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Lev Khariton: English Lessons (Remembering M.M.Botvinnik)

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Old January 20th 04, 04:05 AM
Aryeh Davidoff
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Default Lev Khariton: English Lessons (Remembering M.M.Botvinnik)

Aryeh Davidoff: Since long this article by Lev Khariton has become
classical in the history of chess journalism. It is, without doubt, a
must for anyone who loves chess and chess history.



It so happened that I made Botvinnik's acquaintance twice. The first
time it was in autumn 1961 when I, among eight other Moscow juniors,
played against the World Champion in a simul with clocks. Botvinnik
made short work of everyone quickly, but in our game he was going
uphill for a long time and it was only after four hours' struggle that
Botvinnik managed to extricate himself.

White: Kg1,Qa4,Bf1,Nc5 pp.b5,d4,g3,h3
Black: Kg8,Qb6,Bb7,Bg7 pp.d5,e6,f7,g5
Moscow, 1961

In this position Botvinnik played 35...e5 and after 36.Nxb7 Qxb7
37.Qa6 Qb8 38.b6 exd4 39.Qa7 Be5 40.Qxb8+ Bxb8 as a token of draw he
shook my hand.

I shall never forget the moment when I stayed face-to-face with
Botvinnik at the chessboard. On that November evening many chess fans
came to the Central Chess Club of the USSR in Gogolevski Boulevard.
Full of respect for the World Champion, I was trembling all over;
besides, the game was drawing to a close in a mutual time
scramble.Quite characteristically, Botvinnik was keeping an eye on my
scoresheet, possibly fearing being cheated by his young opponent
before the time control. Sure, this game was not important for him,
but if he was so suspicious even in such an insignificant encounter,
it is easy to imagine the hard time he was giving to his far more
serious opponents.

This sense of suspicion so typical of the people of his generation was
accompanying Botvinnik throughout his long chess career. As is known,
playing the World Champioship match against David Bronstein in 1951,
Botvinnik was occasionally keeping away his sealed move from his
second, fearing the "fifth column" in his camp, so that his second had
to do a lot of guesswork after the adjournment.

Botvinnik's epoch was in no way easy for his opponents: actually, he
was reigning supreme for almost three decades. It can be remembered
that in the years of Stalin's personality cult there existed small
cults almost in all domains of human endeavour ( Gorky in literature,
Stanislavsky in theatre, Lysenko in biology etc; ). Therefore it was
quite natural that Botvinnik was universally worshipped. For example,
all World Championship matches were organised in such a way that every
small caprice of the Champion was satisfied. Mikhail Tal in 1961 and
Tigran Petrosian in 1963 wrote letters to the FIDE asking to postpone
their matches on account of illness, but nobody would even budge to
consider their requests.

Some years ago in a friendly talk with Bronstein I said quite
unthinkingly that Botvinnik had broken him down in their match. The
usually imperturbable David went beserk with anger: "He broke me
down?! It's me who crushed him!" Really, it was Bronstein who first
pierced through the armour of the apparently invincible champion, who
later went down to other challengers.

Now that ex-Soviet chess players have become literally globetrotters
playing in various international tournaments, we can remember that in
the 30s Botvinnik was actually the only chess player and one of the
very few Soviet people who were allowed to travel abroad. In other
words, in the years of the "iron curtain" the trust of the authorities
in Botvinnik was never put to suspicion. Having tied for first with
Capablanca in Nottingham in 1936, Botvinnik wrote a letter to Stalin
thanking "father and teacher" for his chess triumphs. At that time
such letters were written by physicists and collective farmers,
workers and academicians, and many years later Botvinnik confessed
that the letter had been pushed over to him by the KGB agents for

The loyalty of the Soviet champion was never put to doubt in the
Kremlin, but it should be noted that there was never any "feedback":
being a chess professional, Botvinnik never gave up his scientific
research because he, as everyone else in the Soviet Union, did not
feel secure about his future. In a state where sport and chess are the
servants of political manipulations and ideology, the champion is just
a pawn in the hands of bureaucrats; and a person with an iron-clad
character, Botvinnik detested even the slightest hint of an unsteady
or precarious life. He was fully aware that only day-to-day academic
earnings could provide him and his family with a steady income.

It would be, however, unjust and one-sided to characterise Botvinnik
as a wholly unimaginative, misanthropic man. He existed in two
dimensions. On the one hand, he was living an everyday life in which
"nothing human was alien to him". On the other, in the world of chess
and chess players he had his own principles; I'd rather say, his own
morality. What is more, he wanted these principles to be observed by
all other chess players. May be, it was one of the reasons why Karpov
and Kasparov who began their careers under Botvinnik's tutorship later
found other teachers and trainers who were certainly inferior to him
as chess players, but who were incomparably more tolerant. I paid
attention to this duality of Botvinnik's character when I met him
again 13 years later.

In June 1974 I received a telephone call from the USSR Chess
Federation. I was asked if I could give some English lessons to
Botvinnik who was to go to the USA and Canada to meet computer chess
programmers. Botvinnik had been working for many years on the
"silicon" chess player and in the Soviet Union he pioneered the idea
of an "artificial intellect" at a time when genetics and cybernetics
were considered as "two sold-out call-girls of capitalism". No wonder:
even coca-cola and pepsi-cola were looked upon as dangerous capitalist

Of course, I enthusiastically accepted the offer to be Botvinnik's
teacher and, certainly, I was very much excited when I pressed the
bell and he opened the door of his apartment to meet me. I experienced
very much the same feeling as my friend Yuri Razuvayev when he came
for the first time to Botvinnik's chess school: all the famous
diagrams from Botvinnik's games came dancing into my memory. I thought
that this man had played with the legendary Lasker, Capablanca,
Alekhine, that he was a legend himself.

