Mikhail Botvinnik's press conference after winning his return match against Tal (1961)

Mikhail Botvinnik's press conference after winning his return match against Tal (1961)

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From the Riga Sahs magazine, #12, 1961

Tell us about your methods of physical preparation.

I couldn't exercise as much as I would like, because there was a very bad winter in Moscow, and I almost didn't get to ski. But physically I felt much better than a year ago. I exercised in the morning, took walks, skied when it was possible - and that's all.

Do you smoke or not?

No! I only smoked for two months, and that was a very long time ago. Smoking adversely affects the nervous system. Most chess grandmasters don't smoke now.

Tell us a few words about your scientific work. We know that you are an outstanding scientist.

I work in an electronics institute. Right now, I'm working on the problem of regulating the excitation of alternating-current machines of a certain type. They are called "asynchronized synchronous machines". German engineers first built such machines about a third of the century ago.

Why did you drink coffee during the matches? You drank water previously.

When I was very young, I couldn't understand why my partners drank coffee. I didn't need coffee to support myself during games. Then, I started to drink lemon water, which helped me a bit. But my results still continued to decline. I must thank the East German chess players who taught me to drink coffee in Leipzig during the games: a small thermos with coffee was put on each table for every player, and everyone could drink as much as they could. So, I found that when I drank coffee during games, I could go for all 5 hours. So, I switched to coffee in this match.

Did Tal drink coffee too?

He drank less coffee than I did - he smoked.

Why did you play without a second?

My friend, master Goldberg, whom I worked with in last years, declined to be my second this time. He's older than me, and it's probably even harder to work as a second than to play yourself. It's a very intense work. I understand that. For instance, when I come to watch a chess tournament as a spectator, I get much more tired than when I play myself. And the second has to worry for five hours, and then analyze the adjourned game all night. So I thought, should I hire a new, untested second? How successful would our work be if we weren't long-time friends and co-workers? So, I decided to play without a second.

Earlier, when I was young, I always played on my own. So I decided to take a risk, and, as you see, it paid off. In some games, I did suffer because of subpar analysis: for instance, I made a blunder when I analyzed the second game. Then I made a mistake in the analysis of game 19, and I lost both of them.

You made the Caro-Kann Defence fashionable again in 1960s. What can you say about it?

This defence limits White's possibilities. In other defences, after e7-e5, c7-c5 or e7-e6, White have a much wider choice of continuations than in the Caro-Kann, where Black usually has a very solid position. So, the Caro-Kann is a very good weapon in match play, because in matches, the partners usually try to play for a win with White and defend satisfactorily with Black. And even though White's points percentage against the Caro-Kann is better in the last match, it's only because of later mistakes, not because of the opening.

Do you think that the result of the match was affected by Tal not playing King's Indian in the beginning?

It's very hard to say because I think that Tal planned to switch his openings at some point. He played the Nimzo-Indian very successfully in our previous match, and so, naturally, he continued using it. This time, he used it unsuccessfully, and when he was in dire need to improve his score, he had to employ the King's Indian. So I think that in regard of switching openings, he did the correct thing.

I think that he misplayed some lines both in Nimzo-Indian and King's Indian. He should have paid more interest to my new preparation in the Nimzo-Indian. But he was persistently avoiding theoretically strongest continuations and gained nothing by that.

King's Indian Defence also didn't bring him much success - in part because when he started using it, I was already satisfied with draws, and, in trying to avoid queen exchange, Black had to go for less promising lines. I think that Tal wanted me to avoid the Saemisch system in King's Indian and play the g2-g3 system instead.

Why do I think so? Because I'd always played c2-c4 before. After the Nimzo-Indian, Tal chose the English Opening, then tried the Keres System, but misplayed it. I thought that if he was disappointed with the Keres System, then he would probably use the Keres to transpose from English to King's Indian. This leads to the line with d2-d4, and when I played that, Tal thought for a long time, and it was obvious that this first move was unpleasant. Then I became fully convinced that he wanted me to play the King's Indian with g2-g3 for White, and so I constantly chose d2-d4 and the Saemisch.

Do you think that the match result was determined more by the opening repertoire or the endgame technique?

It's hard to say. Even though Tal had some bad endgames, he showed very precise play in others. Even when he couldn't convert his advantage, he still played very strongly in the endgames, so I wouldn't "blame" the endings. I think that the openings are more "to blame". It's enough to look how many games Tal lost with Black: this is the first sign that his opening preparation was substandard.

