Tuesday 22 March 2005

Archive: UNCUT! 37

The Sean Marsh Chess Column

*Column 37*
* *March 2005* *

Dear Readers,

Consider this month’s offering as a sort of sequel to UNCUT! 36 as we ask more Fischer-related questions…

When Botvinnik proposed a match with Fischer in 1970, it was an interesting idea and I believe it would have given us some very hard-fought games. Of course, the plan came to nothing as Fischer wouldn't play 'just' 18 games and insisted on the usual 'play to six wins'. Botvinnik is quoted as saying '...I assumed I would probably lose. Objectively this match would have brought Fischer more benefit than me...'
I was thinking about this recently and it struck me as odd that Botvinnik would want to end his career (the proposed match would have been his chess finale) with a probable match defeat. He has never come across as a sentimental character and I can't really see him as wanting to play the match just as a high-profile goodbye to chess. So was there anything else behind his desire?
My theory is that he wanted to play the match so he could use his great experience to get deeply inside the mind and chess of Fischer. In preparing and playing against Fischer for 18 games he would surely be able to subject his play to great scrutiny. Then, as Fischer was clearly on a collision course with the Soviet grip on the world title, Botvinnik would be able to present his findings as a parting gift to his countrymen, who could have taken advantage of his 'sacrifice' to try and stop the threat in its tracks.
Indeed, if Fischer had lost the match it would surely have been a severe personal setback. If he'd won, I'm not sure if the result would have enhanced his reputation all that much. After all, Botvinnik was beyond his best years and even he expected to lose. Does anyone think Fischer would have lost the 18 game match? Does anyone believe that the match would have been of real benefit to Fischer?

Botvinnik's tremendous match experience would have made him a tough customer for Fischer in 1970. Still, Botvinnik's last great match was nine years earlier, in the rematch with Tal (I think Petrosian was clearly the better player in 1963) and was, in his words, rather living off old research fat in his latter years.
I think he would have worked harder to prepare for Fischer and this work would have been of great benefit to the worried people back in the USSR. Also, I think that Botvinnik would have been as immune to all extra Fischerisms as Karpov no doubt would have been. It is entirely possible that the match would have been terminated prematurely with a 'called bluff' and Fischer's path to the official title would have sidelined indefinitely. Either way, it seems to me that Fischer had more to lose than Botvinnik, in the great scheme of things.

Of course there are several more matches which - much to the chagrin of the chess world - never took place. I don't mean the 'fantasy dream matches' such as Korchnoy - Fischer or Tal - Fischer, which we'd all loved to have seen, but rather the ones which were a distinct possibility and somehow never materialised.
Staunton v Morphy: big frustration for Morphy. Would Staunton have had a chance or was he wise to keep away from the American genius?
Steinitz v Tarrasch: Tarrasch left it too late to challenge for the title and was eventually crushed by Lasker. If he had challenged Steinitz, would he have been successful? The form of Tarrasch towards the end of the 1800s was extremely impressive and he won lots of tournaments.
Lasker v Maroczy: Maroczy is a bit of a forgotten man. We all know his 'bind' but he deserves to be known for more than that. A match with Lasker seemed a distinct possibility (contracts were signed) but for some reason never actually happened.
Capablanca v Lasker rematch: Capablanca crushed a reluctant Lasker in 1921, but the latter wasn't finished as a force in world chess. What if they'd had a rematch around 1924, when Lasker was on great form?
Alekhine v Capablanca rematch: In some ways, the most annoying omission of all. Capablanca had lost his air of invincibility after the 1927 match and he would have had to work harder than ever if he was to have a realistic chance of taking the title back. Would he have managed to sufficiently change his habits?
Kasparov - Shirov: Shirov once qualified for a match with Kasparov by beating Kramnik in a match. For one reason or another, the match never took place and, incredibly, Shirov was replaced in the pecking order by...Kramnik! The score between Kasparov and Shirov is very one-sided, but would Shirov have shown more in a proper match? Has he been holding things back when he plays Kasparov?
Kramnik v Kasparov rematch: This one is looking increasingly unlikely. I can see a few parallels with the Lasker - Capablanca match. How is it possible that the champion can lose a match without notching up a single win? How did the challenger make things look so comfortable throughout what should have been a much closer match?