Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Legacy Of Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik

We have all heard of Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik - the Great Patriarch of Soviet chess and the 6th World Chess Champion.

I can't help but notice that quite a number of players express disapproval of both Botvinnik as a person and also of his approach to chess and to others, Botvinnik was the epitome of everything that was bad about Soviet chess. Some people have even accused him of being a lame World Champion and that he only kept the title for so long is because of the automatic right of a return match for a World Champion.

As anyone who has picked up any of his books, from his well known One Hundred Selected Games to his annotations of the World Championship games (published by Olms and New In Chess), his notes are often very brutal. Botvinnik spares no one, not even himself. And it is this attitude which seems to have turned a lot of players off him.

So what you may ask, is so great about Mikhail Botvinnik?

Despite the criticisms, what we know about modern chess and how we approach chess is largely due to Mikhail Botvinnik's influence and contribution. He paved the way to modern chess. He made important discoveries to opening theory (eg. the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav still holds up today in the face of computer engines).

Botvinnik was fearless to a fault. He would never back down from tactical complications when the position demanded it but it is his middlegame prowess that are the most impressive.

He helped established what is now the following rules that continues to stand up today to anyone who wants to improve their chess.

#1. Annotate Your Own Games
There's an interesting blurb about this. When asked about Kasparov who was a promising teen at the time, Botvinnik's first question was,"Do you annotate your own games?" As anyone who has annotated their own games (using computer engines like Fritz/Rybka doesn't count), it is not an easy subject and oft a laborious task.

#2. Maintain Objectivity
Botvinnik was pedantic to the fault in this and was his own worst critic. One must cast aside personal bias when it comes to ealuation of any given chess position. You must be impartial and must part with your pride and bias. These days, with the advent of computer engines, spotting tactical mistakes is as easy as flicking off a switch with strong engines like Rybka and Fritz.

#3. A Healthy Body, A Healthy Mind
Botvinnik understood the importance of being and staying healthy. Increasing your body's physical condition means that your body is operating optimally at all times. That means your stamina and endurance improves (vital for tournaments) and your mind becomes more focused on the task at hand. After the 1951 match with Bronstein, Botvinnik realised that his 3 years of absence in chess almost cost him dearly and he started putting himself into shape by exercising regularly, and focusing more on chess.

#4. Study Of Annotated Games By Strong Masters
These days, there's no getting around this. If you want to improve, you have to read through annotated games, not to only to understand how to play the game accurately but to understand the concepts, plans and strategies. For example, Kasparov was made to study Alekhine's games because his approach to chess was similar to Alekhine's.

#5. Thorough Opening Preparation
Botvinnik's opening preparation involved thorough analysis and a deep understanding of the resulting position all the way up till the middlegame. Such a scientific approach to chess was unheard of in the pre-Botvinnik era. Any new or valuable information of interest will be noted down and analysed. These days, all chess players (even beginners) need to develop a basic opening repertoire, and more advanced players typically would try to have a repertoire that that would lead to rich middlegame play.

I think the greatest compliment that I can say is taken from 9th World Chess champion Tigran Petrosian,"We all regard ourselves as pupils of Botvinnik and subsequent generations will learn from his games."



    I guess he's not recommending blitz chess here.

  2. Funny you should say that! He absolutely hated blitz chess and says it ruins players and poured scorn on future World Champions who played rapid chess. In some ways, he is right.

    But with shorter and shorted time controls and the removal of adjournments, it is impossible to play chess as it was nowadays.