In August 2023 we will be publishing a reprint of two iconic Botvinnik books combined in one. In this book, Botvinnik writes the story of the three clashes with his compatriot Vasily Smyslov, matches full of tension between two virtually equal opponents, and his match with Tigran Petrosian, which marks the end of an era: the mighty Botvinnik lost his world title fifteen years after he conquered the highest crown for the first time.

Foreword by Andrew Soltis

In the Magnus era, why do the matches of Mikhail Botvinnik still matter?
Of course, we can appreciate them as history. They were the most prestigious, the most intensely watched chess events of their time. But it was a time that seems ancient, a time of Cold War crises, Elvis Presley and hula hoops.
It was a time when world championship matches were played under conditions that seem bizarre today. The prize money was the equivalent of a few thousand dollars. The rules, such as adjudication, were antique. The format was the old-school, best of 24 games. With games scheduled every other day and three optional timeouts per player, matches dragged on and on. The third Botvinnik-Smyslov match lasted 66 days, three times as long as the 2023 Ding Liren-Nepomniachtchi match.
Perhaps the greatest difference between today’s matches and those of 60-plus years ago is the contrast between Botvinnik and a modern champion, Magnus Carlsen. In many ways, they are diametric opposites: Botvinnik hated speed chess. Carlsen revels in it. The classical time control should ‘be phased out,’ he said. Botvinnik said the best control is forty moves in two and a half hours. That is the one that was phased out, 40 years ago.
Carlsen plays constantly. He logged nearly 400 clocked games in 2022. Botvinnik felt playing more than 40 games a year was harmful. A master needs to spend as many weeks thinking about chess as he does playing, he said. In some years, Botvinnik played no public chess at all.
He was suspicious, if not contemptuous, of many of the features we take for granted, like Elo ratings, Swiss System pairings and the appearance of dozens of new grandmasters every year. He would be appalled by speed tiebreakers and would find Armageddon a barbaric way to decide who won a tournament. Walking away from the world title without a fight, as Carlsen did in 2023, would have seemed insane to him.

And yet Botvinnik’s legacy is deeply imprinted in the DNA of every grandmaster today. He was the first to emphasize preparation: what a player does before a game plays an enormous, if not decisive, role in what happens during a game.
Before him, preparation was something the greatest players paid only lip service to. ‘Botvinnik made us all study the openings,’ as Emanuel Lasker put it. Lasker said this in the 1930s, when ‘nobody worked on the openings as thoroughly as Botvinnik,’ according to Yuri Averbakh. At that time, preparing opening innovations was a personal training habit. But it became a national, then international, regimen when Botvinnik set down his views, in a 1939 tournament book, about ‘my method for preparation for competition’.
There is a curious contrast between Botvinnik’s method and that of his countryman Konstantin Stanislavski. The great acting teacher’s book, An Actor Prepares, appeared three years earlier and popularized what became known simply as ‘the Method’. He encouraged actors to use improvisation to bring out emotions they could use when they followed a script on stage. Botvinnik, on the other hand, sought to discourage improvisation: preparation meant overcoming the urge to act without a script.
It is hard to imagine today why Botvinnik’s view was so controversial and original. But there was a rival theory that said opening preparation cripples ‘the creative element in chess’, as his old rival Grigory Levenfish put it. This view survived into the golden age of Soviet chess. Boris Spassky, a fan of Levenfish, credited an open mind, uncluttered with opening theory, for many of his successes.
‘But a fact remains a fact,’ Botvinnik said in one of his last interviews. ‘A chess player’s preparation, his investigative work, leads to a rise in practical results.’ The best evidence of this, he said, was the post-World War II dominance of Soviet players. Their superiority became obvious after the stunning 15½-4½ rout of the Americans in the 1945 USSR-US radio match. ‘You know why we won? We began to study the starting position,’ David Bronstein, a member of the winning team, recalled in a 2003 interview. ‘And to not allow the Americans out of the opening.’
Bronstein, it should be noted, cherished improvisation. In the 1951 World Championship Match he tried to neutralize Botvinnik’s opening supremacy by seeking a new, anti-theoretical move in every game. Today Bronstein’s approach has disappeared. Botvinnik won the debate.
And many fans believe his method created a monster. They watch online games in which grandmasters reel off their computer-aided analysis. The real struggle begins at move 30 – if it is not already drawn by then.
This would not have troubled Botvinnik. In one of his last interviews, with New In Chess, he scoffed at the notion that preparation would ‘kill over-the-board chess’. Asked if there was a danger that ‘the real battle will take place at home and the player who has done his homework best will be champion,’ he replied, ‘I do not see this as a problem.’ And he added, ‘This is the way it should be.’

