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Botvinnik, Mikhail Moiseevich

(1911–1995), sixth world chess champion, a title he held from 1948 to 1963. Mikhail Botvinnik became a master in 1927 and a grandmaster in 1935. He was a seven-time USSR champion, and won the special title of absolute champion of that country in 1941. Among his most remarkable victories were Moscow 1935, where he shared first and second places with Salomon Flohr and ranked higher than Emanuel Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca; Nottingham 1936, where he shared first and second places with Capablanca and ranked higher than three world champions; Groningen 1946, where he won first place; and finally the Hague–Moscow 1948, where he became world champion.

Botvinnik was the only player to win matches against the world champions Lasker and Aleksandr Alekhin, and to achieve an even score with Capablanca and Max Euwe. He played the “best ever” game in chess history in Holland against the ex-world champion Capablanca in 1938. The elegance of this victory remains unmatched in the chess world. According to some experts, Botvinnik’s mastery was of a greater caliber than of any other world champion. Considered one of the founders of the Soviet chess school, he pioneered in developing certain techniques, including the art of training and preparing for matches. The future world champions Anatolii Karpov, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik all studied with him.

Botvinnik was not only a brilliant chess master, but also an academic who received a Ph.D. in science and technology (1951) and later became a professor specializing in electronics. He dreamed of designing an electronic chess player capable of matching the skill of a grandmaster.

Botvinnik was born in Kuokkola, near Saint Petersburg, to an assimilated Jewish family. His father was a dental technician who had worked in his youth in an underground printing press of the Bund, while his mother, a dentist, belonged to the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (Mensheviks). Later in life, Botvinnik’s father abandoned the Bund and forbade Yiddish in the house, so that his son would develop a Russian identity. Life proved more complex: Botvinnik confronted everyday antisemitism in his Soviet school, and the government variant in 1952, when, despite being world champion, he was barred from participating in the Helsinki Chess Olympiad and replaced by the non-Jewish Paul Keres. As if in revenge, in that same year Botvinnik won a spectacular victory at the twentieth Soviet Chess Championship, defeating all his rivals including Keres.

Botvinnik displayed great civic courage. Unlike other “persons of Jewish nationality,” he never signed anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist declarations, nor did he append his signature to any document condemning Viktor Korchnoi’s defection to the West in 1976. In 1964, Botvinnik visited Israel as a member of the Soviet chess team. Asked to define his nationality, Botvinnik replied with unusual frankness: “My situation is complex: I am Jewish by birth, Russian by culture, and Soviet by upbringing.” At the same time, in defiance of Soviet practice, he made no secret of his admiration for Israel.

Botvinnik’s many books were translated into most European and some non-European languages; articles and books on Botvinnik number thousands of titles. He is without doubt one of the most significant personalities in chess history.

Suggested Reading

I. V. D. Batarinskii, ed., Shakhmatnoe tvorchestvo Botvinnika, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1965–1968); Mikhail Botvinnik, U tseli: Vospominaniia partii (Moscow, 1997); Savelii Dudakov, Paradoksy i prichudy filosemitizma i antisemitizma v Rossii (Moscow, 2002).



Translated from Russian by Chaim Chernikov