Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles that we began before the recent World Championship match in New York City. The earlier articles in this series can be found here and here and here and here.
It can seem sometimes that there are too many draws in chess, particularly in recent World Championship matches.
Take for example the match in New York City last month between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin in which 10 of the 12 classical games were drawn. The same was true in the 2012 match between Viswanathan Anand and Boris Gelfand. And when Vladimir Kramnik upset Garry Kasparov in 2000 to take the title, 13 of the 15 games were drawn. This is not just a modern phenomenon – in the 1910 match between Emanuel Lasker and Carl Schlecter, eight of the 10 games were draws.
The reason for so many draws are understandable. The stakes are high, making the players risk averse, and their deep opening preparation tends to flatten the games – especially given the standard match strategy of trying to win with White and draw with Black.
All of this makes the 1954 title match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Vassily Smyslov, who were both Soviet citizens, a startling and exciting outlier. Of the 24 games, 14 were decisive, including 12 of the first 16 and a crazy stretch from Games 9 to 16, when all eight games had a winner.
Botvinnik started with a bang, winning Games 1, 2 and 4 to take a three-point lead. Here are the first two games in that stretch:
After draws in Games 5 and 6, Smyslov finally got his first win in Game 7. Another draw ensued, and then began the series of eight consecutive victories. Smyslov won three straight (Games 9 to 11), rounding off a run of 4 ½ points out of five games. After starting in a desperate hole he suddenly led 6-5. The following was his victory from Game 9:
Now it was Botvinnik’s turn to demonstrate his resilience, and he showed his mettle by winning the next two games. Game 12 was especially nice:
Smyslov bounced back, this time winning the best and most famous game of the match (Game 14) to level the score at 7-7.
Now it was Botvinnik’s turn, and he concluded the run of eight straight decisive games with a pair of wins. Here is the first of those, from Game 15.
Botvinnik now led by two points, and after three further draws Smyslov faced the daunting task of needing to outscore Botvinnik by three points in the last five games to take the title. (As previously mentioned, scoring plus-two to equalize the score would not be enough because Botvinnik would keep his title in case of a tie.) Smyslov made inroads at once, winning Game 20 with Black, and then he won Game 23 with White.
The score was tied, and while defeating Botvinnik with Black would not be easy, Smyslov had at least given himself a chance. But Botvinnik was very well prepared, and in the final position Botvinnik had a serious advantage with no real losing chances whatsoever.
Finishing the match with a short draw may have been slightly anticlimactic, but for Smyslov fighting on would likely have resulted in a loss, while for Botvinnik a draw was as good as a win. The match as a whole reflected well on both players, and the chess world was treated to two further title matches between the two in 1957 and 1958 in what became the greatest World Championship rivalry until the epic five-match war between Anatoly Karpov and Kasparov in the 1980s and 1990.
Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.
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