Thursday, October 20, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: David Bronstein

This article was originally published in the January/February 2009 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.
Of all the Uncrowned Champions, David Bronstein (1924-2006) came closest to winning the World Championship: in 1951, he led his match with World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik 11.5-10.5 before losing game 23 and drawing game 24, enabling Botvinnik to retain the title with a 12-12 tie.

Just like Paul Keres' quest for the World Championship was likely blocked by Soviet malfeasance during the 1948 World Championship Tournament, there have long been rumblings that the Soviets strongly encouraged Bronstein not to defeat Botvinnik. Here is what Bronstein, in his book The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1995), said about this issue: "I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not. Let’s leave it at that. I had reasons not to become the World Champion as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character."

Bronstein later explained why he played in the FIDE World Championship events even though winning the title was not his primary goal: "In those days there were very few international tournaments, and if one wanted to be respected by the Chess Federation, it was necessary to play to prove that you are amongst the best."

Not surprisingly, Botvinnik and Bronstein were on less than amicable terms for a while after that tightly contested match. Botvinnik said that he had been out of form due to a prolonged period of chess inactivity; he did not play any serious tournament or match games from 1948 (when he won the World Championship) until 1951, when he placed fifth in the Soviet Championship (four points behind Keres, who finished clear first). Bronstein offered this rebuttal to Botvinnik's excuse: "Also I think that it is not fair of Botvinnik to mention year after year that he did not crush me in the match only because he did not play a single game during the preceding three years and that he was rusty. I am convinced that he did not play because he did not want to reveal his opening secrets to his challenger and wanted to save his energy."

While many people emphasize the sporting aspect of chess, Bronstein had a great and nuanced appreciation for the artistic aspect of chess and he even suggested hopefully that some day chess games would not be recorded as wins, losses or draws but rather simply played for the enjoyment of the participants and the spectators. It is easy to see why someone with that temperament may not have been best suited to be the World Champion. Bronstein said, "Chess on the highest level is not only a board game. It is much more. It is part of human civilization. Both Dr. Emanuel Lasker and Dr. Max Euwe have described chess mainly as a fight…I am proud of the fact that I am not known for fights off of the chessboard but only on it."

On the other hand, Bronstein had enough ability and fighting spirit to draw a 24 game match with a fiercely competitive player who retained the title off and on for a 15 year period so it is certainly possible to envision Bronstein being a fine World Champion who would have brought a unique perspective to that role and been a great ambassador for the game.

According to Jeff Sonas' Chessmetrics ratings, Bronstein was the strongest player in the world from October 1950 to December 1951. His one year peak rating (attained from January-December 1951) is the 20th highest of all-time; the only players with a higher one year peak rating in the post-World War I era who did not win the World Championship are Viktor Korchnoi and Vassily Ivanchuk. You may recall that in my previous Uncrowned Champions article I mentioned that by Sonas' reckoning Keres had the 24th highest single year peak rating of all-time but that Keres' ranking increased over longer time frames; Keres' 20 year peak rating is the seventh best all-time. Bronstein's one year peak rating is higher than Keres' but Bronstein's 20 year peak rating ranks 15th on Sonas' all-time list. These numbers suggest that Bronstein at his absolute best was slightly stronger than Keres at his absolute best but that Keres retained a high position among the elite players longer than Bronstein did; Keres was still a top 10 player well into his 50s and at the time of his death in 1975 at age 59 he placed 36th on Sonas' list for that year, while Bronstein exited the world top 10 at the age of 35 and during the year that he turned 50 he dropped from 25th to 50th in the world, never again ranking higher than 27th.