I also think that Tal's preparation for this match in general was poor. Maybe his preparation was as poor in the previous match as well, but back then, I was in bad form and made many mistakes on the fifth hour of the game. Perhaps my parther hoped that something similar would repeat this time. But this hope didn't come true, because even in Leipzig, it was obvious that coffee "helped" me make less mistakes on the fifth hour. In addition to coffee, master Furman helped me as well, who played training games with me both before Leipzig and before this match. During this games, we paid special attention to avoid time troubles, improve time management and keep up the performance until the fifth hour. I did manage to do all that in training, so I'd hoped that it would be the same during the match as well.

How can you evaluate Tal's playing in this match? And Tal's playing in general, considering the difference in your playing styles?

There's an opinion that when you lose to someone, you have to criticize your partner, and when you win, you have to praise him. I think that it's better to say the same things every time. I'm in a hard situation, because I said nothing after losing to Tal. Perhaps I shouldn't say anything now as well, but I'll take a risk. Everyone knows that Tal is an immensely talented player. You don't need my opinion to validate that. Speaking of his shortcomings, they are known to everyone as well.

First of all, he's a bit of a one-sided player. When the game is more or less open, and there's largely piece struggle on the board, Tal has no equals. There's an opinion that he has great calculations skills. This is correct, but this wouldn't be enough on its own. He knows how to play such positions, so he can save his strength to calculate.

In other positions, he "feels" weaker. Calculations don't help here, and so you can play against him quite comfortably. Of course, I've tried to create such positions in our match, and so it was very hard for Tal to play.

His other shortcoming is that he works too little. Previously, he worked more, prepared better, developed his own opening systems. If we look at his playing in the last two years, we see nothing new, he couldn't create any new original systems. He'd tried to play the e4-e5 line in the Caro-Kann. This line is not that threatening, and then, you don't prepare only one line for such a match. This, of course, gave me an opportunity to prepare something new each time and maneuver constantly. This made my work during the games easier.

Chess of the present is different from chess of the past because chess players learned to research chess well, prepare themselves for the moment when they sit down at the board and play the game. If Tal was well-prepared, if he spent more time to explore the typical positions, then, of course, his great talent would've made him much more dangerous than he is now, because I think he simply doesn't work enough. No second can do a player's job, the player should work on his own too.

When did you become sure of your win?

I became totally sure that I'd win the match during the analysis of game 20, when I found a stalemate idea that allowed me to activate my rook. When I went to the play-off, I knew that I would draw, and, furthermore, I knew that Tal didn't see this stalemate idea, and so he's sure that he would win. When the game resumed, and after Rb5+, Tal quickly played Ka4, I understood that the game would end in a draw. Tal couldn't recover from this blow. The match was psychologically decided. Despite the large point gap, Tal resisted exceptionally well in the last games - or, more correctly, he attacked me very energetically. He wasn't psychologically broken, and if the match continued further, he would have probably closed that gap. Moreover, I got tired towards the end of the match, and I couldn't play as carefully as you always should play against Tal. But after this play-off, I was sure that even Tal wouldn't recover, and so I played the 21st game very energetically and perhaps even risky. I thought that I'd faced a different Tal, not the one whom I'd played before the 20th game play-off.

Who of the Soviet and foreign players could challenge you in 1963?

Maybe I wouldn't even play in 1963. Who can win the Candidates' Tournament? Only those who qualify. I think that any Soviet grandmaster who qualifies to the Candidates' could win the tournament. Of the foreign players, I think that might be Fischer from the USA or the Yugoslav grandmaster Gligoric.

You spoke about "troubles" with the world champion's title. Can you explain what kind of "troubles" did you mean?

This subject was discussed by others as well as me, Euwe in particular. The world champion is always in a disadvantageous situation. When you challenge for the world championship, it's another thing. The player is inspired, he knows he should win something, gain something. And he usually succeeds. However, when you become a world champion, you feel that someone is trying to take away something that's yours. Maybe it's possessiveness... All in all, you play less energetically. All the last return matches proved that. The ex-world champion always wins a return match. Tal was in a very hard situation even before the match started...

There are reports, or should I say opinions, that you've never played as well in a world championship match as you did now. Do you agree?

It's hard to say. You cannot determine absolute strength in chess, only relative. You can say that I'd played better than in my match against Smyslov. But, well, I played that match against Smyslov, not against Tal. Maybe Tal was out of form this time, maybe he was ill-prepared. However, in earlier matches I'd usually suffered as a practical player. I made obvious mistakes, especially in the endings. In this match, I made very few mistakes. My fifth-hour confusion only recurred two times in the match: in games 2 and 19. I got into time trouble in the former game, and made a mistake in time trouble in the latter.

In the other games, no such things happened. But if you take the previous match, for instance, this phenomenon recurred rather often.

What's your personal relationship with Tal?

As you know, I'm a very withdrawn man and rarely meet up with people. With Tal, we are separated by our big age difference, we live in different cities, etc. But still, I'd like to say that after the match ended, we met in a friendly atmosphere and spent an evening together.

