Mikhail Botvinnik  (17 August 1911 – 5 May 1995) was a Soviet Russian grandmaster and three-time World Chess Champion.
He was an electrical engineer, one of the few chess masters who achieved distinction in another career while playing top-class competitive chess.
Botvinnik was the first world-class player to develop within the Soviet Union. This put him under some political pressure, but also gave him considerable influence within Soviet chess. He played a major role in the design of the World Chess Championship system after World War II. After his retirement as a player he coached a few select pupils. They included three future World Champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik.
Playing strength and style
Reuben Fine observed that Botvinnik was at or near the top of the chess world for thirty years – from 1933, when he drew a match against Flohr, to 1963, when he lost the world championship for the final time, to Petrosian – "a feat equaled historically only by Emanuel Lasker and Steinitz". The statistical rating system used in Raymond Keene and Nathan Divinsky's book Warriors of the Mind concludes that Botvinnik was the fourth strongest player of all time: behind Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Bobby Fischer but ahead of José Raúl Capablanca, Lasker, Viktor Korchnoi, Boris Spassky, Vasily Smyslovand Tigran Petrosian. The Chessmetrics system is sensitive to the length of the periods being compared, but places Botvinnik third in a comparison of players' best individual years (1946 for Botvinnik) and sixth in a comparison of fifteen-year periods (1935–1949 in Botvinnik's case). In 2005 Chessmetrics' creator Jeff Sonas wrote an article which examined various ways of comparing the strength of "world number one" players, some not based on Chessmetrics; and Botvinnik generally emerged as one of the top six (the greatest exceptions were in criteria related to tournament results). FIDE did not adopt the Elo rating system until 1970, by which time Botvinnik's strength had been declining for several years. According to unofficial calculations by Árpád Elo, Botvinnik was the highest-rated player from 1937 to 1954, peaking about 2730 in 1946.
This may seem surprising in the light of Botvinnik's results in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he failed to win a world championship match outright (as reigning champion) and his tournament results were patchy. But after the FIDE world championship cycle was established in 1948, reigning champions had to play the strongest contender every three years, and successful title defenses became less common than in the pre-World War II years, when the titleholder could select his challenger. Despite this, Botvinnik held the world title for a longer period than any of his successors except Garry Kasparov. Botvinnik also became world champion at the relatively late age of 37, because World War II brought international competition to a virtual halt for six years; and he was 52 years old when he finally lost his title (onlyWilhelm Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker were older when they were defeated). Botvinnik's best years were from 1935 to 1946; during that period he dominated Soviet chess; and the USSR's 15½–4½ win in the 1945 radio match against the USA proved that the USSR's top players were considerably better than the USA's (who had dominated international team competitions in the 1930s).
Kasparov quotes Tigran Petrosian as saying, "There was a very unpleasant feeling of inevitability. Once in a conversation with Keres I mentioned this and even compared Botvinnik with a bulldozer, which sweeps away everything in its path. Keres smiled and said: 'But can you imagine what it was like to play him when he was young?'"Botvinnik generally sought tense positions with chances for both sides; hence his results were often better with the Black pieces as he could avoid lines that were likely to produce draws. He had a strong grasp of long-term strategy, and was often willing to accept weaknesses that his opponent could not exploit in exchange for some advantage that Botvinnik could exploit. He confessed that he was relatively weak in tactical calculation, yet many of his games feature sacrifices – often long-term positional sacrifices whose purpose was not to force a quick win, but to improve his position and undermine his opponent's. Botvinnik was also capable of all-out sacrificial attacks when he thought the position justified it. Botvinnik saw himself as a "universal player" (all-rounder), in contrast to an all-out attacker like Mikhail Tal or a defensive wizard like Tigran Petrosian. Reuben Fine considered Botvinnik's collection of best games one of the three most beautiful up to the mid-1950s (the other two were Alexander Alekhine's and Akiba Rubinstein's).
Influence on the game
Botvinnik's example and teaching established the modern approach to preparing for competitive chess: regular but moderate physical exercise; analysing very thoroughly a relatively narrow repertoire of openings; annotating one's own games, those of past great players and those of competitors; publishing one's annotations so that others can point out any errors; studying strong opponents to discover their strengths and weaknesses; ruthless objectivity about one's own strengths and weaknesses. Botvinnik also played many short training matches against strong grandmasters including Salo Flohr, Yuri Averbakh,Viacheslav Ragozin, and Semion Furman – in noisy or smoky rooms if he thought he would have to face such conditions in actual competition. Vladimir Kramnik said, "Botvinnik's chess career was the way of a genius, although he was not a genius", meaning that Botvinnik was brilliant at making the best use of his talents.
Although Botvinnik did not use a wide range of openings, he made major contributions to those he did use, for example: the Botvinnik variation of the Semi-Slav Defense in the Queen's Gambit Declined, the Kasparov/Botvinnik system in the Exchange Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined, the Caro-Kann Defence (both the Panov-Botvinnik Attack for White and various approaches for Black), the Winawer Variation of the French Defence, the Botvinnik System in the English Opening. In his openings research Botvinnik did not aim to produce tactical tricks that would only be effective once but rather systems in which he aimed to understand typical positions and their possibilities better than his rivals. His advice to his pupils included "My theory of the openings fitted into one notebook" and "You don’t have to know that which everyone knows, but it is important to know that which not everyone knows." In fact he used different notebooks in different periods, and copied a few analyses from one notebook to the next. The "Soviet School of Chess" that dominated competition from 1945 to about 2000 followed Botvinnik's approach to preparation and to openings research; and, although Soviet players had their own preferred styles of play, they adopted his combative approach and willingness to ignore "classical" principles if doing so offered credible prospects of a lasting advantage.
In 1963 Botvinnik founded his own school within the Soviet coaching system, and its graduates include world champions Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik, and other top-class players such as Alexei Shirov, Vladimir Akopian and Jaan Ehlvest. Botvinnik was not an infallible spotter of chess talent: although he said of the 11-year old Kasparov, "The future of chess lies in the hands of this young man", he said on first seeing Karpov, "The boy doesn't have a clue about chess, and there's no future at all for him in this profession." But Karpov recounts fondly his youthful memories of the Botvinnik school and credits Botvinnik's training, especially the homework he assigned, with a marked improvement in his own play. Kasparov presents Botvinnik almost as a kind of father figure, going some way towards balancing the common public perception of Botvinnik as dour and aloof; and Kasparov inherited Botvinnik's emphasis on preparation, research and innovation. Botvinnik was still playing a major teaching role in his late 70s, when Kramnik entered the school, and made a favorable impression on his pupil.