Clash of Champions: Smyslov vs. Botvinnik

Clash of Champions: Smyslov vs. Botvinnik

| 17 | Endgames

After Alekhine's death and the subsequent 1948 world championship tournament (covered in my article last week), the chess world began the three-year world championship cycle, which would continue in relatively orderly fashion until Kasparov and Short broke away from FIDE in 1993 and the world of top-level chess was split in two.

Mikhail Botvinnik had won the 1948 tournament and was declared world champion. His first challenger, in 1951, was David Bronstein.

The match took what was to be the form of most of the matches in the later half of the twentieth century: 24 games, with the first player to reach 12.5 points being the winner.

The match was  a draw, which meant that Botvinnik retained the title. With only two games remaining, Bronstein was ahead by one game -- in other words, he only needed to draw the final two games.

Bronstein and Botvinnik via altervista

But in the 23rd game of the match, Botvinnik played a majestic endgame:

A famous blunder in the endgame happened earlier in the game, in the sixth game. After 56 moves, the following position was reached:

Bronstein had clearly been the one pressing up to this point, with no risk of losing. For instance, a few moves earlier he could have just captured the black e-pawn, leading to a draw -- but he instead pushed past, leaving the black e-pawn alive, still seeking a win.

But now White has no winning chances, and the time has come to ensure the draw. This could have easily been done by 57.Ne6+ Kf3 58.Nd4+ Kf2 59.Ka4. The knight sacrifices itself for the black e-pawn, while the white king removes the black a- and b-pawns. In the end, the black king captures the last white pawns, which draws.

This was obvious enough, but so was Bronstein's actual move, 57.Kc2??, bringing the king closer. Bronstein has said that he was daydreaming for 45 minutes, thinking about earlier points in the game and possible missed opportunities, when he "accidentally" picked up the king.

Personally I would be pretty annoyed if my opponent were thinking for 45 minutes in such a clearly drawn position.

Regardless whether this "touch-move" story is true, one has to assume that Bronstein missed Botvinnik's next move, 57...Kg3!, utilizing the geometric paradox in chess, which has been used by various study composers -- Richard Reti in particular -- that the straight line is not always the shortest distance between two points.

In this way, the black king reaches f2 while avoiding the f3 square, which would allow the white knight to come back with check. Bronstein then had to resign, as there is no way to prevent the promotion of the black pawn. 

Even without the 57...Kg3 resource, White has no chances to win after 57...Kf3 either, so this makes Bronstein's 57.Kc2 further illogical. In fact, the draw is more complicated after 58.Ne6 or 58.Nf7 than it would have been after the immediate 57.Ne6.

But these things happen over the board, with tension a factor. Bronstein, exasperated by not being to find a win in this endgame, became wrapped up in the long variations after 57.Kc2 Kf3, overlooking what was right in front of him.

Having drawn the match with Botvinnik, Bronstein had some moral right to be seen as a "co-world champion," but that is not the way it is. Someone has to retain the title in the event of the drawn match, and it is natural that it should be the previous champion.

In those days, rapid playoffs were not as highly regarded as they are now. Regardless, he had greatly impressed the world with his creative and sharp play, and went down in history as one of the greatest players ever.

Botvinnik's next challenger was Vassily Smyslov.

via wikipedia

Born in Moscow in 1921, Smyslov became a master at the young age of 17. His chess career was somewhat slowed during the years of the second world war, but after the war he was invited to the 1948 world championship tournament, where he finished second to Botvinnik.

Later, he won the famous Zurich 1953 candidates tournament, qualifying to challenge Botvinnik in a match, which was played in 1954.

In all, Smyslov and Botvinnik played three matches. In 1954, the match was drawn 12-12, and like the Botvinnik-Bronstein match, Botvinnik retained the title.

Three years later Smyslov had once again qualified to challenge Botvinnik. This time he won the match by a score of 12.5 - 9.5, thus becoming the seventh world champion.

Here we will see his win in an interesting endgame, from the 17th game of the match:

From a symmetrical Gruenfeld -- not an opening thought in general to give Black great winning chances -- Smyslov has managed to extract a small advantage. However, while agreeing to the exchange of the queens and rooks, he had to evaluate whether he had chances to win the position which resulted, since there were some other possibilities which kept more tension in the position (although no clear win either).

The pawn structure is nearly symmetrical, except that Black has a space advantage on the queenside and slightly the more sound kingside structure as well. Black has a bishop against a knight.

Although the position is closed, the saying "the worst bishop is still better than the best knight" applies here, to some extent. In particular, the white kingside pawns are likely to be fixed on the dark squares, so it is easy to imagine the black bishop scooping them up sometime in the future.

The white knight is currently tied down to defense of both the e3- and b2-pawns, while the black knight on c4 is the attacker. White will be able -- and indeed will eventually need to -- chase the black knight with b2-b3; however, this will create a new weak square on c3.

With the somewhat closed nature of the position, it seems like White should easily be able to bring the king to d3 and hold the queenside, with a simple draw. However, the weakness of the kingside pawns makes this problematic.

The black knight will be able to attack the g3 pawn from f5 or e4. With the white h-pawn back on h2, it is likely this position would be drawn. But here the presence of weaknesses on both sides of the board heralds real chances for Black to win.

Let us now see the ending.

Regardless of Botvinnik's missed drawing opportunities and Smyslov's slight omissions, this is a beautifully intricate ending. Despite the apparently simple nature of the position, there are an enormous number of possibilities. Reaching the ultimate truth is very difficult -- in particular, these kind of "fortress-like" positions cannot be unraveled by concrete calculation of variations like some middlegame positions or sharp endings.

Instead, they have to be understood by a concrete form of schematic thinking. Further complicating the task is that White -- at many different moments -- can switch from fortress play to direct counterplay (e.g. by b3-b4), with calculation of variations taking over from schematic thinking.

This subtle exploitation of the smallest advantage -- in a game where Botvinnik was White and seemingly ought to have drawn easily -- proved a major turning point in the match.

This game allowed Smyslov to take a two-game lead in the match. Botvinnik's spirit was probably broken by this game, and he did not win after this. In the final five games, four were drawn and Smyslov won another, thus gaining the world championship title by a score of 12.5-9.5.

In those days, the world championship was granted an automatic "revenge-match" one year later if he lost the title. Thus Botvinnik and Smyslov played a third match a year later -- and we shall be seeing an endgame from that in next week's column. 


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