Chess is always enhanced through its rich history and proud heritage, and this week we celebrate the centenary of the birth of the great Vasily Vassilevich Smyslov, a true icon from the golden age of Soviet chess, and the man destined to become the seventh World Champion, who was born on 24 March 1921 in Moscow.
And with almost pathos timing, in this same week, on 27 March 2010, age finally caught up with the ageless wonder, as Smyslov died aged 89, having spent his final few years in near-poverty with his wife of over half a century, Nadezhda, in their tiny Moscow apartment, as his heart ailment fatally deteriorated.
Smyslov was regarded as one of the great post-war players; and while many had their career severally disrupted with the Second World War, Smyslov – who originally trained for a musical career, with a view to getting a position in the Bolshoi as a baritone, but failed the final audition – was excused military service due to poor eyesight, but used the intervening war years to hone his game.
He emerged after the war to become one of the game’s best players for more than two decades and the leading rival to Mikhail Botvinnik, with the two old foes going on to do battle over three successive title matches: in 1954 drawing 12-12 with Botvinnik (with the champion having draw odds), finally triumphing in 1957, beating Botvinnik 12.5-9.5, but it was a short-lived ‘winter king’ reign for Smyslov, as he lost the automatic return match the following year to Botvinnik, not helped by his health scare after coming down with pneumonia.
Smyslov won the 1953 Zurich Candidates’ Tournament – arguably the most famous and celebrated candidates’ tournament in history – two points clear of a stellar field, which included title aspirants Paul Keres and David Bronstein, to get his first crack at the title. He also won the following candidates’ tournament in Amsterdam in 1956 – but even more amazing, when many would be considering retirement from the pressures of top-flight chess, Smyslov went on to have an ‘Indian summer’ by reaching another candidates’ cycle in 1983, beating newer generational stars Robert Hübner and Zoltan Ribili, en route to losing, at the age of 63, to rising star Garry Kasparov in the 1984 final.
“How would you describe the seventh World Champion, Vasily Smyslov?,” pondered then World champion Vladimir Kramnik in 2005. “How can I express it in the right way? … He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style.” And this was to prove to be the reason for Smyslov’s longevity in the game, with his belief that smooth interplay of the pieces was the key to practical success.
Just playing over Smyslov’s games – especially those in his two highly recommend best game collections, My Best Games 1935-1957 and Smyslov’s 125 Selected Games – you do get the impression that moves came to him so easily. He credits his father for this, showing him simple positions demonstrating the power of individual pieces. “I just play by hand,” Smyslov once jokingly described his intuitive style, based not so much on calculation as on a great understanding of the interactions between the pieces. This earned him the nickname “the Hand.”
And never was “the Hand” and his almost serene calmness under pressure more evident than in one of Smyslov’s famous games, where Keres, in a ‘must-win’ scenario in round 24 of the epic Zurich Candidates, opts to launch a ferocious but ultimately premature attack that our hero majestically refuted.
