Today marks the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the very first World Championship Match in 1951 organised under the aegis of FIDE, fought in Moscow’s imposing Tchaikovsky Concert Hall at the height of Stalin’s tyrannical reign, and contested between two leading Soviet players of contrasting styles and political beliefs: defending champion Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein, the inaugural Candidates Tournament winner.
And during this very dangerous time in Soviet history, the contest itself is mired with conspiracy theories. The 24-game match was a seesaw affair between two men not only of different political beliefs and styles, but also they both genuinely disliked each other – and the match couldn’t have been any closer.
Going down the homestretch, Bronstein edged ahead by winning the 22nd game: leading 11½-10½, he needed just one win (or two draws) to become World Champion. Unfortunately in game 23, he went for a risky pawn snatch when safe drawing lines were available, missed another drawing chance, resigned a position which was not yet completely hopeless, and made little attempt to win with the white pieces in the final game that was drawn in just 22 moves.
The final score was 12-12 with Botvinnik retaining his title, and rumours and conspiracies soon sprang up. Bronstein’s father had been in prison and was forbidden to enter Moscow, but had managed to watch some games incognito after being smuggled into the playing hall by his son. Botvinnik was the pride of the Soviet state, and had sent an effusive telegram of thanks to Stalin after his victory at the great tournament in Nottingham in 1936.
Was there coercion? Even in the years after glasnost, Bronstein gave ambiguous replies when quizzed on what happened, hinting at government pressure on him to lose. Some historians claim that Bronstein simply “choked” and was unable to bring home the point (or half-point) when he needed to. This could explain Bronstein’s vague claim he was coerced; he simply did not want to admit that he just couldn’t score when he needed to.
It just could well be political expediency that Bronstein himself didn’t want to become world champion. He explains in his brilliant and timeless classic, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (The second, updated and enlarged edition published by New in Chess, written with Tom Furstenberg): “I had reasons not to become the World Champion,” he wrote, “as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character. Since my childhood I have enjoyed freedom and despite the country that I grew up in, I have tried to live all my years in this spirit and I am very happy that today I feel the same and can enjoy my freedom.”
The first pivotal moment in their 1951 match arrived at the climax of game six in today’s diagram, when Bronstein blundered after thinking over his next move for 45 minutes, only to come up with the howler 1.Kc2?? (A totally inexplicable blunder – the simple draw was 1.Ne6+ Kf3 2.Nd4+ Kf2 3.Ka4 e2 4.Nc2 e1Q 5.Nxe1 Kxe1 6.c5 Kd2 7.Kxa5 Kxc3 8.Kb5 Kb3 9.Kb6 Kc4 10.Kxb7 Kxc5 and we’re down to the kings.) 1…Kg3! (It seems that when Bronstein went into the “tank”, he only anticipated 1…Kf3 2.Ne6 e2 3.Nd4+ and the same draw as the above note. But now, by sidestepping the check, Botvinnik’s e-pawn queens and Bronstein resigns.
There was no love lost between Botvinnik and Bronstein right through to the end of their lives. Shortly before he died, Botvinnik got irritated when someone mentioned Bronstein’s name. Botvinnik said, “Please never mention his name in my presence ever again; he is my enemy!” Upon learning of Botvinnik’s death, Bronstein quipped: “What a surprise; he was human after all!”