Will you publish a book about this match, and if you will, when should we expect it?

I haven't decided yet. I should say that analyzing the world championship games is a very difficult job. And when the book is written, the publishing work starts, almost as difficult: many checks and corrections... So, such a book takes about a year to make. So I haven't decided if I'd write such a book yet.

Are the match games valuable for chess theory?

I think that the most interesting thing is that Tal used a relatively rare e4-e5 move against the Caro-Kann, because it turned out that Black faced certain difficulties after this move. However, these difficulties weren't too serious. Then there was the French, where I'd tried to refute Gligoric's move Kd1 for the second time. The first time, in the 1960 match, I played very badly, and now I played better, but Tal found a very strong reply (however, he hurried too much and immediately sacrificed his queen on h8, after which he was probably even worse), but I made a mistake too and lost this game. At the very least, this line requires more practical testing. Then it turned out (even though it's been already kind of obvious lately) that Black's playing in King's Indian was rather difficult, and some lines of Nimzo-Indian aren't particularly good for them as well.

Did you lose weight during the match?

It's hard to say. I didn't check my weight, but I think it's stayed the same. I think it's because my nervous system worked well this time. Usually, when your nervous system works sluggishly, you gain weight, unfortunately. During the previous match, I simply got fat, because my head didn't work as well as it should.

The return matches are abolished. Do you think it's the right decision?

I wrote about that in an article for Sovetskiy Sport about our chess players' performance in West Germany. I wrote that I considered this FIDE decision to be a mistake and hoped that the return matches would be restored. I also added that I wouldn't take any part in such decisions anymore, but the editor removed that sentence (of course, after getting my approval). However, if our chess players would insist on restoring the return matches, and foreign players agree with them, then FIDE, of course, will restore them. I read Tal's opinion in Shakhmaty v SSSR that return matches should be restored with great interest. I don't know if Tal still agrees with that, but a year ago, he thought that return matches should exist.

The thing is that the young players are interested in the world champion's playing first and foremost. Perhaps this title is not particularly important, because it's clear that there's currently a whole group of international grandmasters who play about equally well, but the fight for the world championship makes these grandmasters improve their chess skills and also increases the popularity of chess. That's why you should create conditions that exclude the possibility of winning this title randomly, or at least do that: if a player starts studying chess less seriously after his win, he should be punished for that. The return match is such a test for him, which is quite useful. Now we have abolished it. There's an unusual situation, because in 1963 I'll already be very old and maybe even won't play a world championship match at all. Also, such a brilliant player as Smyslov is barred from competing for the world championship after his poor performance at the USSR championship. However, if we look at the chess competitions in the last 15-20 years, we'd see that there were perhaps three most consistent and stable players: Keres, Smyslov and me. And it might happen that only Keres would play for the world championship. I think that we should preserve as many players from this three as possible.

How could it happen that such a brilliant player as Smyslov, who was the most feared player in the world between 1953 and 1958, couldn't already compete for the world championship in 1960? We should say that the current rules that determine world championship challengers are more or less fair, but still, any rule has its drawbacks. In particular, in 1949, when the rules were drafted, I proposed the following: "The top half of the Candidates' Tournament automatically qualifies for the next Candidates' Tournament, and the second half automatically qualifies for the next Interzonal." Then, by a series of legitimate reasons, this rule was violated, but I think that it was violated too brazenly. I think that if there was a rule that an ex-champion could always play in the Interzonal, nobody's rights would have been violated. If such rules were in effect now, Smyslov would've played in the Interzonal, and we could be comfortable in thinking that no random things would happen in the next world championship. However, there's a nuance. It's known that only a limited number of participants from one country can play in the Candidates', i think it's 5 out of 8. Two participants from one country are already known, so, only three Soviet players can qualify for the Candidates' Tournament from the Interzonal. There are already four Soviet players in the Interzonal. So, if a fifth player appears, Smyslov, the Soviet players would suffer in some way.

I think that we should only take into account the interests of those Soviet players who are seriously planning to challenge for the World Championship. How would the Soviet grandmasters who qualified into the Interzonal, for instance, Korchnoi or Petrosian (both surely want to win the world championship), react if FIDE decided to invite Smyslov, the ex-world champion, to the Interzonal? I think they would be glad, and that's why. They seriously want to become world champions, and then they would possibly become ex-champions. This is inevitable. And in this case, they would surely be glad to get a personal invitation to the Interzonal from FIDE.

I want to propose this rule to FIDE. And I think that the ex-champion Dr. Euwe should take part in the Interzonal that's scheduled for this autumn in Netherlands. He would be glad to test his strength again, now that he's going to turn 60 on 21st May.