On the hypothetical Botvinnik/Alekhine match

Sep 13, 2014, 12:49 AM |

Article by chess historian Sergey Voronkov.


Right after the 13th USSR Championship, the first wartime chess conference took place. All the points of its agenda were fair for the time: intensify the chess work in hospitals and military units, restore chess life in liberated regions, prepare new players and workers... But one point amazed me: "The conference issued a friendly greeting to the chess players of Great Britain, United States of America and other free countries and expressed a desire for the Soviet Chess Section to develop a statute for the World Chess Championship competition.

What exactly did this mean: did they want to take the chess crown off Alekhine? The problem was that only FIDE could disqualify Alekhine, and USSR weren't members yet. And, well, "developing a statute for the World Chess Championship competition" is the task of an international federation, not a national department... At first I thought that it was a ballon d'essai: show this bait to the allies and watch their reaction. But when I opened Walter Heuer's book Paul Keres, I learned that the idea of developing a structured World Championship competition that limits the champion's choice of candidates and prevents him from avoiding title defence for years was first voiced by the Americans in 1943. Reuben Fine expressed this notion publicly in October 1944 Chess Review:

In 1939, Alekhine was champion in name only...

I propose that the match system be replaced by international tournaments... The world championship tournament is to be held every two years. It is to have a minimum of six masters, and a maximum of ten. If there are six, it is to have four rounds; if there are eight or ten, it is to be double round...

I further propose that the USA take steps now to hold a victory world championship tournament as soon as practicable after the war is finished. The tournament should have the following eight participants: Alekhine, Botvinnik, Euwe, Fine, Flohr, Keres, Reshevsky and Smyslov. It should be played double round in New York.

If Alekhine does not choose to compete, the tournament should be held without him. Alternates are to be chosen by the international committee...

To guarantee the necessary funds, it should be underwritten now by issuing 150 shares at $100 each.

Fine is said to have contacted Botvinnik and Russian authorities over this matter.

That's why, it seems, the Soviet Chess Section head Boris Weinstein invited Botvinnik to dinner with him in December 1943, and Botvinnik "was on guard - I knew he would discuss a match against Alekhine"! Otherwise, it's unclear why would a World Championship match be discussed at the height of the War. Let me remind what Botvinnik wrote in Achieving the Aim:

"A nice dinner by wartime standards: homemade meatballs, wine. I ate the meatballs, but didn't drink. And then it began... Alekhine is a political enemy, we have to strip him of the champion's title, the USSR Champion should do his civic duty and be the first to demand to exclude Alekhine from the chess life. I care not to list all that demagogy. Weinstein was the one to speak, and Zubarev (the head of Sports Committee chess department) just acted as a yes man. I calmly, sharply and succinctly expressed my own point of view and left. It was clear that I couldn't play a match against Alekhine with this Chess Section chairman."

USSR absolute chess champion Grandmaster M. Botvinnik
And now let's hear Weinstein's version. He kept quiet for his entire life, and only in Summer 1993, half a year before his death, decided to break his silence (Shakhmatniy Vestnik #8-9, 1993). That's what Boris Samoilovich said when I asked him, "In 1943, Botvinnik knew that Alekhine was playing in German tournaments. How could he think of playing a match with him, anyway?"
"Botvinnik was hoping to play a match with Alekhine since 1936. And in 1943, after we turned the tides of the War, he returned to this idea. And, visiting me (by the way, it wasn't neither the first nor the last visit), he discussed it with me. Mikhail Moiseevich wrote that the dinner was good, but he refused to drink the wine. Yes, he didn't drink the wine, but he did eat bread in my house. And a man with a different breeding, with different moral basis would never insult a man who offered him bread in his house.
Yes, he did ask about the match at that dinner, and I answered that this match was impossible. Nikolay Mikhailovich Zubarev was also present at that dinner. And Botvinnik wrote that only I spoke, and Zubarev was just a yes man. He couldn't help but humiliate even him in his writing! As though Zubarev couldn't just agree with my views... I said something along these lines: Alekhine was a war criminal, not even by Soviet laws, but by French. He was a French Army officer, and after France's capitulation, he defected to the enemy. He became a cultural advisor - his official occupation! - of Gauleiter Frank, one of Hitler's bloodiest henchmen. Botvinnik just replied that all that was irrelevant..."

