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Isaac Boleslavsky was among the many grandmasters who rose to the top rank during the reign of Mikhail Botvinnik in his tenure of the World Championship and his domination of the USSR Championship. Initially he was a contender for both titles but in later years he became an authoritative theoretician and was used in the role of second to other grandmasters in their quest for the World Championship and to the USSR team in their many successful forays into the Chess Olympiads.
Born on 9th June 1919 in the small Ukrainian township of Zolotonasha to his mother, a noted poet and his pharmaceutical father, Isaac's chess career did not commence until the family moved to the nearby city of Dnepropetrovsk. Here he taught himself the game and then participated in local junior tournaments until his first success was earned when coming third in the final of the All-Union Junior Championships of 1936 held in Leningrad.
During his high school years, he played very seldom but in 1938 after winning the local championship, he earned the right to play in the Ukrainian Championship. To the consternation of many other participants in this tourney, he duly won the Championship.
He repeated this performance in the 1939 Ukrainian championship against a field that included a rather young David Bronstein. His talent could not be ignored and he was invited to play in the 12th USSR Championship held in Moscow, A tournament that included world-class grandmasters in Botvinnik, Keres and Lilienthal as well as many young talented grandmasters - Bondarevsky, Smyslov, Kotov et al. Here his early progress was not encouraging and at the start of the ninth round he found himself in one of the bottom positions. Now his tenacity began to bear fruits and during the next ten rounds he gained eight points. A result that lifted him into a tied 5th-6th position.
In 1940 he completed a hat-trick of Ukrainian Championships losing just one game in the last round.
The USSR chess hegemony were not satisfied with the result of the 12th USSR Championship as Botvinnik had not won. He had been ear-marked as being the USSR contender for the World Championship, then held by Alexander Alekhine, and his failure in the 12th Championship did not promote his challenge. To correct that situation the "Match Tournament for the Title of Absolute Champion of the USSR" was arranged for March 1941. This tournament included the first six prize-winners of the 12th Championship with Boleslavsky qualifying. He was ill-prepared to contend for this event, mainly because of his heavy commitment to University examinations. This manifested itself in missing an easily won endgame against Botvinnik, and having to allow a draw to Bondarevsky, again in the endgame after being two pawns ahead. In another game against Bondarevesky he had an overwhelming position only to fritter it away into an eventual loss.
1941 saw the outbreak of the "Great Patriotic War" against Germany, but Boleslavsky was not fit for conscription due to his weak eyesight. In the face of the advancing Nazi threat, he was evacuated to Sverdlorsk where he continued his university studies and in 1943 met and married his wife and life-long companion, Nina. They were due to have two children, Tatiana, born in 1946, and Stanislav, born in 1955. Because of the invasion, Sverdlorsk became the centre of USSR chess activities as many chess luminaries had been forced to seek sanctuary in the area. These émigrés included Ragozin and Sokolvky.
In 1943, during the war period, Botvinnik emerged from his self imposed chess hinter-land to play in an eight man double round tournament in Svedlorsk that included Boleslavsky as a participant. This proved to be a comparative failure for Boleslavsky as he finished in fifth place.
Boleslavsky earned his place in the 13th USSR Championship by qualifying in the Semi-final played in Leningrad. Here his aggressive play earned him the title of grandmaster. In the following Championship he took second place although Botvinnik confirmed his USSR chess mentors trust with winning by the margin of three points.
Now the USSR began to dip its feet in the international scene and in radio matches against the USA and England they were overwhelmingly successful. Boleslavsky played a significant part in these victories.
In 1946 the memorable Groningen tournamant was held which included practically all the major contenders to fight Alekhine for the World Championship. After an uncertain start, Boleslavsky gathered his forces and from the next seven rounds he gleaned 5˝ points to finish in a tied 6th-7th position with Flohr.
In 1947, Boleslavsky secured second place in the 15th USSR Championship going through the entire tournament without defeat!
His tournament success continued with third place in the Chigorin Memorial of 1947 with a shared fourth place with Smyslov but missed out in selection for the World Championship Match Tournament of 1948, held after Alekhine's death in 1946.
A quiet period followed in which he took part in only internal tournaments until 1950. This year was to be very important for Boleslavsky in his quest for the World Championship. The first Candidates tournament was held in Budapest during April and Boleslavsky had qualified by being in the first five of an Interzonal tournament held previously in Stockholm. This marked the beginning of a cycle of tournaments designed to produce a contender to play Mikhail Botvinnik the winner of the World championship Match tournament of 1948.
At the half-way stage of the Candidates, Bolealavsky was in undisputed first place with 6 points out of nine games, ahead of the likes of Smyslov, Keres, Kotov and Flohr. Then, with just two rounds left to play, he was still in undisputed first place a full point ahead of Bronstein. Boleslavsky drew his last two games, but Bronstein won both of his games and thus finished equal first with Boleslavsky. The tie was to be split by a match of twelve games. In the event that this was drawn, supplementary games were to be played and indeed these games proved to be necessary. However, Boleslavsky faltered and Bronstein won the 13th and 14th games and thus became the challenger to Botvinnik's championship. This match was played in 1951 and at the end of 24 games the score was level which meant that Botvinnik held on to his title.
Boleslavsky's next opportunity in the World Championship cycle, came about in 1953, when he qualified for the momentous Zurich Candidates tournament. This massive tourney was played over 30 rounds and ended in a well deserved victory for Smyslov. Boleslavsky's showing was quite disappointing as his playing style had undergone a change and now he was a more positional player than previously, a style that meant he played more draws. His tournament ended in a tie for 10th-11th place.
His overall results, however, brought him into the Soviet team that played matches in France, S. America, USA, England and Sweden. Unfortunately he was destined never again to play in the World Championship cycle of tournaments. Instead he found a niche in in supporting other teams and individuals including becoming a second to Smyslov, Petrosian in their matches with Botvinnik.
Boleslavsky died in February, 1977 at the early age of 57 and was playing chess to within days of his death.
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We are indebted to the book "Selected Games" published by Caissa for the above biographical information.
Other sources have been the "The Soviet School of Chess" and "My Great Predecessors" Volume 2 by Garry Kasparov.