Despite coming agonizingly close to dethroning Botvinnik in 1951, Bronstein never played in another World Championship match. In the next championship cycle (1953), Bronstein finished in a three way tie for second with Sammy Reshevsky and Keres (behind Vasily Smyslov) at the Zurich Candidates Tournament. However, for someone who placed such a value on the aesthetic side of chess it is most fitting that Bronstein's name will forever be associated with that event due to his wonderful book titled Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953, an all-time classic that every chess player should own (and read!). Bronstein explained his goal for the book: "I started from the premise that every full-bodied game of chess is an artistic endeavor arising out of a struggle between two masters of equal rank. The kernel of a game of chess is the creative clash of plans, the battle of chess ideas, which takes on its highest form in the middlegame."

Bronstein disliked the practice of citing reams and reams of variations, believing that the higher truth can be lost while wading through such minutiae: "Variations can be interesting, if they show the beauty of chess; they become useless when they exceed the limits of what a man can calculate; and they are a real evil when they are substituted for the study and clarification of positions in which the outcome is decided by intuition, fantasy and talent."

Bronstein also wrote 200 Open Games (a wonderful exploration of games that all began with 1.e4), Sorcerer's Apprentice and Secret Notes. Throughout all of these works, his love of the game and generous spirit are on full display. That generous spirit was put to the test in 1976 when Viktor Korchnoi—another "Uncrowned Champion"—defected from the Soviet Union. Bronstein was one of the few Soviet GMs who did not sign the official letter denouncing Korchnoi. As punishment for his brave stand, the Soviet authorities took away Bronstein's stipend and greatly limited his opportunities to play the game that he loved so much. Here is a game between the two "Uncrowned Champions"; the opening is nothing special but the finish more than makes up for that:

David Bronstein - Viktor Korchnoi [C83]
Moscow-Leningrad Match, 1962 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Be7 10.Bc2 (10.Nbd2 is more commonly seen in top level chess today) 10...0–0 11.Qe2 f5!? Fritz prefers White after this move and suggests that 11...Nc5 is a stronger choice. 12.exf6 Bxf6 13.Nbd2 Bf5 14.Nxe4 Bxe4 15.Bxe4 dxe4 16.Qxe4± Black does not have much compensation for his sacrificed pawn. 16...Qd7 17.Bf4!? 17.Be3 looks safer. 17...Rae8 18.Qc2 Bh4 Thanks to the unprotected B on f4, Black could have regained his pawn by playing 18...Bxc3. 19.Bg3 Bxg3 20.hxg3 Ne5 21.Nxe5 Rxe5 22.Rfe1 Rd5 23.Rad1 c5 24.a4 Rd8 25.Rxd5 Qxd5 26.axb5 axb5 27.Qe2 b4 28.cxb4 cxb4 29.Qg4 b3 30.Kh2 Qf7 31.Qg5 Rd7 32.f3 h6 33.Qe3 Rd8 34.g4 Kh8 35.Qb6 Rd2 36.Qb8+ Kh7 37.Re8 Qxf3?? In Sorcerer's Apprentice, Bronstein suggested that Black should have played 37...Qd7 38.Rh8+ Kg6 39.Rxh6+! 
In "New in Chess 2007/1," Bronstein wrote, "Korchnoi remained unruffled. He wrote down my move on his scoresheet and began carefully studying the position. I think it seemed incredible to him that White could sacrifice his last rook (I myself could not believe my eyes!). And only when he had convinced himself, did he stop the clocks. These are the variations: A) 39... Kf7 40.Qc7+ Kg8 41.Qc8+ Kf7 42.Qe6+ Kf8 43.Rh8 mate; B) 39... Kg5 40.Qe5+ Kxg4 41.Rg6+ Kh4 42.Qg5 mate; C) 39... gxh6 40.Qg8+ Kf6 41.Qf8+; D) 39... Kxh6 40.Qh8+ Kg6 41.Qh5+ Kf6 42.g5+!"

David Bronstein was a first rate chess artist and an engaging writer. As a theoretician, he will always be remembered for playing the King's Gambit against the strongest competition and for helping to develop the King's Indian Defense into a powerful weapon. GM Yasser Seirawan declared, "I consider David Bronstein to be the single most inventive chess grandmaster ever. Full stop, end of story."

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