“The Soviet Chess Patriarch”

This review has been printed in the May 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Soltis, Andy.  Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Chess Champion.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0786473373. HB $49.95; currently $39.96 at Amazon.

Lakdawala, Cyrus.  Botvinnik: Move by Move.  London: Everyman, 2013.  400 pp.  ISBN 978-1781941027.  PB $29.95; currently $22ish at Amazon.

The Dover edition of Mikhail Botvinnik’s One Hundred Selected Games was my first ‘real’ (non-primer) chess book, and it made quite an impression on me. Some of the Patriarch’s moves seemed other-worldly, as if they were made by a superior alien intelligence. While I was too young to fully grasp the propaganda embedded within the introductory essays, I tried to follow his advice for improvement – without, sadly, much success.

Now two new books – Andrew Soltis’ Mikhail Botvinnik: The Life and Games of a World Champion and Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move – have been published. With their release, a new generation of chess fans will, I hope, be introduced to the life and games of the Sixth World Champion.

Soltis’ book is a sober and scholarly biographical study. Here was someone who was as feared as he was respected among his Soviet peers, who spent nearly thirty years in a futile attempt to create an ‘intelligent’ computer program, and who defended Stalin until his death. Botvinnik portrayed himself in his writings as a kind of Communist superman, and his self-assurance and iron-cast beliefs were legendary. He remains something of an enigma, especially to a post-1989 reader.

Soltis’ Botvinnik is a man who was thoroughly of his time and place. The internal logic and teleology of Marxism may be hard to grasp today, but for Botvinnik, it was simply a given that the revolution begun in 1917 would inevitably lead to global Communism. This was not a wish or hope; this was science. Botvinnik tried to bring a similar rigor and logic to the chessboard and to his life more broadly.

In the 30s and 40s, as Soltis suggests (174), Botvinnik’s dominance was in no small part due to his superior training and opening preparation. Afterwards, it was his technical dominance, and his skill in adjourned positions, that allowed him to remain as first among equals.

This is not to say that Botvinnik’s success was restricted to the chessboard. Again and again Botvinnik used his influence with important Party leaders to advance his career and sidetrack his opponents. Soltis does an excellent job of tracing the numerous threads of patronage and influence that aided Botvinnik throughout his career.

One hundred and nineteen games and positions are included in Soltis’ book. The notes tend to follow the general contours of Botvinnik’s own, and Soltis also references Alexander Khalifman’s analysis. While the games are not the main focus of the book, they represent a sizeable chunk of the text, covering a decent cross-section of Botvinnik’s career.

Cyrus Lakdawala’s Botvinnik: Move by Move is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Soltis’ book. Lakdawala has written four books in the Move by Move series on specific players – the others being Capablanca, Kramnik and Korchnoi – and this book follows the usual template. Botvinnik’s games are the star of the show, and Lakdawala uses them to illustrate the Patriarch’s skill in six areas: attack, defense, dynamics, exploiting imbalances, accumulating advantages, and the endgame.

Lakdawala offers copious notes to the sixty games, and as is standard for the Move by Move series, he intersperses questions and answers in the analysis. Lakdawala is obviously trying to inject humor and vitality into his prose. The text is full of bombast: the Velimirovic Attack is “psychotic” (107) and one of Tal’s moves is “insane” (230). There are a lot of ten-dollar words in Botvinnik: Move by Move, and at times they obscure the otherwise excellent analysis in the book.

Style, of course, is a very personal thing. I don’t think that Botvinnik, who (on Soltis’ account) modeled his annotations on Stalin’s ‘terse’ manner of speech, would be thrilled with Lakdawala’s excesses, but plenty of readers seem to like it just fine. Of more concern are the faulty generalizations and factual inaccuracies. It’s not true, for example, that Botvinnik was “faithful to his beloved Rubinstein Nimzo-Indian his entire life” (50), and there is no statistical evidence for the repeated claim that Botvinnik was nearly invincible in games with opposite-side castling.

The games in the two books don’t overlap dramatically. Nineteen are common to both on my count. Both books are physically attractive and generally free from typographical errors.[1] I suspect that different readers will gravitate to one book or the other, and given their marked stylistic variance, this should not surprise. Those who want to enjoy Botvinnik’s best games with a enthusiastic guide should consider Lakdawala’s, and those more interested in a careful study of Botvinnik as person and player might turn to Soltis. Both can be recommended, but readers should consider their own preferences in choosing one or both books.


[1] I found two typos in Soltis (Botvinnik-Sorokin was played in 1931 and not 1951 on p.47, and the ECO code for Botvinnik-Stahlberg should be D32 and not D22 on p.83) and one in Lakdawala (an ellipse was not closed, but the page number eludes me). This does not include the questionable grammatical constructions in Lakdawala, the most grating of which was “I conjecture: …” (165).

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