FIDE World Championship Tournament 1948


After defeating Euwe in 1937, Alekhine was invited by Fide President Reub to play a match for the title against official FIDE challenger, Salo Flohr. Initially, Alekhine declined invitation; precisely during those years the new generation of players, led by Botvinnik, Keres, Fine and Reshevsky, was emerging.

Also, there was an offer from Montevideo to play a match against Capablanca.  However, as has become customary, the negotiations between Alekhine and Capablanca weren’t successful; Alekhine wanted to play under the London rules, while Capablanca wanted a more favourable distribution of the prize fund.

Therefore, in May 1938, Alekhine agreed to play a match against Salo Flohr. The match was to take place in Czechoslovakia in autumn, 1939. Unfortunately for Flohr, on 29th September the Münich Agreement was signed, and Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Magazine Chess announced the match is dead:

“The world championship match between Dr. Alekhine and Flohr is dead. The money which was to have financed it has been diverted into the hands of the Teuton…”

Shortly afterwards, the famous AVRO tournament 1938 was held, a celebrated tournament in which both the members of the older and the newer generation participated. Since after cancelation of the match Flohr wasn’t considered as the only challenger, AVRO tournament organisers proclaimed that the winner would receive the preferential right to a match with Alekhine. But at the opening ceremony the champion declared that he had the right to play with any well-known grandmaster who could raise the necessary prize fund.

AVRO tournament was won by the American Reuben Fine and Estonian Paul Keres, with Keres being declared first on the tie-break. As described in the post dedicated to the Estonian legend, Keres immediately requested an audience with Alekhine, but was forestalled by Botvinnik. Botvinnik, who had beaten both Alekhine and Capablanca in their individual encounters, considered himself as a legitimate challenger. During a meeting with Alekhine, they informally agreed to play a match in Moscow.

Thus, when Alekhine met with Keres, he was reluctant to sign a match contract. He used the monetary issues to avoid commiting to a match against Estonian superstar. During the Chess Olympiad in 1939, there was also yet another attempt to organize a match against Capablanca. Alas, all these negotiations were stalled when the Second World War intervened.

During the war, Alekhine found himself in the occupied France. He remained an active player, but the political circumstances didn’t allow him to find a suitable challenger. In 1941, he offered Keres to play for the World Championship title, but the latter declined. Keres was aware title played under the auspice of Nazi Germany wouldn’t be recognized after the war and refused to compromise himself.

After the war, the situation remained complicated. Alekhine had written a series of antisemitic articles under the Nazi regime and became “persona non grata” in chess world. He even wasn’t invited in the first post-war tournament, London Victory tournament in 1946. However Botvinnik, the ruthless pragmatist, wasn’t bothered with Alekhine’s reputation, and in February 1946 he challenged Alekhine to a match.

Alas, roughly one month later, on March 24, a radio news flash announced the death of the World Champion Alexander Alekhine at the age of 53 in Lisbon. For the first time since the introduction of the World Chess Champion title, the throne has been vacated. Alekhine’s death opened numerous questions. Who will be the next question? How will he be selected?

Many were of the quite reasonable opinion that, following histroical tradition, Euwe, as the only living ex-champion, should be proclaimed chamion, and that challenger should be identified by FIDE. Grandmaster Eugene Znosko – Borovsky wrote:

Among living masters Euwe alone has been champion of the world. He lost his title to Alekhine. With the death of Alekhine the title reverts to Euwe as a matter of course.

“Theoretically, there is no argument about it all. But the chess world might not willingly accept this solution or be satisfied by its adoption. Not that Euwe has gone back, but his victory is now ten years old, and there have been quite a number of young players since then who have proved equal to him if not superior. On the other hand. Alekhine’s first challenger since the war, therefore the last challenger to the title, is Botvinnik. Alekhine accepted the challenge. The title goes to him by default if death can be called default and not a matter of ‘force majeure.’ In any case Botvinnik has more right than anyone to contest the title and, being the first player in the U.S.S.R. and with Alekhine out of the lists, he must undoubtedly be considered the strongest player to-day. “

Botvinnik and the Soviets very much feared such a turn of events; they thought Euwe, as a Western player, was more likely to play a match against American Reshevsky and already back then the American on the World throne was their biggest nightmare. Luckily for him, at the 1946 FIDE Congress, when the Soviets chess federation wasn’t part of FIDE, it was decided that winners of the first post war tournaments in Groningen and Prague should be considered as the most serious candidates for the throne.

Considering most top players were absent in Prague, the Groningen tournament 1946 turned out to be the most important post war tournament. It developed in a fierce race between Euwe and Botvinnik. In their individual encounter, Botvinnik barely held a draw. However, this was not the end of drama. Before the last round, Botvinnik was half a point ahead, but he unexpectedly lost to Najdorf. However, Euwe failed to exploit this opportunity and lost to Kotov as well. Therefore, Botvinnik won the tournament; later he claimed it would have been impossible to stage a World Championship tournament in 1948 had Euwe triumphed in Groningen.

Until the next FIDE congress, held in The Hague in 1947, nothing concrete regarding the World Championship was decided. Initially, Euwe was proclaimed the world champion. However, his tenure was to last only two hours, until the arrival of the Soviet delegation (which was now the part of FIDE). It turned out Soviets were more interested in staging a World Championship tournament – they were also ready to cover two-thirds of the expenses.

The congress invited six players: Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Keres, Euwe, Smyslov and Fine. Reuben Fine, who was pursuing PHD in psychology, refused to participate (he would very soon also give up chess completely in order to devote himself to his career). Instead of finding a substitue (Miguel Najdorf, the winner of the Prague 1946, was the name that came to mind), FIDE decided to increase the number of rounds – instead of playing against Fine, players would play against each other one additional time.

The match tournament started on March 1st, 1948. The first part of the tournament was played in the Hague Town Hall, the second part in Moscow in magnificent Salle des Colonnes. Time control was 40 moves in 2.5 hours and 16 moves per hour after that.

Botvinnik dominated the tournament from the start to end. He won all mini-matches: 3-2 against Smyslov, 4-1 against Keres, 3.5-1.5 against Reshevsky and 3.5-1.5 against Euwe. His result against Keres in particular caused some controversies afterwards. Before the war, Keres had played rather successfully against Botvinnik, whereas in the match tournament he was mercilessly crushed. There were many allegations Soviet authorities forced Keres was forced to throw his games. In 1991 Botvinnik himself gave another boost to this rumours when he claimed that

“during the second half in Moscow.. it was proposed that the other Soviet players… lose to me on purpose.. it was Stalin… who proposed this. But of course I refused.”

We will never know whether Keres was affected by the post-war depression and the fact his homeland was occupied by the Soviets, or there indeed was some sort of deus ex machina intervening. In any case, Botvinnik definitely played the best chess in the tournament and deservingly became the sixth world champion.


Chessgames – FIDE World Championship tournament 1948

Chesspedia – FIDE World Championship tournament 1948

Wikipedia – World Chess Championship

Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part One

Garry Kasparov On My Great Predecessors, Part Two

Chesshistory – Interregnum by Edward Winter

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