russian chess dominance. Reshevsky was the only player to put Botvinnik in serious danger of losing on three occasions." Always plagued by time trouble, Reshevsky managed to throw away his chances in those games and, as Botvinnik had predicted, Reshevsky lost.
     The last round of the tournament was considered the most exciting because of two games...Keres’ win over Botvinnik, and a move by Botvinnik that Euwe described as "Incomprehensible."

     The Reshevsky versus Euwe game was important because, since Keres defeated Botvinnik (already the champion), Reshevsky had to defeat Euwe, the former World Champion, in order not to drop into fourth place. After the Keres victory cheering spectators stormed forward, the spotlights were turned on and the photographers began snapping pictures. This elicited a criticism of Dr. Milan Vidmar, the tournament director, for not stopping the Reshevsky-Euwe game so things could return to normal and the spectators could be quieted The result was that Reshevsky defeated Euwe when Euwe blundered on move 28 which led to his resignation a few moves later. With their wins, Keres and Reshevsky tied for third and fourth place. 
     Bronstein, in his last book, Secret Notes, published in 2007 just after his death the previous year, confirmed long-standing rumors by writing that the nine Soviet grandmasters (out of a field of 15 players) at Zurich 1952 (candidate's tournament won by Smyslov) were under orders from both their chess leadership and the KGB to not let Reshevsky win the tournament under any circumstances, with Smyslov being the preferred victor.

     When Reshevsky maintained his strong contention late in the tournament, Bronstein claims that the Soviets prearranged several results in games amongst themselves to prevent Reshevsky's victory and at the same time ensuring that Reshevsky faced the maximum test in his own games against the Soviet players.
     Bronstein had earlier written that he was ordered by the Soviets to win as Black against Reshevsky in the second cycle at Zurich and managed to do so after a very hard struggle. Several other writers, including GM Alexei Suetin (who was the second of Petrosian at Zurich 1953), also confirmed the Soviet collusion in Zurich.    
     Back to the 1948 Hague/Moscow tournament: In one incident during the Moscow portion Botvinnik was defeated by Reshevsky and after the game they shook hands. The handshake got Botvinnik in trouble. The next day he was ordered to report to the office of the chairman of the Sports Committee, Lieutenant General Arkady Apollonov who asked him how he, a communist, could shake hands with an American after he had defeated a Soviet player. Botvinnik was peeved and asked if that was the reason he had been invited to see the chairman and told him, "Excuse me. I have to prepare for my next game." and then walked out.
     After winning the world championship, Botvinnik's success went to his head and on at least two occasions he tried telling party leaders how he thought they should run things. He was ignored, but not punished. He still ruled Soviet chess and chess politics and he was not above taking advantage of all the perks and wielding his influence when it came to consolidating his position as champion and gaining rematches if he lost.
     Many chess players had been executed or sent to gulags, but not Botvinnik; he survived because he made himself indispensable. Even the top dog of the Soviet chess organization, Nikolai Krylenko, became a victim of Stalin's purges in the late 1930's when he was accused of spending too much time climbing mountains and playing chess. It had been Krylenko's goal to export chess as part of Soviet culture and to dominate the chess world, but he got purged before he could see it happen.

     Botvinnik was the most important chess player of Krylenko's legacy and he knew how to play the system and that enabled him to survive a revolution, a civil war, collectivization and famine, a reign of terror, a second world war, a cold war, the end of Stalin and a "thaw", the turbulent 1960's and 1970's, the Gorbachev reforms of glasnost and perestroika and the shakeup of the entire Soviet Union.
     I don't remember when, where I read it or who said it, but one person opined that one of the reasons Botvinnik continued to remain so deeply involved in his career as an electrical engineer was because he believed he needed a profession to fall back on in the event that he ever fell out of favor with the Soviet chess political machine.  We'll never know what really happened in those days, I guess.  Was chess deprived of a Reshevsky - Botvinnik match for the world championship and if so, who would have won?  

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