One-time world chess champion, oft-unrivaled theoretician, and one of the two strongest chessmen in the world during the 1950s. (1921-present).

Smyslov Rising

Vassily Vasiliyevich Smyslov (also transliterated as 'Vasily', the original Cyrillic is Василий Васильевич Смыслов*) was born in Moscow, Russia, on March 24, 1921. Like most eventual grandmasters, Smyslov learned the game of chess at a young age. It was only eventual, one might suppose; after all, the 1925 Moscow International Tournament had solidified chess' premier place in the emergent Soviet culture during Smyslov's infancy. Even before this, Smyslov's father (Vassily Osipovich) had gained some recognition for defeating future World Champion Alexander Alekhine in a 1912 game.

In this atmosphere, Vassya (Smyslov's childhood diminutive) began play at the age of six, and soon began to take on his father and uncle (Kirill Osipovich), who was also an accomplished player. The first time that Smyslov and Kirill sat down to a match, the latter generously offered to handicap himself of a rook during each game. The seven-year-old Vassily accepted, then proceeded to defeat his uncle thoroughly. As reward, Kirill gave Vassily a copy of Alekhine's best games, signed "To winner in match, future champion Vassya Smyslov, from his uncle {...}". His words would become prophetic.

Smyslov continued to climb the crowded Soviet ranks, achieving the level of master in 1938. Only three years later, at the age of twenty, Smyslov became a grandmaster, vaulting himself into the upper reaches of the competitive chess world. Yet like seemingly all great chessmasters, Vassily's interests were hopelessly torn. Henry Buckle wrote chapters of his great historical compilation between moves; Max Euwe taught mathematics while he was World Champion; even Paul Morphy ultimately preferred the bar to the board.

Smyslov's unquenchable love was for the opera. As a baritone singer, Smyslov gained a decent reputation, and he gave up further hope of pursuing that specific art only when he was rejected after an audition for the Bolshoi theatre in 1950. (Smyslov would continue to perform for friends and at chess tournaments, often with fellow grandmaster/pianist Mark Taimanov.) Yet even before then, Smyslov's talent as a chess player was garnering much more notice.

He was (and still is) known, perhaps, best for being simply so well-rounded. His openings were fresh and effective, his middlegames got the job done, and his endgames were acclaimed as being "of as high a level as any player in history". But his skills extended further than the tournament tables. His openings were so effective because they were original--Smyslov created nearly countless variations on traditional chess openings both old and new, instead of merely picking lines from the past like his peers did all too often. His strong theoretical abilities sharpened his strategy for mid-game battles, where he would take sometimes counterintuitive positions to deploy his pieces best. Though lacking the pure insight or genius afforded to a José Raul Capablanca or Bobby Fischer, Smyslov's consummate skill made him strong enough to help set the stage for what proved to be a decade-long battle.

Smyslov v. Botvinnik

In 1948, the newly-created FIDE set up a tournament to determine the world's 'first' chess champion (the first, at least, recognized by FIDE). Smyslov took a strong second behind Mikhail Botvinnik, the perennial monarch of Soviet chess since the 1930s. After Botvinnik narrowly defended his title against David Bronstein in 1951, Smyslov gained the right to challenge Botvinnik for the crown which he missed out on by 2.5 points back in 1948. The hyped match took place in Moscow in 1954; though Smyslov won two and drew three of the last five games, he could not overcome Botvinnik's strong beginning. The match ended a 12-12 tie; under these conditions, Botvinnik retained his title.

Smyslov could not challenge for three more years, so he spent the intervening time taking first at Zagreb 1955 and finishing strongly at Hastings 1954 and 1955, in addition to the 1956 Alekhine Memorial tournament. Smyslov won the Candidates' Tournament that year as well, giving him the right to take Botvinnik on a second time. Taking place in Moscow once again, the two competitors began trading exciting wins just as in 1954--except this time, more of them were going to Smyslov. With six duels left, Smyslov went into Game 17 with a one-point lead and a need to solidify it; Botvinnik had drawn the last three games and won the one before them.

