Botvinnik vs. Smyslov | World Chess Championship 1954
Botvinnik vs Smyslov. This heavily retouched photo is from Smyslov's personal archive

Botvinnik vs. Smyslov | World Chess Championship 1954

FM ddtru
Nov 23, 2018, 7:01 PM |

In the second article of the series on Evergreen World Chess Championships we will look at 1954 Botvinnik-Smyslov match. It was the first of three World Championship matches that Botvinnik and Smyslov played against each other, and these matches almost blurred into a single event in the collective chess memory, similar to Karpov-Kasparov marathon three decades later.

However, I believe that the first match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Vasily Smyslov was one of the most exciting ever in the history of World Championships. It is not easy to recall another match that would have such wild swings and such long streaks of decisive games.

Another reason why the first clash between Botvinnik and Smyslov is relevant today is that 1954 match – just like its 1951 predecessor Botvinnik-Bronstein – did not produce a winner. This led to a fierce debate of whether Botvinnik could claim superiority over the next generation of chess players (Bronstein, Smyslov) or even the old guards, such as Keres or Reshevsky. Now that Carlsen seems to be on track to drawing the second World Championship match in a row, the similarities between 1954 and 2018 are striking.

A final reason for prioritizing this match over others was that I already had the text of this article written 😊 For the past few years I am working on a book Vasily Smyslov. As part of this project I collected dozens of books and hundreds of journals that were published in 1940s and 1950s. I was also fortunate to get access to loads of valuable historical sources, including Smyslov's personal archives. If everything goes according to the plan, the first volume of this book should be published by Russell Enterprises sometime in 2019.

The main challenge that I had with this article was cutting the text to fit into the maximum allowed size of blog posts on  I hope that you will find the story of this match as entertaining as I did!

Before the match

It might sound surprising, but prior to the match many people doubted whether either Botvinnik or Smyslov were the best two players in the world.

Botvinnik played only sparingly since becoming a World Champion in 1948 and when he did, his results often did not impress – he only finished 5th place in 1951 USSR Championship and shared 3rd-5th (with Smyslov and Ståhlberg) at 1952 Maroczy memorial. In a famous incident, in 1952 Botvinnik was even left off the Soviet Chess Olympiad team – despite being a reigning World Champion!

Later in 1952 Botvinnik re-established himself with a victory in 1952 USSR Championship, even if though it was far from the domination of his earlier years. Botvinnik needed a victory in his last round to catch up with Taimanov (who lost to Geller in the same round) and won the match for the title in February 1953 with a minimal score, 3½:2½. He did not play any official games in the 13 months leading up to 1954 World Championship. He was also 42 years old at the start of the match, so it was not clear whether he had enough stamina for such a long and difficult match.

As for Smyslov, his chances were not rated very highly for two reasons – his past score with Botvinnik (+2 ‑7 =11 in official games) and his lack of marque tournament wins, especially outside of the Soviet Union. Harry Golombek, who served as an Arbiter at 1954 World Championship and thus had a unique opportunity to observe both competitors first-hand, mentions this in his book "World Chess Championship 1954":

Curiously enough, [Zürich 1953] has been his only first prize-in international chess so far; so that we had the curious paradox of a player qualifying for the World Championship match on the strength of one performance.

Despite this blemish on Smyslov's international record, Golombek had nothing but praise for the challenger:

His qualities as a player are those that indeed go to make up a world champion: rich originality in the openings, imaginative strategy in the middle-game, and, above all, immense virtuosity as an end-game player. In this last department he is probably the strongest player in the world.

One other important point: he has an ideal temperament for the game, cool, blessed with strong nerves and excellent physique; he is never discouraged by defeat nor unduly elated at victory.

Apart from chess, he is a greatly cultivated man who, though not garrulous, has a well-stocked mind and a most pleasant fund of conversation. Young yet, he has many more successes to look forward to in the chess field; but no matter how many or how great these successes may be, I am sure they will not spoil his character and he will remain the same friendly, unassuming person that he is at present.

Compare this with Golombek's characterization of Botvinnik:

As a man and a chess player, the chief trait that strikes one about Botvinnik is his force of character. Other players may have a wider knowledge of the openings, some few may have an even more impeccable technique; but no one has an equivalent strength of mind and will-power.

Botvinnik and Smyslov come across as virtual twins in terms of chess, but complete antipodes in terms of character!

The clash of such different personalities generated enormous interest among the public, especially in Moscow and in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Botvinnik's nephew Ilya wrote in the preface to "Botvinnik-Smyslov. Three World Chess Championship Matches", the book that was published in early 2000s: 

Without exaggeration, one can say that the whole country followed these matches, since chess occupied a major place in the nation’s consciousness. Radio reports were given by the renowned football commentator Vadim Siniavsky, and in every location one could find out the chess news and obtain the scores of the games, or write down the adjourned position soon after the playing session was finished. The following day, all the national newspapers would publish the game, with expert commentary, whilst special bulletins, dedicated to the match, were also published.

Both Botvinnik and Smyslov had their own fans, probably numbering in the millions. The Soviet match bulletin regularly printed "letters to the editors", in which people from the audience shared their impression of the match and often revealed their personal allegiance. One of the first such letters to be published, from a famous master of ceremonies Mikhail Garkavi, made a joke about Smyslov that has been repeated countless number of times since:

...the question of whom to root for is a serious, almost intractable one. Did not we cheer for Botvinnik during the Match tournament six years ago? And did not we root for Smyslov just recently, during the Candidates tournament in Switzerland? <...>

This time I decided to root for Smyslov. Moreover, I even developed a theoretical basis for why I made this choice. As most people know, I am a master of ceremonies by profession. Fewer people know that Smyslov sings and sings quite well. Of course, it would be highly flattering for me to announce from the stage: "Yeletsky aria from opera "The Queen of Spades", music by Tchaikovsky, will be performed by the Chess World Champion..."

Even more letters were sent to the contestants themselves, arriving from the most remote corners of the Soviet Union. Most of the time, these letters were simply sent to "Moscow, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall" and addressed either to Smyslov or to Botvinnik. Smyslov kept some of the letters (presumably, the most remarkable ones) in his personal archive. Reading these letters today provides a unique glimpse into "chess fever" that overtook the whole country during the match. Here is one such letter:

Dear Comrade Smyslov!

