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Vassily Smyslov (1921-2010)

Vasily Smyslov 1921-2010

Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov 1921-2010. Photo from 1957.

Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov 1921-2010. Photo from 1957. |

Former World Chess Champion Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov (March 24, 1921 - March 27, 2010) has died at the age of 89.

Smyslov was the 7th World Chess Champion in 1957-8. He was a top 10 player between 1940 and 1970, the top player 1953-1958 and remained in the top 100 until 1990 when he was 70. A reknowned positional and endgame player he nevertheless played all sorts of positions throughout his career.

Sadly reports from Moscow suggest that his final years were lived in poverty and that he had been ill for some time before his final admission to hospital.

Growing links to tributes and information.

Read a detailed account of the 7th World Chess Champions Career.

Vasily Smyslov in 1957

Former World Chess Champion Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov has died at the age of 89.

Smyslov was born March 24th, 1921 in Moscow and was an emergency admittance to the Botkin Hospital in Moscow with heart trouble a few days before he died in the early hours of March 27th 2010.

When I re-examine the careers of famous chess players sometimes I've sometimes been left a bit under-whelmed, but there is no danger of that in this case. Undoubtably strongest player in the mid-1950s he is also the 6th strongest player of all time, if his career is taken over a 20 year period (Stats: Yet I get the feeling that he was a little under-appreciated, in the galaxy of chess players. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly the period of his tenure of World Champion was only 1957-8 and secondly he was followed by far more charasmatic players such as Tal and Fischer. However his career and style stand detailed scrutiny and mark him out as one of the true greats of the game.

Smyslov learned the game at the age of 6 in 1927, taught by his father who himself was a strong enough player to beat Alexander Alekhine in tournament play. He was taught simple positions and endings early on and Smyslov regarded this as one of the keys to the harmonious style he later developed along with the love of music which was also passed on to him by his father.

"Strict beauty and harmony, spontineity and elegance, the faultless intuition of the artist, the absolute mastery of technique and therefore complete independence from it - this is my ideal." was how Smyslov chose to express his beliefs.

He studied chess history and had the opportunity to see many of the greats at the Moscow tournaments of 1935 and 1936. He believed his chess style at 15 or 16 was pretty much well formed "... in a chess game I always sought not only victory, but also the triumph of logic." This crede meant that he played all sorts of positions, not just "positional variations" but also in his middle years he lost quite a few games against players who valued aggression rather than strict logic, I don't think he enjoyed playing against that kind of approach.

In 1938 he became Soviet Youth Champion and a master after sharing first place in the Moscow Championship.

He played the 12th Soviet Championship in 1940 and was in third place half a point behind the winners, he also started his rivalry with Botvinnik, their first game ending in a draw. His first major tournament was the Absolute Championship of the USSR Leningrad - Moscow 1941. Finishing 3rd out of 6 players in a field with no weak players marked him out as a player of the highest class.

In the tournament book Botvinnik said "His defects are chiefly psychological; sometimes he overestimates his possibilities during the actual game. After summing up the position he plays with great power; but when the struggle is involved he lacks the subtle appreciation of the critical moments." He conceded that Smyslov was still growing and praised his defence.

In spite of the difficult conditions during the war Smyslov continued to play and his best result was when he finished in 2nd place in the Soviet Championship in 1944.

The USA vs. USSR radio chess match 1945 took place September 1st-4th September 1945. In a portend of the Soviet domination of chess that was to come the USSR team won the match 15½-4½. Smyslov raised his international profile by beating Sammy Reshevsky 2-0. In a rematch against the USA in person in Moscow he beat Arnold Denker 2-0 in 1946 where the USSR won again.

His reputation was such that he recieved an invitation to the first major post-war tournament, the Groningen tournament of 1946. This proved key as his 3rd place eventually meant that he was invited to the Match Tournament for the World Championship in The Hague and Moscow in 1948 where he a was 2nd (if distant) to the new World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik.

In 1949 he shared first place in the Soviet Championships for the first time.

In 1950 he was only 3rd in the Budapest Candidates tournament behind Bronstein and Boleslavsky which had to be seen as a disappointment for him. There seemed to be a marking of time in his career which ended with the first great win of his career, the Candidates tournament in Zuerich, 1953, which also started the battles for the highest honours.

The Candidates tournament in Zuerich - Neuhausen in 1953 is justly famous. Smyslov won the tournament by a margin of two points over David Bronstein, Paul Keres and Sammy Reshevsky. Players such as Tigran Petrosian, Efim Geller, Miguel Najdorf and Max Euwe also competed, making it one of the strongest tournaments of the time.

