Yuri Averbakh remembers Mikhail Botvinnik

Aug 28, 2014, 12:20 PM |

Some fragments from his memoirs. Games added by me.

World Champion's sparring partner

When we were preparing for a match against USA, Botvinnik offered me to play a couple of training games. Of course, it was interesting to train with a World Champion, so I agreed. I'll admit that one of his conditions baffled me: he wanted me to play him with radio turned on, as though we were in a noisy hall.

We played at his dacha in the Moscow region. We would sit at the board, think about moves, listen to the rhythmic ticking of the chess clocks. And the black radio dish hanging over the chess table would tell us about the working feats of the Moscow region kolkhoz workers: how much hay, milk or potatoes they have gathered. After five hours of such "accompaniment" my mind would become completely numb. The whole idea seemed dubious to me at first. But then, when I got to know Botvinnik better, I understood it. He had a rare gift of self-suggestion, or perhaps even self-hypnosis. Later, when he got to work with computers, he coined the term "self-programming". If the noise in the hall started bothering him during the game, he would tell himself, "I've specifically trained myself against noise, so noise shouldn't worry me!" And it didn't bother him anymore! And earlier, to train himself to play against smokers, Botvinnik played training games against Ragozin, asking him to smoke in his face as much as he could.

It seems that Mikhail Moiseevich liked me as a sparring partner. He would often invite me for training games afterwards. We have played no less than 25 games in the 1955-57 period.

Training games were our patriarch's main preparation method. He was convinced that they were useful, and those games indeed helped him to regain form before official tournaments.

Time controls were standard: 2.5 hours for 40 moves. If the game was unfinished, we usually didn't adjourn it. Though there were some exceptions to this rule when we played two matches. The first one took place in August 1956, when Botvinnik prepared for the Moscow Olympiad and Alekhine Memorial. The second one was played in January 1957, before the second World Championship match against Smyslov. Those games were adjourned and then played until the end.

In the first match, we played five games; Botvinnik won it +1=4. Three of them were adjourned and played off at a later date. I had some positional advantage in them and hoped to score at least two points. Alas, I managed to score only one. What happened?

First of all, I'll have to praise the World Champion's analytical skills, his ingenuity and resilience. My analysis was much worse. I'm not trying to find any excuses, but still have to say that there were some objective reasons as well: two days before the play-off, I've received the proof copies of my first book, How to Solve the Endgame Studies, and, instead of analyzing my games, I've had to proof-read everything and send it back to the printing office.

After the play-off, Mikhail Moiseevich was very glad. He said with a smile, "You know, Yura, out of three equal adjourned positions, I usually manage to win one."

To finish off Botvinnik's preparation for his second match with Smyslov, he planned to play a 12-game match with me. We wanted to start playing right after the New Year's Day, but I've suddenly caught cold and was ill for a week. As a result, we've played only 10 games, and the adjourned 9th game wasn't played off. Botvinnik led +3-2=4, but in the unfinished game, I was an exchange up and had some winning chances.

I remember that this match was very tense. We've been fighting fiercely, which was unusual for a training match. A number of games was marred by time trouble and bad mistakes. Now, looking through those games half a century later and reliving the emotions of those battles, I've suddenly thought that such fights could drain too much strength and nervous energy from you. It's possible that when Botvinnik sat at the board with Smyslov a month later, he couldn't recover fully, and this could have influenced the result.

I have to tell more about Botvinnik's influence on my generation. Since childhood, I've studied his games and learned from them. I still remember how in 1936, in the Pioneer camp, I would stand around the radio together with other kids and wait for news from the English town Nottingham, where our Botvinnik played against the champions of the capitalist world. And won!

I remember how in 1943, being a Candidate Master, I played him for the first time. I wrote "Botvinnik" on my game sheet and couldn't believe myself. I've even pinched myself when he looked the other way! Was it just a dream? Was I really playing Botvinnik one on one? Since the early 1930's, Botvinnik was the leader of Soviet chess. His outstanding chess successes brought authority and popularity to him. He was admired, followed, imitated.

Now, when Botvinnik's chess career is history, we can objectively evaluate his place in the world chess. There's no doubt that since late 1930's until 1948, when he became de jure World Champion, Botvinnik was de facto the strongest player in the world.

His probably strongest performance was at the 14th USSR Chess Championship in 1945, when he finished with unbeaten score and only four draws.

