Grigory Levenfish vs Mikhail Botvinnik, USSR 1937... in the shade of world chess championship
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Grigory Levenfish vs Mikhail Botvinnik, USSR 1937... in the shade of world chess championship


The title of the 10th USSR chess championship [1937] was decided exceptionally in a 13-game match between two players, Grigory Levenfish and Mikhail Botvinnik.


Levenfish and Botvinnik via wikicommons

Grigory Yakovlevich Levenfish [21 March 1889, Piotrków, Poland – 9 February 1961, Moscow, USSR // in wiki] was a significant chess player, since pre-soviet era. At the time he had participated in 2nd Carlsbad chess tournament of 1911, had tied at 1st place with Ilya Rabinovich in the 9th [1934/35] USSR championship and won the 10th [1937].

Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik [17 August 1911, St. Petersburg – 5 May 1995, Moscow, USSR // in wiki] was the well known future champion. At the time he had participated in Hastings 1934/35, won the 7th [1931] & 8th [1933] USSR championships and tied at first place with Flohr in 2nd Moscow International of 1935.

Botvinnik hadn't participated at all in the 9th and 10th USSR championships. As he had written later: "I missed the USSR Championship (Tbilisi, 1937) as I was defending my thesis. Ilyin-Genevsky censured me for this, and Krylenko sent a threatening telegram ("I will raise your conduct at the Central Committee"). Then he cooled off..." [in Botvinnik's Achieving the Aim, p. 63].

So he challenged Levenfish in a match that would decide the title of the champion.


A little background

In June 1936 Aleknine visited Netherlands so to challenge Euwe for a rematch for world championship title. Then the Dutch press published the news of the signing of the contract, informing that the match would start in November 1937 [Haagsche Courant of 20/06/1936].


Signing the contract in Haagsche Courant of 20/06/1936


In July 1937 was written in Chess Review [p. 158]: "G. J. Loewenfisch, recent winner of the 10th annual Russian Championship Tourney, is to meet M. M. Botwinnik in a match for the title, Botwinnik has held the honors before, and his ranking in the chess world is so high that scarcely a commentator presumes to have any doubts as to the outcome of the contest. However, upsets in all competition have become so frequent that we refuse to plead indifference, and so look forward with keenest interest to September 15, when play is scheduled to start. Shades of Capablanca-Alekhine, 1927-: the better man must score six victories outright draws not to count! Are we in for another 34 game marathon?"

Dutch press published these news a little earlier, in May 1937 [eg. De Tijd of 12/05/1937] just mentioning as start-date the autumn of 1937.

I don't know what happened... but in both matches the first game was on October 5th, 1937.


The match

The match was held in Moscow and Leningrad. The winner should win in 6 games [draws wouldn't count]. In case of a tie 5-5, the title holder, Levenfish, would retain his title. The match lasted just 13 games, during 5 Oct and 9 Nov, with 5 wins, 5 defeats and 3 draws each. And so Levefish retained his title...

Must be added that Botvinnik had a training match with Rabinovich a little earlier, in Aug 1937.

Levenfish - Botvinnik, USSR, 1937
05/10 07/10 09/10 11/10 13/10 16/10 18/10 20/10 24/10 28/10 30/10 03/11 09/11
games 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 total
Levenfish 0 1 1 ½ ½ 0 0 0 ½ 1 1 0 1
Botvinnik 1 0 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 ½ 0 0 1 0


photo of the match in wikicommons


According to Averbach Moscow people were supporting Levenfish...

Russian text found in an article of Sergei Voronkov found here: Авербах. "Помню, когда в 1937 году Ботвинник играл матч за звание чемпиона СССР с Левенфишем, то симпатии московских ребят были на стороне последнего. Может быть, потому, что Ботвинник считался фаворитом."


2nd game of the match, 07/10/1937 // D94

Andrew Soltis inform us that this game was "what he called one of the best games of his career" [in Soviet Chess, p. 120]. Comments by A. Soltis.


