Review: Botvinnik - Smyslov 1954, 1957, 1958

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Botwinnik-SmylovI wouldn't have expected a book on a few World Championship matches of more than 50 years ago to reach the no. 1 spot in the New in Chess bestseller's list, but that's what happened last month. Then I discovered it contains a lot more than that. Botvinnik-Smyslov, Three World Chess Championship Matches, is a compilation of Mikhail Botvinnik's writings on his matches against Vassily Smyslov, and it does not only contain his game analysis, but also his 'secret' notebooks with his opening preparations and 'novelties' for the matches. This is exciting stuff indeed.

Before moving on to Botvinnik's notes and his opening preparations, a few words on this edition. As usual, New in Chess has delivered a beautiful volume but I found it also contains a few strange things. In the introduction, the compiler (Botvinnik's nephew Igor Botvinnik) writes:

Botvinnik's regular translator Ken Neat began sending in comments on Botvinnik's annotations. (...) These computer comments were added at the end of each volume. There were not a huge number of them (...) Even so, I believe that Mikhail Moiseevich himself, had he lived to see this day, would not have objected to these inaccuracies being pointed out, since his greatest concern in chess was always the search for the truth. We have therefore also presented the translator's comments on those game played in these matches.

To be honest, I found this statement slightly alarming. First of all, I remembered how Bobby Fischer was furious when he found out about an annotated edition of My Sixty Memorable Games, pointing out several mistakes and inaccuracies in the corrections itself. This is clearly a risk for all editors adding 'corrections' of any kind. In the present edition, too, the corrections are not always clear themselves, e.g.:

Smyslov - Botvinnik Moscow 1958 (m/13)

dia1Botvinnik now played 32...Qc6, but he comments that 32...Nxc4 is inferior due to 33.Qd7+ Kf6 34.Bh4+ g5 35.Bxg5+! Kxg5 36.Qg7+. The editorial note says this leads to a draw and that 33.bxc4! seems better. The note fails to mention, however, that in Botvinnik's line, 33...Be7! leads to a good position for Black (according to Rybka). Why mention one thing and not the other? Well, like George Michael sang: if you're gonna do it, do it right.

Most importantly, including only Ken Neat's corrections seems rather arbitrary to me. Why not also include the corrections that others have made, notably Garry Kasparov in his recent My Great Predecessors Part 2? Surely these discoveries are bound to be more interesting to readers. For instance, in the 18th game of the 1957 match, Kasparov points out the following:

Smyslov-Botvinnik Moscow 1957 (m/18)

dia262.Bc1 In this position, Botvinnik offered a draw which was accepted. He now gives the following variation:

62...Be6 63.Ba3 Bc8 64.Bc1 Kd4 65.Ba3 Kd3 66.Bb2 Kc2 and now Botvinnik analyses 67.Bd4 Kb3! which at first he thought was winning for Black, until Euwe and Konstantinopolsky in a very complicated analysis showed that Black could defend after all. Kasparov not only shows that in this line, Black still wins anyway, but he also points out the following line:

dia367.Ba1! "My own discovery, in combination with my 'silicon friend'" - Kasparov.

67...a3 68.Kg5 a2 69.Bd4! Kd3 70.Ba1 Ke4 71.Kf6 and White draws after all.

In fact, Botvinnik does mention the move 67.Ba1!, as I found out when I had almost finished the book already, since he only does so in the final, conclusive chapter in which he returns to this position. Here, an editorial note referring the reader to this section would have been extremely relevant. Still, Botvinnik fails to mention the move 69.Bd4 (he only mentions 69.Kf6), so another note pointing out Kasparov's discovery would have also been a useful nice-to-have. I cannot help thinking this is simply a missed opportunity.

So what does Botvinnik-Smyslov have to offer? First of all, the book contains extensive analysis of the three Botvinnik-Smyslov World Championship matches (the first was drawn, the second won by Smyslov and the third by Botvinnik). Botvinnik's comments (which were hitherto largely unpublished) to the games are still just great. His famously clear, logical approach of the game is highly instructive, of course, and it hardly needs introduction. In the following example, Botvinnik explains the move ... Bg4 in the g3-King's Indian:

In the Gr?ºnfeld Defence, this manoeuvre is not bad, but here it is dubious. Black achieves a convenient mobilisation of his forces, but the absence of his light-squared bishop tells. Black's early castling does not fit in well with the exchange on f3, since White's chances of an attack on the kingside are increased.

What I found even more interesting are the psychological comments Botvinnik makes, showing his determination and also his psychological frame of mind.

[After the adjournment], Smyslov offered me a draw, even mentioning the first few moves of these variations. However, because he did so in breach of the rules (via our seconds, rather than through the main arbiter), and because mentioning the specific moves in the variation to some extend compromised the secrecy of the sealed move, I considered myself obliged to play on.

