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Alexander Kotov

Full name Alexander Alexandrovich Kotov
Country Soviet Union
Born 12 August 1913
Tula, Russian Empire
Title Grandmaster
Peak rating 2510 (July 1971)

Alexander Alexandrovich Kotov (Алекса́ндр Алекса́ндрович Ко́тов; 12 August [O.S. 30 July] 1913 - 8 January 1981) was a Soviet chess grandmaster and author. He was a Soviet champion, a two-time world title Candidate, and a prolific chess author. Kotov served in high posts in the Soviet Chess Federation and most of his books were written during the period of Cold War between the US and the USSR. Therefore, his works tended to be rather critical of (and occasionally somewhat dismissive toward) American players. Russian players, on the other hand, were presented and described in a particularly favorable light.

Kotov's books also included frequent praise for the Soviet system in general. For example, the 1958 book The Soviet School of Chess (which he co-wrote with Mikhail Yudovich) stated that "The rise of the Soviet school to the summit of world chess is a logical result of socialist cultural development." At the time, statements such as this were sufficiently controversial that Western publishers felt compelled to include disclaimers in versions of his books that were translated for distribution to English-speaking countries. Dover Publications, Inc.'s 1961 paperback version of The Soviet School of Chess was distributed primarily to Western countries and included an introduction that stated "...literature of this type, though helpful in our ultimate understanding of the game, is very often riddled with distortion. The publishers of this Dover edition are very much concerned that readers be aware of the propaganda techniques employed, even in the history of chess, by the Soviet Union."

Notwithstanding Kotov's forays into the political realm, his books were insightful and informative and were written in a congenial style. He often made his points by citing first-hand stories of incidents involving famous grandmasters, most of whom he knew personally. Such entertaining and enlightening personal accounts helped to ensure that his books would remain popular among chess players of widely varying nationalities and playing strengths.

Early life

Kotov was born in Tula, which was part of the Russian Empire, to a large working class family. He moved to Moscow in 1939 to study engineering, and during this time studied chess a great deal.


While best remembered today as an author, Kotov also had a number of good results as a player. One of his best early results was his second-place finish in the 1939 USSR Championship, just missing out to Mikhail Botvinnik in the final round. This result won him the Soviet Grandmaster title, the third Soviet player to hold the title after Botvinnik and Grigory Levenfish. Kotov was Moscow champion in 1941. He won the Soviet title jointly with David Bronstein in 1948, and won at Venice in 1950, ahead of Vasily Smyslov.

He was granted the title of International Grandmaster in 1951 by the World Chess Federation. At this time, Kotov also held high posts in the Soviet Chess Federation.

In the first ever Candidates Tournament of 1950 (the tournament to determine who challenges the World Champion, who at the time was Botvinnik) held in Budapest, he scored 8.5/18. He had qualified for the event by finishing fourth in the 1948 Interzonal Tournament in Stockholm, scoring 11.5/19.

Perhaps his best result came at the 1952 Saltsjöbaden Interzonal, which he won with a score of 16.5/20, three clear points ahead of Tigran Petrosian and Mark Taimanov in second place, and without losing a game. In the following Candidates Tournament in Zürich, he scored 14/28, and was the only person to win a game against the tournament's winner, Smyslov.

Kotov played for the USSR at the Chess Olympiads of 1952 and 1954, contributing to team gold medal victories. He was the second reserve board both times; at Helsinki 1952 he scored 2/3, while at Amsterdam 1954, he made 4/6. After 1960, all the tournaments he took part in were outside the USSR. They included a shared first place with Svetozar Gligorić at Hastings in 1962, half a point ahead of Smyslov. He played in very few tournaments in his later years.


Kotov was a great admirer of World Champion Alexander Alekhine, and wrote a comprehensive four-volume biographical series of books on his life and career, which were published between 1953 and 1958. The work significantly contributed to Alekhine's rehabilitation in the Soviet Union.

His trilogy of books Think Like a Grandmaster, Play Like a Grandmaster, and Train Like a Grandmaster, are his best known, with Think Like a Grandmaster, which was translated from the Russian by Bernard Cafferty and published by Batsford in 1971, being particularly famous. The book is not concerned with advising where pieces should be placed on the board, or tactical motifs, but rather with the method of thinking that should be employed during a game. Kotov's advice to identify candidate moves and methodically examine them to build up an "analysis tree" remains well known today.

Kotov contributed to the Yugoslav series Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO), which began in 1974, and to the associated games book series Chess Informant as an analyst.

The importance and breadth of Kotov's work as a chess author ranks him among the all-time greats in this field.

Playing style

Kotov developed a sharp style, was definitely not afraid of complications on the chessboard, and willingly entered into them against even the greatest of opponents. He favoured the closed openings with White, and was a terror with the Sicilian Defence as Black.

Kotov syndrome

In Kotov's 1971 book Think Like a Grandmaster, he described a situation when a player thinks very hard for a long time in a complicated position but does not find a clear path, then running low on time quickly makes a poor move, often a blunder.

Notable chess games