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Mikhail Botvinnik | Biography: 30 Facts (the Father of Soviet Chess)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

Michail Moiseyevich Botvinnik became a very well-known Russian chess player. He was born on August 17, 1911. Botvinnik learned to play at age twelve; by age 14, he defeated the champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, in an exhibition game. He became the first Soviet champion.

Mikhail Botvinnik was the sixth chess world titleholder between the years 1948 to 1963. He was known as ‘the father’ in the Soviet world and played chess for over thirty years. He mentored future world champions like Kramnik, Karpov, and Kasparov.

Botvinnik was a pioneer in computer chess. He made noteworthy contributions to the World Chess Championships after World War II. ‘The father of Soviet chess’ also became a well-known chess tutor; his tutoring led to the USSR being dominant in international chess after World War II. 

These are 30 interesting facts about Michail Botvinnik:

1. Botvinnik Became The USSR Chess Titleholder

Six years after first learning the game of chess, Botvinnik became the champion of the USSR in 1931. He was only 20 years old. 

2. He Was The First Soviet World Chess Champion

In 1948, Botvinnik won all his matches as the 1948 World Chess titleholder. He became the first Soviet to win. 

3. Won The World Chess Championship Three Times

Botvinnik won the world chess contests in 1948, 1951, and 1954. He was a formidable chess player. 

4. Kept His Chess Title For Thirteen Years

Except for two brief interruptions, in 1951 and 1952, Botvinnik held on to his World chess title for 13 years. In 1951, he was placed fifth, and in 1952, he was third. In these two tournaments, he only lost five games out of thirty. 

5. An Electric Engineer And A Chess Player

Botvinnik had a doctorate in Electronic Engineering, which he obtained in 1951. After that, he joined the Research Institute for Electrical Energy as a senior research scientist. 

6. Botvinnik Was Born Into A Jewish Family 

Mikhail Botvinnik was born near St. Petersburg into a Jewish family. Botvinnik said he identified as Jewish and felt he had a Russian culture, together with a Soviet upbringing. 

7. He Used Science To Play Chess

His modern approach to chess was logical and organized, with long-term strategic play. He believed in regular moderate physical exercise, researching and studying opponents, and being ruthlessly objective about one’s strengths and weaknesses. 

8. Botvinnik Developed Chess Computer Programs

Botvinnik was a keen artificial intelligence enthusiast. He wrote the Pioneer program, which enabled the planned maintenance of power stations all over the USSR. It had a generalized decision-making method. 

9. Learned Chess From A School Friend

In 1923, Botvinnik learned chess at twelve. A friend of his elder brother from school taught him to play. He believed chess must be understood, not taught. Botvinnik beat his brother’s friend easily. 

10. Botvinnik Won Olympic Gold Medals

From 1954 to 1964, he was part of the Soviet Olympiad team. They won six gold medals while he was part of the chess team.  

11. He Won Awards Away From The Chess World

Not many chess players were well-known and respected in other career fields. Botvinnik received the Order of the Badge of Honor – an accolade for work on power stations during World War II. He received an honorary degree in mathematics from the University of Ferrara (Italy) for his work on computer chess. 

12. Developed The CC Sapiens Chess Project

During the early 90s, when Botvinnik was in his 80s, and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he developed a project for a chess computer, CC Sapiens. This project aimed to create a chess program to model a Chess Master’s Mind. 

13. Founded A Chess Academy

In 1963, Botvinnik founded his chess academy. He assisted with training younger Soviet players, like Gary Kasparov, who helped the school after Botvinnik’s death. 

14. Botvinnik Became A National Chess Hero at 25

After winning the Nottingham chess tournament in 1936, Botvinnik became a national hero in the USSR and was welcomed back enthusiastically in Moscow. 

15. The Chess Master Botvinnik Married A Ballerina

In 1935, Botvinnik married his math teacher’s daughter, Gayane Davidovna Ananova. Gayana was a ballerina in the Bolshoi Theatre. She studied ballet at the Vaganova Academy of Ballet in Leningrad.

16. A Chess Grandmaster

In 1950, Botvinnik was among the first recipients to receive the grandmaster title. Grandmaster, the highest designation for a chess player, is for life. 

17. He Wrote Many Books About Chess

Not only did Botvinnik write books about chess, but he also wrote about energetics and Artificial Intelligence (Cybernetics), translated into many different languages. 

18. Botvinnik Played Many Chess Competitions

Of the 59 chess tournaments, Botvinnik won the first prize in 33, shared first and second place in six, and had 14 third places. Botvinnik won six out of 13 matches, lost three, and drew four. 

19. He Lost His Final Chess Match To Petrosian

At 52, Botvinnik played his last world championship against Tigran Petrosian in 1963. Petrosian was 20 years his junior and won the tournament with a score of 15. 

20. Botvinnik And Politics In Chess 

Soviets considered chess a symbol of Communist superiority, so the chess world was very politicized. Because Botvinnik was the first world-class player, whatever he said had political consequences, which were not always favorable. 

21. Helped Develop Computer Chess 

Botvinnik worked as a chess developer at Moscow’s Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP). He worked with the Kaissa program in Moscow. The program, named after Caissa, the goddess of chess, became the first world computer chess champion in 1974. 

22. He Used Queen’s Gambit For Chess Games

Botvinnik used queenside pawn openings almost entirely when starting with white chess pieces. He would use either the English Opening or the Queen’s Gambit. 

23. The Botvinnik Chess System Is The English Opening

The English Opening, considered one of the most successful in chess, is a flank opening. A flank opening is where the white starts by moving a flank pawn instead of one of the usual central pawns. 

24. Botvinnik Played The Most Famous Chess Game

On November 22, 1938, Botvinnik defeated former World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca in round 11 of the AVRO tournament. This game was considered one of the most famous in chess history.  

25. Botvinnik Beat The World’s Best Chess Players

In 1948, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) organized a tournament with the five best players in the world at that time. Botvinnik won this tournament with a brilliant 14-6 score, three points ahead of his countryman, Vassily Smyslov.  

26. He Retired From Chess In 1963

Petrosian defeated Botvinnik in 1963. Botvinnik was outraged when the World Chess Federation changed the rules about champions being allowed a rematch, leading to his retirement from chess. 

27. Tributes Were Paid To Chess Hero Botvinnik

The World Chess Federation paid tribute to Botvinnik on August 17, 2011, which would have been his 100th birthday. 

28. A Book Was Published About Botvinnik’s Best Chess Games

Botvinnik’s best-known book in English is 100 Selected Games. Dover published the book in 1960. The book includes his best games played before becoming World Champion in 1948.  

29. Botvinnik’s Chess Style Was Widespread 

Botvinnik could adapt his universal style of play to whichever opponent he faced, making him a formidable player. 

30. Chess Lost An Icon In Botvinnik

Botvinnik’s death was due to pancreatic cancer in May 1995. He remained active until he died, despite being blind in one eye and having a terrible vision in the other eye. 

All In All

Known as ‘the father’ or ‘the patriarch’ of Soviet Chess, Botvinnik was a legend in the chess world. Botvinnik is still credited for his chess strategy methodology, with Russian players’ continued success today.

Botvinnik held his World Championship title for an impressive 15 years; he also maintained a career as an electrical engineer and was involved in computer chess.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.