Even Botvinnik

This was published in my newsletter on 20 March this year.

Today it is unrealistic to expect the best players to play the endgames perfectly, even the theoretical ones. I remember seeing a game where even Boris Gelfand couldn’t initially give mate with a knight and bishop, though eventually he succeeded.

However, I always had the impression that the players of the past, like Botvinnik and Smyslov never made mistakes in the theoretical endgames and that generally played them better. Partly it was so because of the adjournments, when they could analyse and consult the endgame manuals so then they could play precisely.

So I was surprised when I checked the endgame of the game between Janosevic and Botvinnik, played in the Belgrade tournament in 1969. The starting position of interest of the final phase of the game is the following one:

It is Black to move and he needs to decide how to make the (relatively easy) draw. Botvinnik went for the more active 76…Rg2, even though the passive 76…Ra7 was simpler, as White simply cannot make progress.

The game continuation allowed White to become active with the Ke5 idea and while the position remained a draw it required precise calculation from Black.

The second interesting decision by Botvinnik was in the following position.

Instead of stopping White’s idea of Kf6 by latching onto the e-pawn by 79…Rg4, which again would have given an easy draw as White cannot go forward, Botvinnik allowed White to achieve his idea by taking the g-pawn by 79…Rxg5 80.Kf6 when he was already forced to come up with the only move to save the game.

However, this was incredibly difficult and Botvinnik failed.

Where would you put the rook and why? It’s a nice exercise in analysis so perhaps you can give it a try. For starters I can tell you that Botvinnik’s natural move 80…Rg1 loses, while the drawing move is 80…Rg4. Now go on and figure out why!

But the adventures didn’t finish here. Even though White was winning after 80…Rg1? he also missed the win.

Here winning was 84.Rd5! liberating the d7-square for the king and also cutting off the black king from supporting his own g-pawn. Janosevic went for the direct 84.Kd8? and here Botvinnik had the last chance to save the game.

Where would you put the king? It’s not a very difficult decision if you’re fresh and know there is a draw here. But on move 84 Botvinnik failed again. He went for 84…Kg6? and after 85.e7 Re1 86.Rd5 (even the immediate 86.e8Q wins) he was lost.

However, after 84…Kf6! he would have drawn. The idea is that taking the rook after 85.Rf7 Kxe6 86.Rxf1 Ke5! Black draws as the g-pawn marches forward aided by the king while White cannot use his king to stop it. In the case of 85.e7 Ra1 the draw is trivial as the e-pawn is stopped in view of the threat of …Ra8.

A lot of mistakes, undoubtedly. To my surprise, I discovered that even Botvinnik could err.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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