Clash of Champions: the 1948 World Championship Tournament

Clash of Champions: the 1948 World Championship Tournament

| 16 | Endgames

Shortly after the end of World War II, Alexander Alekhine died, allegedly by choking, in a mostly empty hotel on the windswept coast of Portugal.

He left the world championship crown vacant, for the first time since Steinitz became the first world champion.

This was the beginning of FIDE's role as organizer of the world championship cycles. No longer -- at least, not until Kasparov split away from FIDE in the 1990s -- would a world champion be able to pick his own challenger.

With the end of the second World War began a golden age of chess, which lasted until early in the twenty-first century -- when the development of chess computers robbed human players of their status as the greatest creators of chess moves in the known universe, and took the aura of mystery out of their games.

To fill the vacant title, FIDE organized the 1948 world championship tournament. The venue was split: half the tournament was held in The Hague, Holland, and half in Moscow, Russia.

The tournament consisted of five players: Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Max Euwe, Samuel Reshevsky, and Vassily Smyslov. The tournament was a quintuple round robin (each player played a total of 20 games, five against each opponent), and lasted two and a half months (including a break in between the two halves).

Botvinnik was a convincing winner of the tournament, with 14 points out of the 20 games, and thus became the world champion. Second was Smyslov, with 11/20, followed by Keres and Reshevsky, each with 10.5/20, and Max Euwe, who had 4/20.

botvinnik via wikipedia

In fact, Botvinnik won his "mini-match" against each of his opponents, so he was clearly a worthy champion. However, there is a controversy surrounding his games with Paul Keres. Botvinnik won the first four games against him (and only lost the last game when he was already assured of the champion's title).

Keres, who had been in Nazi-controlled territory during the war and took part in tournaments run by the Nazis (as had most other chess masters in continental Europe at the time), was in a delicate situation after Estonia was captured by the Soviet Union. Botvinnik, meanwhile, was seen as a hero for the Soviets, and Stalin's regime viewed him as an ideal icon of socialism.

Thus, theories that Keres was forced to lose were abundant. According to historians, pressure was indeed placed on Keres and Soviet officials probably hinted that it was "best" for him not to stand in Botvinnik's way. Supposedly, Botvinnik found out about this and protested.

In any case, Botvinnik won the tournament very convincingly -- but these stories of corruption on his behalf cast some shadows over his victory. Historians generally believe that Keres probably didn't intentionally lose any games to Botvinnik, but the pressure put on him surely affected his play.

As I have been doing in previous installments, I will present an endgame won by the new champion -- in this case, Botvinnik. However, there were not really any grand "queenless middlegames" by Botvinnik in this tournament, so I will also present a selection of interesting finishes by other players in the tournament.

the five players via wikipedia

Towards the end of the tournament -- in the 20th round -- Botvinnik won a pure knight ending against Keres, which really helped him to put the tournament away. This was one of those controversial games about which I spoke earlier.

The game began like this:

After 29 moves, the following position was reached:

White has an undisputed advantage due to Black's weakened pawn structure. Of course, were the black b5-pawn instead on c6, he could count on a draw. But here, the doubled b-pawns and the isolated pawn on d5 require the constant defense of the black pieces. Both the black king and knight will be forced to occupy passive defensive posts, and the only question will be whether White can make progress.

The deficiencies of Black's pawn structure carry another liability -- the doubled b-pawns mean that he cannot create a passed pawn on the queenside, while White can create a passed pawn in the center or perhaps kingside. This means that most king and pawn endings are lost for Black.

Being required to avoid the exchange of knights means being required to constantly cede territory.

I believe that a good technician should win this ending. Nevertheless, knight endings are amongst the most tricky. Counterplay can come seemingly out of nowhere, and as White begins to make progress, he needs to use great caution to avoid counterplay. In Botvinnik's hands, of course, the game flows smoothly.

Now let's see some other interesting finishes from that tournament. 

There were several decisive transitions to the endgame. For instance, Reshevsky against Euwe, from the fifth round. 

Keres, conducting an attack down a piece, suddenly forced the exchange of all the pieces and won.

Smyslov won a nice ending against Euwe with his two bishops in the 9th round:

Reshevsky inflicted one of the few defeats on the new champion, elegantly forcing Botvinnik into zugzwang.

And finally, Reshevsky won against Keres by forcing the transition to the ending and then sacrificing the exchange.


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