Yuri Averbakh speaks about Mikhail Botvinnik

Yuri Averbakh speaks about Mikhail Botvinnik

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Interview by Yuri Vasilyev, Sport-Express. 17 August 2011

A senior tournament is currently held in Suzdal in memory of Mikhail Botvinnik. The arbiter of this tournament is the 89 years old grandmaster, author of fundamental works about endgame theory, chess historian Yuri Averbakh.

He knew Botvinnik very well and was his sparring partner before many competitions, including World Championship matches.

Shortly before Botvinnik's 100th anniversary, I asked Yuri Averbakh to share his memories about the great chess player.


Q: Yuri Lvovich, how did you meet Botvinnik?

A: In 1935, when the 2nd Moscow International Tournament was held, I took interest in chess. Many Moscow kids were fascinated with chess then. I first went to the Young Pioneers Stadium, then to the Pioneers' Palace. Of course, we all adored Botvinnik then. He was an example for us. In 1936, when I was in a youth camp, I remember how we ran to listen to the radio: Botvinnik won a big tournament at Nottingham at that time. I grew as a chess player concurrently with Botvinnik's successes.

In 1940, during the 12th USSR Championship, I was a demonstrator, and then I got introduced to Botvinnik. I greeted him, and he tactfully answered. That's how far I got with this "introduction".

Q: When did you first play Botvinnik over the board?

A: At the 1943 Moscow Championship. When I wrote the partner's name on the game sheet, I secretly pinched myself: am I really playing Botvinnik one on one?

Q: What category did you have then?

A: I was a candidate master. And after this championship, I got the master's title. I drew Botvinnik, defeated Yudovich, Alatortsev and Mikenas and finished sixth.

Q: Do you remember your first game against Botvinnik?

A: Mikhail Moiseevich played French defence with black pieces, got under some pressure, and after a series of exchanges Botvinnik offered a draw at the 40th move.

Q: How did he behave with you? You were just a student, candidate master, and he was a World Championship candidate.

A: Botvinnik was friendly, he asked me what do I do besides chess. My arm was bandaged, he asked if I was wounded at the front. I answered that I was never at the front.

Q: How many times did you play him in the USSR Championships?

A: Twice. I drew one game and lost the other. 


Q: When did you start to work together?

A: In 1955, we were preparing for a return match against USA. Botvinnik didn't play in the first match in America, saying he was tired after the match with Smyslov. But I think that the real reason was Botvinnik's unwillingness to travel by plane.

In 1955, the match was in Moscow, and our team was at a training session in Zvenigorod. Botvinnik's countryhouse was nearby, and he offered me to visit him and play a couple of training games. I was a USSR champion at that point. And we played.

Q: With classical control?

A: Yes, but with one more condidion. We played with radio turned on. So after five hours of tales about the "checkrow method" from the speakers, my head ached...

Q: Why would he need that?

A: Botvinnik had a great quality, he later called it "self-programming". I would rather call it "self-hypnosis". When he heard noise in the hall, he would say to himself, "But I trained myself against noise, so noise shouldn't be a problem for me."

In a similar way, he "protected" himself from smoking - chess players were allowed to smoke at the board back then. His coach Ragozin intentionally smoked right into his face during the games. Botvinnik thought that he was conditioning himself against the adverse effects of smoking. And this self-suggestion actually helped him!

Q: But you didn't play Botvinnik only in such extreme conditions, did you?

A: Of course not! Botvinnik liked me, and we started to play training games regularly. Before the Alekhine memorial, before the Olympiad, before any tournaments he played in. Apart from training games, we played two matches. One, in 1956, consisted of six games. I still have five of them, but lost one. Mikhail Moiseevich won with +1 score.

The next match was played in 1958 - 10 games, even though we planned to play 12. And I think that this training match played a negative role in Botvinnik's rivalry with Smyslov. We played with passions, there were time troubles, adjournments... Botvinnik also had a +1, but one adjourned game was left unfinished, I was an exchange up.

Q: Why didn't you finish it?

A: We had no time. We planned to play the match at the end of the year, but I fell ill and spent a week in bed - by the way, at Botvinnik's countryhouse...