After winning the chess crown, Botvinnik started to work on his doctoral thesis and defended it successfully. This, of course, made him more respectable, but he wasn't playing at all for three years. Before his match against Bronstein in 1951, most chess fans thought that Botvinnik would easily crush the candidate. But he only managed to equalize the score and retain his title at the very end of the match. His second World Championship match against Smyslov in 1954 (it was also drawn) clearly showed that Botvinnik had lost his competitive advantage - he even called himself "the first among equals". Kaissa, the chess goddess, didn't forgive him for his sabbatical from chess - the younger competitors managed to catch up with him.

The champion's portrait

I've been close with Botvinnik for a few years, and during that time, I've been trying to understand the essence of his character. At first he completely charmed me as a conversation partner. His views and judgements were non-standard, original, sometimes even paradoxical. He reasoned very soundly and logically, trying to quickly get to the crux of the problem. The "Khrushchev Thaw" gave us much food for thought then. Usually, out of respect to his age, I would listen to him without interruption, not trying to argue. But once I've tried to disagree with him, and immediately hit a wall. My arguments were of no interest to him: it seemed that he thought that his views were the truth.

Before me and Ragozin, Ilya Kan also played training games with Botvinnik at his dacha. And when they didn't play, he's had to listen to World Champion's long monologues as well.

One of only two Kan's wins at those training games

"You can't imagine what a strange man this Kan is", Botvinnik told me once. "We've been talking peacefully, but suddenly he just sulked without a reason, went to the forest for a walk and didn't show up for the dinner!"

After some hesitation, I've decided to ask Kan about that story. He replied sarcastically, "Botvinnik thinks that he's the World Champion of everything, not only chess, even though he's just a common man in all other respects!"

Mikhail Moiseevich's desire to express his opinion about everything could have led to severe consequences for him. In 1954, he sent a letter to P.N. Postnikov, the CPSU Ideology Secretary, where he argued whether the socialistic revolution at the West is possible without a third world war.

Botvinnik's position was harshly criticized in a note titled About M.M. Botvinnik's Mistakes, still stored in the Central Committee's archives. The last paragraph of this document is especially noteworthy:

"Botvinnik's "notes" are interesting as an example of bourgeois, Labourist-style ideology and fear of capitalistic surroundings. I think that M. Botvinnik should be called up to the Propaganda and Agitation Department to explain the anti-Marxist character of his notes. If he insists on his non-communistic views, I think he cannot remain the Party member anymore."

It seems that "the talk" did happen: in the same archives, you can find a repentant letter by the World Champion, in which he thanks for the attention and thorough explanation of his mistakes. There were no further repercussions.

I remember one evening, when I, Botvinnik and our families gathered for the New Year's Eve. He was very upbeat and even drank a whole glass of champagne, even though he usually didn't touch alcohol at all. Then the dances began. Mikhail Moiseevich turned to be a good Charleston dancer (that dance was popular in his youth) who knew some difficult moves. I told him that I was surprised to see him dance that good. He took those words for granted and boasted that once, he got to dance with Galina Ulanova, and he managed to outdo even her! Kan was right, Botvinnik really did consider himself the champion of everything.

Botvinnik was a good man generally, but for me, he seemed like a misanthrope who didn't expect any good from humanity. That's why he was so mistrusting and suspicious. This can be clearly seen in his autobiography, Achieving the Aim. When he tells us about people he met, he manages to find some black paint literally for everybody.

Perhaps in chess, mistrustfulness, suspiciousness and even paranoia can be useful: you always should fear your opponent's ideas, be aware of anything and everything. But when it manifests in life...

Once, on Sunday, my wife came to Botvinnik's dacha with a fresh cake from Cafe National, which was famous for its sweets back in the day. You should have seen how glad were all the guests when they started to eat the cake. But the host didn't even touch it. Only during supper, when the cake was placed on the table again, Botvinnik did eat some - after he was sure that everyone who ate it at the dinner were all right.

Undoubtedly, Botvinnik's greatest quality is his determination. He wanted to become a World Champion since youth, and he was going towards that aim, pushing aside everything that stood in his way.

How Botvinnik outplayed... Beria

Botvinnik was very determined both at the board and out. If he did set a target for himself, nothing could stop him.

Here's a story related to me much later by Sports Committee deputy head Postnikov (I tell it in my own words).