The first half of this book is Botvinnik’s view of three world championship matches and how he prepared for them. In contrast, Vasily Smyslov had astonishingly little to say about what he called the most important chess events of his life. While Botvinnik annotated all of the games in the 1954 and 1958 matches, Smyslov gave a total of five games from them in his best-game collections. His general comments about the matches were often terse and opaque. How did he lose the championship title? ‘It seems to me I was not at my best in this [1958] match,’ he wrote.
Bobby Fischer sparked controversy, six years after that match, when he composed a list of the ten greatest players in history. He left both Botvinnik and Tigran Petrosian out. Few people noticed when Fischer included them in a second top-ten list that he gave later in a Yugoslav radio talk. And fewer noticed that Fischer failed to mention Smyslov on either list. Yet Smyslov was a top-20 player longer than any world champion except Lasker.
Why has he become the least well-known of the 20th century champions? The best explanation is his short reign and his few words. Smyslov guarded his thoughts, about chess and anything else, until the end of his life. Fans could be forgiven for mistaking his relative silence for a lack of conviction. Only in his final years did they learn he was deeply religious, regarded chess computers as the work of Satan, believed in the predictions of Nostradamus and suggested chess had been brought to earth by UFO aliens.
If Smyslov’s fans wanted an alternative, non-Botvinnik view of their matches, what they read was often disappointing. The outcome of the games seemed to depend solely on whether Botvinnik played enough good moves. Levenfish, a friend of Smyslov and a bitter enemy of Botvinnik, reviewed the first match in detail in the 1954 Soviet Chess Yearbook. He heaped praise on Botvinnik for his ‘colossal theoretical knowledge, exceptional opening intuition, exact positional understanding (and) deep strategic plans.’ As for Smyslov, Levenfish said he failed to become World Champion because of a continuing weakness in the opening. Readers might have thought Botvinnik had won a crushing victory, rather than limped to a 12-12 draw. They might have been surprised to learn that the cumulative score of their three matches was 35-34 in Smyslov’s favor.

In a way, the first three matches in this book were as great a clash of personalities as in any world championship, as much as Karpov versus Kasparov. While Botvinnik played the role of a stern father, Smyslov was like the smiling, easy-going uncle. Botvinnik was proud of what he called his ‘hard character’ that easily offended. Smyslov seemed to get along with everyone. His attitude was to try to do his best and let fate decide. ‘What will be, will be,’ as his singing instructor said. Smyslov’s motto was, ‘I will make 40 good moves and if you are able to do the same, the game will be a draw.’
Botvinnik’s personality was best remembered by graduates of his celebrated school for talented Soviet adolescents. Some, like Vladimir Kramnik and Vasily Ivanchuk, spoke glowingly of what they had learned. ‘As Mikhail Botvinnik used to say, if you want to play chess strongly then you should study your entire life,’ Ivanchuk recalled. ‘I agree with him fully.’
Botvinnik repaid the loyalty of his prize pupils. Anna Akhsharumova was his ‘favorite female student,’ her husband Boris Gulko recalled. When the couple declared their intention to emigrate, they became outcasts in Soviet chess culture. But Botvinnik went to the Communist Party’s powerful Central Committee to plead. ‘She can become the World Women’s Champion,’ he told the party leaders. ‘Under no circumstances’ should the Soviet Union lose her talent, he said, in vain.
Botvinnik’s doctrinaire approach to chess was not welcomed by all of his students. Alexander Beliavsky said each of the lessons he got as a teenager ended when ‘I left Botvinnik in tears with the thought that I understand nothing about the game and will never learn to play chess well.’ Lev Psakhis, another future star, recalled how Botvinnik watched him play a training game that began 1.e4 e5 2.♘f3 ♘f6 3.♘xe5 d6. Psakhis chose 4.♘xf7. ‘If it had not been the Botvinnik School but the Tal [School] this would have been met with understanding,’ he said. But it ‘signed my death sentence and they stopped inviting me to sessions.’
Botvinnik’s austere aura fueled a reverence that bordered on awe. Petrosian, Averbakh and others had strong recollections of sitting down at a chessboard and realizing it was the legendary Botvinnik facing them on the other side. Colleagues concluded Smyslov simply could not play well against him. Reuben Fine was giving up chess for a second career, as a psychologist, when he offered an Adlerian diagnosis. Smyslov has ‘a strong inferiority complex about Botvinnik which he will have to overcome if he is to make further progress,’ Fine wrote before the 1948 World Championship match-tournament.
Botvinnik sensed this lack of confidence. In 1947 he told a friend about ‘a very important game’ with Smyslov. He had a favorable position but realized he had blundered. Smyslov could make a powerful reply. ‘But Vasya trusted me,’ Botvinnik said. ‘He believed I could not be mistaken.’ Smyslov made a weak reply and lost. (Botvinnik was apparently referring to their game at Groningen 1946, when Smyslov quickly played 21...♘h6? after talking himself out of playing 21...♗h6!.)
Winning that game gave Botvinnik a record of six wins, four draws and a single loss to Smyslov. But from then until their first match, they played on roughly even terms. Botvinnik’s career peak lay behind him. For Smyslov, ten years younger, the peaks were ahead.

