On Botvinnik, Choking and Superstar Pressure

On Botvinnik, Choking and Superstar Pressure‎

WIM energia
24 | Strategy

Mikhail Botvinnik, a World Champion for fifteen years between 1948-1963, with two brief interruptions had a tremendous impact on the development of the chess game. Dominating the chess world for such an unbelievably long time required character and hard work. Modern preparation for tournaments is based on Botvinnik’s approach: physical exercise, detailed preparation for a particular opponent and a polished opening repertoire. His famous training sessions with turned-on radio or in a room full of smoke reflected the fact that he tried to imitate playing conditions as close as possible. Why for such a long time could no one take the crown away from him and retain it for a long time? In 1957 he lost a match to Smyslov but in the rematch the next year took the title back. In 1960 the same situation happened but this time with the 23-year old Tal. Both opponents had health problems playing the rematches. I am not sure what were the circumstances of the matches but the fact that Botvinnik was better prepared than his opponents is clear. And he did not choke under the pressure when the stakes were high...

Recently, there were quite a few articles published that addressed the issue of choking. The New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell in his article “The Art of Failure” differentiates between choking and panicking. When you first learn some process for example how to spike in volleyball you think in terms of body angle as it approaches the ball, timing, the three- or two-step follow up before hitting it, how to properly land etc. As you practice at the beginning, you are constantly aware of all the mechanical steps and this makes your game better. Gladwell calls this “explicit learning”- the purely mechanical process. As you get better you don’t think through all the steps-- it comes more smoothly and unconsciously, thus the “implicit” system takes over. At the end you might even not notice what your body is doing. To choke is to shut down this implicit system and to let explicit learning guide you. A player looks like a beginner or amateur when he loses the fluidity that the “implicit” system provides. On the other hand, panicking is when the explicit system is shut down and one relies purely on instincts. In chess, choking can do more damage than panicking. It seems to me that we unconsciously take into account too many details and make moves that feel good too often; such that if our so-called intuition were to shut down we would be in trouble.

I experienced choking when playing college volleyball as an outside hitter. During practices my hits were strong, it was a semi-automatic procedure - I didn’t think much about steps or timing. During the game a nightmare happened: almost every time when the points were needed I just couldn’t hit. My timing was off, I started to think how to do the steps correctly, where to hit, how high to jump when all I had to do was rely on my instincts and think about some irrelevant topic. Then during the practices I worked harder on my hits, while technique was not a problem, all I needed was to work on the psychology of the game.

In chess it is harder to identify choking. Recently, there was a nice piece published in the Wall Street Journal by J. Lehrer “The Superstar Effect”. It opens up with “Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as ‘Fischer-fear.’” Then he goes on discussing the superstar effect. When the field of players includes someone who is superior to the rest of the field, the players tend not to rise to the challenge but instead collapse. This is so-called choking under the superstar effect and the author gives an example of Tiger Woods in golf. Whenever he participates in the tournaments his competitors give lower performances than at the tournaments without him. “We're so worried about hitting the ball straight that we send it careening into the weeds. In other words, we choke.” I am interested in how this phenomenon translates into chess. Did Botvinnik have this superstar effect on his competitors? The person who eventually defeated Botvinnik in the World Championship match Tigran Petrosian once said "There was a very unpleasant feeling of inevitability. Once in a conversation with Keres I mentioned this and even compared Botvinnik with a bulldozer, which sweeps away everything in its path. Keres smiled and said: 'But can you imagine what it was like to play him when he was young?'" Does this feeling of inevitability make his opponents perform at lower rates as opponents of Tiger Woods do? There is data supporting Woods case but I am not sure if there is a way of proving that Botvinnik’s opponents choked under the superstar effect.  I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.

The next article would be a continuation of choking in chess under pressure and under the superstar effect. I had a recent experience of playing a god of American chess, Nakamura. Hearing many times that his opponents just cannot bring their best when playing him, I was curious to experience this superstar pressure. Truly, playing him was an amazing experience… no I didn’t choke, although normally I would… I will share some thoughts on it in the next article.

Now the positions that were posted as an exercise in the previous article.

The first position is a very famous one, many Russian books include it. This is an isolated pawn structure Queen's Gambit position. White's pieces are ideally placed, two rooks on the c- and d-files, a strong knight on e5. Both Ne5 and Bb3 put pressure on the f7 pawn and the queen from e2 is ready to attack the e6 pawn after N:f7. It is interesting that here Botvinnik could have gone for the sacrifice already. The resulting position features rook and two pawns for white and two pieces for black. He is in no rush, since it is hard for black to improve. He finds a move that improves the position even further. His plan is to get even more control over the centre.


The pawn structure and piece placement in the second game is very similar to the first game. It is an isolated pawn structure, the differences are that white still has a dark-squared bishop, the rooks are on f1 and d1, black has the d5 square occupied by the bishop. In the previous example it was a key for black to put his knight on d5 to cover the f7 square. Here the bishop covers it already so N:f7 will not be possible. The question is should white take on d5 or leave the bishop standing there? There are too many pieces in the black camp who want to use d5. Let us look at the knight on b6: it has no prospects whatsoever if it will not get to d5 square. Also, the Bb3 did its job of putting pressure on f7 and is not needed on this diagonal anymore. So, we transfer it to the b1-h7 diagonal. 

More from WIM energia
A Farewell!

A Farewell!

Positional Methods From Carlsen's Play, The End

Positional Methods From Carlsen's Play, The End