I am a student of 5-A class in Pashiya high school #1. Even though according to school timetable I am supposed to go to sleep at 10 p.m., every day I sit next to radio until midnight, waiting for the special chess bulletin. I am your most loyal fan. I am very glad every time you are winning and wish you to emerge victorious from the World Championship.

With pioneer's greetings, Maya Merzlikina

This letter might be almost incomprehensible for those not familiar with the realities of the Soviet life, so some explanations are in order.

Pashiya was a village in Ural mountains, in Molotov (now Perm) region. Apparently, there was a geologists expedition stationed there at the time, as the return address on the envelope also mentioned "Vladimirskaya expedition".

"Pioneers" were a Soviet youth organization that resembled boy-scouts, but with a heavy emphasis on Communist ideology. Participation in this organization was more or less mandatory for the junior school students, unlike "Komsomol" (Youth Communists' League), which came later in high school and was positioned as a privilege reserved for the best and most accomplished pioneers.

The interest to the match reached an unprecedented level once Smyslov made a comeback in the middle of the match and especially towards the end, when the fate of the World Championship depended on the result of the last few games. Golombek gave a first-hand account of the chess fever that struck Moscow by the end of this match:

During this game I wandered out of the main hall for some time so as to observe another crowd of spectators gathered round a demonstration board on which the twenty-first game was being shown. The heat of the discussions taking place was very amusing, and it was interesting, too, to see how every now and again somebody would dart out into the street to relay the information as to the latest move to a number of enthusiasts who had been unable to obtain admittance to the crowded Tchaikovsky Hall.

The match was played in parallel with a few other notable chess events, such as USSR-Argentina match in Buenos-Aires (won 20½:11½ by Soviet Union), international tournament in Bucharest (won by Korchnoi) and 1954 Moscow championship (surprisingly won by Candidate Master Vladimir Soloviev; this result made him a Soviet Master, but his chess career only went downhill from there). The results and games of these tournaments and many lesser events were reported in the World Championship bulletin that was published during the match in Moscow (24 issues were published over two months).

Outline of the match

1954 Botvinnik-Smyslov match had a lot of twists and turns along the way, and so much drama as if its script were written in Hollywood. It was also an incredibly bloody affair, with the percentage of draws surprisingly low. 14 out of 24 games were decisive, making 1954 match 40% more decisive than the previous World Championship, 1951 match Botvinnik-Bronstein.

The match could be roughly divided into four distinctive phases, first indicated by Botvinnik in his match book published in 1955:

  • Botvinnik opens the match with 3 victories in the first 4 games and leads the match 3½:½. Given the draw odds in the match, his advantage at this point seems truly insurmountable.
  • After two fighting draws, Smyslov resurrects the intrigue by scoring 4½ points in 5 games and getting the lead, 6:5 – for the first and only time in the match
  • Then Botvinnik storms back, scoring 4 out of 5. After 16 games the score is 9:7 in his favor, with only 8 games left in the match. Up to this point the match is a pure bloodbath, with 12 decisive games and only 4 draws.
  • The rest of the match would see 6 draws out of 8 games, although it is difficult to agree with Botvinnik's assertion that the players were playing with more restraint. On the contrary, both played very aggressively, but at the same time both Champion and the Challenger demonstrated enormous skill in saving tough positions. However, in the final stretch Smyslov managed to win 20th and 23rd games, equalizing the score after his last victory.

The fate of the title rested on the final, 24th game. Unfortunately, Smyslov did not manage to generate any active play in King's Indian and offered a draw on 22nd move in a worse position (incidentally, the last game of the match also turned out to be the shortest). The match ended in 12:12 tie and thus Botvinnik retained the title for the next three years.

Part 1 – Smyslov's horrible start

As usual, Soviet organizers pulled all stops to make the World Championship match an impressive, even majestic event. The match opening impressed even those who have already previous chess competitions in the Soviet Union, as the following passage by Harry Golombek attests:

On March 16, 1954, Folke Rogard, President of the International Chess Federation, made the opening move on the challenger's behalf. As the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall contains 1,508 seats and in addition there were many people standing there must have been rather more than 2,000 spectators. <...>

The hall itself is well worth describing, though I rather despair of putting all its beauty into words. Normally used for concerts, orchestral and otherwise, it must be the most beautiful of its kind in Europe. It is oval in shape with a vast ceiling of the dark blue color that can be seen in the sky on late summer evenings. The rest of the hall is colored cream and white, so that the interior is most tastefully decorative, forming a perfect setting for all types of spectacles, ranging from ballet to chess. The seats are so arranged that they all converge towards the stage and give the spectators a wholly uninterrupted and untrammelled view.

FIDE President Folke Rogard speaking at the opening ceremony of 1954 World Championship match

FIDE President Folke Rogard speaking at the opening ceremony (photo from Golombek's book on 1954 match)

We do not know whether Smyslov was dazzled by the spotlight of the World Championship, or intimidated by his illustrious opponent, or whether he was simply in poor form, but the match went horribly wrong for him from Game 1. He lost the very first game with White, despite adjourning the game in a position that should have been drawn. However, the next game proved to be even worse, as Smyslov ran head-first into Botvinnik's home preparation. The game started as Nimzo-Indian. Smyslov reacted to 4.e3 with 4...b6, instead of 4...c5 as he has played in Zürich 1953. This variation occurred in several Botvinnik's games, including two games in Botvinnik-Bronstein 1951 world championship match, and Botvinnik prepared a strong improvement. We will give this game with annotations by Botvinnik:

It should be noted that Botvinnik's annotations to the opening phase of this game are mostly out of date, as the opening theory has advanced a lot since 1954. For example, Botvinnik claimed that 9...Nxd5 loses a pawn in view of 10.Ncxd5 exd5 11.Qh5 c6 12.Ne6 g6 13.Qe5 Bf6 14.Nxd8+ Bxe5 15.Nxf7, but later games have shown that by playing 15...Kxf7 16.dxe5 Nd7 17.f4 Nc5 followed by Ne4, Ne6, c5 Black obtains adequate compensation (Botvinnik even mentioned this variation in his later  annotations to Game 13 of 1957 match). More importantly, Black's play can be significantly improved with 11..Bg5! and it turns out that 12.Ne6 g6! holds everything together.

