Book Review: Secret training, or what consenting adults used to get up to in private, in the Russian countryside.

Last week saw the centenary of the birth of Mikhail Botvinnik, one of the game’s immortal figures. To mark this occasion, I reproduce below a book review I wrote in 2009, which first appeared on Ray Keene’s website, Keene on Chess.

Censored – Botvinnik’s Secret Training Games, by Jan Timman

Nobody has ever denied that Botvinnik was the father of the modern scientific approach to chess preparation. Way back in the 1930s, he developed a meticulously worked-out programme of how to prepare for tournaments, taking into account health and physical fitness, opening preparation, analysis of opponents’ games, etc. Details of the system were set out, “for the benefit of Soviet chess”, in the introduction to Botvinnik’s book on the 1939 Soviet Championship. The thoroughness of this system became legendary, and is summed up in the oft-quoted story of how he cured his aversion to tobacco smoke, by arranging for his practice opponents deliberately to blow smoke in his face during training games.

As this last anecdote implies, the playing of special training games, against selected master strength opponents, was a key element of the Botvinnik system. Botvinnik’s annotations to his best games bristle with references to these training games, with comments along the lines of “It was not so difficult to find the correct plan, since I had already tested it out in a training game as long ago as “. .Unfortunately, to be effective, training games need to be kept secret for years after they are played, and as a result, few of Botvinnik’s training games have ever seen the light of day, especially in the West. Those of us fortunate enough to possess the Russian edition of Botvinnik’s best games collection have seen a few of the more significant training games, as a small selection was added at the end of each of the three volumes. Sadly, when the English-language editions of the books were published, the training games were excised in their entirety.

Now, however, the English-speaking reader finally has the chance to see Botvinnik’s training games, taken from his original notebooks. Censored contains 97 such games, dating from 1936 to 1970, the latter being the year that Botvinnik retired from competitive play. Botvinnik’s opponents include regular training partners, such as Ragozin and Kan, but some more intriguing names also crop up. In late 1951 and early 1952, for example, he played a 4-game series against Smyslov, who within a couple more years was to become Botvinnik’s opponent in the first of three successive world championship matches. Another regular opponent was Yuri Averbakh, who contributes a fascinating essay, explaining the conditions in which the games were played. Like many of Botvinnik’s training games, the matches with Averbakh took place at Botvinnik’s dacha, or country-house, at Nikolina Gora, just outside Moscow. A few years ago, whilst I was living in Moscow, I visited Nikolina Gora one Sunday afternnoon, with a Russian chess friend. Nowadays, it has become a desirable area for “New Russians” to locate their dachas, and we were unable to identify which of the various wooden buildings had belonged to Botvinnik – quite possibly it had been demolished and replaced with something grander. The area itself, however, is still just a large clearing in a forest, offering peace and quiet, and plenty of countryside and fresh air – just the thing for Botvinnik’s needs. Averbakh records his astonishment, when Botvinnik explained one of the conditions – they were to play with the radio on! Averbakh invites the reader to imagine the scene:

” We are sitting at the board, cogitating over our moves, to the regular ticking of the chess clock – while the black speaker hanging on the wall pours forth a stream of information about the achievements of the local collective farmers, about the stock of hay, the milk yield, the prospects for the harvest, and the currently fashionable “square method” for stepping up agricultural production”!

In addition to the games themselves, and Averbakh’s essay, the book is edited by Dutch star, Jan Timman, who has always cited Botvinnik as the player who most inspired him throughout his career. Timman writes an introductory essay about some of the more significant opening discoveries to be found amongst Botvinnik’s training games, and also annotates a number of the most interesting games. One thing which is striking, is the number of high-quality games which were played in these spartan, and rather unusual circumstances. For example, anybody who plays the French as Black will not want to miss game 17, in which Botvinnik gives a veritable masterclass on how to handle Black’s position in the typical Winawer endgame, arising after a queen exchange on d2. Another masterpiece is game 89, which heavily anticipates a fine Larsen victory played almost 30 years later, whilst anybody planning to play either side of the Open Lopez, Breslau Variation, should pay careful attention to game 33 – Timman suggests that Botvinnik’s innovation on move 16, played in 1952, but still not reflected in contemporary textbooks, refutes the relevant sub-variation. Summing up, this is a book that no serious student of chess history, or of Botvinnik himself, will want to miss – it offers a fascinating glimpse into the secret laboratory of one of the game’s great champions.

Censored – Botvinnik’s Secret Training Games is published by Hardinge Simpole, and can be ordered from http://www.hardingesimpole.co.uk/ or chess retailers.

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