In Chess Review, Nov 1937 [p. 258], this was written: "This is a bad month for champions, Botvinnik started off his match with Levenfish by winning the first game (that's not news), where upon the latter came back and won the next two games (that's news). After the 6th game, the score stood 3-3. It will be interesting to see how the older man bears up under the heavy strain of this contest (Levenfish made his international debut at Carlsbad in 1911, the year after Botvinnik was born!)."


6th & 7th games [16 & 18 Oct 1937]

Max Euwe must have found some time, between his 10th in Hague and 11th in Groningen games, and published an article in Haagsche Courant of 30.10.1937 about the Levenfish - Botvinnik match, analyzing two final positions!! Mentioning also some similarities with his championship match!! Here're the 6th and 7th games with comments on the endings by Euwe [translation maybe is a little "free"].


Must be said that about this time the incident with Sergey Kaminer's notebook happened [described in Andrew Soltis' Mikhail Botvinnik, p. 103 & in my previous blog about Sergey Kaminer].


13th game. 09/11/1937. D83. The last

About this game Botvinnik had written that while it was adjourned, on a final lost position, and had decided to resign, he accepted a phone call by Grigoriev:

""What's your hurry?" he said. "You simply must play it on. I have been studying it all night and found a unique endgame, pawns against a queen. Admittedly Levenfish has just one winning line but it's impossible to find it at the board. I'll dictate the analysis to you now.

"Pardon me, you are the chief arbiter, and according to the match regulations the players have no right to take advice from anybody.''

"That is why I consider it my duty to help you," said Grigoriev, "I happen to know that your opponent has been using the assistance of a group of masters, whereas you are on your own."

Grigoriev was right. Even Slava Ragozin had not been with me. Before the match I warned Grigoriev that this condition would work against the more scrupulous player.

"Thank you, but I've played badly. Why be petty about it. There will be many other events. I am resigning the game." "Well I didn't really expect any other answer.""

[found in Achieving the Aim, p. 64 & in Soltis' Mikhail Botvinnik, p. 104].

The final position of this game made me think about the skill of both players. It's something that Stockfish doesn't get it at once. And made me wonder about when this seemingly balanced game was actually lost.


This video was added on 13 Sep 2018...


Levenfish surely proved his skill and worth!

And Euwe wrote another article about him in Haagsche Courant of 20.11.1937.

But Botvinnik wrote that... "The outcome of the match was awkward for Grigoriev not only because my opponent was helped by a whole brigade of masters. At that time Soviet players needed a leader on whom they could rest their hopes of winning the world championship, yet here was a new champion - Levenfish. The situation was a muddled one and the match result only made matters worse." [in Achieving the Aim, p. 65].

Levenfish had probably expected to represent USSR in the next big international tournament [that was AVRO 1938].

But... "Levenfish tried to insist that he represent the Soviet Union, but he was not supported and I was assigned to play in the AVRO tournament". [in Botvinnik's Achieving the Aim, p. 65].

Levenfish had written about this in his Selected games and memories, 1967:

"I thought that my victories in the ninth and tenth USSR Championships and the draw in my match with Botvinnik would give me the right to participate in the AVRO-tournament. However, contrary to my hopes, I was not sent to this tournament. My condition could be defined as a moral knock-out. All my efforts of the preceding years had been in vain. I felt confident in my powers, and I would undoubtedly have competed honourably in the tournament. But I was 49 years old, and it was obvious that the coming years would tell adversely on the strength of my play. I was losing the last opportunity to display my worth. I gave up my chess career as lost, and although subsequently I participated in a few events, only in rare cases did I play with enthusiasm and competitive interest."

[translation found in Genna Sosonko's Russian Silhouettes, pp. 211-212 //

while original Russian text is found in an article of Sergei Voronkov in here]


And so Levenfish missed his last chance for AVRO 1938...


photo of the first round in AVRO 1938 found in Delftsche courant of 07-11-1938


But I prefer this photo for the end...


found in Ed. Winter's CN6498 with the note that "was published in Chess Review, Apr 1947, p 9"