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World Chess Championship 1948

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When Alexander Alekhine died in 1946, the world was left without a World Chess Champion. It was the first time since Wilhelm Steinitz had won the first official World Championship that a champion had died while still retaining the title.

While many solutions were proposed, the title ultimately reverted to the control of FIDE, the then young International Chess Federation. Given that World War II had only recently ended, gathering fair representation from around the world was difficult, and thus it was some time before a solution could be codified and approved.

Ultimately, FIDE’s solution was to create a “match-tournament” – an event that would feature a number of the world’s top players in a long-form contest to determine a new World Champion. Since the strongest tournament of that era was generally regarded to be the 1938 AVRO event, all of the surviving players were invited to attend the upcoming World Chess Championship. Alekhine and Jose Raul Capablanca had both passed away in the decade between AVRO and the World Championship, which left six players to play in the match. The Soviets asked and received permission to replace the aging Salo Flohr with the young and promising Vasily Smyslov. Meanwhile, Reuben Fine of the United States decided not to play, and was not replaced. That left the tournament with five players:

The five players would play each of their opponents five times, for a total of 20 games over 25 rounds (including five byes, as each player would receive one bye round in each “cycle”). The winner would be the player with the most points at the end of the tournament.

Expectations and Results

Heading into the event, it was clear that Botvinnik was the favorite based on tournament results from both before and after World War II. However, he was far from an overwhelming presence, and there were plenty who believed that either Reshevsky or Keres could easily walk away with the title, as both had plenty of tournament success in their past. In most eyes, Smyslov was too unseasoned to contend for the title quite yet, and Euwe was clearly the weakest of the group, having long since passed his best years on the international stage.

The first cycle saw Botvinnik jump out to an early lead that he would never relinquish. Wins over Keres and Reshevsky (along with one against Euwe) gave him a strong 3.5/4 score out of the gate, a point ahead of Reshevsky. Smyslov and Keres both scored a respectable two points to stay very much in contention, while Euwe started with a disastrous 0/4. From that point on, Botvinnik never found himself in trouble. He expanded his lead to two points after the second leg, and a full three points after three cycles. The final drama in the tournament came in the third leg, when Botvinnik lost his first game to Reshevsky. But the American could not put on a serious charge as he lost to both Smyslov and Keres in that segment of the tournament. Botvinnik virtually wrapped up the title in the 4th cycle, as he held a 3.5 point lead with just four games to play. In the end, Botvinnik finished the tournament with a three point lead over Smyslov, with Keres and Reshevsky just behind.

Final Standings

  • Botvinnik: 14
  • Smyslov: 11
  • Reshevsky: 10.5
  • Keres: 10.5
  • Euwe: 4

The result of the tournament was the crowning of Botvinnik as the sixth World Chess Champion. The result was not without controversy; while Botvinnik certainly won by a wide margin, there were those who speculated that Keres was forced to perform poorly against Botvinnik by Soviet officials in order to ensure that the latter would win the tournament – or, at least, that Keres should not cause him to lose. Keres lost his first four games against Botvinnik, winning only the largely meaningless game in the 5th and final leg of the Championship. Most sources now seem to believe that Botvinnik protested any such arrangement, and that it was unlikely that Keres intentionally lost games. In any case, even if he had performed better against Botvinnik, it would have been unlikely to change the result of the event (Keres would have had to win his individual match with Botvinnik by a 3-2 score or better to win the tournament).

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