Vasily Smyslov's 85th birthday interview, 2006

Nov 8, 2013, 1:52 AM |


Two weeks have passed since 85th birthday of the seventh chess world champion, Vasily Smyslov. Vasily Vasilievich holds a record for the longest world championship performance career. He came second in the tournament for the vacant title aged 27, and reached the Candidates' tournament aged 65. He's a very gifted man and even at his venerable age still retains his great memory, sense of humour and creative aspirations. He's still an incomparable master of endgame studies.

Vasily Vasilievich, chess weren't a full profession back when you were young, and you've had a career dilemma for a long time. When did you finally make the choice?

I've been playing in serious chess tournaments since I was 14, but after graduating from school, I've decided to follow into my father's steps, who was an esteemed engineer even before the revolution. I've studied in the Moscow Aviation Institute for three years before realizing that I was essentially a humanitarian, and cannot study technical sciences in depth. I've also inherited two more passions from my father - chess and music. And I couldn't make a final choice between them for a long time. I might even say that I've been choosing for my whole life. When I was 30 and already had the Grandmaster title, I went to the auditions for the Bolshoi theatre. I've passed the first round, but failed at the second. Though, less than a year later, during a long Zurich tournament, I sang an aria from Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci, and my performance was aired in many European countries. I was one of the first USSR citizens who had such an honour. I've often accompanied myself on the piano as well.

But you've never studied music formally.

I learned from my father at home. He was an amateur musician too, but Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin once said that he sang very well, and my father was very proud of that. I've occasionally accompanied my father as well. But there's another Grandmaster who also took part in the Candidates' matches, and he plays piano much better than me - Mark Taimanov. He was my "piano man" at many performances throughout the years.

What repertoire did you have?

Modern youngsters would surely call me old-fashioned. Arias from operas, romances. I'm singing even the Italian songs in Russian, because I make a point of pronouncing everything correctly. The most "modern" song I've ever sang was Moscow Nights. My favourite composers are Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Grechaninov, some Italians. Classical music mostly.

But many people consider, say, The Beatles classic as well.

I must admit that those English guys had great songwriting talents, but I rather dislike their performance style - too loud, with heart-rending screams. And I cannot listen to the modern pop music at all. I think it's pure show business, without a gran of music in it. But perhaps I'm just too conservative and keep true to the musical preferences that people of my generation had in their youth. For instance, when I played the Candidates' final against Kasparov in Vilnius 1983, the divide between musician fans was quite clearly: the artists from Lithuanian Conservatory and opera theatre, including Virgilius Noreika, were rooting for me, while the touring pop artists, uncluding Alla Pugacheva, supported my opponent, who was 40 years younger.

Were the people often asking the questions like "A singing Grandmaster? How can that be?"

In our country, everyone got used to it. I've had many chances to sing duets with Kozlovsky, I've also performed at various concerts, evening parties of artists and chess players, even on the radio and TV. But in the 1990's, during a long tournament in Spain, I've often spoke with the "Moscow Virtuosos" orchestra who toured there. And someone offered: let Smyslov sing at the closing ceremony that will be held at an opera theater. The organizers thought that it was a joke and agreed. So, I was led to the stage, and everyone waited for that old chess player to fail. But I didn't. I sang several arias and romances, as usual, without a microphone. And the Spanish were astonished.

You failed an audition to the Bolshoi theater in 1951. Why didn't you try to audition at other theaters?

Soon after that, I've had a string of very strong tournaments that demanded more and more time and effort to prepare for. But combining professional chess playing with amateur singing allowed me to relax and rest much better than, say, alcohol that killed many talented players.

Were you interested in any other sports? Is chess more an art form or sport, what do you think?

I'll tell you an amusing story. In the beginning of the 1950's, I was at a reception at Nikolai Mikhailovich Zubarev's office, who was the head of chess department of the Physical Culture and Sports Committee. Some solid, imposing-looking man came in and said, "I have a very important and constructive offer." Zubarev sat him down and listened. He said, "It would be most beneficial to transfer the chess department from the Sports Committee to the Healthcare Ministry, because chess is healthy." Zubarev was perplexed. "Why do you think so, and which ministry are you from anyway?" The visitor answered that he'd recently finished his treatment at the Kaschenko psychiatric hospital, and after the patients started to play chess, the number of raving lunatics decreased. The funniest (and saddest, in a sense) thing was that several years later, chess was actually transferred from the Sports Committee juristiction to the Healthcare Ministry.

Was that psycho an influential man?

