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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Underrated Champion

     Vasily Smyslov (prounounced Smi-sloff with the ‘Smi’ as in Smith). Smyslov is an underappreciated player. Truechess ran a test a few years back where for 24 hours a day for 15 months (from February 2007 through May 2008), 12 computing threads (on three Intel quad-core Q6600 computers running at 3.0 GHz) analyzed the games of the World Champions. Entire playing careers were analyzed -- for example, 69,084 positions from 2318 games were analyzed for Smyslov. Rybka [version 2.3.2a], the strongest chess program available at the time, and a modified version of Crafty program [version 20.14] were used in the project. In a ranking of Champions based on their best 15-year period where blunders per thousand moves (among other things) were measured, it was found that Smyslov was ranked second behind Capablanca.
     Unfortunately for Smyslov, there always seemed to be at least one player better (or luckier) than him: Bronstein, Botvinnik, Tal, Fischer, Kasparov. As for style, Smyslov belongs to the “Classical School.” He developed many opening systems, like Capablanca he preferred to keep the middlegame simple and depend on his endgame expertise. Smyslov is known as a perfect endgame player.
     Smyslov saw himself primarily as an artist who didn't just aim for victory, but also for an something he called the truth. Or, to use his phrase, "the triumph of logic". To Smyslov chess was an art and it appealed to his artistic tastes as did his career as an opera singer. He once wrote that he most admired a musical ideal that reflected "strict beauty and harmony, spontaneity and elegance, the faultless intuition of the artist, the absolute mastery of technique and therefore complete independence from it." He felt the same way about chess describing himself as "a staunch supporter of classical clarity of thought."
     His father was a very strong chess player with an excellent library and by studying his father's books he was well-grounded in the thinking and play of all the great masters. Tarrasch's writings influenced Smyslov and helped him to understand and evaluate the importance of Steinitz’ theories. At the same time he also absorbed the ideas of the hypermoderns, particularly his favorite, Nimzovich. As a result he became a well-round player and all this helped him to become a very strong player by his early teens.
     Smyslov wrote, "I traced the evolution of chess thought and repeated its basic steps in my own development and became convinced that any player with high ambitions should follow such a path."
     When Smyslov began his career in the mid-1930s everyone understood Steinitz and players were beginning to expand into new directions. The hypermoderns and Capablanca and Alekhine, and others had changed players’ minds as to what was playable.
     At the same time the “Soviet School" lead by Botvinnik had also begun to emerge. The Soviet school was characterized by deep opening research, analysis and an aggressive approach whether playing white or black. They used terms like “scientific” and “concrete” a lot in their writings.
     Smyslov became junior champion of the USSR in 1938 and was already considered by many to be a rising star. Unfortunately World War 2 intervened before he could test his skills internationally. During the war years, Smyslov's results in strong Soviet tournaments led him to emerge as number 2 behind Botvinnik in the Soviet Union.
     In the first major post-war tournament at Groningen in 1946 Smyslov finished 3rd behind Botvinnik and Max Euwe. This was an important event for Smyslov because it lead to his securing an invitation to the five-player World Championship tournament in 1948. He finished second behind Botvinnik and ahead of Keres, Reshevsky and Euwe. In that event Smyslov displayed his mastery of dynamic modern openings and had many innovations. In general his play was clear, harmonious and showed a lot of technique.
     In the post-war Soviet Union many strong players developed and resulted in Smyslov’s results being eclipsed by new, younger talent; like David Bronstein and Paul Keres. After 1948, FIDE introduced a new three-year World Championship qualification cycle involving regional zonal events, an interzonal and a final candidates' tournament. In the first one Smyslov was placed third behind the joint winners of the Budapest candidates in 1950, David Bronstein and Isaac Boleslavsky. Bronstein won the tie-break play-off match and then faced Botvinnik for the World Championship. There is a lot of debate over whether Bronstein was forced to throw the match, but evidence would seem to indicate that he was.
     In any case, Smyslov believed he could win the World Championship and worked hard on widening and deepening his openings, paid attention to his physical fitness and with the coming of the next cycle at Zurich in 1953, he scored an impressive 18-10, winning by a two point margin and losing only one game. Bronstein, Keres and Reshevsky shared 2nd place. David Bronstein credited Smyslov’s success to his "iron persistence and logic ... extraordinary will to win ... and ability to combine the consistent realization of an idea with precise tactical calculation." Bronstein likened Smyslov to Capablanca.
     It took Smyslov two World Championship challenges to dethrone Botvinnik. In 1954 the match ended in a 12-12 draw, with Botvinnik retaining his title. After this failed attempt Smyslov went back to work to strengthen his game.
     In that first match Botvinnik caught Smyslov off guard in the openings and as a result, after the first four games the score stood 3.5-0.5 in favor of Botvinnik. The fact that Smyslov managed to even up the score is indicative of not only his ability but his will to win.
     Smyslov continued to play well after the match. In 1955 he shared 1st place with Geller in the USSR Championshipfinishing a half-point ahead of Botvinnik whom he defeated in their individual game. In 1956 he finished 1st in the Amsterdam Candidates' tournament, qualifying for his second World Championship challenge. Later in 1956, Smyslov shared 1st with Botvinnik in the Alekhine Memorial in Moscow. Then in their second World Championship match in 1957 Smyslov succeeded in dethroning Botvinnik in a very hard fought match, winning 12.5 – 9.5.  Botvinnik exercised his right to a return match and in 1958 won his title back.
     Although Smyslov scored consistently good results following the loss of his title, even reaching a Candidates' final match against Garry Kasparov in 1984 he was no longer a serious contender. His active career lasted to the turn of the century.
     In a big surprise, in his late sixties Smyslov unexpectedly qualified for yet another Candidates' series in 1982 by finishing second in the Las Palmas Interzonal. In 1983 the 62-year-old Smyslov defeated Zoltan Ribli in London by a score of 6.5 – 4.5 and then in the quarter-final match against Robert Hübner he tied the score at 7–7. In a weird tie break, the spin of a roulette wheel Hubner advanced. His final Candidates' appearance was the Montpellier 1985 tournament, where he did not advance. In 1991 Smyslov won the inaugural World Senior Chess Championship.
     He retired from competitive play after the 2001 Klompendans Veterans vs. Ladies Tournament in Amsterdam. Some of the matches were adjourned early as draws due to the 80-year-old grandmaster's failing eyesight. Smyslov died of heart failure in hospital in Moscow on the morning of 27 March 2010, three days after his 89th birthday.
     In the following game watch him crush Botvinnik in a near-miniature.


  1. In 1982 smyslov actually did advance to the candidates finals. He won the roulette wheel lottery. A young Gary Kasparov defeated smyslov and went on to his first match with Karpov. There was quite the theoretical dispute in the Cambridge Springs defense as I recall.