Early pace was set by Sammy Reshevsky but once Smyslov took the lead in Round 12 he was never to surrender it although he was caught on 12.5 points in Round 21 by Sammy Reshevsky (when Smyslov suffered his only defeat, to Kotov) he took the lead alone again after round 24 and had a two point lead by Round 27 and then drew his way to qualification.

Candidates Tournament Zuerich - Neuhausen (SUI), 30 viii - 23 x 1953
1Smyslov, Vassily**½½½111½½½½11½0½½½½½½½½1118.0
2Bronstein, David I½½**11½½½½½0½½½½½½01½½½½16.0224.00
3Reshevsky, Samuel Herman½000**½½½½½½½½10½½½1½1½11116.0210.75
4Keres, Paul00½½**½1½½½1½½½½11½1½½1116.0210.25
5Petrosian, Tigran V½½½½½½½0**½½½½00½½½½11½11115.0
6Najdorf, Miguel½½½½½½½½**00½0½½½½½½1114.5198.00
7Geller, Efim P00½1½½½0½½11**½001½½01½101½½14.5197.75
8Kotov, Alexander½1½½01½½½½½1**1000100114.0198.75
9Taimanov, Mark E½½½½½½111001**10½½½½½01114.0191.75
10Averbakh, Yuri L½½½½½0½½½1½½01**½½½½110013.5194.00
11Boleslavsky, Isaak½½½½½000½½½½1011½½½½**½0½½½1½½13.5185.75
12Szabo, Laszlo½½1000½½01½½½½½1**½½13.0
13Gligoric, Svetozar½0½0½0½½½0½1½½**½11112.5
14Euwe, Max00½½00½½1000½0½½½0**11.5
15Stahlberg, Gideon½½000000½½100011½½00**8.0

This qualification led to a first of three match against Mikhail Botvinnik. The first match started catestrophically for him with Botvinnik winning games 1, 2 and 4. However a run of 4 wins and a draw starting with game 7 took Smyslov into the lead, however he then lost game 12 to see the match level at the half way stage. Shared wins in games 13 and 14 were followed by two wins for Botvinnik. Smyslov scored wins in games 20 and 23 but didn't try all that hard in the final game offering a draw on move 22 to see the match drawn 12-12. This result meant that Botvinnik retained his title. (Botvinnik is supposed to have said in reponse to Smyslov's final game draw offer: "Your offer is so attractive I cannot refuse").

20th WCh Match 1954 Moscow (RUS), 16 iii - 13 v 1954

1955 saw shared firsts in Hastings and the USSR Championships (lost playoff to Geller) and a win in Zagreb. When Smyslov returned to Candidates Chess in Amsterdam he again emerged triumphant but was level with Keres until three rounds until the end, he beat Bronstein, drew against Spassky and beat Pilnik to set up a second world championship match with Botvinnik, one that he claimed afterwards he was much better prepared for the match after his previous experience and his "play was more steady and harmonious". After he took the lead in game 8 and never surrendered his grip on the match after that. He thus became the 7th World Chess Champion.

Candidates Tournament Amsterdam (NED), 27 iii - 30 iv 1956
4Spassky,Boris V½½**½½½1½½½½½19.5/1884.00
5Petrosian,Tigran V½½½½½½½½**01½½9.5/1882.25
6Bronstein,David I½0½0½½½0**½1½½½19.5/1881.00
7Geller,Efim P00½½½010½0**11½19.5/1878.75
21st WCh Match 1957 Moscow (RUS), 5 iii - 27 iv 1957

Mikhail Botvinnik had a rematch clause and a day less than a year from the start of the first match Smyslov had yet again to play a world title match. Smyslov claims that he started the match with flu and ended it with pneumonia. Whatever the reason, Smyslov was comprehensively defeated in this third match and never again was to fight for the world title.

22nd WCh Match 1958 Moscow (RUS), 4 iii - 8 v 1958

Remaining World Championship Adventures.

