The Legacy of Mikhail Botvinnik in Russian Chess

Unlike the American Bobby Fisher, Russians Anatoly Karpov or Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik is not well known outside the world of World Class chess.  However, his influence on the way the game is played today is undeniable.  World Chess Champion Tigran Petrosian once said “We all regard ourselves as pupils of Botvinnik and subsequent generations will learn from his games.” Besides Petrosian, Botvinnik also taught Karpov and Kasparov as well as other world champions.

Botvinnik’s hold on the Soviet Russian chess world of the mid 20th century is shown in his 6 Soviet chess championships from 1931 to 1952. He was also World Champion from 1948 to 1957, 1958 to 1960 and 1961 to 1963.

Besides teaching younger players, Botvinnik also wrote books about chess. His “One Hundred Selected Games” and his other works are still standard reading today.  Through these volumes and through his students Botvinnik established the basic rules of how to be a great chess player:

First, Botvinnik insisted on annotating his own games and also insisted that his students do the same. The laborious job of re-looking, analyzing and commenting on each move of each game was very difficult, but it made the player think about the game and how they could play better.

Next, Botvinnik was completely objective about his games and those of his opponents. Computer-like evaluation of each tactical position and decision was a must for the player to become excellent at the game. Emotions must be left aside as much as possible. This also led to the study of great matches by the masters. Like a general who studies the battles of Napoleon or Alexander and then applies the lessons to today, so Botvinnik studied the games of the past masters to gain a deeper insight into the strategies of the winners.  Also much like a general who collected intelligence on his opponents so did Botvinnik study his opponents to gain a similar advantage.

Botvinnik also believed in getting fit and healthy and staying that way. Physical condition was very important, especially during the long and grueling tournament play.  Also he thought that good health and good fitness let the mind focus on the game.

After retiring from competitive play in 1970, Botvinnik focused on teaching and on developing electronic and computerized chess games. Botvinnik was a Doctor of Electrical Engineering and a computer scientist so it seems only natural that he should combine his vocation with his avocation in his later years.