I think it's contrary: some influential men acted very unwisely, to put it mildly. After our footballers lost at the 1952 Olympics to the "enemy" Yugoslavian team (by the way, one of world's best at the time), the bigwigs started to search for scapegoats. The people who knew nothing about sport made some radical decisions that, among other things, deprived the main sports establishment in the country of many of its crucial functions. Thankfully, this stupid resolution was soon revoked. I've always liked other sports, and I was friends with many great sportsmen. I can't list everyone here, really. Among the older generation of footballers, I think Grigory Fedotov stood out. Of the younger ones, I can mention Viktor Ponedelnik who became a great journalist and writer upon retirement. I'll tell you: while Viktor was still playing, I was sure that he would apply his talents in many spheres of life. I'm glad that I wasn't mistaken. To become a good sportsman, it's enough to have a natural quickness and firm muscles. But you cannot become a great sportsman without great intelligence. I became even more sure of that after speaking with many great boxers. For instance, the USSR absolute boxing champion Viktor Ogurenkov trained me for several months...

...and you came into the ring after that?

No, I didn't. When I met Viktor Ivanovich, I was already over 40. If I were younger then... who knows? Ogurenkov, being a great coach, quickly devised a training plan for me that took my age in account and allowed me to stay in great physical shape, which is very important for a chess player during a strong tournament. Now they would call Viktor Ivanovich a great aerobics specialist. But this word wasn't known back then! And Ogurenkov also successfully trained the Olympic champion boxers!

As far as I know, you are a believer. Did it ever give you problems in the Soviet era?

I didn't visit churches in the Soviet years as often as after the perestroika, but still I visited them regularly. I was never a member of the Party - who could reproach me for that? Mikhail Botvinnik, for instance, was a staunch Communist for his entire life, so it was easier for him to get some appointments or benefits than for me. But, on the other hand, what title would mean more for me than the World Champion title? Still, despite such different world views, we've always respected each other. I would even say that we were friends, even though we both had very tough personalities.

I was a bit surprised when our chess players told me that Smyslov was friends even with "our enemy" Bobby Fischer...

How exactly was he an enemy?! He's a very talented man who loves chess with all his heart. He has his quirks, but who doesn't? I met Fischer when he was 15 or so. But he already successfully played against the adults, we've had many good conversations. I've been saying something in English, but he also understood Russian and especially Serbian words. He's also a very religious man - a Seventh-day Adventist. Perhaps Fischer's sympathy towards me was born out of my heartfelt admiration for him: such a young boy, and plays so greatly! Though I've never heard of Bobby doing some despicable or tactless things to any of his chess-playing colleagues. Even Spassky wasn't his enemy. Boris used to say about him, "He's our trade union boss!" The current high payouts for the Grandmasters became possible largely due to Fischer's efforts. So when Bobby had a problem in Japan (he was arrested for eight months), my heart was with him. I've once gave him a book of my endgame studies through my Hungarian colleagues. When they told me that Fischer always held that book close to him, I was very glad.

Still, it's strange to hear that the world's strongest chess players are so religious.

I've been visiting churches with my father since the very early age, and I couldn't imagine a different world view. I still can't understand how could a largely Orthodox nation accept militant atheism so quickly. I even think that many things in my life were predetermined. For instance, I've had a dream that I spoke with the great Caruso. He told me, "You sing very well for an amateur, but from the professional point of view, your breathing technique is wrong." And Caruso showed me how it must be done. I woke up and immediately went to my piano, and sang the way the great Caruso taught me. And so, I've completely changed my singing technique at age 55. This allowed me to keep my voice until now. Just four or so years ago, I've performed at the Bolshoi theater. If I were a materialist, would I take such a dream seriously? Or another story - how I met my wife, Nadezhda Andreevna. 55 years ago, I saw a beautiful woman in the office of some sport organization. But something stopped me from speaking to her. I've even thought that I'd never meet her again. But the very next day I went to the post office and saw her again! The most amazing thing was that Nadya didn't work in that sport organization, and went to that post office completely at random, for the first time. So, we were destined to meet! My house was always full of guests, and Nadezhda Andreevna made efforts to greet and feed everyone.

They say that she even influenced your decisions about adjourned games.

Mark Taimanov joked: "I play chess, but often can't understand the position. And with Smyslov's wife, it's the other way around!" Here's a very telling story: I've adjourned a game against master Lev Aronin at the 1962 USSR Championship. My position was hopeless, I was going to call the arbiter and say that I gave up without continuing. But Nadezhda Andreevna, without even looking at the position, told me that I had to go and play. I went to the play-off and drew the game. In all fairness, I have to add that Lyova - a great and generous guy - went to the restaurant with friends to celebrate his win against a strong Grandmaster right after the adjournment. Also an instructive moment.

You're known for your healthy lifestyle. Still, how can you explain your exceptional playing longevity?

