In the period immediately following World War II, the title was controlled by Mikhail Botvinnik — a reflection of both his ability and a re-match clause that favored the defending champion.

Before the World Chess Federation, or FIDE, took control of the World Championship, the titleholder had enjoyed extraordinary privileges. He had set the terms, selected his challenger and chosen when and where to play for the title.

Once FIDE began organizing the championship, there was a regular three-year cycle with rigorous rules to select a challenger. The champion could no longer duck and hide.

But the champion was given one very important privilege: the right to a rematch if he lost. No one ever benefited more from this right than Mikhail Botvinnik. Between 1951 and 1963, Botvinnik contested the title with four different compatriots in seven separate championship matches. Twice he lost the title, only to regain it a year later in a rematch. It was only after FIDE did away with the requirement that a champion who lost the title be given a rematch that Botvinnik lost the title for good.

In addition to the rematch clause, the World Championships during Botvinnik’s period, and for several years after, were dominated by the Soviets. Between 1951 and 1969, all the champions and their challengers were Soviet players, so all the title matches were held in Moscow.

Botvinnik had won the title in the championship tournament organized by FIDE in 1948. The three-year qualification cycle then began and David Bronstein emerged as Botvinnik’s challenger. Botvinnik, after winning the 1948 match-tournament, had taken a break from chess of two-and-a half years to earn his doctorate in electrical engineering and so was extremely ring-rusty. His preparation chiefly consisted of secret training games with grandmaster Viacheslav Ragozin.

On the other hand, Bronstein was in top form. A player of highly original style, he had not only won the qualification cycle during this period but had also shared first place in both the Soviet Championships of 1948 and 1949 (with Alexander Kotov and Vasily Smyslov, respectively). These were 20-player marathons that were stronger than almost any international tournament of the period.

The title matches at this time were at a pace that would seem excessively leisurely to players of today. They were all best-of-24 games and were played at the rate of three games per week with a time control of 40 moves in two and half hours followed by 16 moves per hour thereafter. This was the standard practice in top-level matches and tournaments throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover each player usually had a right to postpone up to three games during a match, so typically a 24-game match took nine or ten weeks to complete.

Unfinished games were adjourned after the first five-hour session and resumed the next day. In those pre-computer days, the contestants each had a team of seconds who not only helped prepare their openings but would also analyzed adjourned positions for them, sometimes right through the night while the champion and challenger slept. At breakfast they would hand their analysis to the players, who would then check it before play resumed.

There were no tie-breaks in those days, so if a match ended 12-12, then the World Champion retained his title.

The match between Botvinnik and Bronstein began on 16 March 1951 and after four draws Bronstein took the lead. Then Botvinnik won Games 5 and 6 and at the half-way stage he still led by three wins to two. Dour closed middle-games mostly arose from 1. d4 openings, with the Dutch Defense employed by both players on more than one occasion. Only three games of the match began 1. e4.

Bronstein equalized the score with a win in Game 17, Botvinnik hit back in Game 19 but then Bronstein won Games 21 and 22 to lead by one point with only two games to go. Botvinnik saved his skin by winning the dramatic 23rd game where Bronstein missed a drawing line right after the adjournment. Bronstein obtained no advantage from the opening in the 24th game, so the match ended tamely in a tie with Botvinnik retaining his title. The general verdict on the match was that Bronstein’s Achilles heel, his endgame play, had prevented him from reaching the summit.

In the years since the 1951 title match, there has been speculation that Bronstein was pressured not to win.

In the years afterward, there has been speculation whether Bronstein was pressured not to win the match, while Bronstein claimed in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a book about his life and games written with Tom Fürstenberg (1995, Cadogan Chess), that he actually chose only to draw it as he did not want the responsibilities that came with being the champion.

To my mind, the first hypothesis, one of many conspiracy theories about supposed political interference with chess matters, is plausible but less likely than the ones concerning Keres and (later) Korchnoi and Kasparov. On the second, I do not believe Bronstein’s statement actually reflects his intentions at the time; if he really wanted a 12-12 result, the way to ensure it would have been to draw Game 23 and lose the final game.

In the 1954 match, Botvinnik faced Smyslov, a subtle positional player who was also an endgame expert. For the second time, Botvinnik was held to 12-12, once again retaining the title because there were no tie-breaks. Though the result of the match was the same as the previous one, its course was very different. Botvinnik had won the first two games and also Game 4, but Smyslov took Games 7, 9, 10 and 11, to take the lead. A Botvinnik win in the next game essentially reduced the contest to a 12-game match.

The run of decisive games continued with the champion winning Game 13, losing Game 14, but winning Games 15, and 16, so that Botvinnik held a two-point lead with eight games to go. In the final third of the match, Botvinnik tired and Smyslov was able to claw his way back, winning Games 20 and 23. But Botvinnik had the White pieces in the final game and was able to draw, tying the match.

Smyslov was the challenger again in 1957 and this time he would not be denied. After losing the first game with White, Botvinnik won Games 4 and 5 but Smyslov equalized the score in Game 6 and also won Games 8 and 12. The younger man was never behind again. Game 13 was the last that Botvinnik could win in this match. Smyslov consolidated his lead with three draws and then a win in Game 17 restored his two-point lead. A Smyslov victory in Game 20 essentially settled the contest as he now led 11.5-8.5 so that Botvinnik required three wins and a draw just to tie the match. The old champion acquiesced to two quick draws to end the contest, the first title match that did not require the full 24 games.