Botvinnik often disparaged colleagues as ‘lazy’ and blamed their lack of success against him on poor preparation. But Smyslov seemed to work harder getting ready for their 1954 match than at any other time in his life. According to Svetozar Gligoric, ‘he carried out the enormous task of writing out some 800 of Botvinnik’s most important games with comments about his play in the various phases.’ This is a remarkable feat considering there were less than five months between the last round of the 1953 Candidates Tournament that Smyslov won and the first game of the 1954 World Championship Match in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert hall.
Nevertheless, Botvinnik managed to surprise the challenger in that first game. He used the rare 5...♗a5 line of the French Defense Winawer Variation. Botvinnik had gotten the better of it in training games with Ilya Kan. Surprised or not, Smyslov enjoyed a solid plus until well into the middlegame. His decision to force a trade of queens was blamed for his loss. He also lost the second and fourth game, marking the worst start in a world championship match since 1886.
But what happened next was a sign that Smyslov had overcome his awe of Botvinnik. After two steadying draws, he scored 4½-½ and seized the match lead. This was the kind of comeback that only Botvinnik was known for in this era. Eleven years before, when Botvinnik lost to Smyslov for the first time, in a Moscow championship, Smyslov seemed to relax but Botvinnik was energized. He won all of his remaining games in the tournament and finished two points ahead of Smyslov. Boris Vainstein, the wartime ruler of Soviet chess, was no fan of Botvinnik, but he was impressed: ‘This is how he reacted to the loss!’ Vainstein said.
Botvinnik still had that resilience in 1954. He regained the match lead by scoring four wins and one loss in the next five games. Anyone else would have been overjoyed by this. But the loss provoked Botvinnik to detect betrayal. In his notes to the 14th game he said ‘it is rather surprising’ that Smyslov responded quickly to his choice of 9.♗e3. It was a variation ‘I had never played before, except in training games.’ In other words, he was accusing Ilya Kan of passing his opening secrets to Smyslov. He was also accusing Smyslov of cheating. Smyslov responded mildly, in his notes to the game, that 9.♗e3 had been played before and therefore it had been ‘also examined,’ alongside the more usual 9.h3 and 9.d5. The two players had their annotations published in various editions over the years that followed the matches. Readers may wonder if they changed their notes. In some instances, they did. For example, in Smyslov’s first notes for the ninth game he wrote Botvinnik’s 10...♘d7 was ‘very necessary’ to defend the kingside with ...♘f8. But in a later version, he said, ‘I don’t like this move.’ Black should have played 10...♘bc6 followed by ...♗d7 and ...0-0-0, he wrote.
He also revised his note to Botvinnik’s next move, 11...♘f8. ‘More accurate’ he said, ‘was 11...♕c7.’ That was what Botvinnik recommended when his match book came out. But Smyslov changed his mind and concluded, ‘White has the strong reply 12.♗b5!.’
The best-of-24-games format for World Championship matches had been adopted by FIDE in 1949 at Botvinnik’s urging. It remained the format until after his death. In subsequent years, matches were gradually limited to 20, 16, 14, 12 and then back to 14 games. Shorter matches were preferred by players and organizers. After all, the outcome would not have changed if the matches lasted two months, would it?
But the outcome might have changed in 1954. Fatigue influenced Botvinnik’s play early on. In the seventh game he said he’d spent ‘a long time’ calculating a variation based on Smyslov castling on the next move. Then he realized Smyslov had moved his king from e1 and then back six moves before.
Later, when he was leading by two points, Botvinnik’s stamina began to flag. ‘It became evident from the 20th [game] onward that I had little strength left,’ he wrote in his memoirs. He lost two games and was in trouble in a third during the final weeks. But he managed to cross the finish line with a 12-12 tie. Under the rules he had proposed to FIDE five years before, the champion retained his title.

