04 Sep

Radio Daze

We’ve seen many global commemorations this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, and rightly so. But today in this column we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the very first international sporting event to be held after the war, with the staging of the historic USA vs. USSR Radio Chess Match, held in New York and Moscow, which ran 1st to 4th Sept. 1945, that not only enthralled chess fans but equally the media and the general public.


The American team played from the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York and the Soviets at the Central Club of Art Masters in Moscow. The ten leading Soviet players (with the exception of Paul Keres) took on the ten leading US players in a double round match that proved to be a watershed and a changing of the guard in the chess world.  The US team (who were the pre-war four-time Olympiad champions) lost by the unexpectedly hefty margin of 15.5-4.5, and the Soviets went on to dominate for several decades to come.

A couple of years later, Mikhail Botvinnik - who led the Soviets - would also go on to become World Champion. And recently, I inadvertently stumbled on some very rare Soviet film footage uploaded to YouTube, focusing on Botvinnik, which transpired to be from the Moscow end of that very historic Radio Match from 70 years ago this very week. There’s almost three minutes of footage, and you can view it by clicking here. In it, we see Soviet champion Botvinnik replying to US champion Arnold Denker’s 1.d4 with 1…d5 - and apart from the match being historic and the film footage rare, this game also proved to be the genesis of what became known as the “Botvinnik System” and a battleground still being ferociously fought over today.

In his annotations to that Denker game, Botvinnik wrote in his book Half A Century of Chess: "You get the feeling that my opponent is a very long way from Moscow and that nobody in New York has warned Denker that you don't play this variation against Botvinnik.” And how true his words were to be.

Arnold Denker - Mikhail Botvinnik
USSR - USA Radio Match 1945, (1)
Semi-Slav Defence, Botvinnik System
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.exf6 Bb7 This was the system honed by Botvinnik. Black has sacrificed a pawn but enjoys remarkable resilience and lots of dynamics. 12.Be2?! Botvinnik had recent experience in this line having won games against Lilienthal and Mikenas at the 1944 USSR Championship. Both had played 12.g3 and this is the standard way in today's theory to battle the Botvinnik System. But with a lack of information flowing through the war years, Denker was unaware of Botvinnik's games against Lilienthal and Mikenas, so continues playing (outdated) theory, as he understood it. Worse for Denker was the fact that 12.Be2?! had occured in a secret training match Botvinnik had with his old sparring partner Ragozin (Pushkin 1941). 12...Qb6 13.0-0 0-0-0 14.a4 b4 15.Ne4 c5! 16.Qb1 Qc7 17.Ng3 cxd4! Botvinnik daringly opens the file in front of his king. However this was no gamble, as he'd worked out all the complications a couple of years previously, accurately calculating that his attack would get there first. For Denker, though, it must have seemed dangerous for his opponent to allow this. 18.Bxc4 Qc6 Clever. Botvinnik uses one open diagonal to force open another; and this one is the key to Black winning. 19.f3 d3! (See Diagram) White can't play 20.Bxd3 as ...Qc5+ wins the bishop on g5; and if 20.Qxd3 Ne5 also wins a piece. 20.Qc1 Parrying the threat to the bishop. 20...Bc5+ 21.Kh1 Denker is left in a daze by it all - a "Radio Daze" if you will - and it was probably around here that he discovered to his horror that after 21.Be3 d2! 22.Qxd2 Ne5 would win a piece. 21...Qd6 22.Qf4 In his own notes to this game, Botvinnik points out that after 22.Bf4 he would have won by force after 22...Rxh2+! 23.Kxh2 Rh8+ 24.Nh5 Rxh5+ 25.Kg3 e5 26.Be3 e4+ 27.f4 Qxf6 28.Kf2 Qxf4+. 22...Rxh2+! Even with 22.Qf4, Denker can't stop the tsunami either. 23.Kxh2 Rh8+ 24.Qh4 Also hopeless was 24.Nh5 Rxh5+ 25.Kg3 Rxg5+ 26.Kh3 Qxf4. 24...Rxh4+ 25.Bxh4 Qf4 0-1 Forced to now also lose a bishop, Denker had no other option than to resign.

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