Q: But why do you think that your second match harmed Botvinnik's preparation for the second match against Smyslov?

A: Because it was a very hard and nervous struggle for Botvinnik! And he didn't have enough time to recover.


Q: You're 11 years younger than Botvinnik. What was your relationship with him?

A: His first impression on me was fantastic. Botvinnik was a very interesting man! His outlook on many things was very original. The times were tumultuous: transitions from Stalin's times to the Khruschev Thaw. We discussed politics, literature. There were many things to discuss: the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Beria's execution... He wasn't a stereotyped man, those who call him "a die-hard Stalinist" are mistaken. Botvinnik has his own point of view on everything. In 1954, he even sent a note to the Party Central Committee called "Is the world socialistic revolution possible without the third world war?"

Pospelov, the editor of Pravda, was the chief ideologist back then. In his review, he wrote, "Botvinnik's note reflects the author's petit bourgeouis, Labourist views. I propose to summon Botvinnik to the Central Committee and explain to him that if he still insists on his mistakes, his party membership may be revoked."

Botvinnik had to "take a move back", he wrote a repentant letter with the words, "Thank you for pointing out my mistakes..."

Q: You said that initially you were amazed by him...

A: Yes! But when I tried to argue with him once, he never listened! It was like talking to a brick wall! If he decided on something, then nothing and no-one could persuade him otherwise. That was his shortcoming. He thought that dialogue was actually a monologue: he spoke, and I listen and adore him.

Botvinnik once told me about Kan, who played a training match with him before his World Championship match against Bronstein, "Kan is strange. We walked with him, peacefully discussing something, and then he turned all sulky, go to forest and didn't even come to lunch!"

I already told you how those "discussions" with Botvinnik went... I asked Kan what happened. Kan answered irately, "Botvinnik thinks that he's the world champion in everything! But he's only a chess world champion, and in all other areas, he's just a common man..."

We once celebrated the New Year together. I don't remember the exact date, somewhere between 1954 and 1956. We celebrated with our families. Botvinnik was at his best, he even drank a glass of champagne, even though usually he never touched alcohol. And he started to dance Charleston. He did it so rakishly that I couldn't help but compliment him. I said, "Well, I never expected that from you!" He took that for granted and answered, "You know, Yura, I once danced with Ulanova herself, and she danced worse than me!"

I didn't answer (laughs). But it's fascinating! It's his point of view!

Q: There's a legend that Botvinnik had a very difficult personality. Is that true?

A: I'll share with you a story that Baturinsky told me. When Botvinnik had only a first category and played against the older St. Petersburg players, he would write derisive epithets about them into his notebook. "Old hooker" was the mildest of them. That's characteristic of him: he thought very skeptically of people.

Q: Perhaps he was right, in a way?

A: That's his position. There are people who overestimate everyone, and there are Botvinnik-like people. And I think that this helped him in chess, because over the board, you have to expect any kinds of trouble from the opponent...

Q: They say that our blessings grow out of our shortcomings. And vice versa. I've often heard that Botvinnik had "a real champion's character".

A: One English psychologist published a paper called Paranoia and Chess. In this work, he said that paranoia can be useful in two cases. First - during a war, when it's called "vigilance". Second - in chess. I remember that GM Golombek tried to argue with that scientist. But I think that the psychologist was right: in some situations, paranoia can be useful for a chess player.


Q: Botvinnik was obsessed with creation of a heuristic computer program. Did you discuss that with him?

A: Oh! We argued a lot about that! I've been trying to persuade him that his mathematical training isn't exactly up to par. Cybernetic science developed much later than Botvinnik completed his education. But he thought that he also could be an authority in cybernetics.

All modern developers use the simple method of exhaustive search. The machine sifts through millions of variants with incredible speed and chooses the best of them. The machine doesn't think, it only sorts. And Botvinnik wanted the machine to "prune" those variants, like human does when he plays. And he tried to make the machine think as he thought. But we still don't know how we think...

Q: As far as I know, you worked in the press center during the Botvinnik - Bronstein match?

A: I was a deputy head of the press center. GM Bondarevsky was the chief.

Q: David Ionovich almost defeated the Goliath of the world chess...