This was the second drawn championship match for Botvinnik, a sign he had lost the dominating superiority he had enjoyed as recently as the 1948 match-tournament. Age was one explanation of his decline. Another was rustiness. Botvinnik had only played six games in public in 1953.
To remedy the rust, Botvinnik took an extraordinary step. He asked FIDE to allow him to play, hors concours, in the next Candidates Tournament. This was remarkable on several counts. First it ran counter to the conventional view that the Candidates stage incurred an enormous cost on the health, opening preparation and other resources of the exhausted winner. He could only stagger towards the Championship Match. Boris Spassky explained his loss in the 1966 Championship Match by saying, ‘I lost too much nervous energy’ qualifying for it.
Another reason Botvinnik’s proposal was controversial was the conflict of interest. If he were allowed to play in the next Candidates Tournament, set for Amsterdam in 1956, his games could help pick his 1957 match opponent. He was likely aware of suspicions that players in the two previous Candidates Tournaments had manipulated the results to ease the way for the winners.
FIDE President Folke Rogard did not raise Botvinnik’s proposal at a federation congress but quietly polled the eight men who had qualified for Amsterdam, Botvinnik said. One of them, Herman Pilnik, issued a ‘categoric objection’ and the other players went along with him. Botvinnik felt cheated. ‘I was deprived of the possibility of practical training,’ he said in a 1977 speech.
He tried to make up for this in training games and other events. In his memoir Achieving the Aim, Botvinnik complained he’d gone too far during the eight-month period before the match. ‘I played too many games (50!),’ he wrote. Botvinnik was convinced that his attempt to become battlehardened had made him battle-weary. ‘When I ceased to experience “chess hunger” I always played without drive,’ he said.
His only known games during the pre-match months were with his new sparring partner, Yuri Averbakh. ‘We played with passion,’ he recalled. It became ‘a very hard and nervous struggle for Botvinnik! And he didn’t have enough time to recover.’
When the 1957 Championship Match began, Botvinnik appeared out of practice in the first game. As White he fell short of time and missed several superior continuations, such as 29.♕b8+ ♗f8 30 f5!. Smyslov might have won the second game as well because he quickly established the kind of favorable endgame in which he excelled.
But Botvinnik recovered. His victories in the fourth and fifth rounds indicated he had found his championship form. The match began to resemble the 1951 challenge by Bronstein, with the players trading victories back and forth. Their colleagues detected a somewhat different Smyslov. He did not try to out-calculate Botvinnik or challenge him to a tactics-fest. Decades later Vladimir Kramnik wrote, ‘Smyslov became a founder of the style which was later brilliantly developed by Karpov: gradual increasing positional pressure, based on calculating short variations...’
Once again, Botvinnik was exhausted as the match entered the seventh week. In the 17th game he erred badly on move 41 of a balanced endgame. Smyslov rejected a draw offer and sealed the move that began a plan allowing him to win one of his finest games. Botvinnik recognized the match was lost when he failed to convert an edge in the rook-and-bishops-of-opposite-color endgame in the next round. He drew three of the remaining games in 15 moves or less. Smyslov became the seventh World Champion.
Like almost everyone else, Smyslov saw this as a changing of the guard. But Botvinnik considered it a temporary change of seats. As his nephew, Igor Botvinnik, recalled, ‘He always said the World Championship cycle ends with the return match.’