My opponent played this with such an imperturbable manner that I even began to have doubts - have I missed the win? I had plenty of time remaining, and was able to consider the position thoroughly. As a result of this think, all doubts were dispelled and the next few moves were played quickly.

The only thing I sometimes missed in Botvinnik's prose is the occasional light note - a remark to draw the reader's attention to a pretty sacrifice or the beauty of a nice manoeuvre. For the 15th match game of the 1957 match, Botvinnik had prepared something special. In an article that appeared in De Tijd in April 1957, The Dutch grandmaster and chess writer J.H. Donner wrote enthusiastically about this game:

[Botvinnik] manoevred magnificently in the opening. No less than three times did he play his knight from and to the square b5. It was merely a prelude to solidify his advantage - the pair of bishops.

Botvinnik only hints at this by stating Black has given away the b5 square.

Still, this is just kid's stuff compared to the truly great chapters of this book - Botvinnik's preparation notebooks. By the way, it's not just openings: I already mentioned a conclusive chapter on the 1958 match, and there's also a fascinating 'plan of preparation' for the 1957 match. This was Botvinnik's own 'to do list' for this match. It contains bullet points like:

  • Prepare openings for 12 Black and 12 White games
  • Test these in two set of training games
  • Spend no less than 4 days each week at the dacha
  • Skiing, showers, salt-baths, (...) see dentist.

But, as I said, the real treat of this book are the two notebooks (1957 and 1958) in which Botvinnik wrote down his opening ideas for these matches. The notebooks are an absolute treasure for chess history. It shows in detail the level of preparation Botvinnik maintained during this matches - astoundingly little compared to what we're used to in the computer-age, but absolutely revolutionary at the time. His 'preparation' of the Tarrasch Defence apparently consisted of the following:

Tarrasch Defence

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0

Two ways: A) 9.dxc5 d4 10.Na4 Bf5 11.e3! e3 12.a3 and b4; B) 9.Bg5 c4 10.Ne5 and on 10...Be6 (and on 10...h6 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Bxd5 - check the books) 11.Nxc4

Often, Botvinnik's comments in the notebook are very emotional. Noticing his previous analysis were 'nonsense', at one point he writes: 'How did I not see this before??'. His comments often contain strong language and lots of exclamation marks:


1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 It appears 3...a6 is obligatory. It's not!!! After 3...c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Bb5+ Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 7.0-0 cxd4 8.Nb3 Ne7 Averbach's move 9.Bxc6+ is a bluff, since one can play 9...bxc6 10.Qxd4 Nf5!! 11.Re1+ Be6 and neither 12.Qc3 Qb6 nor 12.Qa4 Qc7 gives White anything!!.

Sicilian Rauzer with h6 - rubbish

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5 e6 As against Suetin. 7.Qd2 h6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.0-0-0 a6 10.f4 Bd7 11.Bc4! (Aronin) 11...h5 12.Kb1 Qb6 dia4 13.Rhf1? -stupid and weak. Correct was 13.Nce2!! and there is no defence to f4-f5! - Both Suetin and I were as blind as bats! Hurray! One should play 10...Qb6! immediately, followed by ... Bd7.

As you see, this is fantastic material - it's so fantastic, that it also raises many questions. For one, I would have liked to see a sample of the manuscript. Does it contain many strike-outs? Was it written in a hurry, as the sometimes almost delirical tone suggests, or is the handwriting very careful? Also, there are sometimes unclear remarks, such as 'Play training game and put finishing touches on 21st.' The 21st what? The note is from the 25th of April, 1958, so it can't be a date. Perhaps a move number? Or even an appartment number? The reader is in the dark.

More importantly, which analysis and variations proved to be relevant for chess theory and which didn't? Which ideas were improved upon by Smyslov (or by others), which ideas worked and which didn't? Here, again, footnotes seem essential for a proper understanding and appreciation of the notebooks, but they're even scarcer here than in the games section. In the 1958 notebook, there is one useful footnote pointing out that Botvinnik's preparation of the Smyslov system of the Gr?ºnfeld Defence later 'played an interesting role in chess history' as it appeared in the game Botvinnik-Fischer, Varna 1962 - but it's the only note of its kind.

Botwinnik-SmylovObviously, the material in this book is of enormous historical importance. The current edition is beautiful and easy-accessible to casual readers, so it's no surprise it reached the top spot of bestseller's lists. But for a true understanding of the impact of these works, it contains too few explanatory notes. I suggest the material also gets an Annotated Version - not containing corrections, but information. For now, though, let's rejoice the fact that we finally have a glimpse of Botvinnik's famous preparation, and the emotions that were part of it.


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