Starting with the FIDE World Championship Tournament 1948, the jurisdiction over the World Chess Championship title had fallen completely into FIDE’s hands. At the 1947 FIDE Congress, the qualifying system for the subsequent World Championships was introduced. The qualification process consisted of three stages:
- ZONAL TOURNAMENTS
First of all, the chess world was divided into „zones“. A zone consisted of one or more national federations, depending on its size. Every zone would held a Zonal to determine the players that are allowed to qualify in the next stage – the Interzonal. Players allowed to participate in the Zonal tournament were determined by the National Championships of every FIDE member.
- INTERZONAL TOURNAMENTS
Players qualifying via Zonal tournaments would play in an Interzonal tournament and fight for a spot in a Candidates tournament. Initially, only one Interzonal tournament was held; for the 1948-1951 cycle it was held in Salstjöbaden in 1948. Subsequently, as FIDE grew, it was realized only one Interzonal is highly impractical, and the number of Interzonals was gradually increased (in 1972 there were two Interzonals and in 1983 –three).
- CANDIDATES TOURNAMENT
Finally, a number of the players from the Interzonal tournaments, together with the players from the previous World Championship cycle, would compete in a Candidates tournament. Later, Candidates tournament was abolished and players competed in the knock-out system instead.
In 1950, Candidates Tournament was held in Budapest, Hungary. From the Interzonal Tournament, 9 players qualified: Bronstein, Szabo, Boleslavsky, Kotov, Lilienthal, Bondarevsky, Najdorf, Stahlberg and Flohr (Bondarevsky later withdrew due to illness). Players participating in the 1948 tournament were also invited, but only the Soviets Smyslov and Keres accepted their invitations.
10 players competed in a double round-robin. Two rounds before the finish, Isaac Boleslavsky was leading by a clear point ahead of his competitor and close friend, David Bronstein. These two Ukrainian players were the frontrunners of the Kiev School and were the first to start using King’s Indian actively in the tournament play. In the final two rounds, Boleslavsky agreed to two quick draws, while Bronstein won his games, and they shared the win. Much later, Bronstein disclosed Boleslavsky arranged these two draws on purpose. Boleslavsky had a dismal score against Botvinnik, and the friends thought they would compete in a three-man tournament with Botvinnik if they shared the victory:
„During the Budapest Candidates’ Tournament Boleslavsky and I had discussed the chances of the next challenger and my friend, who had lost seven games to Botvinnik without winning a single one, was of the opinion that a fight against Botvinnik was hopeless Once he had had a chance to checkmate Botvinnik in a few moves but missed the opportunity.
Of course, I had a completely different opinion. I argued that Botvinnik was very strong but one could still play against him successfully. I was sure that I could demonstrate that his strategy was far from perfect.
Isaac Boleslavsky was leading in the Candidates’ Tournament but after a talk, he had with Boris Vainstein he decided to slow down to allow me to tie for first place with him. Vainstein would try to arrange a tournament with Botvinnik, Boleslavsky and myself for the World Championship.“
Alas, nothing came out of this idea. Instead of a match tournaments, Bronstein and Boleslavsky were forced to play a play-off match to determine Botvinnik’s challenger. In thsi hard fought match, Bronstein prevailed after 14th games and gained the right to challenge Botvinnik.
After the match tournament in 1948, Botvinnik devoted himself to his career and didn’t play a single game up to 1951. However, he maintained his scientific approach, annotated Bronstein’s games and took a 6 month period to prepare himself for the match, which was held in the Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Conditions were determined at the Paris 1949 FIDE congress. The number of the games was limited to 24, the winner would be the first to score 12.5 points and Botvinnik was granted a right to return match in case of him losing the match.
In any case, match was extremely tight and close. Botvinnik’s rust and probable underestimation of his opponent was particularly apparent during the first six games, during which Bronstein was clearly better player. He even took the lead after the 5th game. However, in the 6th game, he made an inexplicable move which threw the game away, and the psychological advantage passed to Botvinnik, who built up on his success and won the 7th game as well.
Still, Bronstein didn’t intend to give up so easily. After the series of three draws, he won the 11th game and leveled the score. Botvinnik retailated in the 12th game and another seires of draws followed. After winning the 17th game and losing the 19th game, Bronstein managed to do the unthinkable – by winning the 21st and 22nd games, he took the lead two games before an end. Before the crucial 23rd game, Botvinnik was very much aware he is in danger of losing his title, as his journal entry confirms:
„Malice and composure, let’s go. The motherland is in danger.“
The 23rd game was the culmination of the entire match. Bronstein employed the Grünfeld defence, and Botvinnik went for the quiet, fianchetto line. In the opening, Bronstein gave up a bishop pair, but his position was very sound and without any weaknesses. After some exchanges took place, an equal endgame with bishops against knights arose. Botvinnik skillfully maintaned the pressure and Bronstein commited mistakes on the 43rd and 44th move and lost the game.
He could have still won the match by winning the 24th game. But after very precise opening play by his opponent, Bronstein refrained from a very dangerous piece sacrificed and very soon had no other choice but to agree to a draw and admit his defeat. Thus, with the score standing at 12-12, Botvinnik retained his title.
To an extent, the match victory was not fully deserved by Botvinnik. His opponent played better chess and succumbed mainly due to large oversights. Moreover, many years later, Bronstein had hinted in an interview he was influenced by the events happening off the board:
„Asked whether he had been under pressure to lose the former event, he stated that, although there had not been direct pressure, circumstances related to his father, the fact that he was a Jew, and a clear institutional preference for Botvinnik had resulted in psychological pressure; Bronstein considered that winning the match could have been very damaging for him, although that did not mean that he had lost intentionally.“