Photo: Seventh World Champion Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010) | © World Chess Hall of Fame
GM Paul Keres – GM Vasily Smyslov
1953 Zurich Candidates, (24)
Queen’s Pawn, Colle/Zukertort Attack
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.e3 Be7 5.b3 0-0 6.Bb2 b6 7.d4 cxd4 8.exd4 d5 Now White has to be wary of Black playing a future …dxc4 and having to contend with hanging pawns; and if White opts to exchange on d5 himself, then Black will play …Nxd5 and he’ll then have the prospect of playing against the isolated d-pawn. 9.Bd3 Nc6 10.0-0 Bb7 11.Rc1 Rc8 12.Re1 Smyslov, in his excellent My Best Games 1935-1957 collection, felt that the more natural continuation was 12.Qe2 and following up with 13.Rfd1. 12…Nb4 13.Bf1 Ne4 14.a3 Nxc3 15.Rxc3 Nc6 16.Ne5 Hindsight in chess is always 20/20, but rather than the brutal kingside attack, if Keres wanted to retain winning chances, the general consensus is that his best try is 16.c5!? Bf6 (Smyslov, in his aforementioned best games collection, thought that best was 16…bxc5 17.dxc5 Bf6 18.Rc2 Bxb2 19.Rxb2 as 19…Qa5 wins a pawn – but the engine doesn’t concur, pointing out that 20.b4! Qxa3 21.Qb1! and White has a lot of queenside pressure for his pawn; and also with Re3, Reb3 and Ra2 winning the Black queen threatened, this forces 21…Qc3 22.b5 Nd4 23.Nxd4 Qxd4 24.c6 Ba8 25.Rb4 Qc5 26.Bd3 h6 27.Qb2 and Black is in a very difficult position.) 17.b4 bxc5 18.Rxc5!? where White holds the advantage, but whether that would be enough to beat Smyslov in a ‘must-win’ game is debatable. And it’s also easy to see why Keres was ‘seduced’ by what looks the more powerful plan. 16…Nxe5 17.Rxe5 Bf6 18.Rh5 g6 19.Rch3!? It’s the sort of all-out attack that many player having to defended against would simply crumble under the relentless pressure – but Smyslov has it all ‘in hand’! 19…dxc4!! [see diagram] This is the brilliant, yet supremely ‘simple’ calm defensive move from Smyslov – the sort of über-calmness that only Smyslov can instil in a complicated position – that totally refutes Keres’ brutal caveman attack. Taking the rook is doomed to failure, but only if White plays the right moves at the right time! After 19…gxh5 20.Qxh5 Re8 21.a4! (The engine’s improvement over previous analysis, planning Ba3 with a ferocious attack, and more accurate and stronger than the obvious punt of 21.Qxh7+ Kf8 22.a4 Qe7 23.Rg3 Qb4 24.Qh6+ Ke7 25.Rf3 dxc4! 26.Qxf6+ Kd7 and the Black king escapes.) 21…Qd6 (Now if 21…Qe7 22.Bc1! and Qxh7+ followed by Bh6+ forces 22…Qd6 anyway.) 22.Qh6! Bg7 23.Qxh7+ Kf8 24.Rg3 Bf6 25.c5!! Qd7 (If 25…bxc5 26.Qh6+! Ke7 27.dxc5 Qxc5 28.Qxf6+ etc.) 26.Ba3! bxc5 27.Bb5! and the White attack is crashing through. 20.Rxh7 Admittedly, it’s hard not resist taking on h7; it’s crying out to be played, but it has been suggested that a better continuation for Keres was 20.Qg4!?, but as we’ll soon see in the game, the interference theme with 20…c3! favours Black. Now if 21.Bxc3 Rc7 22.Rh6 Bc8! 23.Qe4 e5 and when the dust settles, Black is going to have a big material advantage. 20…c3! At just the right time, as White can’t play 21.Bxc3 as 21…Rxc3! 22.Rxc3 and Black picks off the rook with 22…Kxh7 winning. 21.Qc1 Qxd4! There’s now double protection of the vital h8 mating square; and not falling for the trick of 21…cxb2?? 22.Qh6 Qxd4 23.Rg7+!! Bxg7 24.Qh7#. 22.Qh6 The question really has to be asked: How many games have we seen White triple the ‘heavy furniture’ on the h-file, took on h7 – and lost? 22…Rfd8 Commanding the d-file, and offering a little air for the Black king to make its escape, just in case. 23.Bc1 Bg7 Quicker may well have been 23…c2! as the engine points out, but Smyslov plays the very natural, human-reaction move that simply nudges Keres queen away from the h-file. 24.Qg5 Qf6 Safety first, as Smyslov prevents Keres’ queen from returning quickly to the h-file. 25.Qg4 c2 Threatening …Rd1 winning the house. 26.Be2 Rd4! Smyslov’s command of his pieces is just impressive. 27.f4 Rd1+! 28.Bxd1 Qd4+! 0-1