Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the son of a dental technician, he first came to the notice of the chess world at the age of 14, when he defeated the then world champion Jose Raul Capablanca in a simultaneous display.
Progress was fairly rapid and by the age of 20, Botvinnik, already a Soviet Master of some years standing, won his first Soviet Championship in 1931. This feat was to be repeated in 1933, 1939, 1941, 1945 and 1952.
At 24 years of age, Botvinnik was competing on equal terms with the world's elite, chalking up international tournament successes in some of the strongest tournaments of the day. First (equal with Salo Flohr) at Moscow 1935, ahead of Emanuel Lasker and Capablanca. First (equal with Capablanca) at Nottingham in 1936 and equal third at the prestigious AVRO tournament of 1938.
Not surprisingly, Botvinnik continued to build on these successes and went on to hold the title of World Champion on three separate occasions (1948-57, 1958-60, 1961-63). His longevity at the top level of chess is attributed to his astonishing dedication to study. Pre-match preparation and post-match analysis had not featured quite so prominently in the armoury of many of his predecessors, but this was Botvinnik's real strength. Technique over tactics, endgame mastery over opening traps. His adoption and development of solid opening lines in the Nimzo-Indian, Slav and Winawer French stood up to the severest scrutiny and he was able to focus on a narrow repertoire of openings during his most important matches, frequently guiding the game into well chosen areas of preparation. There were many "secret" training matches against masters of the calibre of Flohr, Yuri Averbakh and Viacheslav Ragozin. It was the unveiling, many years later, of the details of these matches that provided the chess historian with a fascinating new insight into Botvinnik's reign.
It is perhaps surprising that Mikhail Botvinnik is not widely regarded as a contender for the title of best player of all time. On the one hand, his achievements were undoubtedly impressive and it should be remembered that his main rivals, Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Mikhail Tal were all formidable players in their own right. On the other hand, the narrow margin of many of his victories (two world championship titles resulted from drawn matches) and the fact that Botvinnik's play was based on correctness rather than the intuitive or the spectacular earns him only limited admiration. There is also a sense that his achievements could have been even greater but for various other events or distractions in his life. Amateur status due to a long and distinguished career in engineering which saw him decorated by the Soviet government was one such constraint on his chess activities. One could also point to the fickleness of the Russian chess authorities and FIDE, not to mention the timing of the war and the Nazi invasion of his home country.
From the 1960s onwards, Mikhail Botvinnik curtailed his competitive play, preferring instead to occupy himself with the development of computer chess programs and to assist with the training of younger players; Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were just two of his many students.
Botvinnik's autobiography, K Dostizheniyu Tseli, was published in Russian in 1978, and in English translation as Achieving the Aim (ISBN 0-08-024120-4) in 1981.