Skip to main content
Original Issue

The young Botvinnik

An aging champion created a new training technique to recover the fire of youth—and his title

For the past two months Mikhail Botvinnik has been playing Mikhail Tal in Moscow for the chess championship of the world, and he has become what he never was before—a dramatic hero, a popular favorite. What is stranger still is that Botvinnik is now playing chess as if he enjoyed it, rather than as if he were performing a patriotic duty. Part of the reason for his élan is that he won 6 of the first 11 games of the 25-game match—which put him so far ahead that he was virtually certain of regaining the title which he lost to Tal in an upset last year. Some of Botvinnik's new zest comes from the always-thrilling drama of the comeback: at 49 he was a decided underdog against the 24-year-old Tal.

The elation of victory might be enough to explain Botvinnik's high spirits, but it cannot account for the artistry and the high qualitative level of the Tal-Botvinnik games. The chess news was not that Botvinnik won thecrucial games, but the way he won them. Some of his games belong with the best in chess literature. Experts say he is playing better now than he ever has.

When he lost the title to Tal last year this amazingly methodical master merely glanced wearily at his young opponent, slipped away unnoticed while the crowd was cheering the new champion, and set about getting his title back. Botvinnik has a responsible post in the Ministry of Electrical Power Stations; he went each day to his office, but he also put himself in fine physical condition, skating, skiing and swimming, while he patiently dissected Tal's chess style. He reasoned that he had underestimated Tal, whose knack for audacious improvising threw him off balance by its very unorthodoxy.

Botvinnik himself is the most orthodox of champions. As the first Russian sport figure to become known abroad, back in the early '30s, Botvinnik became an institution, a hater of the cult of personality, famous in Russia as a man whose entire life was planned and predetermined. He always prepared for his matches with rigorous discipline, did not smoke or drink and went into seclusion for the last five days before a match, for rest and meditation. "We Soviet masters," he said loftily, "know we are performing a socially valuable, a cultural activity, that we are bringing benefit to the Soviet state."

Edge of disaster

For his match with Tal, however, he went far beyond his past routine, training mentally and physically with a will and perseverance that would have crumbled mountains. In secret he worked out the surprises he meant to spring on the world's master of surprise in chess And it paid off. Tal on his part was having a fine time as the youngest world champion ever, playing a stiff 10-week schedule of tournaments abroad, displaying to crowds in Stockholm and Prague the dazzling style that he himself described as showing a liking "for balancing on the edge of disaster." Against relatively weak opponents (weaker at any rate than Botvinnik) Tal's ceaseless striving for brilliance led to victories, but they generated overconfidence. Tal also missed a lot of sleep, became a chain-smoker and ran into a bad bout with kidney stones before the match

So Botvinnik, rugged and fit, looked youthfully vigorous compared to Tal when the match began. "This is Botvinnik's second youth!" said Salo Flohr, a Czechoslovakian master who has become an elder statesman of Russian chess Flohr's analysis was that Botvinnik was creating chessboard situations that denied Tal the opportunity to work his bold combinations He was maneuvering Tal into simple positions where Tal, an artist in complexity, felt unsure of himself: "This goads Tal into reckless experiments that would be too much for him even if he were in good form"

As Botvinnik's margin increased (the score was 10½ to 6½ after 17 games, so two victories would give Botvinnik back his title) experts began to complain that Tal was perhaps really a flash in the pan. He was called a victim of chess fatigue. His once-sensational innovations were now labeled eccentric. It was said he had burnt himself Out and. unlike Botvinnik, could never come back. Such comments missed the point of the creative effect Tal's games have had on Botvinnik. They have galvanized the old master into chess that is more inspired and original than that with which he first won the title 13 years ago. They might well have beaten any other player on earth except the ex-world champion who had prepared himself so thoroughly to meet them. And they proved pretty convincingly that Botvinnik belongs with the best chess players of all time.


A NERVOUS TAL paces and watches as Botvinnik calmly plans his winning moves.