Smyslov was generally known for his positional style and his endgame expertise, but not everyone realizes that he was also a brilliant tactician. Many players have a disdain for simple positions that occur after the exchange of Qs or simplification, thinking that nothing of interest remains. But many times Smyslov showed this attitude to be wrong.
1938 was a dangerous time to be living in Russia. There were three Moscow Trials held between 1936 and 1938 as part of Stalin's Great Purge. In the 1938, Moscow was the site of what came to be known as the "Trial of the Twenty-One." This was the third trial and it was held in March 1938, and included 21 defendants. It is the most famous because of the people involved and the scope of charges which tied together all the loose ends from earlier trials. The 21 defendants were alleged to belong to the so-called "Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites."
Several of them were alleged to have conspired to assassinate Lenin and Stalin numerous times and had successfully murdered Soviet writer Maxim Gorky by poison in 1936. The group also stood accused of espionage and it was claimed they plotted the overthrow the government in collusion with agents of the German and Japanese governments, among other preposterous charges. All the leading defendants were executed.
When it was announced that the 17-year old Smyslov would be a participant in the 1938 Moscow city championship nobody paid any attention. But, as the tournament progressed people began to take notice not so much because of his defeat of more experienced players, but because of his style. He demonstrated a good opening knowledge and played both tactical and positional games exploiting small advantages. He was a strict examiner and many opponents failed the test. Smyslov ended up tying for first with Sergey Belavenets and winning the Soviet Master title. Belavenets was killed in an action during World War II at Staraya, Russa. They were followed by Lilienthal, Vaksberg, Yeltsov, Panov, and Udovich. There were 18 players.
From the very beginning of his career Smyslov demonstrated that even seemingly quiet positions can contain tactical possibilities. For that reason he became absorbed in composing endgame studies that closely resembled positions from actual play.
However, his talent was first and foremost in his tactical ability, but to compliment them he extensively studied strategy, technique as well as endgame play. And, it was this all around ability that lead him to become world champion even if his reign was a brief one.
Describing his approach to chess, Smyslov said, “The play of a master should always express a desire to combine a fundamental strategic plan with skillful utilization of tactical means in solving the problems facing him.”
We see Smyslov applying that approach in the following game played in the Chigorin Memorial held in Moscow in 1947. His opponent was Alexander Tsvetkov (October 7, 1914 - May 29, 1990), a Bulgarian IM who was Bulgarian Champion in 1938, 1940 (tied), 1945, 1948 (tied), 1950 and 1951. Tsvetkov represented Bulgaria in he Olympiads in 1936, 1939, 1954 and 1956. Chessmetrics assigns him a high rating of 2552 in 1956 which placed him at number 99 in the world.
1) Botvinnik 11.0
2) Ragozin 10.5
3-4) Boleslavsky and Smyslov 10.0
5) Kotov, Alexander 9.5
6-7) Keres and Novotelnov 9.0
8) Pachman 8.5
9) Trifunovic 8.0
10) Gligoric 7.5
11) Bondarevsky 6.5
12) Kholmov 5.5
13) Kottnauer 5.0
14-15) Sokolsky and Plater 4.0
16) Tsvetkov 2.0