After Botvinnik became a World Champion, he decided to build himself a dacha. Not anywhere, but at one of the most prestigious places of Moscow Region - at Nikolina Gora, the settlement for creme de la creme. Poet S. Mikhalkov, scientist L. Kapitsa, author F. Panferov, aircraft designer V. Myasischev all lived there.

Nikolina Gora is situated near Moskva River, near Moscow's water protection zone. Then, it was personally controlled by Beria, Minister of Internal Affairs. Botvinnik wrote him a letter and asked General A. Apollonov, the Sports Committee head, for support.

After some time, Apollonov called Postnikov and ordered him to call Botvinnik and tell him that Beria refused. Postnikov called Mikhail Moiseevich over and related the Sports Committee head's words to him.

"Can I use your private phone line?" Botvinnik asked suddenly. Postnikov said he could, and Botvinnik quickly dialed a number. He obviously was prepared for such situation and wasn't going to lose quietly.

"Malenkov here", the phone said. "Whom do I speak to?"

"Hello, Georgy Maksimilianovich! It's World Champion Botvinnik. Could you please grant me an audience for a small question? (During the late 1940's, Malenkov was one of the closest people to Stalin.)

"Where are you calling from?"

"Sports Committee."

"I'm waiting for you at the Old Square in twenty minutes. I'll arrange for a pass."

Nobody knows how exactly that meeting went. But a week later, the Sports Committee received a phoned telegram. Here are its contents:

"Concerning Comrade M.M. Botvinnik's statement:

To Forestry Minister Comrade Orlov: Provide some quantity of lumber for M.M. Botvinnik.

To Communications Minister Comrade Beschev: Deliver the lumber to the Nikolina Gora settlement.

To the Mossovet chairman Comrade Popov: Provide a plot at Nikolina Gora for Comrade M.M. Botvinnik's dacha.

To the Main Architectural Department of Mossovet: Provide a standard dacha project for Comrade M.M. Botvinnik.

All expenses to be on Comrade M.M. Botvinnik."

This telegram was personally signed by Stalin. That's how Botvinnik managed to outplay the mighty Beria!


I fell out with Botvinnik in 1959. That's how it happened: I was returning by plane from Tbilisi to Moscow, from the USSR Championship. Mikhail Tal and his coach A. Koblencs were at the same plane.

"I have an offer", said Koblencs (we were friends for a long time). "Me and Misha have decided to offer you to take part in his preparation for the Candidates' tournament and officially become his second at the tournament.

The offer to work with Tal interested me. I had no obligations towards Botvinnik, but still decided to consult him beforehand. He heard me out and said nothing. I took his silence as a sign of agreement and immediately telegraphed to Riga that I accepted the proposal. How bad I actually knew Botvinnik! He considered this a treachery and never again offered me to play any training games.

About World Championship qualification system

The Interzonal tournament took place in autumn 1958 in Portoroz (Yugoslavia), on the shores of Adriatic Sea. Apart from the Soviet four - M. Tal, T. Petrosian, D. Bronstein and myself - there were many foreign players: S. Gligoric, B. Larsen, L. Szabo, F. Olafsson, P. Benko, M. Filip, O. Panno, A. Matanovic, L. Pachman, teenage Bobby Fischer and a number of Masters. But we and foreigners played by different rules. By our federation's request, FIDE limited the number of Candidates' tournament participants from one country to four. At the first glance, this idea was perfectly rational: World Championship qualification should be an international affair. But more about that later.

By the rules established at 1956 Moscow FIDE Congress, five Interzonal winners were to progress to the Candidates'. But Smyslov (ex-World Champion) and Keres (runner-up of the last Candidates') already received personal invitations, so, out of our Soviet four, only two at most could progress! Of course, we didn't like that, and all other participants thought that it was unfair that only five players qualified, while at the previous Interzonals, there were nine qualifying places, and so they asked the FIDE officials to increase the number.

For the first half of the tournament, I was in the top three, behind only Tal and Petrosian. Still, that third place gave me nothing. But before the 13th round, we got good news: the number of qualifying places was increased to six, and the number of Soviet players eligible for qualifying was increased to three.


After we returned to Moscow, Petrosian, Bronstein and I have put up a petition to the Soviet Chess Federation about the discrimination of Soviet players. We were supported by the head of our Portoroz delegation, L. Abramov.

