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    Entries in Mikhail Botvinnik (2)

    Thursday
    Oct032013

    Did Keres Take A Dive?

    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.

    Saturday
    Sep282013

    Max Euwe's Book On The 1948 World Championship: A Review

    Max Euwe, The Hague-Moscow 1948 Match/Tournament for the World Chess Championship (Foreword by Hans Ree). Russell Enterprises 2013. 240 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    When I grew up, books about old chess tournaments were among my favorites. Unfortunately, most went out of print, and nowadays there are very few such books. Why bother, when the games were already analyzed by strong players even while they were in progress? Further, while it's easy for many of us to name the super-events of the past, it's less easy to remember all the major events played even this year. There are so many of them that they tend to blur together unless something really extraordinary happened.

    It is in general a good thing for chess that there are so many super-events each year. Chess fans want to see their favorites in action on a regular basis, and as long as there's money to pay the top stars they have no reason to say no any more than is necessary to rest, recharge, and relate to their friends and family. But something is lost, too, and that's the magic chess fans must have felt on those rare special occasions when all or almost all of the world's best got together to play in one big, long tournament. What fan of chess history doesn't remember such events as Hastings 1895, or New York 1924 or Nottingham 1936?

    There was often a symbiosis between tournaments and books about those tournaments. A great tournament would be worthy of a book, and if the book was outstanding it would help cement and even enhance the tournament's reputation for posterity. Zurich 1953 is a perfect example of this: it was a great tournament, but the 1959 Candidates in Bled was arguably an even more impressive event with Mikhail Tal and Paul Keres playing possibly the best chess of their careers. The difference in chess history is that David Bronstein wrote an extremely well-received book on the 1953 event (and Miguel Najdorf wrote an even better one!) while no correspondingly high-level, prominent book was written on the later event - at least none in English. As a result many chess fans are very familiar with the 1953 Candidates, while thinking of the 1959 tournament only insofar as it was a showcase for the young Tal in his most brilliant period.

    And now we come at last to the book under review, which covers the 1948 Match-Tournament that determined the world championship in the wake of Alexander Alekhine's death in 1946. This tournament had all the makings for a great book: it was a world championship, it represented the start of FIDE's control over the title, it featured an ex-world champion (Max Euwe), the tournament winner and new champion (Mikhail Botvinnik), and the player would become the next world champion (Vassily Smyslov). The great Keres was also in the event, along with one of the greatest American players of the 20th century, Samuel Reshevsky. Sure enough, a great book was written, and by one of the participants at that - Euwe. No problem for the Dutch, but unfortunately for English readers it wasn't translated into that language until now.

    The book is a feast. It begins with Hans Ree's Foreword, written for this edition. (Not for the original, as Ree was three or four years old when the tournament was played and not much older by the time the book first came out.) Ree's comments offer a short contemporary perspective on the book, and he touches on the question of whether Keres was forced or at least pressured to throw games to Botvinnik. This is a big enough topic to be suitable for its own post, so stay tuned for that. Continuing to the original material, J. Hannak (best known to chess fans nowadays as the author of a book on Emanuel Lasker) writes an essay on the lead-up to the tournament. He takes the reader from Alekhine's time, when the champion could choose who he wanted to play while avoiding those he takes to be threats, up to and through the decision-making that led to the formation of this event under the aegis of FIDE. Next up is a short piece by G.W.J. Zittersteyn on the preparation for the Netherlands portion of the tournament and the event's opening.

    For those who want to get to the chess, here's where you get your wish. Euwe presents every previous game played by all of the participants against each other - 75 games in all - and every one of them is annotated. Lightly, yes, but annotated!

    After that, it's time for the main course: the games of the tournament. Euwe annotated the event's 50 games in greater depth. Each of the 25 rounds (five players, so two games per round with one player getting a bye) is introduced by a summary that goes well beyond a bare recap (or "precap", since it comes before the games), and there's also a short article on the start of the Moscow leg. Euwe's accounts are a pleasure to read, and his annotations are very user-friendly: substantive enough to inform and instruct, but not so heavy that one needs a computer to keep track of everything.

    Once that finishes the essayists close the book in reverse order: Zittersteyn writes about the closing ceremony, and Hannak writes about Euwe and Botvinnik, praising each as chess players and as men. Summaries of the two champions' results through that time are given, and then the book closes with another 21st century addition, an index of games by player and opening.

    That closes the book, yes, but only in one sense. As Russell Enterprises has done before with their reissue of Alekhine's Best Games 1908-1937, they have published an errata of the author's analysis online rather than cluttering up the book. (The foregoing link is to a PDF; if you want to go to the index page it's here.) This is a great model I think all publishers should follow, whether for new books or reprints and revisions of older ones.

    In sum, if you have the least bit of interest in the history of chess, get the book. If you don't, get the book so you can develop that interest!