Despite two losses Smyslov demonstrated preternatural calm, as the following account by Harry Golombek illustrates:

Smyslov seemed much less affected by nerves than Botvinnik, no matter how he did in the game. He was out of form in the second game and soon had a lost position. Nevertheless, he still preserved an admirable calm and nonchalance, despite two successive defeats. Shortly after resigning, he came up to me and said quietly, rather as though he was appraising somebody else's game from the point of view of the opening theorist, 'Yes; the opening variation is bad for Black and should lead to a loss for him.'

In the next game Smyslov was very close to scoring his first win in the match, but could not overcome Botvinnik's stubborn defense, despite emerging with a piece for two pawns. Once again, Smyslov was let down by his inclination to exchange the queens whenever possible. In this case it led to an endgame, in which Botvinnik has set up an impregnable fortress!

Missing a win could me more demoralizing that losing a game and in the next game Smyslov was not his usual calm self. He surprised Botvinnik with Queen's Gambit Accepted, which was a rare guest in Smyslov's opening repertoire, and went for Alekhine's 3.Nf3 a6 line, which Smyslov played only once before (in a game vs Tolush in 1950). The opening experiment worked out well for Smyslov, as after White's 16th move he had a perfectly adequate position, but then he lashed out with a creative, but unsound pawn sacrifice and went down after a protracted fight.

Part 2 – Smyslov strikes back

The match was starting to look like a rout, but the next few games saw an amazing turnaround. It started with a pair of games, in which Smyslov drew from a position of strength.

In the 5th game (which, incidentally, was the first in the match to be played in the Concert Hall of the Soviet Army instead of Tchaikovsky Hall) Smyslov opened the game with 1.d4, for the first and only time in the match. Botvinnik went for... Botvinnik variation, and the game quickly turned very sharp:

Today this position is one of the main tabias of Botvinnik variation, but back in the day even Smyslov's 12.g3 was almost a novelty! As for the position on the diagram, it has appeared twice in games of an unknown player from Latvia, whose name was... Mikhail Tal!

These days 14...c5 15.d5 b4 is the starting point of most games in this variation, but Botvinnik played something else: 14...Ne5!?

Technically speaking, it was a novelty at the time of the game, but as Botvinnik mentioned in his annotations to this game, this move and Smyslov's reaction, 15.Qe2, have been mentioned by Soviet Master Georgy Borisenko in the annotations to his own game that was published in "Shakhmaty v SSSR" (#1/1951). Later games mostly continued 15.dxe5 Rxd1 16.Raxd1 and Black mostly struggled to hold the balance. However, Smyslov did not dare entering this line against the prepared opponent. After 15...Qd4 16.Be3 Qd3 17.Rfd1 Qxe2 18.Nxe2 the queens were exchanged, but the game remained very sharp until the very end, with both opponents playing at a very high level.

Smyslov's play in the opening phase of the next game could not be called anything else but provocative:

Smyslov has just played 6...b6!? instead of the usual 6...c5. This move was known at the time and considered dubious on account of the game Tolush-Simagin, which went 7.h4 Bb7 8.Qd3 Qd7 9.h5 and White won easily. This assessment still holds true today. In later years, many players – especially Jan Timman – tried to make this line work, but mostly unsuccessfully. The game Spassky-Timman, Amsterdam (m/3) 1977, is an especially spectacular example of why it is a bad idea for Black to delay the attack on the center.

We do not know what Smyslov had in mind going into this game, but his gamble paid off. Botvinnik surely knew Tolush-Simagin game and later criticized himself for not playing 7.h4 in the annotations to this game. However, Botvinnik also knew that Vladimir Simagin was Smyslov's second and so he decided to sidestep the opponent's home preparation.

Smyslov and Simagin

Simagin and Smyslov. Photo from Smyslov's personal archive

As a result, Smyslov came out of the opening with a great position, and it was Botvinnik who had to find the only way that maintained the balance.

In Game 7 Smyslov finally scored his first victory in the match. He turned back to his beloved 1.e4, but chose a different variation in French defense – 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 dxe4 6.Qg4. By the way, Botvinnik speculated that this variation was advised to Smyslov by Makogonov, based on rather loose connection – that Makogonov played in the tournament, in which Botvinnik played his previous game in this variation (vs Romanovsky in 1938 USSR championship semifinal).

In the next game Botvinnik missed a great chance to strike back. Straight out of the opening (a rare variation 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bf5) Smyslov got in trouble, but escaped with tenacious defense.

In the annotations to this game Golombek left an interesting description of the opponents' habits of making their moves:

...I was struck by the contrast between the players in their actual physical moving of the pieces. Smyslov invariably makes each move with a little flourish and a motion, as though he were screwing in each piece on the board. Botvinnik is strictly utilitarian in his methods. He shuffles the pieces into position almost negligently, as though he knows they will drop into the right place given the slightest encouragement – and so, it must be admitted, they usually do!

This must be the first printed mention of the famous "Smyslov screw", which quickly became a meme of sorts, especially in the British circles. Chess historian Edward Winter devoted a lot of time to tracking down the origins of this phrase and its later use. Leonard Barden recalled that this term could have been introduced by Hugh Alexander after he lost a game to Smyslov in USSR-Great Britain match in the summer of 1954. That game took place a few months after Botvinnik-Smyslov match, but prior to the publication of Golombek's match book, so Harry Golombek could have picked it up from Alexander. Ironically, the first mention of Smyslov's screw in print appeared in description of the game that he barely saved!

The miraculous escape gave Smyslov a tremendous boost, and in the 9th game Smyslov delivered arguably his best performance of the whole match. It all started with Smyslov switching to a new 7.Qg4! line in French defense, which was a novelty at the time.

