A review of Botvinnik’s Secret Games by Jan Timman

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Botvinnik’s Secret Games
By Jan Timman
Hardinge Simpole Limited
May 2006, Paperback: 200 pages, ISBN-10: 1843821788, ISBN-13: 978-1843821786

The great Russian general Suvorov’s well-known adage was “Train hard, fight easy” and it is advice that Mikhail Botvinnik, World Chess Champion during the years 1948-1957, 1958-1960 and 1961-1963, seems to have taken very much to heart. For before most major competitions he would play a series of training games; and these games have up until now, apart from a few exceptions, remained secret. This volume brings them all to light for the first time.

There are ninety-seven games altogether, so just short of a hundred, and they were played from 1936 to 1970, usually prior to an important match or tournament. Jan Timman, a player greatly influenced by Botvinnik, annotates and analyses twelve games while Yuri Averbakh gives analysis and evaluations to a fair few of his own encounters. The rest of the games appear without notes. There are plenty of diagrams, about two or three to a page.

Timman also provides an engaging and highly interesting introduction, “The Theoretical Importance of Botvinnik’s Training Games”. After noting Botvinnik’s reputation for “meticulous planning and thorough preparation”, he debunks some of the myths surrounding these games and sets them in an historical context. He shows how the training games relate to various key events in which Botvinnik participated, including World Championship matches (e.g. Botvinnik adopted 5 … Ba5 in the Winawer in the 1954 match versus Smyslov, but first played it in a training game against Kan in 1953), and he suggests some ways in which the uses to which the games were put evolved over time. The games were used to get ready for battle, to test certain key openings and to delve into the psyche of prospective opponents. Finally, Timman surveys Botvinnik’s opening play and discusses innovations that occur here in the Marshall Attack against the Ruy Lopez, the French Defence and the Queen’s Gambit, especially the Slav Defence.

One crucial point worth stressing is that these training games had a different object and purpose to Botvinnik’s normal competitive games. To start with, they were played under quite curious conditions. In the 1940s, famously, Botvinnik would instruct his then training partner, Ragozin, to smoke furiously during play so as to habituate himself to the stimulus of cigarette smoke, and so lessen its effect. While in an account included here, “Two Matches with Botvinnik”, Yuri Averbakh reports that he had to play one match with the radio switched on, so as to mimic the sound of a noisy auditorium or playing hall. At first sight, these conditions seem eccentric, but what Botvinnik was seeking to do was to make the training game (or experimental situation) as close as possible to actual play and competition (or real life), so making it more useful and applicable. Later, psychologists would call this “ecological validity”; and perhaps, in this matter, Botvinnik was simply ahead of his time. He was striving to create the necessary level of arousal so that optimum performance could still occur, outside of the invigorating pressure of competition.

How do these games stand up as chess? A few are masterpieces (e.g. 20, 39, 67, 79, 89) and game 79 (against Averbakh) is an especially impressive achievement; sustained positional pressure yielding a final reward. But even in the, as may seem to some, pedestrian games there are stratagems and positional devices worthy of note, intriguing traces of Botvinnik’s decision-making. Overall, most are like rough drafts in the notebooks of a great poet; not polished for publication, maybe, but still bejeweled with flashes of genius.

The book could certainly have been made easier to use. It lacks an index of opponents and openings; an index of annotators or any indication of which games are annotated; and finally an index to indicate which games were won, lost, drawn or remained unfinished.

Botvinnik’s Secret Games is a welcome addition to chess literature. Our present understanding of modern chess strategy would be unthinkable without the games and writings of Mikhail Botvinnik, and anyone who wants to fully appreciate his contribution to chess will want to study the games in this book.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com