Smyslov had won 12.5-9.5 but he only held the title for one year. Botvinnik invoked the return match clause and devoted himself to serious work to regain the crown.

The two grandmasters met for the third time beginning on 4 March 1958 and Botvinnik surged to a 3-0 lead in the first three games. After a draw in Game 4, they traded wins and after four more draws they did so again. Botvinnik led 7.5-4.5 at the half-way stage and continued to dominate the match, with Smyslov only scoring wins (in Games 15 and 19) after losing the previous games. In Game 22, Smyslov finally reduced the deficit by winning with Black but it was too late because Botvinnik had already scored 12 points. A draw in Game 23 wrapped it all up with one game to spare.

Because of the re-match, there was a gap of only two years before Botvinnik faced his next challenger, the Latvian tactical genius Mihail Tal who had won the Soviet championships of 1957 and 1958 followed by the1959 Candidates tournament. Tal was famous for his love of complications and sacrificial attacks, especially as White against the Sicilian, and as Black, by employing the King’s Indian Defense. The two men had never played a game before the match.

The contest began on 15 March 1960. The expectation in some quarters was that the seasoned World Champion would have the formula for beating Tal, but Botvinnik was confounded by the younger man’s victory in Game 1 as White in a French Defense variation that offered scope for Tal’s tactical superiority.

Four draws followed, in which Botvinnik obtained strategic positions that suited his style better, but Tal drew each time. In Game 6, Tal increased his lead with one of his most famous games, a victory with Black in the King’s Indian Defense, followed immediately by another win in Game 7.

Botvinnik could not find the key to Tal’s “illogical logic, which ran counter to his own strictly scientific principles.”

Although Botvinnik eventually won two games in succession, those were his only successes as Tal ran away to a victorious score of 12.5-8.5, with the last three games not being required. As Garry Kasparov, the former World Champion, wrote about the first match, Botvinnik could not find the key to Tal’s “illogical logic, which ran counter to his own strictly scientific principles.” The 19th game was considered by Tal, in his book of the match, to be his best creative achievement of the contest.

Botvinnik soon claimed his right to a return match, and in 1961 they faced each other on the anniversary of their previous match. This time, Botvinnik came much better prepared technically. He had also eliminated his predilection for time trouble (thanks to drinking coffee during games), and now had a better understanding of his opponent’s style.

Botvinnik sought closed positions in this match, while with Black he mostly employed the Caro-Kann Defense. Against that, Tal several times employed the variation (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5) 3 e5 which is a very popular main line nowadays, but in 1961 had been little studied.

It soon became apparent that Tal had lost his psychological advantage and had done insufficient opening preparation. Moreover, despite being much younger than Botvinnik, he was physically unfit for such a grueling examination. Already ill with kidney disease, Tal unwisely did not seek the medical report that could have forced a postponement.

In a match with few draws, the first three games were won by White, with Botvinnik taking a lead he was never again to relinquish. After draws in Games 4-6, there were seven decisive games in a row, of which Tal won only two. The final score in the match was 13-8, Botvinnik winning ten games in the process. Tal had actually made a small plus score with the White pieces but when he was Black he suffered terribly.

Botvinnik’s next, and final, challenger was the Armenian grandmaster Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, who was a defensive expert. Although Petrosian’s record in tournaments was unimpressive because of the high proportion of draws he made, he was nevertheless a fine tactician (as his successes in blitz chess proved) and he had managed to emerge the winner of the 1962 Candidates tournament ahead of some more highly regarded players.

Following the two one-sided tactical contests involving Tal, the 1963 World Championship match was a feast of tough and subtle positional chess. Play started on 23 March 1963 and, since the return match clause was now abolished, whoever won was guaranteed to remain World Champion for three years. In the introduction to his study of this match, one of the first chess books I ever read, Bob Wade, an international master, wrote that the 1927 Capablanca-Alekhine encounter “was a Sunday afternoon picnic compared with it.” Despite the many draws, Wade said, “the nature of the positions from which most of them stemmed was combative.”

Botvinnik unexpectedly won the first game with Black in a Nimzo-Indian Defense, but Petrosian did not panic. “I continued to play calmly, as if nothing had happened,” he said after the match. In the third game, a Queen’s Indian, Botvinnik saved himself with fine endgame play but in Game 5, a Grünfeld, the challenger won a fine endgame to level the score. Then Petrosian took the lead with an English Opening in Game 7.

The match more and more assumed the character of trench warfare in which the Queen’s Gambit was the main battleground. Petrosian employed both the Queen’s Gambit Accepted (1 d4 d5 2 c4 dxc4) and an unusual form of the Declined with 2…e6 3 Nc3 Be7, a move rarely seen previously in high-level chess.

Botvinnik equalized the score in Game 14, but this turned out to be the only win he achieved with White in the whole match. In the very next game Petrosian re-took the lead, but the decisive moment of the match arguably occurred in Game 16 when Botvinnik missed a probably winning endgame continuation just before the time control and only drew. Then in Game 18, the World Champion, who was tiring, went wrong in the second session of play, while in Game 19 he also missed a drawing chance at move 58.

Botvinnik effectively surrendered the title after that defeat since the last three games (in two of which he had the White pieces) totaled only 41 moves. Thus Petrosian became the new World Champion, by a margin of 12.5-9.5, the last two games not being required.

Botvinnik was no longer in the picture – the baton had been passed and the World Championship would be dominated by a new generation of players.


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.