I have indeed led a very healthy, active life, found gratification in various spheres. Never smoked. Drank occasionally, but only with right timing and dose. It's a good explanation, but it's very formal. If we dig deeper... Some players play rather like computers, calculating the variants constantly. When two such players are pitted against each other, not the more creative one wins, but the one who makes less mistakes. Other players understand the position intuitively. I consider myself one of those players. This approach gives less strain on the nervous system. Right now, chess is much more a sports show with a strict reglament than an art form. And any master's preparation includes more and more computer work.

Could you answer a dumb question? If the technical progress continues in such manner, would such situation be possible: during the match, a whole team of computer-equipped masters works for each grandmaster, and in complicated situations, the grandmasters receive a precisely calculated continuation through some means (for instance, through a small receiver implanted into the ear)?

I haven't heard of such things. Perhaps the chess players are afraid of bans for using external help. The time control also becomes tighter and tighter, so I can't imagine how a team of seconds can very quickly react to the opponent's move, process all the variants, choose the best one and then transmit it to the grandmaster discreetly. Can such thing be done in blitz that becomes more and more popular than the classic games? Right now, the grandmasters' thought processes are still much quicker than any procedures that you described. But in the future - who knows? The FIDE ex-president Florencio Campomanes once told me and Botvinnik: "You were born too early, you would have achieved much more today, when chess truly became a profession." But I'm even glad that I lived my life in the age of "chess knighthood", when the relationships between Grandmasters weren't marred by financial disputes. And now, computers are conquering the creative side of chess. For instance, Sam Lloyd's puzzles that fascinated many people of my generation are now solved in seconds by the computer. Many tabletop games have lost their competitive value. But, thankfully, computers still can't compose chess endgame studies. And I'm still composing them, and it gives me great satisfaction.

The Russian President congratulated you on your 85th birthday. Was that the first personal compliment from the head of state?

Vladimir Putin also sent me a telegram five years ago. In the past, the chess players were also quite welcome at the highest levels, though usually after winning something, not on their birthdays. For instance, in 1957, Voroshilov personally awarded me with the Order of Lenin after I became the World Champion. After winning the Chess Olympics, as a part of the Soviet team, I took part in many triumphant meetings. But before Putin, no high-profile politicians ever wished me a happy birthday. So I'm very happy now. And I remember how in 1994, an international social fund "Leonardo Cese" (spelling?) gave awards to the celebrities known for their charity work. I was among those who gave the gifts - I gave my book The Chronicles of Chess Creativity to Juan Antonio Samaranch, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Vitaly Smirnov and others. The TV mogul Ted Turner couldn't attend the ceremony in person, and his wife, Jane Fonda, asked to sign her a copy as well. One of her ex-husbands was a chess fan, and under his influence, Jane also started to like chess. I've also signed the books that were to be given to Princess Diana and Albert Gore. And when I gave the book to the St. Petersburg mayor Sobchak, he asked me to thank his "team" as well, that worked greatly on the organization of the Goodwill Games, and besides, there were many chess fans among them. I've signed ten more books. I hope that one of them wound up in the hands of the current Russian president who then worked as one of Sobchak's assistants. If, for some reason, Vladimir Vladimirovich doesn't have the book, I'll be glad to give it to him as a gift.

You've been at the top of the game for many years. Which politicians and celebrities were chess fans in your age?

Between 1948 and 1972, the World Championship was basically a domain of USSR. So, naturally, the sympathies of our politicians were divided. So if I mentioned some politicians but forgot others, I might seem biased. Your question reminded me about an episode from the life of a great Soviet actress Yablochkina, who became a star theater actress before the revolution. At one of her performances, she became nostalgic and said, "I was visited by counts, princes..." Some Party boss whispered to her, "Workers." And Yablochkova "corrected" herself: "I was visited by counts, princes and workers." My answer to you will be similar. Of all the politicians, I'll name only Nikolai Konstantinovich Baibakov, the former head of Gosplan. We were friends for many years, and our friendship wasn't affected by any appointments he ever had. I thought of him more as a great scientist, author of serious studies and high-cultured man than as a politician. We recently celebrated his 95th birthday, and I wish him to live even longer. And famous chess players were friends with many artists, actors, scientists, authors. The friendships were vastly different. For instance, I've never seen the tenor Ivan Semyonovich Kozlovsky who often sang with me, at the chess board. On the other hand, the composer Sergei Prokofiev and violinist David Oistrakh were good chess players. The physicist Petr Leonidovich Kapitsa was at least a Candidate Master-strong player. His range of talents amazed me. Everyone knows him as a scientist and a theoretician, but he could work with his hands as well. He could fix any clock, and he did wonderful things in the lab at his countryhouse.

I'm happy that through chess, I've been able to meet him and many other great people of my era. Both in my country and abroad. Chess are truly a language of international communication. Write that down: "Smyslov said that chess is a game for all people, from the higher up all the way down!"

Bonus track - Vasily Smyslov sings an aria from Rubinstein's opera Neron, "Vindex's Epitalama".