Botvinnik was not caught by surprise, as he analyzed this line and played a few training games with it in 1951 (in preparation to the World Championship match vs Bronstein) and in 1955 (preparing vs Smyslov). However, it should be noted after 7...Ne7 his opponent in 1954 training games, Ilya Kan, has only played 8.Nb5?! and did not pose any problems in the opening. Smyslov went for the more principled 8.bxa5 dxc3 9.Qxg7! Rg8 10.Qxh7. Botvinnik quickly replied with a maneuver that he prepared at home after analyzing his 1951 game vs Ragozin: 10...Nd7?! 11.Nf3 Nf8?! 12.Qd3 Qxa5. At this point both opponents spent less than 15 minutes on the clock, demonstrating their good familiarity with the subject, but then after a longer think Smyslov played 13.h4! Bd7 14.Bg5! and it turned out that Black position was already quite difficult. A couple of moves later Botvinnik miscalculated in a sharp position and had to resign on move 25. This is one of the most famous Smyslov's victories, which we will give with his own annotations:

As it would turn out, magnificent win in Game 9 was just a beginning of a streak. In the 10th game Smyslov repeated the opening of 4th game (Queen Gambit Accepted), but ran into a novelty prepared by Botvinnik, hesitated and found himself in a positional bind.

Fortunately for Smyslov, the position remained complicated and White still had to resolve the issue of his king being stuck in the center. Around move 20 Botvinnik started to lose the thread of the game and then on move 24 he blundered:

24.Bd2?? Nxe5!

Now 25.fxe5? Qxe4+ loses more material. Botvinnik was so shocked by the sudden turn of events that he did not find the most resilient 26.Be2!, neither in the game, nor even in the analysis (it was pointed out in Harry Golombek's book). Instead, the game continued 25.Qe3? Ng4 26.Qg3 Qxg3 27.fxg3 Nf2!, with Black winning another pawn and eventually the game.

It was Smyslov's first victory with Black in this match.

The 11th game saw many firsts, starting with Black's first move. As Golombek noted, "it took Smyslov a minute to recover from the shock of seeing the Black's e-pawn pushed two squares instead of one." After a crushing loss in 9th game Botvinnik needed more time to patch up his beloved French defense, and so he switched to Ruy Lopez – and not to the usual main lines, but to Modern Steinitz, which Botvinnik played for just the second time in his life! As the game would show, his game plan was to keep the game simple, play solidly and make a draw.

Golombek mentions another interesting feature of this game:

[It] was the first occasion that I saw both Mrs. Botvinnik and Mrs. Smyslov in the audience. Smyslov's wife had come a number of times before; but Mrs. Botvinnik bad been prevented by her profession from watching till now – she is a ballerina at the Bolshoi Theater. Knowing something about chess, it was with a sympathetic and compassionate eye that she surveyed her husband's plight.

And plight it was, for despite the position being equal (Botvinnik even offered a draw on 23rd move), Smyslov played on and continued posing small problems in the endgame. Botvinnik played tentatively, missed a couple of chances to force a clear draw and spoiled the game beyond repair in time trouble.

This was Smyslov's third straight in a row. The match bulletin claimed that this was the first time ever for Botvinnik to lose three games straight! It put Smyslov in the lead (6:5), for the first and last time in this match.

Part 3 – Botvinnik wins the slugfest

Just when it seemed that Smyslov was in firm control of the match, Botvinnik managed to turn back the tide. A few months later he shared an interesting observation on this stage of the match:

Had Smyslov demonstrated a fine psychological feeling at that critical moment of the struggle, he would have seriously complicated my task. In my opinion, it was most prudent for him to play more cautiously at this period of the match, since then the World Champion would have to sharpen up the play in order to regain the lead that was lost after three losses in a row. However, my partner continued to strive for the victory at all costs and chose unreasonably sharp continuation, which provided me with good chances to seize the initiative. Smyslov apparently thought that after my three losses it would not require him too much work to win the match.

For some reason, the article "Results of the match" from Botvinnik's match book published in 1955, which is the source of the quote above, was omitted in the later book, "Three matches Botvinnik – Smyslov", compiled from multiple sources by Botvinnik's nephew Ilya Botvinnik in 2004. This is a pity, for Botvinnik wrote this article when his impressions of the match were still fresh, and without the distortions of hindsight. Botvinnik often toned down his statements in later editions, but in 1954 he could not have known that he would have to play three World Championship matches vs Smyslov and thus he did not mince words. This makes Botvinnik's article in 1955 edition an invaluable source of information.

In any case, Game 12 is another masterpiece by Botvinnik, so we will give it with his annotations:

At this point the match was equal 6:6. In effect, World Championship was to be decided in another 12-games match, and it would also finish 6:6!

Unfortunately for Smyslov, the second half of the match also started with a loss with White for him. Golombek summarized this game as follows:

Botvinnik, disconcerted at Smyslov's rough handling of the French Defense, did what I thought he should have done earlier in the match-that is, he played the Sicilian Defense, a defense which he had already used successfully against the same opponent in the World Championship Tournament of 1948. Smyslov is noted for his invariable close treatment of this opening, and though he usually handles it so as to get the maximum attacking possibilities, one is always left with the afterthought that in theory his method is not particularly correct. Botvinnik demonstrated the truth of this in no uncertain fashion.

The passage about the soundness of Closed Sicilian is a classic case of judging the game by its result, although it is true that the outcome of the game was largely decided in the opening.

Botvinnik has just played a rare move, 5...b6, which he prepared as a surprise weapon. It was not new to Smyslov, as Kotov has already played this line against him twice. Smyslov scored a nice victory in their first encounter in 1946, lost in 1947 Chigorin memorial, but did not get much of an opening advantage in either of these games.

In any case, Smyslov's reaction in this game was much worse: 6.Nge2 (the games vs Kotov saw 6.Be3 Bb7 7.Nh3 and 7.f4 Bb7 8.Nf3) 6...d6 7.0-0 Bb7 8.f4? f5!

The point of Black's play – the pawn f5 stifles most of White's pieces and stops the attack on the kingside in its track. After thinking for almost half hour Smyslov decided that his position was bad enough to justify 9.g4?