This match ends the period when Smyslov was World Champion and World Number One. By the end of 1958 Mikhail Tal had become the best player in the World and the new star. Tal demolished his way through the Interzonal and then won the Candidates tournament in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade in 1959 whereas Smyslov finished in 4th place a full 5 points behind. Smyslov maintained a top 5 position for the next few years and top 10 throughout the 1960s but wasn't a serious force in final stages of the World Championships until his swan song in 1982-4. He missed out on a place in the Stockholm Interzonal of 1962. In 1964 he shared first place in the Amsterdam Interzonal but in the quarter finals of the Candidates Matches he was well beaten by Efim Geller (-3=5). He did come close to qualifying from various interzonals for a few years but it did seem that his career was winding down when in 1982 he persuaded a Federation (UAE?) to nominate him for the Las Palmas Interzonal of 1982 where he finished 2nd and qualified for the Candidates at the age of 61. He drew +1-1=12 against Robert Huebner in the Quarter Finals where famously it was decided after the match went on so long that the winner would be decided by the roll of the roulette wheel (Huebner objected but it happened anyhow).

Robert Byrne reports on Huebner - Smyslov at the time

He then beat Zoltan Ribli +3=7-1 to earn a match against Garry Kasparov in the final of the Candidates. These result showed both the quality of his concept of the game but also the dire state of international chess at the time with the Soviets having mostly aging stars except for World Champion Anatoly Karpov and the fast rising Garry Kasparov. Kasparov won a really quite interesting match against Smyslov 8.5-4.5 which in itself wasn't a bad achievement. His final Candidates' appearance was the Montpellier 1985 tournament but he didn't progress. He played in the 1997 FIDE World Championship Knockout in Groningen where he lost 2-0 to Alexander Morozevich. Smyslov finally became a World Champion again when he won the World Seniors in 1991.

Remaining Career

It is hard to do justice to the rest of his career with such a huge post-script following the heights of being World Champion. For the most part he lacked the ambition to return to the very top but was instead content to perform consistantly well for many years. He played 50 strong tournaments between 1939-1981 winning or sharing 15 first prizes according to the Oxford Companion to Chess.

Best results included Moscow 1960 1st, Capablanca Memorial 1965 1st in front of Fischer, Monte Carlo 1969 1st=, Moscow 1971 3rd. Smyslov scored 8/17 in the 55th Soviet Championships in 1988 which were the last of super-strong versions of this tournament. He drew with Karpov and Kasparov who shared first, and beat Vassily Ivanchuk in an impressive game.

He played in 9 Olympiads scoring +69 =42 -2. His total of 17 Olympiad medals won, including team and individual medals, is an all-time Olympiad record, according to Smyslov also represented the USSR in five European Team Championships, and emerged with a perfect medals' record: he won five team gold medals and five board gold medals. His total score in these events was (+19 = 15 - 1), for 75.7 per cent. (These stats are from his Wikipedia entry) Smyslov played for the USSR in both the 1970 and 1984 matches against teams representing the Rest of the World. He was on board six at Belgrade in 1970, and on board four at London in 1984 (which I attended), with the Soviets winning both matches.

His final event was the Klompendans tournament in Amsterdam in 2001 where he scored 50%. He played in a number of these Veterans vs Ladies events from 1997. After this his eyesight became so poor he retired from playing. He was the guest of honour at occasional events after this. Smyslov had a lifelong interest in music and singing which he inherited from his father. According to the Guardian Obituary: "In 1950 Smyslov, who had a fine baritone voice, was among several hundred singers who entered a national contest for a position at the Bolshoi, failing only at the final shortlist stage. Singing remained one of his great interests and he sometimes gave recitals during chess tournaments, often accompanied by Mark Taimanov, a fellow grandmaster. His bid for the Bolshoi helps explain why he finished only third in the 1950 Budapest Candidates tournament..."

On the pronunciation of his name I remember reading a book on one of the World Title Matches he played that explained that his name is Smyslov, which sort of rhymes with "whizz-cough".

