Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik (Михаи́л Моисе́евич Ботви́нник) (August 17, 1911 - May 5, 1995) was a Russian International Grandmaster and long-time World Champion.
Born in St. Petersburg, the son of a dental technician, he first came to the notice of the chess world at the age of 14, when he defeated the world champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, in a simultaneous display.
Progress was fairly rapid and by the age of 20, Botvinnik, already a Soviet Master of some years standing, won his first Soviet Championship in 1931. This feat was to be repeated in 1933, 1939, 1941, 1945 and 1952.
At 24 years of age, Botvinnik was competing on equal terms with the world's elite, chalking up international tournament successes in some of the strongest tournaments of the day. First (equal with Salo Flohr) at Moscow 1935, ahead of Emanuel Lasker and Capablanca. First (equal with Capablanca) at Nottingham in 1936 and equal third at the prestigious AVRO tournament of 1938.
Not surprisingly, Botvinnik continued to build on these successes and went on to hold the title of World Champion on three separate occasions (1948-57, 1958-60, 1961-63). His longevity at the top level of chess is attributed to his astonishing dedication to study. Pre-match preparation and post-match analysis had not featured quite so prominently in the armoury of many of his predecessors, but this was Botvinnik's real strength. Technique over tactics, endgame mastery over opening traps. His adoption and development of solid opening lines in the Nimzo-Indian, Slav and Winawer French stood up to the severest scrutiny and he was able to focus on a narrow repertoire of openings during his most important matches, frequently guiding the game into well chosen areas of preparation. There were many "secret" training matches against masters of the calibre of Flohr, Yuri Averbakh and Viacheslav Ragozin. It was the unveiling, many years later, of the details of these matches that provided the chess historian with a fascinating new insight into Botvinnik's reign.
It is perhaps surprising that Mikhail Botvinnik is not widely regarded as a contender for the title of best player of all time. On the one hand, his achievements were undoubtedly impressive and it should be remembered that his main rivals, the younger Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Mikhail Tal were all formidable players in their own right.
On the other hand, critics point to his rare appearances in post-World War II tournaments and his mediocre record in world championships matches - he lost 2 but regained the title in re-matches; and he struggled to draw the other 2 matches. Many people also think that Botvinnik's play was based on correctness rather than the intuitive or the spectacular - although world-class player Reuben Fine wrote that Botvinnik's collection of best games was one of "the three most beautiful".
Three factors contributed to his patchy record. World War II broke out just when Botvinnik entered his prime - he might have been world champion 5 years earlier if the war had not interrupted international chess competition. He was the only world-class player who at the same time had a long and distinguished career in another field - the Soviet government decorated him for his achievements in engineering, and Fine recounts a story which shows that Botvinnik was as committed to engineering as he was to chess. Finally, previous world champions had been free to avoid their strongest competitors, the way heavyweight boxers do to-day; Botvinnik was the first champion who was forced to play his strongest opponent every three years, and held the title longer than any of his successors except Kasparov.
From the 1960s onwards, Mikhail Botvinnik curtailed his competitive play, preferring instead to occupy himself with the development of computer chess programs and to assist with the training of younger players; Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were just two of his many students.
Botvinnik's autobiography, K Dostizheniyu Tseli, was published in Russian in 1978, and in English translation as Achieving the Aim (ISBN 0-08-024120-4) in 1981.