Instead of this a daring, but unsound sacrifice Botvinnik suggested 9.exf5 gxf5 10.Be3 followed by d3-d4. It was indeed a lesser evil, although Black already stands better. The game continued 9...fxg4 10.f5 Qd7 11.Nf4?!

This was the idea behind Smyslov's pawn sacrifice – White is hoping that a knight on e6 would disrupt Black's coordination. Unfortunately, it did not work out: 11...gxf5 12.exf5 Bd4+ 13.Kh1 Bxc3! 14.bxc3 Ne5 15.Qe2 Nf6 Black had a better development and an extra pawn. In the subsequent play Smyslov probably did not use all his chances, but in a grand scheme of things the game was decided by move 15.

A tough loss like this can demoralize anyone, but the early phase of the match taught Smyslov mental toughness. It surely helped that in the next game he managed to take the fight on Botvinnik's territory by uncorking a dangerous and deeply prepared novelty in a variation that Botvinnik has not even played before!

I analyzed this game in great detail for the book, using both contemporary annotations and later theoretical developments. In this article I will only focus on the key moment, which led to much controversy:

This position has appeared in two games of Botvinnik-Bronstein World Championship match, with Botvinnik trying 9.h3 and 9.d5. In the run-up to 1954 match Botvinnik analyzed this position and came to conclusion that White can save a tempo by playing 9.Be3 right away. The most principled reaction to this is 9...Ng4, but after 10.Bg5 Smyslov played 10...Qb6!?

The main line at the time was 10...f6, which Bronstein played in two games in 1940s and which Botvinnik prepared in his training games. The move played by Smyslov has previously appeared in just one game and had a bad reputation. However, Smyslov's team found that after 11.h3 Black can launch enormous complications by playing 11...exd4!?

This move did take Botvinnik by surprise, to the point that a year later Botvinnik wrote in his book about the match:

My opponent played the last three moves immediately, about which I could not hide my surprise. It is certainly rather surprising that Smyslov should have been so well prepared in all the subtleties of a variation that I had never played before, except in training games...

Although he stopped just short of saying it explicitly, Botvinnik's implication was that Smyslov was getting inside information from the enemy camp. After the match Botvinnik acted on his suspicions by parting ways with his second Ilya Kan and recruiting his old friend Grigory Goldberg for 1957 match...

Smyslov was clearly upset and angry about these thinly veiled allegations. The manuscript of Smyslov's annotations to this game is full of rewrites and strikeouts. The first version included the following sarcastic commentary: "Of course, it is easier to act surprised than to admit one's mistake in analytical work before the match". After several revisions Smyslov gradually toned it down, so that the final published version was written in his usual cool and detached voice:

The 14th game deservedly went into history as one of Smsylov's most famous games. Outpreparing Botvinnik, who was famous for his opening studies, was indeed a mighty achievement. The impact of Smyslov's novelty was so strong that the whole 9.Be3 disappeared from practice for half a century, and only in early 2000s White players (with a help of computers) found new ways to pose problems for Black. A few years ago GM Mikhail Golubev published a theoretical article, which demonstrates the downsides of Smyslov's novelty (in Russian), but of course it does not detract from the beauty of the game, or the inventiveness of Black's risky concept.

The match score was once again equal (7:7), but in the next two games Botvinnik showed the spirit of a true champion and managed to turn back the tide once again. Golombek could not hide his admiration:

At this vital stage in the contest that element in Botvinnik's character which is perhaps the most formidable aspect of him as a player made itself felt. He is the supreme master in the art of recovery. No matter how crushing the defeat he may have undergone the round or day before, he seems to be able to delve into hidden resources and produce fresh strength of purpose and power. So it was to be in the fifteenth game where the World Champion obtained one of the easiest and most convincing victories of the match.

The game started as another Closed Sicilian, but Botvinnik improved his move order and once again thoroughly outplayed his opponent in the opening:

Here 6...b6 would transpose to 13th game. Instead Botvinnik goes for his favorite pawn structure, inspired by Nimzovich's games with White in English opening: 6...e5!

It took Smyslov 45 minutes to make his next two moves, but alas, his reaction to this innovation was just as unfortunate as in the 13th game: 7.Nd5 Nge7 8.c3?!

This move allows Black to plug the weakness on d5. Botvinnik mentions that he planned to meet 8.Bg5 with 8...h6 9.Bf6 0-0. Fourteen years later young Karpov tried this line with White against Adorjan, but did not get anything out of the opening and agreed to a draw on 16th move.

8...Nxd5 9.exd5 Ne7 10.0-0 0-0 11.f4?

It is not easy to find a constructive plan in this position, but this move only provides Black with additional targets.

11...Bd7 12.h3 Qc7 13.Be3? (Botvinnik considered 13.Bd2 to be more prudent) 13...Rae8 14.Qd2 Nf5 15.Bf2 h5 16.Rae1 Qd8! (preventing 17.g4) 17.Kh2 Bh6

White is completely tied down. A few moves later Botvinnik won a pawn with a nice combination and converted his advantage into a victory.

After suffering two painful losses with White in a row Smyslov would not venture Closed Sicilian against Botvinnik ever again...

Despite a tough loss in the previous game, Smyslov came to 16th game in a fighting spirit, as he played King's Indian once again. Botvinnik clearly was not in the mood for another theoretical discussion and went for a sideline, Fianchetto variation with e2-e3. He confessed in the annotations that this line does not promise White an advantage, but it does have some subtleties, which during the first encounter Smyslov could not quite figure out. He must have miscalculated something out of the opening, landed in a difficult endgame, which even his famous technique could not save.

The 16th game marked the end of a punch-for-punch slugfest – there was not a single draw in the middle third of the match!

Part 4 – the long climb back

In the last third of the match the character of the fight changed dramatically. Botvinnik needed to score just 3 points and he had one extra game with White in the remaining 8 games. However, at this stage of the match tiredness started to play a major role. Botvinnik himself admitted as much in his book about 1954 match:

The last, fourth phase of the match must have answered just one question – would I have enough stamina to "survive" eight more games?

