Taimanov reveals blitz match against Botvinnik

“Yes, I have played a blitz game once. It was on a train, in 1929.” So Mikhail Botvinnik once famously told Genna Sosonko, but as it turns out that wasn’t entirely true. At the recent evening to mark the centenary of Botvinnik’s birth Mark Taimanov revealed that he once played a blitz match against his mentor.

85-year-old Mark Taimanov was among the 11 legendary chess players who recently took part in a veteran's tournament in Suzdal, near Moscow (10 played rapid chess, while the 89-year-old Yuri Averbakh was the arbiter). On the day that Botvinnik had been born 100 years previously a commemorative evening was held, where Taimanov spoke for almost 15 minutes.

Taimanov explained that his whole chess fate for over half a century had been linked to Botvinnik. That began when he was accepted into Botvinnik’s school as a 13-year-old in 1939. He says they would see Botvinnik roughly once a week and he never gave lectures or obliged his pupils to play particular openings or systems. Instead, he set tasks for individual pupils, who three weeks later would come to the demonstration board and explain to the others what they’d discovered – with Botvinnik acting as “arbiter”. Taimanov gives two examples of how Botvinnik treated his students: when he became Absolute Champion of the USSR in 1941 he expressed thanks to his pupils for helping him prepare for the tournament, while Taimanov first found himself published, in the "64 chess magazine", when Botvinnik analysed a game he'd lost to Taimanov during a simultaneous display at the school.  

Mark Taimanov next reads out a letter he received from Botvinnik in 1947 asking for help in preparing for the upcoming World Chess Championship tournament. Taimanov notes that it shows Botvinnik’s intelligence, respect and kindness (he’s concerned the dates won’t be convenient for Taimanov), but also his solitude. Botvinnik complains he doesn’t have many friends he could trust to keep quiet about working with him, and asks Taimanov to keep the letter secret.  Taimanov notes that although the offer was the greatest possible honour they didn’t work together in the end, for reasons he can longer recall.

The blitz match

Taimanov and Botvinnik’s blitz match occurred while they were together at a training camp preparing for a team event. Taimanov says (not word-for-word):

Botvinnik asked if I was busy in the evening, so of course I told him I wasn't. He said, “Come to my place at 8:30”. I was very curious, and appeared at the set time. Botvinnik let me in, then he locked the door and pulled down the blinds on the windows. He asked: “Would you agree to play 10 blitz games against me”. “Of course”, I said, “with pleasure!” I knew Botvinnik had a very critical attitude to blitz so I’d never have expected to play him. He added: “But please, you’re not to tell anyone about the fact that we’re playing or what the result is”.

So we played – back then I was young and played blitz well, hard as that is to believe now. I managed to beat Botvinnik, who very rarely played blitz, by a 7:3 scoreline. He wasn’t upset in the slightest because he’d completed another point in his preparation for the next important event. Before he left he warned: “Please Mark, don’t tell anyone about this”.

And for about 45 years I remained silent. You’re among the first I’ve told about this!

Taimanov ends with a phrase that was first used by a literary critic about the poet Alexander Pushkin:

For the Soviet Union, for Russia, the name of Botvinnik “is our everything”.

The whole evening was captured in a video available at the Russia Chess House website, and also in photos by Anna Burtasova at the Russian Chess Federation website. You can read what some of the other players had to say at this earlier WhyChess report.

Photo of Taimanov playing Botvinnik in 1967: from Taimanov’s album, e3e5