A Grünfeld Defense led to some fairly heavy exchanges, and it appeared that a fourth consecutive game might be drawn. But Botvinnik, trying to set up an endgame favorable to his remaining knight, continued to keep a wary eye out for the win he needed even more than Smyslov. At the 41st move, though, the game was adjourned and the position looked quite 'drawish' indeed. Botvinnik saw he was getting nowhere and offered a draw outright, but Smyslov, upon further analysis, noted that he could not only likely gain a draw from his current spot, but had a plausible chance of actually winning. The story goes that upon discovering this, Smyslov didn't wish to tip his opponent off to the possibility, so he asked his assistants at his hotel room to reply to any draw offer by saying that "Smyslov has gone for a walk"! He managed to tactfully avoid this sidestepping when the two sat down the next day, and proceeded to pull off some amazing feats of endgame skill to win the game and seal the match for good. It still stands as one of Smyslov's three favorite games.

Smyslov won the 1957 match 12.5-8.5, becoming the new World Chess Champion. Unfortunately, it did not last long.

A rule of gentlemanship left over from the championship matches of the 19th century provided a defeated world champion the right to request a 'return match' as soon as possible; upon losing, Botvinnik took full advantage of this. The 1958 title match took place (everyone with me, now) in Moscow. Botvinnik began with three straight wins, and in an eerie replay of 1954, Smyslov could not win games quickly enough at the end to make up the deficit. With a 12.5-10.5 victory, Botvinnik took the crown a second time. Vassily Smyslov would never again play a match for the world championship.

Following Defeat

Yet he did not flame out or slowly sink into obscurity, like so many before him. Despite his loss, Smyslov had the last laugh in two final ways. His gain and subsequent loss of the world championship was the first of multiple examples of Botvinnik's modus operandi--watch the opponent play their very best when they take the crown, come up with ways to counteract their techniques, and beat them in the return match. In 1961, FIDE abolished the 'return match' clause, and Botvinnik's intermittent reign of the chess throne came to a permanent end. (Incidentally, there was never any enmity between the two, which is surprising for any chess rivalry. When recently asked, Smyslov was deferent in stating that "{w}ithout doubt, the strongest player of my time was Mikhail Botvinnik".)

Secondly, Smyslov has continued to play long after Botvinnik retired in 1970. In 1984, 63-year-old Smyslov came a single match away from challenging Anatoly Karpov for the world championship. After advancing from a quarterfinal draw that was broken by the spin of a roulette wheel, and beating Zoltan Ribli in the semifinal, he lost to a young Garry Kasparov, who promptly won the title match and dominated the chess scene for the rest of the millenium. Smyslov won 1991's inaugural Senior World Chess Championship and played twice (in 1994 and 2001) on a team of veteran males against the strongest up-and-coming women in chess. His performances were commanding both times. His Elo rating still hovers in the 2500 range; at the age of 83, he is ranked as the 652nd strongest player in the world.

Despite fighting off encroaching blindness and the perils of old age, Smyslov has taken the relaxed years of his life to diversify his interests and cultivate his viewpoints. His books include Smyslov's 125 Selected Games, Endgame Virtuoso, and two works on rook endings and endgame theory. He continues to read, compose chess etudes, and practice religion; he has often given theological qualities to the game of chess and opined on the roles of God and the Devil in its facets.

Yet his most controversial position in the modern day may be his stance on computers such as Deep Thought and Deep Blue. Whenever given the chance, Smyslov has railed against the usage of these computers for anything but assistance for humans. Computer-computer matches, Smyslov says, "negate the creative (divine) side of chess". Considering the deep artistry that is often attributed to his games, such a view is fairly justifiable.

In the title of his autobiography--In Search Of Harmony--Smyslov's approach to music, chess, and life is succinctly summed up. Iconoclastic yet not hypermodern, well-rounded but not bland, Vassily Smyslov made a distinguished mark on both the theory and the overarching history of chess during the middle part of the 20th century.

Hartston, William. The Guinness Book of Chess Grandmasters. London: Guinness Publishing Ltd. 1996. --An excellent source for various Smyslov information, and also the website where one can find an actual clip of Vassily Smyslov singing opera. Yes, I was listening to this while creating this writeup.

Smyslov games are available at some of the above links. If demand warrants it, I could put one or two directly on this node.
*Thanks to interrobang for help with this one.

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