Clash of the Champions: Botvinnik-Smyslov (1958 Rematch)

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Aug 28, 2014

At the time that Vasily Smyslov became world champion, a rule was in effect giving the previous champion an automatic rematch in the event that he lost the title. Mikhail Botvinnik benefited from this rule twice -- the first instance was with Smyslov.

So, the rematch took place in 1958, again in Moscow (as had Botvinnik's previous matches with Bronstein and Smyslov). In this match, Botvinnik began with a bang, winning the first three games and never letting go of the lead.

Since this column is about endgames, I perused specifically the endgames played in the match. I found that among them were quite a few "false results" -- i.e. games that really ought to have gone one way but due to overly crude mistakes ended up differently.

Central among these was Botvinnik's loss, on time, in the following position in game 15:

It was only two moves before the game would be adjourned, and Botvinnik had several minutes to play these moves. But he became engrossed in thought and forgot about the clock. Black's two bishops on a wide open board give him great winning chances and almost no losing chances.

It would be easy to give a check on c5, bring the king closer, and then go home, enjoy a nice cup of black tea and a pleasant analysis of a position with perhaps a 50/50 chance of winning versus drawing.

Instead a point was logged on Smyslov's side. But Botvinnik managed to keep his cool.

Smyslov via wikipedia

Botvinnik was not the only one giving gifts in the endgame. After losing the first two games, Smyslov reached a somewhat superior endgame in the third.

White's pieces are somewhat more active and Black will have some weaknesses on the queenside. After 28.Be5 Black will have some pawn structure issues to deal with, and his king could also come into a bit of danger.

However, Smyslov actually played 28.Ne5?? -- a blunder far below his level (or indeed below that of a player rated 1800).

Of course you guessed the response: the elementary removal of the defender by 28...Rxc3 won two pieces for a rook, and gave Black a winning advantage.

Although Smyslov played on, the issue was never in doubt:

Everybody is human, even world champions. It has also been said that Smyslov was suffering from the flu.

There were also some other false results, which were not quite on such a dramatic level.

Botvinnik via Wikipedia

For instance, in the 14th game, Smyslov fully equalized with Black. However, perhaps feeling the pressure to play for a win due to the score, he made some "overpressing" errors which gave Botvinnik the better position.

A complex and interesting rook-and-pawn endgame resulted, with Botvinnik eventually winning.

And towards the end of the match, there was the 18th game. Smyslov had an extra pawn, and while Botvinnik had counterplay which gave him drawing chances, he really should not have won.

But Smyslov overpressed and Botvinnik won:

All in all, the Smyslov-Botvinnik world championship pairing consisted of 69 games over three different matches.

Smyslov won 18 games versus Botvinnik's 17. However, Smyslov was only champion for one year. They were second in number of championship games contested only to the epic Kasparov-Karpov rivalry.

Throughout the 1950s, Botvinnik battled a very "correct" opponent, with a style not so far different from his own.

But soon he was to face a completely different opponent. Stay tuned for next week when we will meet Mr. Tal.



  • 2 years ago



    The rule was overturned before Tal's matches with Botvinnik, in 1959, but it seems that since it was done during a Candidates' cycle, the World Championship match was to be played by old rules, with return match.

    Botvinnik, while being an excellent player, was no less excellent in backstage politics and was ready for any maneuvers that could guarantee that he remains on the throne. Yuri Averbakh described that in great detail in his memoirs.

  • 2 years ago


    I guess the rule had been overturned after Tal's loss to Botvinnik, otherwise there would have been a 3rd Tal - Botvinnik match. Seems like Botvinnik was the only one to benefit from this rule...

  • 2 years ago


    I enjoy the endgame, wonderful endgame technique. There something to learn from Botvinnik, last position was quite interesting. 

  • 2 years ago


    re: position # 1 - why black tea?  why not green, or ginseng or earl grey?  what's wrong with you recommending one tea over another?  have you no decency? 

  • 2 years ago


    Great !!!

  • 2 years ago


    fantastic article! thanks!

  • 2 years ago

    dzindzifan is a very entertaining book I just finished. It tells some extremely interesting stories about Tal; revealing well ... some dark secrets.

  • 2 years ago


    Wow, not what I expected from two players whose reputations rest on their supposed endgame prowess. Also, I know it's an odd choice, considering his personality, but Botvinnik is my favorite world champion!

  • 2 years ago


    Mikhail Tal  :D

  • 2 years ago


    mikhail tal?

  • 2 years ago

    IM DanielRensch

    Thanks Bryan. Good stuff.

    We all know you've been waiting for Tal Wink

  • 2 years ago


    That rematch rule was introduced by Botvinnik's request just a few months before he lost his second match against Smyslov. Before that, another rule was in place: the ex-champion had the right to compete with the new champion and new candidate from the next qualifying cycle in a round-robin tournament for World Championship.

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