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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Alexander Kotov and Other Stuff

Kotov circa 1967
     Mikhail Botvinnik had won the Absolute Championship held in Moscow and Leningrad between March and April, 1941. He was followed by Paul Keres, Vasily Smyslov, Isaac Boleslavsky, Andor Lilienthal, and Igor Bondarevsky.
     The winner of this Match - Tournament was supposed to be the challenger for Alekhine's world title. The reason for the tournament was because of the results of the 12th USSR Championship held in 1940. The Soviet Union had annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the eastern parts of Poland. This meant that players like Keres, Petrov and Mikenas were eligible to play in the 12th Soviet Championship. As Lilienthal had been granted Soviet citizenship, he was also eligible.
     The hall in which the Championship was held had a noise problem from the spectators and Botvinnik, who was leading after nine rounds, claimed he was affected by all the noise which accounted for his sharing fifth and sixth places with Boleslavsky behind Bondarevsky and Lilienthal who tied for first. Smyslov was third and Keres fourth.
     Botvinnik wrote a letter to his supporter and tournament organizer Vladimir Snegiryov who persuaded the authorities that a Match - Tournament of the first six place finishers would be a better determination of who should challenge Alekhine than the winner of the playoff match between Bondarevsky and Lilienthal. Thus, the twenty-round match-tournament was organized and Botvinnik won in a convincing manner.
     Then the time came for the 13th Soviet Championship.  On June 22, 1941, Germany launched a massive surprise attack against the Soviet Union. The German attack came during the semi-final round of the 13th Soviet Championship which was being held at Rostov-on-the-Don. When the war news broke out all the games were quickly agreed drawn.
     Despite the confusion and uncertainty Moscow sports officials initially ordered the tournament organizers to continue with the event, but this proved impossible because the players all left Rostov-on-the-Don; some went home, some joined their reserve units. And so the tournament was canceled. The Soviet Championship tournament was not resumed until 1944 and that one was called the official 13th Soviet Championship.
     Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky, the Father of Soviet Chess, was one of the competitors at Rostov-on-the-Don. Because of his association with many “enemies of the State” Ilyin-Zhenevsky himself suffered persecution in the Stalin era. According to Botvinnik (described by David Bronstein as a “good Communist”) and official sources, Ilyin-Zhenevsky died in a Nazi air raid on Lake Ladoga on a ship during the siege of Leningrad.
     In any case, Ilyin-Zhenevsky wasn't arrested in the purges and he still enjoyed freedom of travel. In fact, his wife had accompanied him to the tournament. When he learned that war had broken out Ilyin-Zhenevsky sought the advice of other Leningraders at the tournament: should he and his wife return to Leningrad? The others said they were returning, and so Ilyin-Zhenevsky followed suit. His decision to return was a fateful one; Rostov-on-the-Don was his last tournament.
     Back in Leningrad Ilyin-Zhenevsky was put in charge of a work crew digging anti-tank trenches around the city. On September 1, 1941, he and his wife were evacuated by water from Leningrad, then under siege. On September 3rd, their boat was attacked by German aircraft and Ilyin-Zhenevsky was badly wounded and died later that day. His wife was not injured, but she was overcome with despair and committed suicide a few days later. That's the official version, but some believe Ilyin-Zhenevsky fell victim to the Great Purge along with the majority of the Old Guard of revolutionists and was executed. Many other Leningrad players included Ilya Rabinovich and S. Vainshtein who died of starvation. Pyotor Romanovsky survived, but his wife, hree daughters and their housekeeper all died of hunger and sickness.

Shakhmaty v SSSR
   The chess magazine 64 ceased publication almost in mid-issue as the staff closed the doors and left for the front. In Leningrad, Shakhmaty v SSSR also shut down for the duration. Chess columns in the many newspapers and magazines disappeared and the All-Union Chess Section closed up. Surprisingly, one new chess magazine appeared: The Soviet Chess Chronicle, published by the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, first appeared in 1943 and was published until 1946.

     In Moscow, even as the German army closed in, the tradition of an annual city championship in November continued. The decision to hold the Moscow Chess Championship was due to Stalin’s determination not to evacuate Moscow or relocate the government in the face of the advancing German Army. Stalin’s resolve was symbolized by his decision to hold the annual Red Square military parade on the anniversary of the Revolution (November 7) as usual. This defiant gesture, along with Stalin’s speech on that occasion, proclaimed to the world that normal life continued in spite of the German threat.
     The organizer of the 1941 Moscow Chess Championship was Vladimir Alatortsev, president of the Moscow Chess Club. By November 1941, Moscow was virtually on the front lines, but that did not deter Alatortsev. The games were held in a variety of locations around the city for maximum propaganda value. For political reasons the tournament was widely reported in the Soviet press and spectator interest was high.
Preparing for attack
    The Moscow Championship was unlike any other though. Vasily Panov (1906-1973), one of the participants, recalled that initially the noise of air raid sirens, anti-aircraft fire and bombs made concentration very difficult and there was frequent interruptions as players had to retreat to air raid shelters. The normal procedure when a game is interrupted was to seal a move, but there was not enough time to seal a move when the sirens sounded, so the clocks were simply stopped until the game could be resumed in a shelter. There were complaints because the player having the move had an advantage because he could mentally analyze the game without time penalty. The solution was simple: they simply ignored the sirens and continued play! And, the attacks occurred during every round! 

     The winner was Alexander Kotov (1913 – January 8, 1981). Kotov entered the ranks of the Soviet Union's elite players after having steadily progressed through the classification system to reach the rank of Master at the age of 25 in 1938. 
     In the spring of 1939 Kotov was one of the least known competitors in the Soviet Championship, but four straight wins put him in the lead. By the time the last round was reached he was tied with Botvinnik and by chance they were paired in the last round. Interest in the game reached fever pitch with tickets being sold out and large crowds gather all around the tournament hall. The result was an exciting game that ended in victory for Botvinnik.
     Kotov suffered a severe setback in the 1940 Championship though when he shared next to last place with Levenfish and many thought his good showing in the previous tournament had been an accident, but they were wrong as his talent was still growing. Kotov himself recognized that his weak point was relying soley on tactics and ignoring strategy so he undertook to eliminate that weakness by making a creful study of the games played in the match between Chigorin and Tarrasch in 1893.
     Owing to the War he had to postpone his efforts and it wasn't until after the War was over in 1945 and he won both of his games against Isaac Kashdan in the radio match against the United States that he was able to continue his progress.
     He placed fourth in the 1948 Interzonal Tournament in Saltsjöbaden, Sweden, tied for first with Bronstein in the 1948 Soviet Championship and in the early 1950s he racked up good result in international tournaments. 
    Kotov was also the author of a number of books, the best known of which is Think Like a Grandmaster which created a sensation when Ken Smith first published in 1971 in the US. According to the late US Master James Schroeder, Kotov was weak with Knights, but wasn't aware of it so he created an artificial system which he hoped would avoid blunders.  Schroeder wrote that the book is full of instruction and advice, but because Kotov was weak with Ns he sometimes misjudged a position. I don't know how accurate Schroeder's assessment was, but he is correct in stating that Kotov's system in which he recommends analyzing a line only once is artificial. GMs are like the rest of us...they skip around all over the place. They are better because their judgment of the positions they reach is far, far better than ours. They are better at spotting tactics, too!

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