Many years later, Mikhail Botvinnik's nephew Ilya Botvinnik wrote in the foreword to the book "Three matches Botvinnik-Smyslov": is well-known that Botvinnik claimed it was only possible to play at full strength in a World Championship match for a maximum of 16-18 games.

In the 17th game Botvinnik was close to extending his winning streak to three games in a row, but Smyslov was able to save half a point with one of his best defensive efforts. For the only time in this match Smyslov opened the game with 1.Nf3, conceding that he did not find an antidote to Botvinnik's Sicilian yet and transposed into King's Indian Attack. It seems that despite losing the previous game, Smyslov concluded that Botvinnik did not feel comfortable in King's Indian structures and thus decided to steer the game into this opening even with colors reversed.

However, this strategy backfired, as Smyslov again got into trouble from the very first moves – this time with White! Only an inspired defense and a couple of inaccuracies by Botvinnik allowed Smyslov to save half a point in this game.

The following Game 18 was interesting on many levels. We will start with an incident that occurred during the game and that was only briefly mentioned by Golombek:

It will perhaps relieve our chess organizers to learn that the Soviet chess officials, though almost perfect in their organization, are not inhumanly so. On move 15 Smyslov's clock stopped (for no good reason that could afterwards be proved) and this was not noticed for some time. When it was noticed, a new clock was substituted, but it was deemed impossible to adjust Smyslov's time accordingly.

We should remind the reader that Golombek was one of the arbiters of the match, which makes his reference to "Soviet chess organizers" rather curious, as it was up to him (or, rather, to the Chief Arbiter Karel Opočenský) to resolve the incident once it occurred.

In his 1955 book about the match Botvinnik expunged on this incident in detail. The following passage is once again absent from "Three matches Botvinnik – Smyslov" (2003) book and thus deserves an extended quote:

Soon after the opening Smyslov's clock has stopped, which was noticed by the demonstrators only about 15 minutes later! More precisely, the clock did not stop – it kept going, but the minute hand did not move. This is why neither myself, nor my opponent noticed this, since the clock kept on ticking...

During the game there was a second, electric chess clock, which allowed the spectators to track the state of the players' clocks. This electric clocks were started by the demonstrator and he (with a delay of 15 minutes) drew arbiter's attention to the malfunction of Smyslov's clock.

Naturally, [Chief Arbiter] Karel Opočenský gave an order to change the clocks. However, he set the new clocks to the same time that was shown... by the malfunctioning clocks! To my perplexed question arbiter responded that match regulations do not mention the control electric clocks and thus he cannot add time to Smyslov's clock, even if it is clear how long it stood still. I immediately accepted the arbiter's decision, even though I considered it to be wrong.

I did not dare to ask Vasily Smyslov directly. He was so immersed in the position that he noticed neither our conversations, which took place at the other end of the stage, nor the clock changes – for otherwise he would have undoubtedly requested to add time on his clock...

I cannot lay any claims to my opponent, as I could have easily found myself in the same situation. However, I do believe that the arbiter of the match must have addressed Smyslov in order to find out the opinion of the other player.

Botvinnik continues by sharing a similar situation that appeared in his game vs Capablanca in 1938 AVRO tournament. In that case the Chief Arbiter, Hans Kmoch, decided to add 20 minutes to Capablanca's clock and informed him about the correction. Capablanca protested and requested to add 10 minutes to both clocks. Botvinnik indignantly responded that he would agree with any proposal by Capablanca, which led the latter to agree to adding all 20 minutes to his clock.

We should also note that later in the 18th game Smyslov found himself in acute time trouble and made his 40th move with less than 30 seconds left on the clock. Clearly, an extra 15 minutes of thinking time must have benefitted him a great deal!

Chess-wise, the 18th game repeated the opening of 16th game, 6.e3 variation in Fianchetto King's Indian, but its character could not be more different. It was a typical closed King's Indian, with pawn chains going across the whole board. At some point it seemed as if the game is destined to result in a rather uneventful draw, but Smyslov was too optimistic in pushing his pawns forward and towards the time control White developed a strong initiative, which could have turned decisive, had Botvinnik gone for a pawn sacrifice in the following position:

Here Botvinnik played 33.Bg4?, allowing the opponent to rectify his error with a blockading 33...Qd6. Instead, he could have developed a dangerous and likely winning initiative by sacrificing a pawn: 33.d6+! cxd6 34.Bg4 Qc7 35.Rgd1 Rd8 36.Rxh3 (the line was pointed out by Averbakh).

The opening phase of the 19th game gave rise to another controversy, which, however, went mostly unnoticed. For some reason Smyslov did not repeat the opening of 9th game, which he won a brilliant fashion, but returned to the variation that he played in the 7th game. Let us quote Botvinnik's impressions from the opening of this game:


Frankly speaking, I was genuinely surprised when Smyslov played this move. After all, the opening of Game 7 had not gone well for me, and so one could have expected White to try to follow that game by playing 10.Qe3. I would have faced a different task, namely that of finding the best response to 11.Qe3, which is 11...Qa5 (instead of 11...Ng, as played in Game 7).

Of course, I had analyzed 11.Qd2 as well, and had long considered it the strongest move. When it appeared on the board, I was staggered by how closely my opponent's understanding of the position coincided with mine. After 11...Qa5 White can now advantageously continue 12.Nd4! with the threat of 13.Nb5. Immediately after Game 7 I could find a satisfactory response for Black, but later this became obvious.


Now 12.Nd4 is no longer dangerous because of 12...a6. Here Smyslov thought for a long time [for 35 minutes! – AT], from which one could draw the conclusion that he had not analyzed this move.

The same theme that we already saw in the 14th game – Botvinnik tacitly suggested that his opponent had a spy in his camp. 

Whatever its inspiration, Smyslov's opening preparation did not help him in this game. He misplayed a promising position and had to go on defensive for the rest of the game. Fortunately for him, Botvinnik also missed the strongest moves on a couple of occasions and the game was agreed drawn right after adjournment. Golombek shares a funny anecdote related to the conclusion of this game:

After the game was adjourned I remarked to Smyslov that I had been hoping the players would finish the game in one session, or at any rate that tomorrow the game would not last long, as I wanted to go to the opera. 'What opera is being played?' he enquired. 'Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla,' I answered. 'Well,' he said, 'the music's good, but as an opera it's really nothing very much. You know, the Tsar Nicholas I, when he wished to punish his officers, used to send them to see Ruslan and Ludmilla. It's better for you to stay here and watch the game being played out!'