Understanding that he "couldn't play a match against Alekhine with this Chess Section chairman", Botvinnik chose the tried-and-true way: he started to lay the groundwork for Weinstein's removal from power. "My position", he wrote, "gradually gained support: Weinstein wasn't favoured by most of the Chess Section personnel. Just in case, I also visited the Party's Central Committee... Finally, at the Chess Section session, we raised a question of Weistein's resignation. He defended desperately. But then Vasya Smyslov spoke: "The former Chess Section chairman comrade Weinstein..." he began. Weistein waved his hands in exasperation and resigned on the spot!" A dramatic ending. But when many years later Averbakh asked Smyslov about that story, he answered, "Actually, I was just mistaken. I thought that Weinstein has already resigned."
Of course, interviewing Boris Samoilovich, I asked him about that session - and he again amazed me with his phenomenal memory! And he was in his eighties at the time.
"Later, Botvinnik again raised the question about the match. I was still working in NKVD (I quit after the war, in 1946), and I asked General Mamulov, Beria's administrator, about that. He didn't play himself, but he liked chess. I asked him, "Stepan Solomonovich, there's an idea: why don't we help our Botvinnik to play a match against Alekhine? Someone doubts that he'll win, though." Mamulov answered, "It doesn't matter whether he can win or not, because such a match cannot take place at all. Alekhine is a war criminal, and if he tries to cross the Soviet border, he will be arrested and extradited to France. Of course, if the French don't demand his extradition from Spain before that."
At the time, General Franco had already started to extradite the war criminals. Alekhine knew that, and that's why he fled to Portugal: Prime Minister Salazar harboured war criminals there, and the allies turned a blind eye. When Alekhine stated that he didn't collaborate with the Fascist regime and didn't write the Anti-Semitic articles in 1941 Pariser Zeitung [Weinstein said that they knew about them since the very start of the war: "We didn't have the full versions, but translated extracts in the British Chess magazine were more than enough], he was offered to come to France and face the trial. As far as I know, Alekhine was accused of treason. I doubt that they'd execute him, like Petain, but he could easily have been incarcerated.
Alekhine thought naively that Botvinnik would discuss all the details with Lord Derbyshire, then British Chess Federation president. But this issue should have been decided on an entirely different level...
I wrote articles about that as early as in 1944. For instance, I said that with his wartime actions, Alekhine made himself a pariah. And at the Chess Section session shortly before the end of the War, when Botvinnik again raised the question about his match, I asked him straight away: "Mikhail Moiseevich, I'm a non-party man, but you're a Communist. We're both Jews. I can't understand how can you possibly shake a hand that was elbow-deep in the blood of Communists and Jews." He answered rather calmly that if he doesn't play Alekhine, then Euwe would declare himself World Champion, and then lose a match to Reshevsky, and the World Champion title would forever remain in American hands."
But Walter Heuer wrote: "When Keres came to Moscow for the first time since the War in 1945 and Botvinnik invited him over, Keres told me that Botvinnik said, 'I won't shake hands with someone like Alekhine'".
"Yes, that sounds quite logical."
"Yes, but the match still couldn't take place! It seems that Botvinnik just didn't know that and hoped that Molotov would insist that match be played.
So I actually wasn't as ill-natured as Botvinnik thought. I just was better informed. That's why I offered to organize a tournament of world's strongest players after the War. I meant the AVRO tournament participants (sans Alekhine, of course) plus Smyslov. And then either declare the winner a World Champion straight away (and create laws for further World Championship competitions), or play a match between the top two players, because a World Championship title was traditionally contested in a match.
When the question about the match against Alekhine was put up for vote, I said that then this vote would be for my resignation as well: if the Chess Section votes for the match, I resign as a chairman. The votes were 5-4 against the match! Of course, I abstained, both as a chairman and because I couldn't vote whether I should resign or not.
The vote was public, and I remember that Kotov and Ragozin (Botvinnik's future coach) voted against Botvinnik! But then someone (I think it was Abramov) told Kotov: "Sasha, there was a Party Bureau session, and we decided that the match should be played." Kotov said, "I didn't know... We have to vote again." At the second vote, all Party members voted for the match. But Vyacheslav Ragozin - and I want to emphasize that point - again voted against the match!"
"It seems that the decision to play Alekhine was made on a very high level. Botvinnik wouldn't act so forcefully if he didn't have any support high up."
"There weren't any decisions. Botvinnik probably just told Molotov that the match is politically important because otherwise, we'll lose the World Champion's title, and Molotov agreed. Nothing more was required. What a big deal! Stalin wasn't interested in chess, Beria too. And Molotov had enough power to resolve this issue on his own..."
Let me remind you that this interview was published when Botvinnik was still alive, and Mikhail Moiseevich hasn't said a word - at least, in print.
And another eyewitness account. When I learned that Bronstein was present at the session (but without the right to vote), I have interviewed David Ionovich as well. He also remembered that day pretty clearly.
"It was in July 1945, after the USSR Championship. I think that the people who gathered there didn't quite understand what was going on. Weinstein was blamed for bad work during the war, for "staleness" of the chess movement, then there were demands to restart printing the 64 newspaper as soon as possible. All in all, everyone seemed dissatisfied... It confused me a bit: there was a good English-language magazine, tournaments (including Moscow championships) were held...
Then Botvinnik raised the question about the match. I remember well how Boris Samoilovich stood up - tall, handsome, young, in a military uniform - and said, "I have to say that we didn't earn our ranks there (he pointed at his Colonel's insignia), and we didn't earn our medals here (he pointed at his service ribbons)". That's how he began. Everyone went quiet. "Considering your 64 newspaper - I have to tell you that we still haven't resumed the publication of heavy industry newspapers and magazines. (I remember his words clearly - I was stunned when I learned that there was no paper in the country.) And considering the Alekhine match - I can't understand how would you shake the hand bathed in blood of Auschwitz and Maidanek."
I cannot wholeheartedly support those Boris Samoilovich's words. I didn't like what he said about Alekhine. I didn't even want to mention this in my book, but now that you asked... He seemed to be very angry with Botvinnik, who organized all those attacks. And it was Weinstein who helped Botvinnik to move to Moscow: he brought him by car to the Head Militia Department, took Botvinnik's passport, came to the chief's room and gave Botvinnik his passport back with Moscow residence permit stamp. And Botvinnik's account of this session is more of a tall tale." (Shakhmaty v Rossii #4, 1996)
P.S. Neither Weinstein nor Fine probably could understand why Botvinnik insists on playing a match against Alekhine, bypassing all other candidates. They understood it only in Autumn 1945, when the cornered World Champion in a Chess magazine interview revealed the fact of secret talks with Botvinnik in 1938-39...