A few days ago I reviewed Max Euwe's book on the 1948 Match-Tournament for the world championship title that had been vacated by the death of the previous champion, Alexander Alekhine, in 1946. In the new English-language edition of this book Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree writes a foreword, and therein he touches on the question of whether Paul Keres was forced or at least pressured to throw games to Mikhail Botvinnik, who won the tournament and thus the championship title. After noting that the book is silent on the topic, Ree has this to say:
In my opinion, there were signs that something was amiss, especially as may be seen in game 30 [DM: Their game from the end of the third of the five cycles]. There, Keres, normally a fine endgame player, after adjournment, reaches a rook endgame that could be drawn by basically doing nothing, but instead with 50.a4, and the subsequent 53.Rd3 and 54.Ra3, he maneuvers his rook to the most passive position on the board.
In fairness, I must point out that highly qualified observers have considered this atrocity to be just one of those things that can happen to even the greatest players, but I don't agree. Overlooking a mate in one, yes, but not this.
Here is the question before 50.a4
and here is the position after 54.Ra3.
If I recall correctly, the late Larry Parr used to bang on this particular conspiracy theory drum pretty regularly, also appealing to Keres' horrible play in that endgame as evidence as well. Even though I was always far more a Keres fan than a Botvinnik fan I always rejected it out of hand, perhaps due to a general allergy to conspiracy theories.
Now, one reason I've generally rejected conspiracy theories is that they confuse what Richard Swinburne has labeled C-inductive arguments with P-inductive arguments. To elaborate: a C-inductive argument is one where the new evidence confirms a hypothesis, which is to say that it makes it more probable than it was before. A P-inductive argument also does that, and also makes it more probable than its denial. By way of example, suppose Siobhan is a fan of all things Irish, and believes that a leprechaun lives in her attic. One day she hears some noise coming from her attic, and takes this as proof. Is it proof? No. The leprechaun hypothesis isn't rendered more probable than its denial just because there is some noise up in the attic. The hypothesis has received some confirmation, however. If one supposes that there is a leprechaun up there, then one would expect noise sooner or later - perhaps if the little guy got so excited thinking about gold that he didn't pay attention to where he was walking. Unfortunately for Siobhan, mere confirmation isn't proof or even probability, and given the low prior probability of there being a leprechaun in her attic (or anywhere), this only barely budges the probability from its starting point arbitrarily close to zero.
This more or less explains why I've rejected the "fix" hypothesis. Keres's losing the first four games to Botvinnik - especially the horrid ending mentioned above - is consistent with the theory that the games were fixed or at the very least that Keres felt pressured. But is the overall evidence good enough to prove a fix? Not really. For instance: no firsthand or even secondhand evidence has come out to confirm it. Keres had a lousy score against Botvinnik even aside from this tournament, even losing blowout games to him on other occasions (and with both colors). Botvinnik himself fought vehemently against Communist Party officials who tried to have other players throw games to him - and did so at some personal risk. Likewise, Keres has never been accused of throwing games at any other point in his career.
Of course it isn't impossible that Keres took a dive, but aside from the really badly played rook ending and the fact that almost everyone (myself included) likes Keres better than Botvinnik, there really isn't much going for the fix theory. And what about that ending? I think it would make an interesting research project to see how many strong GMs of the time and in the period between the World Wars made horrible errors in rook endings that contemporary players of the same general class would avoid. But let's stick to this ending for now.
I cover this endgame in detail here, first looking at analysis by Euwe, Botvinnik and Keres and then critiquing that analysis with the help of chess engines and tablebases. The executive summary is this:
- 50.a4 is not a bad move
- 54.Ra3 is forced
- 53.Rd3 is losing, but
- only one move (53.Rd5) drew, and that it drew wasn't just obvious,
- that 53.Rd3 (which is an understandable move in its own right) doesn't draw isn't self-evidently obvious,
- and Keres was most likely in time trouble by this stage
- All three analysts - Euwe, Botvinnik and Keres - made significant errors in their print analysis of the games
Given all of the above, we should conclude that it was a complicated ending in which Keres's losing move is entirely explicable, not part of some overall bad plan starting with 50.a4 or worse, some nefarious plot to make sure that Botvinnik won the title. The conspiracy theorists should offer evidence, and absent that evidence should avoid defamatory assertions.