The subsequent conference was very intense. One of the first to speak was World Champion Botvinnik:

"You had no right to support the petition of weak grandmasters!", he assaulted Abramov. "We have developed the rules for World Championship competition, and we cannot change anything. If we take just one brick out, the whole building will collapse!

I've developed those rules in Soviet Union's best interests!", Botvinnik finished his tirade bombastically.

The presidium agreed with the World Champion and didn't support us.

Many years later, I actually saw those rules. They were indeed developed by Botvinnik and accepted by FIDE way back in 1949. To my amazement, there were no rules about limiting the number of players from one country. I also couldn't find a return match rule there. Those rules clearly stated that if a World Champion loses his match to the candidate, he has the right to play in a round-robin tournament with the new champion and new candidate three years later.

So, as it seems, the initial rules were changed; to paraphrase Botvinnik, some bricks were taken out of the building and replaced.

Now, I only had to learn when was that done. The search didn't take long. At the 1956 Moscow FIDE Congress, the round-robin tournament rule was cancelled, and the World Champion got the right for a return match instead.

This decision looks unfair towards the candidates. As I have already said, in 1950s, Botvinnik was just the first among equals. He couldn't defeat neither Bronstein nor Smyslov. Moreover, we already knew the new candidate's name - Smyslov again won the right to play Botvinnik in 1957.

Why would FIDE make such a concession to Botvinnik?

To answer this question, we'll have to look at other decisions made at the Moscow Congress. Knowing Folke Rogard, then FIDE President, a renowned Swedish lawyer and experienced politician, I can say that in his work, he'd always strived to maintain a parity between us and the West. For instance, when M. Tal, the USSR Champion, was given the International Grandmaster title without meeting all necessary requirements, the U.S. Champion A. Bisguier was given the title as well. That was the strategy: if we concede something to Soviet Union, we have to take something away from them.

And so, acting by this principle, the Congress limited the number of players from one country (read: USSR) in the Candidates' tournament to four. As I said, it was done by request of our federation, but in fact it was more of a personal request of the World Champion.

Botvinnik later wrote diplomatically (in the book Botvinnik - Smyslov: The Return Match): "There was a "danger" that all or almost all candidates would represent only one country - this could decrease the interest towards chess in other parts of the world and harm the international chess community."

It looks logical, but it's only the external part of the story. Botvinnik had his own ulterior plans - to create new obstacles for his main compatriot competitors. They posed the greatest threat for him, and he wanted to decrease their numbers.

You can see how hard this rule hit our Grandmasters. In 1956 Candidates', six out of ten participants represented our country. And what players were there: Smyslov, Keres, Bronstein, Geller, Petrosian, Spassky! Now two of them were out of contention. And Tal and Korchnoi were also close behind.

The idea "What's good for me is good for my country" was very clearly stated by Botvinnik in the article "Without paradoxes", published in his book Analytical and Critical Works. Articles and memoirs:

"I was lucky in my life. As a rule, my personal interests concurred with the interests of society - perhaps this is the true definition of happiness. And I wasn't lonely - I had support in my struggle for the interests of society. But not everyone whom I knew were as lucky as me. Some people's personal interests did not concur with the interests of society, and those people obstructed my actions. That's where conflicts started."

In 1954, after two 3-year World Championship cycles took place (largely by rules developed by Botvinnik), he wrote with certain pride:

"...For the first time in history, a qualifying system for candidates was established, and any Grandmaster, if he's strong enough, can achieve the right to play a World Championship match."

Nobody can argue that the system wasn't bad in and of itself, but Keres is a great example of its main weakness. He indeed was strong enough to play a World Championship match, but couldn't qualify. And when the West offered to grant him the right to play such a match due to exceptional circumstances (he finished second in the Candidates' tournaments four times!), the first to oppose were our own representatives in FIDE! Their main argument was that the rules shouldn't be broken.

And when Keres died, Botvinnik admitted: "Of course, Paul was unlucky in his chess career. In a different time he would probably become a World Champion..."

Botvinnik knew perfectly that in our country, only those whose personal interests concurred with national interests could be "lucky"! Those like him. I'll have to add that in the 1960's, D. Bronstein again suffered from this discrimination, as well as another "weak" player - the three-time Soviet Champion Leonid Stein (twice!)...