To Golombek's pleasure, the game was indeed agreed drawn without resuming. By the way, the score of this game in ChessBase is incorrect, for the last move was White's 41st, the sealed move. The rest of the score that is given in ChessBase comes from Botvinnik's annotations, illustrating how the game might conclude, had it been played out.

With five game left in the match, two points advantage, an extra White game and the draw odds, Botvinnik's chances for victory seemed overwhelming. And yet many still expected a turnaround in the match. The editorial in May 1954 issue "Chess Review" cited recent history as the basis for their prediction:

If Smyslov looked slightly sick in the first quarter of the World Chess Championship, Botvinnik became delirious in the second, lost three straight, drew three. So the half-way score was 6-6.

Thereafter the score seesawed. Smyslov actually led for one game, but Botvinnik led 10-8 with six games to go. Our hunch is that the match will end in a draw somehow in the last quarter – conforming to Russian custom set in 1951 (and 1950).

And Smyslov delivered on this forecast! Botvinnik was visibly running out of gas and in the 20th game his play was hardly recognizable.

With 12.Qc2, followed by Rd1 and Nd5, White could still secure an advantage. Instead, Botvinnik weakened the whole complex of dark squares in the center with 12.e4? and continued playing passively after that. By move 25 Botvinnik's position was much worse, by move 30 – untenable, but then Smyslov let most of his advantage slip away and would not have won this game at all, if not for another blunder by Botvinnik already after the adjournment.

Golombek had two different and somewhat contradictory assessments what brought Smyslov victory in this game:

...while both players were tired, naturally enough, by the long struggle, the younger man, Smyslov, had the better nerves and the greater endurance. <...>

When Botvinnik resigned on the seventy-third move there was a great burst of clapping and cheering from the audience, and this applause was indeed well merited by Smyslov, who in this game had shown himself to be the world's best end-game player. Incidentally, this was also the longest game of the match so far.

In the next game Smyslov was surely intent on developing his success – after all, he only had two White games left in the match! However, in this match the first-move advantage was did not translate into points as much as it did in other high-level competitions of the day. Both opponents were playing double-edged openings (Botvinnik with French defense, Smyslov with King's Indian) and the advantage swung back and forth in most games.

In the 22nd game Botvinnik was clearly intent on avoiding any complications. Smyslov surprised everyone by returning to Grünfeld defense, which previously featured only once in this match (in 6th game). Botvinnik decided to skip the theoretical discussions that could have awaited him in the main Exchange line, or in Smyslov's variation, and went for an unpretentious 4.Bf4 line. It was not only time that Botvinnik opted for safety over complications in this game:


A the time of writing, this position has been reached more than 2,000 times, but this move has only been played in a handful of them. Botvinnik explained that because of the situation in the match he did not want to enter the sharp line 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.Bxc7 Nc6 8.Ne2 Bg4. Ten years later Botvinnik would indeed fall victim to the complications in a game vs Gligoric (Tel-Aviv Olympiad, 1964), when he played 6.Rc1 c5 7.dxc5 Be6 8.Nf3 Nc6 8.Ng5, but got hit by a powerful novelty 8...Bg4 9.f3 e5! and eventually lost.

However, the text move gives Black an easy game. Smyslov responded 6...e6! 7.Nf3 Nbd7, forcing White to lose another tempo for retreating the bishop, 8.Bg3. After that both sides proceeded with developing pieces on their respective halves of the board.

The game unfolded slowly and largely uneventfully, which makes Botvinnik's move in the following position all the more shocking:


Botvinnik commented on this move:

A 'heroic' decision, but what else can one recommend to White here? After any other move, Black will advantageously continue with...f7-f5

It is hard to believe that the permanent weakening of the White king is a fair price for preventing...f7-f5 – it is not even clear whether allowing it was bad for White! This nervous decision led to a serious sharpening of the game, with White risking much more than the opponent.

However, Botvinnik defended well and never really crossed the limits of the acceptable risk. In pursuit of the waning initiative it was Smyslov who went for a risky gamble, but held off a draw after all.

With two games left in the match, Botvinnik had to score just half a point to retain World Champion title; one point in two games would secure him a victory in the match. However, the Game 23 turned all these calculations upside down, as Smyslov managed to score a victory that he so desperately needed.

Smyslov took the game off the beaten path from the very beginning by opening the game in a spirit of Chigorin with 1.e4 e6 2.d3!? and developing in King's Indian style, which he felt Botvinnik was most uncomfortable with in this match. Whatever the objective merits of this scheme of development, Smyslov's calculation paid off, as Botvinnik lashed out early and in a surprisingly violent manner:

Here Botvinnik played 9...f5?!, which he later termed "an adventurous decision, which is not in keeping with the spirit of the position", and after 10.Qb3 he compounded the error by pushing 10...d5? Smyslov did not find the best reaction to this anti-positional advance and allowed Botvinnik to consolidate his forces, but the game remained complicated and Smyslov eventually outplayed his opponent.

As a result, the fate of the World Championship was to be decided in a final game. The premise of Game 24 was the similar in Botvinnik-Bronstein match three years ago – the challenger needed a win with Black pieces to win the match. A draw meant that the match would be drawn and Botvinnik would retain the title. Botvinnik's victory would, of course, mean that the Champion wins the match. The only difference was that Smyslov had to pull it off with Black color, while Bronstein had White in Game 24.

Golombek reports on the lead-up to the game:

Excitement ran high in Moscow over the twenty-fourth and last game of the match. The day before it was due to take place a queue over half a mile in length waited outside the box-office to buy tickets to see the game, and many people were unable to get tickets after waiting several hours. I met Salo Flohr, the Soviet grandmaster, at dinner that evening, and he told me he had managed to get a couple of tickets after waiting over three hours.