A: In the mid-40s, when Botvinnik was preparing to play Alekhine, he was the strongest player not only in the Soviet Union, but in the entire world. In 1945, at the 14th USSR Championship, Botvinnik made 4 draws and won 13 remaining games! The best result that no-one managed to equal.

Q: +13! And all the strongest USSR grandmasters took part...

A: But after becoming a world champion in 1948, Botvinnik decided to concentrate on his doctorate thesis. He prepared for three years and successfully defended it. But he didn't study chess seriously during these three years, and so he lost his great advantage. He stopped being head and shoulders above the others, he became the first among equals. And in the match against Bronstein, Botvinnik fell behind.


Q: You helped Botvinnik to prepare for various matches and tournaments. What was the zest of his famous preparation?

A: Mikhail Moiseevich thought that he needs to detect his shortcomings and then liquidate them. And for him, the best way to eliminate the shortcomings was playing training games. That was his speciality. His main quality was determination. He was very strong in that department! Not only in chess, he could stand up for himself in more mundane matters as well.

Q: You mean that famous situation when he outplayed Beria himself? He refused to give him permission to build a countryhouse at Nikolina Gora, but Botvinnik called Malenkov on a direct line to Kremlin, and he helped to get permission from Stalin.

A: Yes, I mentioned this in my memoirs, in a chapter called "How Botvinnik outplayed Beria". The "Beria episode" happened in 1949, and sometime earlier there was a Politburo congress, where it was decided that our sport should be the strongest in the world. By the way, in these same years Apollonov, one of Beria's subordinates, was appointed head of the Committee for the Physical Culture and Sport.

Q: I read an "anecdote" about how Botvinnik met Apollonov, and the latter was subsequently fired from the Sports Committee. He made Botvinnik wait too long, and Botvinnik came late to a meeting with Molotov. Is it truth or exhaggeration?

A: (laughs) It's a fairytale. Actually, Apollonov quit in 1950 - he got some high post in the KGB. When he came to the Sports Committee to say farewell, he was surrounded by bodyguards. That's how he got "fired"...

By the way, Apollonov played chess relatively well, a first category-class player. Once he played Keres in my presence, and the game was long.

Q: If we mentioned the "anecdotes" about the great player whose 100th anniversary we're celebrating, can you prove or disprove this one? "When Botvinnik prepared for the match against Smyslov, he once was in a car with his second Averbakh and Estrin. Averbakh asked to leave the car early, saying, 'I want to take a walk.' When Averbakh left, Botvinnik said to Estrin, 'I know, he's going to show our analysis to Smyslov.'"

A: (laughs) Another fairytale! First of all, I never was Botvinnik's second. Second, we have never analyzed opening variants with him: I did play training games with him, but I thought I had no right to play openings used by Botvinnik. Third, Estrin joined Botvinnik's team long after the match against Smyslov.

Some writers really push the envelope too far...


Q: And this is not a legend, but a truth that was proved again and again: Botvinnik won many games due to his unparalleled home preparation.

A: Yes, that's true. Lasker said in the 30s, "Botvinnik made us all study openings." Nobody worked on the openings as thoroughly as Botvinnik then.

Q: Without any computers...

A: By the way, modern grandmasters trust computers too much, and their analysis and endgame skills have worsened significantly. We studied all those things very thoroughly, and they think that to understand how to play such or such endgame, they just need to turn on the computer. That's not true. You have to feel it yourself.

Q: There's an opinion, shared by many respected grandmasters, that Botvinnik stopped playing for World Championship after the abolition of return matches. What do you think?

A: I once noticed that Botvinnik called his first memoire book Achieving the Aim. And do you know how he called his second book? The Aim Achieved.

His aim changed! His aim was to create the program. And he wrote that very clearly in his memoirs. He told us how he was introduced to Zoschenko. The writer looked at Botvinnik and said, "You'll achieve much. Not only in chess." And Botvinnik commented, "If I'll create the program, then Zoschenko was right."

He set goals and then followed through. His aim since youth was to become a World Champion. And he became one.

Q: Who and when called Botvinnik 'the patriarch of Soviet chess'?

A: I don't know who it was. But he really was a patriarch. Nobody else could be called a patriarch...