History records the World Championship return matches of LaskerSteinitz (1896), Euwe-Alekhine (1937), Tal-Botvinnik (1961) and KasparovKarpov (1986). History also recalls how bitterly disappointed Garry Kasparov was that he was not granted what he called ‘the traditional’ rematch after losing his title to Kramnik in 2000.
But a rematch guarantee has to be written into the championship rules. Botvinnik got to play the 1958 rematch because he lobbied FIDE to rewrite the rules. The rules that had existed for the 1951 and 1954 matches did not provide for a rematch. Instead, they required a match-tournament. It would take the place of the next scheduled world championship match.
Here’s how that would have worked: If Smyslov had won the 1954 match, he would have remained champion until 1957. But he and Botvinnik would have kept a close eye on the 1956 Candidates Tournament. The most likely winner would have been Paul Keres. Then Smyslov, Botvinnik and Keres would have competed in a three-man match-tournament championship in 1957. Imagine Keres winning that, finally becoming champion and reigning until 1960, when he would defend his title against the next Candidates winner, Mikhail Tal.
But once FIDE shelved the match-tournament plan – at Botvinnik’s urging – a Smyslov-Botvinnik rematch had to be squeezed into the threeyear, 1957-1960 timetable. FIDE scheduled it for March 1958, ten months after the previous match.
The timing seemed a trivial matter. The 1958 Soviet Chess Yearbook noted that Smyslov had just beaten Botvinnik by an impressive three points. ‘What could happen in one year’ to change that, the yearbook asked? But Spassky said the timing was part of a clever Botvinnik strategy. ‘The secret was simple,’ he said. ‘The winner couldn’t recover physically in one year but Botvinnik began to prepare for the revenge match while losing the first.’

Nevertheless, Smyslov was regarded as a prohibitive favorite. When asked in a public pre-match gathering about the outcome, he said, ‘Of course, this match with Botvinnik will be difficult.’ But his gruff second, Igor Bondarevsky, wouldn’t allow false modesty: ‘Well, Vasily Vasilyevich, why do you say such things before this audience? What difficult match? There’ll be a rout.’
Evgeny Vasiukov, a future grandmaster, recalled hearing that exchange. He was also in the audience for the first game of the rematch. It began with a theoretical bomb. ‘When Smyslov played 1.e4 against Botvinnik, and he replied with the Caro-Kann, Smyslov only shook his head,’ Vasiukov said in 2011. ‘He hadn’t prepared for that opening.’
Botvinnik had never before met 1 e4 with 1...c6. In truth, his record with it in the match was uneven. By move fifteen, he had the upper hand in two games. But he was significantly worse in two other games and much worse in a fifth. After switching to the Sicilian Defense, Botvinnik didn’t resume the Caro-Kann until the 19th game. He lost it badly.
But by then, the outcome of the match seemed certain. Botvinnik joined Alexander Alekhine as the only ex-world champion to regain the title. He blamed Smyslov’s overconfidence for the result. Smyslov became ‘accustomed to searching only at the board during a game,’ Botvinnik wrote. Smyslov, however, regretted falling ill in the final weeks.
Botvinnik was acutely critical of play in the world championship matches that followed his, even those of his protégé Garry Kasparov. ‘The creative level of the last match in Seville was poor,’ he told Raymond Keene in 1988, referring to the fourth Kasparov-Karpov match.
An analysis of individual moves by computer chess authority Ken Regan pointed out that Botvinnik played significantly better in the three Smyslov matches than he did against Bronstein. His moves were rated 2706, 2713 and 2792 in the Smyslov matches, compared with a mere 2517 in 1951.
Smyslov’s moves showed much greater volatility, according to Regan. They were rate slightly higher (2717) than Botvinnik’s in their first match. But they fell to 2611 in the second match, even though he won. Their quality plummeted to 2438 in 1958, the lowest for the FIDE-era World Championship matches analyzed by Regan.
Fans could notice a simpler bottom line: Smyslov and Botvinnik played three matches. Each won one and the third ended in a tie. Yet thanks to the rules, Botvinnik essentially won both championship cycles and was able to remain on the throne for six years.

