The death of Alexander Alekhine, the reigning titleholder, created a vacuum filled by the World Chess Federation. But it is was not without fighting and controversy.

Early in 1946, Alexander Rueb, a Dutch lawyer, a founder of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and its president since its inception in 1924, proposed to convene a congress of FIDE delegates that summer. Rueb’s announcement (which was published in some chess magazines) mentioned the congress should consider regulations for world championship matches – though the title was still held by Alexander Alekhine.

Only nine delegates, with three assistants, assembled for FIDE’s first congress in eight years, which met in Wintherthur, Switzerland, on 22-25 July. In the meantime Alekhine had died, creating a new situation. Capablanca and Lasker had died during the war, leaving Rueb’s compatriot Max Euwe (also present at Wintherthur) as the only living player who had held the title.

With a natural vacuum created by the vacancy of the World Championship, FIDE was in position to take control of the title while there was no longer a holder who could claim the championship as his private property. The first priority, though, was to revive FIDE itself. As Edward Winter has explained in an excellent article about the World Championship interregnum, the delegates agreed that any decisions they took could only be valid until its 1947 Congress, when there would be more representatives of chess-playing nations. At a minimum, this meant that no competition to decide the new champion could take place for more than a year.

In the meantime, arguments broke out in the chess press and Winter provides numerous details of the difficulties that arose. Some people argued that the title should revert to Euwe, but it was almost 10 years since he had held it and he was apparently happy with the Wintherthur decision that he should be just one of several candidates.

Although the U.S.S.R. had not yet joined the international federation, it was obvious to everyone that some Soviet players must be involved in any competition to decide the new world champion. The Estonian Paul Keres — who had tied for first in the 1938 AVRO tournament designed to find a challenger for Alekhine — was now a Soviet citizen. Mikhail Botvinnik was acknowledged to be one of the strongest pre-war grandmasters still active and Vasily Smyslov was evidently the strongest young player to emerge during the war years.

Minutes of the Wintherthur congress, obtained by Winter, show that the delegates recognized that the top candidates for any championship tournament should include Botvinnik, Euwe, Keres, Smyslov, and the Americans Reuben Fine and Sammy Reshevsky. Additionally, since there were two upcoming major tournaments in Groningen and Prague, it was agreed that should the winners of those not be any of the six named masters, a match in Prague would decide which of them qualified.

The 1946 congress appointed a commission of five men including Rueb and Sir George Thomas to consider the composition of the championship tournament, which it hoped to hold in the Netherlands towards the end of 1947. However, even before the next congress, the plan became partially derailed.

Botvinnik won the first important post-war tournament at Groningen, Netherlands (held soon after the 1946 Congress), ahead of Euwe and Smyslov, but Keres did not play there and nor did Fine or Reshevsky. The American magazine Chess Reviews made a strong case that the United States should be allowed to choose its own representatives on the basis of present rather than past achievements. Botvinnik argued that the tournament should not be played wholly in the Netherlands. Others objected that the World Championship had always been decided by match play — but that would have ruled out most of the candidates except Euwe and there were no two pre-eminent players for such a match.

Botvinnik, in an article which appeared in translation in both Chess (March 1947) and Chess Review (May 1947), put his finger on the two factors that had bedevilled the World Championship in the previous sixty years, preventing the strongest challengers from contesting title matches:

“1. The rival cannot always obtain the funds for such a match, and 2. the champion as a rule is not interested in playing a match with his strongest opponent.”

Mikhail Botvinnik: “The champion as a rule is not interested in playing a match with his strongest opponent.”

The hope was that the involvement of FIDE, and the creation of a fair system for selecting a challenger, would ensure that such denial of opportunity, which had spoiled the chances of such great players as Akiba Rubinstein, Aron Nimzowitsch, and Keres before the war, could never happen again.

The next FIDE Congress, held in The Hague from 30 July-2 August 1947, decided to revert to the proposal adopted at Winterthur of a six-player four-round tournament. It is hard to know why the various objections to this were overruled, because the minutes of the 1947 Congress are unavailable.

(The Congress may also have briefly reinstalled Euwe as World Champion, though this is not clear. In the first volume of his My Great Predecessors series, Garry Kasparov says that Euwe was declared World Champion at The Hague, but that the decision was reversed when the Soviet delegation arrived. This story has been repeated, but Winter provides compelling evidence that the claim is false.)

Before the congress, Euwe had gone to Moscow and obtained agreement with the Soviet federation that the championship tournament would be held partly in The Hague and partly in Moscow — the Russians winning the draw to host the decisive second phase. The chess federations of the Netherlands and the Soviet Union shared the expenses of arranging the tournament.

The six competitors nominated by FIDE at The Hague were essentially the survivors of AVRO 1938, with the exception that Smyslov replaced the Czech-born Salo Flohr (who had finished last then). Miguel Najdorf of Argentina was unlucky. He had won in Prague though he had only finished in a tie for fourth at Groningen. That poor result in the stronger tournament weighed more heavily than his victory in the lesser one, and Najdorf was not even made a reserve for the championship tournament.

Eventually only five players competed in the tournament held in early 1948, because Reuben Fine, who had tied for first with Keres, declined his invitation as he was now studying for his doctorate. (He became a Freudian psychoanalyst.)

The five men competing for the vacant throne were therefore Botvinnik, Euwe, Keres, Reshevsky, and Smyslov. The first section of the tournament was played in The Hague, starting on 2 March 1948, and concluding with round ten, played on 25-26 March (one game was adjourned). To compensate for Fine’s absence, each competitor had to play his rivals five times, the uneven number of players meaning there was a bye in every round. So there were two cycles in The Hague and three in Moscow.

It soon became clear that playing in his home country was no advantage for Euwe, who lost all his games in the first cycle and had only 1½ points at the end of the Dutch section. Botvinnik had by then scored 6, Reshevsky was in second place with 4½, while Keres and Smyslov had 4 points apiece.

The opening ceremony for the stages in Moscow was held on 10 April and play resumed the next day. Reshevsky lost his first two games there, virtually ensuring a Soviet victory. After Round 21, the first round in the final cycle, Botvinnik (who had a bye that day) was assured of at least a tie with 12 points. On 9 May, in Round 22, Botvinnik offered Euwe a draw after 14 moves, who accepted, and the crown was his.

The remaining games were a formality, except to Keres who made a point of beating Botvinnik in the last round after having lost their previous four games. Conspiracy theorists have argued that Keres was obliged for political reasons to lose games to his rival, but Keres’s friend and biographer, the late Valter Heuer, never found evidence of this.

In any case, the new champion’s winning margin was convincing: Botvinnik 14 points, Smyslov 11, Keres and Reshevsky 10½, Euwe 4.

Now that Botvinnik was crowned World Champion, he was guaranteed three years to enjoy it under the rules and conditions established by FIDE to select a new challenger. Botvinnik would not have to defend the title until 1951.

The long period of personal ownership of the World Championship was over, but the period of Soviet hegemony had just begun. 

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Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.