Archive photo: A full house, every house at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall for Botvinnik v Bronstein
GM Mikhail Botvinnik – GM David Bronstein
1951 World Championship Match, (23)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 c6 A solid, logical choice, given that Bronstein just needs a draw to become World Champion. 4.Bg2 d5 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Nh3 Botvinnik avoids the well-trodden theory path in an attempt to complicate matters; the idea being to dangle in front of Bronstein the prospect of giving up his bishop-pair early doors rather than allowing White to play Nh3-f4 that will force …e6 locking Black’s light-squared bishop in behind his pawns. 7…Bxh3 Bronstein doesn’t even think twice about what he has to do. 8.Bxh3 Nc6 9.Bg2 e6 10.e3 0-0 11.Bd2 Rc8 12.0-0 Nd7 13.Ne2 Qb6 14.Bc3 Rfd8 15.Nf4 Nf6 16.Qb3 Ne4 17.Qxb6 axb6 18.Be1 Na5 19.Nd3 Bf8 Bronstein rejects the most obvious move of 19…Rc2 as Botvinnik has 20.Nb4! and the rook has to retreat to c7, as the b2 pawn is taboo: 20…Rxb2? 21.Bxe4 dxe4 22.Bc3 Re2 23.Rfc1! and Black can’t stop Kf1. Black only has 23…Rc8 24.Kf1 Rxc3 25.Kxe2 and White wins the exchange and likely the game. 20.f3 Nd6 21.Bf2 Bh6 22.Rac1 Nac4 23.Rfe1 Na5 24.Kf1 Bg7 25.g4 Nc6 26.b3 Nb5 27.Ke2 Bf8 28.a4 Nc7 29.Bg3 Na6 30.Bf1 f6 31.Red1 Na5 32.Rxc8 Rxc8 33.Rc1 Rxc1? A pointless move, according to Bronstein – better was 33…Rc6!? and Botvinnik would have had to solve the problem of his b-pawn in less favourable terms. 34.Nxc1 Ba3 35.Kd1 Bxc1? Bronstein cities this as his worst mistake of the match, and he should have played the safer 35…Kf7 – but the greed of winning the pawn proved just too tempting, but in reality it just gives Botvinnik good practical winning chances with his bishop-pair vs badly-placed knights. 36.Kxc1 Nxb3+ 37.Kc2 Na5 38.Kc3 Kf7 39.e4 f5? Further opening up the position makes little sense. The big problem for Bronstein is that his knights on the rim are dim – as the old adage goes – so perhaps now he should de-rim them! A better try to hold was 39…Nc6! 40.exd5 exd5 41.Bd3 Ke6 42.h4 Ne7 43.h5 Kd7 44.Bh4 Ke6 45.Be1 Nc7 46.Kb4 Kd7 and we just have a “fortress”, where it is impossible for White to find a breakthrough, as Black’s king, knights and pawns are now working in unison. 40.gxf5 gxf5 41.Bd3 Kg6 The game was adjourned here – a practice that is now as obsolete as a Betamax video tape. 42.Bd6 Nc6 43.Bb1 Kf6 44.Bg3! Apparently Botvinnik analysed through the night with his team before they stumbled on this zugzswang idea at around 8am on the morning the game was to be resumed. 44…fxe4 The whole point of Botvinnik burning the midnight oil was that 44…Nab4 45.Be5+! Kg6 46.Bd6 Na6 47.exd5 exd5 48.Ba2 just picks off the d-pawn for an easy win. 45.fxe4 h6 46.Bf4 h5 47.exd5 exd5 48.h4 Nab8 49.Bg5+ Kf7 50.Bf5 Na7 51.Bf4 Nbc6 52.Bd3 Nc8?! The best practical try to draw, according to Jan Timman writing on this game for New in Chess magazine, is 52…Ne7!. 53.Be2 Kg6 54.Bd3+ Kf6 55.Be2 Kg6 56.Bf3 N6e7 57.Bg5 1-0 And a bit bizarrely and somewhat prematurely with so much at stake, Bronstein resigns. Ironically, had the knight been on a7 rather than e7, Black would have had no problems in holding on. The zugzwang theme looks a persuasive argument in any attempt at trying to hold against the active bishop-pair. However, the engines want to try a last-ditch effort to hold the game that involves a speculative double pawn sacrifice, starting with 57…b5!? 58.axb5 b6 59.Kd3 Ng8 60.Bxd5 Nf6 61.Bc6 Kf5 62.Kc4 Nd6+ 63.Kb4 Nc8 64.Bf3 Nd6 but after “breakthrough” concepts such as 65.d5!! Black looks to be fighting a lost cause – and moves such as d5!! would be found by Botvinnik, if not over the board then certainly in conjunction with one of his backroom team during a second adjournment session.