Tigran Petrosian’s literary legacy is slim. But he left us the most extensive first-person account of how a champion prepared for the match that won him the title. In it he describes the various ways he and his team tried to decode the Botvinnik mystery. Serving as a journalist in the Moscow press room during the Smyslov matches had been invaluable. The champion’s games revealed how ‘Botvinnik suffered all his life from a certain “illness”, namely a lack of combinational vision.
Yet how could he use this insight? Petrosian concluded he should not try to steer the champion into sharp openings and resulting middlegames unless the match situation became desperate. He told his second Isaac Boleslavsky he would play against Botvinnik ‘the same way I play against everyone else.’
That raises a question: how much did Botvinnik learn from studying himself – that is, in various training games shown in this book?
We know he got useful theoretical information from some games. In the fourth game of the Petrosian match, Botvinnik’s notes said he had prepared 9.♗c4 ‘in my study’. That may literally be true – if that is where the sixth game of his training match was played. Botvinnik added that the 9…♘a5? ‘trap’ had also been ‘prepared at home’. In fact, it was what Semyon Furman fell into during the game played a few weeks before. Botvinnik did not disclose the identity of any of his sparring opponents.
Another question: how much did the opening notebooks we see in this book help him? This is harder to answer because in many cases his notes seem to be inspirations he intended to analyze more deeply later. His analysis of once-trendy variations (in the Meran, Nimzo-Indian and Grünfeld variations, etc.) appears dubious if not wrong. Today a grandmaster might jot down a note to himself and let the computer tell him if it worked.
The notebooks show hints of how he revised his thinking. For example, in the King’s Indian Attack, after 1.♘f3 ♘f6 2.g3 g6 3.♗g2 ♗g7 4.0-0 0-0. In his notes to Game 17 of the 1954 match, Botvinnik questioned Smyslov’s 5.d3. He said it could only be successful if Black hurries with ...d5. But in his 1957 notebook he gave 5...d5 an exclamation mark. Bobby Fischer, it should be noted, claimed Black is better (!) after 5...d6 because he could meet 6.e4 with 6...c5 – and 6.c4 with 6...e5.

Petrosian chose not to test Botvinnik in the first hour of play. He decided to seek ‘new possibilities in quiet openings’. For example, he accepted the Queen’s Gambit. That put the onus on the champion to prove that White had an initiative.
The result was a match with only seven decisive games, all but one of which were grinding endgames. No wonder it was widely criticized as one of the most boring World Championship contests ever. Yet Ken Regan’s computation rated the quality of all moves at 2744. This was the highest since Alekhine-Capablanca, and was not exceeded again until the 1980s. (For comparison, the moves of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match were rated 2646 by Regan and the 2000 Kasparov-Kramnik match was 2810.)
Two occasions early in the match revealed the players’ personalities. In the first game Petrosian was badly outplayed with the white pieces and lost. Before the second game he told his seconds they should not try to steer him into getting the point back. It was a 24-game match, he told them. There was plenty of time. He was not going to become someone other than Tigran Petrosian.
He tied the score in the fifth game, a much-anthologized endgame. When he sealed his move, 41.♔f7, Botvinnik’s position was hopeless. But the champion felt Petrosian had written the move in an ambiguous way. It could have been ♔f8, putting his own king in check. Botvinnik was outraged that the arbiters ruled against him. He said he was ‘nervous’ until he managed to see a copy of Petrosian’s scoresheet a week later.
As the match entered its second month, the score was tied 7-7. But Botvinnik said he ‘could not adjust to Petrosian’s inexplicable style’. He lost the 15th, 18th and 19th games and recognized the situation was hopeless. The final three games were drawn in a total of 41 moves. The rules no longer provided for a rematch. The Botvinnik era was over. The Petrosian era had begun.
As an ex-champion, Botvinnik insisted that chess benefited from the return match provision. ‘Chess needs a stable, genuine world champion,’ he wrote. The return match protects ‘the chess world against a champion who possibly might not merit the title of World Champion.’ To this, Petrosian replied, if chess needs this much protection – to guard itself from a ‘fluke’ world champion, then something is wrong with the way we choose our best player.

Andrew Soltis,
New York, June 2023