When the game actually was played, it was in the nature of an anti-climax reminding one of T. S. Eliot's 'This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.'

Indeed, the final game of the match did not live up to the expectations, or to the fighting spirit of the match. It was by far the shortest game at 22 moves (the next two shortest games in the match would be two of Smyslov's victories in 9th and 23rd games; all other games went beyond move 30).

In fact, the game was decided even earlier, when Smyslov lost a theoretical discussion in another King's Indian. Unlike in the previous games, Botvinnik went for Fianchetto with e2-e4 instead of e2-e3 and then surprised his opponent one more time by going for the absolute main line that he tried to sidestep in Game 14:

Here Botvinnik played 9.h3 (instead of 9.Be3, which brought Smyslov victory in Game 14). Smyslov responded with 9...a5, the move that was the latest fashion at the time, but after 10.Be3 he released the tension in the center prematurely with 10...exd4?, which allowed Botvinnik to set up his pieces into an ideal formation: 11.Nxd4 Re8 (11...Nc5? was bad in view of 12.e5! dxe5 13.Nxc6) 12.Qc2 Nc5 13.Rad1.

White has created a standard threat 14.Nxc6 bxc6 15.Bxc5, which Black would like to meet with Qd8-a5, but this square is still occupied by Black's own pawn! In a later game, played at Chess Olympiad in the same 1954, Botvinnik refined his play even further by playing 13.Nb3!?, forcing an immediate decision on the fate of c5 knight.

Smyslov replied 13...Nfd7?! (13...Qe7 was better, keeping d6 pawn protected) and after 14.Nb3! Qe7 15.Nxc5 dxc5?! (15...Nxc5 still kept White's advantage within reasonable limits, although it is hard to imagine playing this position with Black for a win) it became clear that game is played for two results only. Botvinnik later recounted the end of this fateful game ("Botvinnik's Complete Games (1942-56) and Selected Writing"):

...when Smyslov, after considering his 22nd move, decided, to my great surprise, to offer a draw, thus giving up any last hope in this match of winning the title of world champion, what was I to do? "Your offer is so tempting," I replied, "that it is impossible to refuse..."

One cannot help but think what the outcome of this game could have been, if only Smyslov possessed Bronstein's or Geller's feel for the dynamics of King's Indian. Especially Geller inflicted a lot of pain on Botvinnik in this system, winning a classical game with Black in Budapest 1952. It should be noted that 24th game could have transposed to it, had Smyslov played 10...a4 – a move that was first played a few months later... by Geller in a match vs USA!

Three years later Tal would win a famous game against Botvinnik in a World Championship match with 9...Qb6, and in 1969 Geller would score an even more crushing victory against Botvinnik in only 25 moves...

Another common theme about this match was that Smyslov would have won the match had it lasted a little for longer. Golombek was one of first to state this view in his book:

So the match ended with honors even – a very fair result on the run of play and a just reflection of the respective merits of these two wonderful players. At the end, however, it was quite clear that Botvinnik was the more tired of the two, and had it been a longer match my feeling is that the younger man would have triumphed.

A few pages later this observation is repeated almost word-for-word, with the addition that over the last 8 games Botvinnik did not manage to score a single victory!

Rather unusually, Golombek's book had a Postscript written by Smyslov (Botvinnik wrote a Foreword), in which he shared his view on the recently concluded battle:

So the match has ended in a draw with the score 12-12 and, according to the conditions of the contest, Botvinnik retains his title of World Champion. I regard this drawn outcome of a struggle that has lasted some two months as honorable enough for me, It has indeed been a most strenuous and keen battle, as appears from the fact that out of the first sixteen games only four ended in a draw. <...>

Never before have I had occasion or opportunity to play a match, and the brief interval of time between this event and the arduous tournament at Zürich made it impossible for me to acquire the necessary experience of match play. Maybe this very circumstance to a certain extent explains my failures in the first part of the match. <...>

Botvinnik showed splendid sporting form and a thorough preparedness for a struggle on which so much depended. He meticulously avoided time trouble, evidently bearing in mind the experience of his previous match against Bronstein, where in a number of cases lack of time affected the quality and hence too the final result of the games.

During the whole match I was lacking in consistency. Intermingled with the creative achievements of the ninth and fourteenth games, which I consider my best games of the match, there were moments of weak play, more especially in those in which the Sicilian Defense was played (the thirteenth and fifteenth games). Botvinnik's best game was the twelfth.

Botvinnik's results in his first two World Championship matches to that point were not entirely convincing and he was certainly aware of that. His article "After the match" that was published in Soviet match bulletin, starts with a lengthy praise of FIDE system of selecting the challenger for the World Championship, juxtaposing it to pre-war years:

These days, an order is strictly observed in which the Champion has to face only the strongest players in a match – the winner of the qualification Candidates match-tournament.

By the way, both of my matches, versus Bronstein and now versus Smyslov, ended in a tie. Of course, I do not think that this is a very good result for the World Champion, but one should not forget that both times I played not against random partners, but against the strongest chess players, who went before the match through thick and thin.

I did not manage to win a single World Championship match, but it cannot be excluded that had I played against some of the weaker opponents, as it was in the times of Lasker or Alekhine, then this match could have also brought me some success...

Throughout the World Championship the match bulletin ran a column, in which spectators shared their impressions of the match, and one of the most common themes was that it was the respondents considered the match to be the most exciting ever. Unfortunately, this match was quickly eclipsed by matches that came in the years that followed. Two more matches between Botvinnik and Smyslov over the next four years put 1954 in the background. A few years later the 70-games marathon between Botvinnik and Smyslov was eclipsed by the fiery battles between Botvinnik and Tal, and another decade later by the epic match between Spassky and Fischer.

However, the 1954 match still has a firm place in chess history, if only for the bloodthirsty stretch in the middle of the match. 8 decisive games in a row is not an absolute record for the World Championship matches (that distinction belongs to 1889 Steinitz-Chigorin match, which started with 16 decisive games in a row, followed by a single draw in the last game!). However, 1954 match still holds the record for the longest streak of decisive games in the World Championships either in XX or XXI century!