Mikhail Botvinnik; The Patriarch who spent an impressive 15 years at the top!

Mikhail Botvinnik was respectfully referred to as ‘the Patriarch’ at the height of his game, and to this day he is still being credited with continuing success of players coming out of Russia.

Known for his legendary methods of preparation, and for holding the World Championship title for an impressive 15 years, Botvinnik was not only a top chess player but he maintained a career as an electrical engineer on the side. Wouldn’t you like to know how he did it all…

The Early Life of Mikhail Botvinnik

Mikhail Botvinnik was born on the 17th August 1911 to Russian Jewish parents, who both worked in dentistry. Due to their profession, the Botvinnik’s were not restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement like most Jews in the Russian Empire at this time. Mikhail and his older brother Isaak both attended Soviet school and were banned from speaking Yiddish at home. When asked about his nationality, Mikhail Botvinnik answered,

“Yes, my position is ‘complicated’. I am a Jew by blood, a Russian by culture, Soviet by upbringing.”

From the age of 12, Mikhail was taught to play chess, on a home-made set, under the instruction of a school friend of his older brother. He instantly fell in love with the game. After his first attempt in the school championship ended in an unremarkable middle of the table finish, Botvinnik realised that his best chance of success was thinking out ‘concrete concepts’ and deriving general principles from these.

Once he put this new technique into practise, Mikhail Botvinnik began to show a real aptitude for the game. In 1924 he won his school championship, and then lied about his age in order to become a member of the Petrograd Chess Assembly. The organisers turned a blind eye to his fib, due to his emerging talent, and young Mikhail went on to win his first two tournaments with the Assembly.

Mikhail Botvinnik

During the Moscow 1925 chess tournament, world champion José Raúl Capablanca gave a simultaneous exhibition in Leningrad on one of his rest days. Mikhail Botvinnik was fortunate to be selected as one of his opponents, and impressively won his game. Later the same year the young talent was selected to play in Leningrad’s team in a match against Stockholm.

Around about this time, Mikhail’s mother expressed growing concern about her son’s physique and encouraged him to start a programme of daily exercise, which he then maintained for most of his life and included as part of his pre-game preparations.

Botvinnik was below the age needed to take the entrance exams for higher education when he finished the school curriculum. During 1927, in the time he spent waiting to take them, he qualified for his first USSR Championship final stage, making him the youngest ever player to achieve this at that time.

In 1928, Mikhail Botvinnik was enrolled to Leningrad University’s Mathematics Department. Shortly after, in January 1929, he represented Leningrad in the student team chess championship against Moscow. Leningrad won, a feat which secured Botvinnik a transfer to the Polytechnic’s Electromechanical Department, where he had originally hoped to study but had been rejected from.

Mikhail Botvinnik’s Chess Career

Under the training of the Soviet Master and chess coach Abram Model, Mihail Botvinnik’s game improved rapidly. In 1930, he won the Leningrad Masters’ tournament, and then the next year he beat former Soviet champion Peter Romanovsky and won the championship of Leningrad.

In 1931, the same year in which he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, Botvinnik won his first Soviet Championship in Moscow. He was only 20 years old yet he barely celebrated this victory, commenting that the field of competitors was not the strongest.

In 1933, Mikhail Botvinnik won the Soviet Championship again, this time in his home city of Leningrad.

He took part in his first tournament outside the USSR, the Hastings 1934–35, and achieved a tie for 5th–6th place finish. Emmanuel Lasker famously said that Botvinnik’s mistake was only arriving in London a few hours before the start of the tournament, suggesting that next time he allows at least 10 days to acclimatise. Mikhail agreed saying he wouldn’t be making the same mistake again.

After tying for first place in Moscow’s second International Tournament in 1935, Botvinnik was offered the title of Grandmaster. Unusually, his response was that ‘titles are not the point’ but he did accept a free car and a 67% increase in his postgraduate study grant, from the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry.

In the winter of 1936, Botvinnik was invited to play in another English tournament and he took Lasker’s advice, arriving ten days before the play started. Although his rivals predicted disaster for him, he was undefeated and shared first place with José Raúl Capablanca. This made history as the first tournament victory by a Soviet master outside his own country. When the news reached Russia, Botvinnik was awarded the “Mark of Honour”.

Mikhail Botvinnik
Botvinnik won further Soviet Championship titles in 1939, 1944, 1945, and 1952, bringing his total to six!

Though international travel and games became more difficult during the second world war, Mikhail Botvinnik was still achieving strong results. As a result of this he was one of five players invited to contest the 1948 World Chess Championship, a tournament held following the death of the previous World Champion Alexander Alekhine.

Botvinnik was victorious in the 1948 tournament, with a convincing score of 14/20, earning him the title of the sixth World Chess Champion. He held this title, with the exception of two brief interruptions, for an impressive 15 years.

Despite his ranking as formal World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik didn’t have an impressive playing record throughout the early 1950s. He didn’t play any formal competitive games after winning his 1948 match tournament until he played David Bronstein to defend his title in 1951. Though he did ultimately defend his title, it was through a struggle which ended in a draw.

He placed only fifth in the 1951 Soviet Championship, and then the following year he tied for third in the 1952 Géza Maróczy Memorial tournament in Budapest. Although these weren’t the victories he may have hoped for, Botvinnik lost only five games out of over thirty in the two tournaments, and three of the four people who finished ahead of him in the 1951 championship were future world champions.

As well as playing individually, Botvinnik also had some success playing team chess. He was selected for the Soviet Olympiad team from 1954 to 1964 inclusively, and helped his team win the gold medal each of those six times. He also played twice for the USSR in the European Team Championship, again achieving gold medal finishes both times.

Mikhail Botvinnik’s Life After

After he lost the world title to Tigran Petrosian in Moscow in 1963, Mikhail Botvinnik made the difficult decision to withdraw from the following World Championship cycle. He did still remain involved with competitive chess for a while, notably appearing in several highly rated tournaments and producing some memorable games.

He finally retired from competitive play in 1970, when he was aged 59. He instead occupied himself with the development of computer chess programs, and also assisted with the training of younger Soviet players. It was this that earned him the nickname, “Patriarch of the Soviet Chess School”.

Mikhail Botvinnik’s autobiography, ‘Achieving the Aim’, was published in 1978, first in Russian, with the and English translation following in 1981.

Then in the 1980s, Botvinnik proposed a computer program which he believed could manage the Soviet economy. However, his proposals did not get any attention from the Soviet government. He personally financed his economic computer project and was actively working on the program until his death

Mikhail Botvinnik sadly died of pancreatic cancer in May 1995. Reports from his family say that he remained in relatively good health up until the end, and that despite deteriorating vision he continued to work up until two months before his death.

Mikhail Botvinnik

Quick Facts

  • In 1935, Mikhail Botvinnik married Gayane Davidovna Ananova, an Armenian ballerina. They had one daughter, named Olga, who was born in 1942.
  • Not only is he widely accepted as one of the strongest players of all time, he is also known as the father of the Soviet Chess School.
  • Botvinnik’s students over the years included World Champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik (as well as many other Grandmasters).
  • Botvinnik’s playing style was dictated by iron logic.  He was very strong and well-rounded in all aspects of the game, with a focus on methodical and long-term strategic play.
  • Botvinnik viewed himself as having a “universal style”, which he could change according to who he was facing.