Botvinnik met me with simplicity and hospitality. Without delay we got
down to English lessons. I told him that I always thought that he knew
English and German. Botvinnik just smiled: "Well, I am a typical child
of the "brigade" method. In the 20s and 30s we studied in such a way
that the best student of the group answered for the whole group, we
all passed exams and got diplomas. Stalin adored figures and he wanted
to "bake" as many people as possible with a higher education!" And I
was so nave as to think that Botvinnik knew everything, that he was
the most educated man etc. This image was created by Soviet propaganda
glorifying the champion, his education and his loyalty to the
communist ideas. It is interesting that in everyday life, in a
heart-to-heart talk Botvinnik himself laughed at this image, but when
he made public appearances he invariably wore, may be by force of
habit, the mask of an inaccessible man. But he liked a good joke, he
was not indifferent to beautiful women, he enjoyed remembering good
old days. In his apartment I noticed an old photograph: marshal
Blucher and Botvinnik, 1936...I don't really no how he managed to keep
this photo, the picture of the famous marshal, who fell victim in the
first wave of Stalin's purges, but I imagine that keeping such a
photograph in Stalin's epoch, could cost the Soviet champion his life.

How did our studies proceed? Botvinnik was a highly organised man, he
never wasted a minute. We met three times a week for two hours of
studies, and after the first hour he always invited me to the kitchen
to drink tea and eat sandwiches. Most of all I remember these tea
breaks when, sitting at the kitchen table the first Soviet World
Champion told me a lot of interesting things about himself, his
rivals, his contemporaries.

Once he asked me to make a short interval in our lessons because he
was to go to Tallinn for a few days. "Oh, Mikhail Moiseyevich, - I
exclaimed, - you will meet Keres!" "Keres must not know about it!" -
Botvinnik's voice was firm and categoric. Frankly speaking, I was more
than surprised by this reaction because his rivalry with Keres had
long before become classical history, but later I understood that even
the chess world for Botvinnik was divided into two camps. In one camp
are his former rivals - Smyslov, Bronstein, Tal, Petrosian- with whom
hid fight seemed to have never stopped, and in the other are all the
other chess players who had never threatened his chess hegemony and
whom he was always ready to help by word or by deed. Once we were
talking about Lilienthal, and Botvinnik said: "He was a very strong
player, and I always had difficult positions against him". He only
forgot to mention that he had always beaten Lilienthal!

Botvinnik's apparent coldness and arrogance were, in my opinion, his
defence not only at the chessboard, but in life as well when he had to
prove his supremacy. But as a chess player, he brought up many pupils
who became strong masters and grandmasters. Many leading trainers -
M.Dvoretsky, A.Nikitin, A.Bykhovsky and others - have more than once
relied on Botvinnik's advice and experience.

Botvinnik's modesty was proverbial. You felt it in his manners, in his
everyday life (he was washing up and shopping himself!), in the
simplicity of his apartment. Me first chess teacher the late and
unforgettable Yuri Brazilsky who worked as an editor of chess
literature of the Fizkultura and Sport publishers in Moscow, happened
to collaborate with Botvinnik editing his chess books. Brazilsky told
me with what trepidation and respect he used to watch Botvinnik
analysing chess positions. He was particularly amazed when Botvinnik
admitted having made some blunders or mistakes in his commentaries.
The courage and modesty showing not only a real chess player but an
outstanding personality as well...

Once when were drinking tea in his kitchen Botvinnik began remembering
Stalin and his times. "Stalin was a gangster, but a clever gangster",
- he remarked. I was surprised to hear this popular phrase from him.
When you hear such words from millions of laymen, who during the
"thaw" of Khrushchev or in the reign of Brezhnev missed brutal
dictatorship - to this I had got used more or less, but to hear the
same words from the man who was an intellectual idol of many
generations was, to say the least, very strange and disappointing!
Possibly, looking in retrospect, this can be explained. The 30s were
the years of Botvinnik's youth and chess triumphs, and every man, with
years, feels nostalgic about his past.

When in 1976 after Korchnoi's defection almost all Soviet grandmasters
signed the letter against the "traitor", Botvinnik was also asked to
put down his signature. But at this moment Botvinnik really made the
move of his life, the move explaining his supremacy in chess for many
years. He said that he wanted to write his own letter denouncing
Korchnoi. In my opinion, Botvinnik was well aware that for the
bureaucrats of the 70s he was a figure of the past and nobody would
ever give him this "privilege". And so, his name cannot be found under
this shameful document.

Curiously enough, Botvinnik often liked to assume the role of a
prophet, but his predictions very seldom came true. I remember him
saying that
Taimanov had much of a chance to beat Fischer in 1971.
Incidentally, he always believed that Fischer was a mentally sick
person; although, Tal or Spassky, for example, who had often met
Fischer at the chessboard, would have never shared his opinion. Or
Botvinnik was repeating that Karpov was about to lose his chess
strength pretty soon, but only today have his results become somewhat

Some months after our English lessons I met Botvinnik strolling near
his house on the bank of the Moskva River. He said that his English
had become much better and helped him a lot in his talks with American
scientists. I asked him about Gary Kasparov, his best pupil. "He has
been taken away from me, - he said bitterly, - I am afraid that now he
is lost for chess!" And again the "patriarch" made a mistake...
Old January 22nd 04, 05:25 AM
John Macnab
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Default Lev Khariton: English Lessons (Remembering M.M.Botvinnik)

Nice article. It was by far my favourite of the Lev Khariton works
posted so far. Thanks.



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