Clash of Champions: the 1948 World Championship Tournament

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Aug 14, 2014

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.



  • 2 years ago



    During the WWII, Alekhine reportedly offered Keres to play a world championship match several times. Keres refused - probably because he feared that this match would be considered illegitimate anyway, especially considering the repercussions that befell Alekhine, Bogoljubov and him after the war for "collaborating with Nazis": Alekhine was universally boycotted, Keres was almost executed in USSR (he was saved by Estonian Communist Party higher-ups), and Bogoljubov was forbidden to play outside of Germany.

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article, but I sort of feel bad for Keres.

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article, thanks..

  • 2 years ago



    Wikipedia says that initially, the World Championship was to be contested by six surviving AVRO Tournament participants (Keres, Fine, Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Euwe, Flohr). USSR decided to replace Flohr with Smyslov, and Fine withdrew.

  • 2 years ago



    I believe there was a selection committee of sorts to pick the top GM's.  Reuben Fine, who with Keres won the last big prewar tournament (AVRO 1938) was invited but declined.  I presume he knew he could not win but it would have been interesting if Keres did better than Botvinnik and Smyslov against Fine, thereby making it closer.

  • 2 years ago

    NM FLchessplayer

    Nice article, fairly and evenly done ... maybe you should write a book?

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    I read in a book covering the life of Alexander alekhine that he was shot to death in front of his hotel in Portugal, allegedly by a french hit squad, for having spent time in germany during ww 2. In fact he found himself deadlocked there when the war began. Being shot closely after the war ended and closely after the Squad was brought to life + bearing the initials A.A. (Topping the list) makes it very suspicious. Alekhine wrote to one of his friends a few days before he was shot that he had the feeling he was being followed...

  • 2 years ago


    tq...very helpful...

  • 2 years ago



    Tal wasn't exactly "under pressure", but there were some disrespectful moves against him in the return match. Shortly before the match, he got ill, doctors from Riga checked him and advised to postpone the match. Botvinnik's side said something to the effect, "You should check with the Moscow doctors to get a second opinion". Tal got offended and said, "Well, I'll play then".

  • 2 years ago


    Thank you! I played through all the notes. Reshevsky's b3 has to be my favorite move from this article.

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article, however, how they were able to pick those GMs who play the quintuple round robin?

  • 2 years ago


    wonderful write-up... in addition to soviet pressure on keres, I understand the same tactics were employed against david bronstein and mikhail tal during their official championship matches with botvinnik

  • 2 years ago


    @ Spektroski,


     That is true Botvinnik did draw a match with Bronstien and Smyslov. Steinitz never draw a in a world champion, even against Tchigorin.

     I read some your posting very interesting, I really enjoy them; Spassky vs Polugaevsky game, I enjoy reading annotation, The Urusov brothers, I view some of their games, very tactical player.

  • 2 years ago



    You're not exactly right. Botvinnik drew Bronstein, then he drew Smyslov when he first passed through the Candidates'.

    And, well, there's nothing wrong in retaining the world title by drawing. Steinitz and Lasker both did that.

  • 2 years ago


    Because Botvinnik stole Euwe opening notes. Keres is the real world champion in my eyes not Botvinnik. Just look all his matches, he never won it the first time, had to have a re-match to win.

  • 2 years ago


    Euwe was older than all other participants by 10 years or more, and he, strictly speaking, wasn't a chess professional, unlike all others (Botvinnik did work as an electrical engineer and even had some patented inventions, but obviously was given leave to prepare for the tournaments as he deemed fit).

  • 2 years ago


    Euwe did so bad... Wonder why

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