Leading Results of Smyslov's Career
1938MoscowURSRussian Schoolboys1st8/10
1938GorkyURSUSR 1st Cat Tourn1st-3rd10/13
1938MoscowURSMoscow Championships1st-2nd12.5/17
1939Leningrad-MoscowURSTraining Tournament12-13th8/17
1939MoscowURSMoscow Championships2nd-3rd9/13
1940MoscowURS12th USSR Championship3rd13/19
1941Leningrad-MoscowURSAbsolute ch-USSR3rd10/20
1942MoscowURSMoscow Championships1st12/15
1943MoscowURSMoscow Championships2nd11.5/16
1944MoscowURS13th ch-USSR2nd10.5/16
1945MoscowURS14th ch-USSR10th-11th8.5/17
1946MoscowURSMoscow Championships3rd-6th8.5/15
1946GroningenNEDStaunton Memorial3rd12.5/19
1947LeningradURS15th ch-USSR3rd-4th12/19
1947MoscowURSChigorin Memorial3rd-4th10/15
1948Hague-Moscow NED/URSMatch-Tourn. WCh2nd11/20
1949MoscowURS17th USSR Championship1st-2nd13/19
1950BudapestHUNCandidates Tournament3rd10/18
1950VeniceITAInternational Tournament2nd12/15
1950MoscowURS18th USSR Championship5th-6th10/17
1953ZurichSUICandidates Tournament1st18/28
1954MoscowURSWCh-Match BotvinnikDraw+7-7=10
1954HastingsENGInternational Tournament1st-2nd7/9
1955Moscow URS22nd USSR Championship1st-2nd12/19
1955ZagrebYUGInternational Tournament1st place14.5/19
1956MoscowURSAlekhine Memorial1st-2nd11/15
1956AmsterdamNEDCandidates Tournament1st11.5/18
1957MoscowURSWCh-Match BotvinnikWon+7-3=12
1958MoscowURSWCh-Match BotvinnikLost+5-7=11
1959MoscowURSUSSR Central CC1st-3rd7/11
1959Bled-Zagreb-BelgadeYUGCandidates Tournament4th15/28
1960MoscowURS1st USSR Central CC1st-2nd8.5/11
1961MoscowURS2nd USSR Central CC1st-2nd7.5/11
1963MoscowURS3rd USSR Central CC1st11.5/15
1964HavanaCUBCapablanca Memorial1st-2nd16/21
1965MoscowURSCandidates Match GellerLost2.5:5.5
1965HavanaCUBCapablanca Memorial1st15.5/21
1967Palma de MallorcaESPInternational Tournament2nd-3rd12.5/17
1967Monte CarloMNCInternational Tournament2nd6.5/9
1969Monte CarloMNCInternational Tournament1st-2nd8/11
1970Rovinj-ZagrebYUGInternational Tournament2nd-5th11/17
1971LeningradURS39th USSR Championship2nd-3rd13.5/21
1971MoscowURSAlekhine Memorial3rd10.5/17
1972Las PalmasESPInternational Tournament2nd-3rd11/15
1973PetropolisBRAInterzonal Tournament5th11/17
1977MoscowURS60th Ann October Revolution3rd10.5/17
1982Las PalmasESPInterzonal Tournament2nd8.5/13
1983VeldenAUTWCh Candidates Q/F HuebnerWon T/B7:7
1983MoscowURSWCh Candidates S/F RibliWon6.5:4.5
1984VilniusURSCandidates Final KasparovLost4.5:8.5
1991Bad WoerishofenGERWCh Seniors1st-2nd8.5/11

Information about Smyslov's death

World Chess Champion Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov (March 24, 1921 - March 27, 2010) The date of death was the early hours of March 27th 2010. [In Russian] says that Smyslov and his wife Nadezhda's final months were very troubled. Smyslov's wife suffered a fall in February and Smyslov himself was bedridden, and it seems they were not being helped or cared for. Smyslov had been poorly for around 3 months and was in serious condition with coronary heart disease and atrial fibrillation when he was finally admitted to hospital by which time it was too late.

There will be a funeral service at the Chess Club on Gogolevsky in Moscow.

Links to stories, obituaries and information about Vasily Smyslov

Sources Wikipedia: Smyslov Wikipedia entry.

Excellent Guardian Obituary by Leonard Barden with info you won't see elsewhere

First Report of his death [In Russian]: ( Heart failure is given as the cause. It states that Smyslov died in the early hours of Saturday 27th March 2010, unless you read a google translation into English which misinterprets the original.

Chess History 6512 has a number of photos of Vasily Smyslov

[In Russian] ChessPro Statistics and big games file [PGN] for Vasily Smyslov.

Career stats of Vasily Smyslov from ChessMetrics

Daily Dirt on Smyslov's passing

2005 interview with Vladimir Kramnik on his predecessors including Smyslov

Dennis Monokroussos on Smyslov's passing

ChessBase report and Photos on Smyslov's passing

ChessVibes Tribute to Vasily Smyslov

ChessVibes gives some Smyslov Studies

Timeline of Smyslov's career by Bill Wall

DYLAN LOEB McCLAIN Obit of Vasily Smyslov. Nice Smyslov Quote: "When his position was bad, his thoughts were devastating. ‘Why did I ever start playing chess?’ he repeatedly would ask himself."

Smyslov sent us some comments on Zurich Chess Club' Jubilee and also pictures from July 2009 to Dr. Christian Rohrer

A rather odd late interview with Smyslov

Shereshevsky Method

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