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Smyslov and Moscow 1935 tournament
Capablanca facing Botvinnik in the 2nd round of the 1935 Moscow tournament

Smyslov and Moscow 1935 tournament

ddtru
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In February-March 1935 Moscow hosted the Second international chess tournament. Once again, the main stars of the tournament were the former World Champions, José Raúl Capablanca and Emanuel Lasker, and just like in 1925, neither of them emerged as the victor. This time the top honors belonged to the players of the young generation, Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik, who shared the first prize by scoring 13 points out of 19.

Moscow 1935 was a major milestone in the life of a lanky red-headed teenager who attended most rounds of the tournament with his father. As you probably guessed, it was Vasily Smyslov, who would turn 14 a few days after the tournament's end. Sixty years later, he wrote in the introduction to "Smyslov's Best Games":

In 1935 and 1936 my father and I were present at the Moscow international tournaments. I was especially attracted by the play of Lasker and Capablanca, whose names, even in their lifetimes, were legendary. Capablanca's play was notable for its unique intuition and for its easy and spontaneous manner. Lasker, by contrast, did not get up from the board and fought with enormous energy in every game. The philosophy of the struggle was his basic creed.

Smyslov's visits to the Moscow international tournaments eventually grew into events of almost mythical importance. There are many tales of chess masters and coaches noticing Smyslov in the crowd of attendees and predicting a bright future for the young player. Most of these stories sprung up only in 1950s, when Smyslov was challenging Botvinnik for the World Championship, and as such, they need to be taken with a heavy grain of salt. It is important to remember that by February 1935 Smyslov has not yet played a single game outside of his home, so no one (other than his father and his uncle) had any idea of the boy's playing strength, so any story that refers to 1935 Moscow tournament must be apocryphal. 

However, Smyslov did visit the tournament and it certainly made an enormous impression on him. Although we have no photos or mentions of Smyslov visiting the tournament in the contemporary sources, it played an important role in his development, so I decided to reconstruct the atmosphere of Moscow 1935 and what it must have felt like for the budding chess player. 


The organization of the Second Moscow tournament in 1935 goes to confirm the enormous importance that the Soviet authorities assigned to chess. In a way, organizing an international chess tournament was a calculated PR stunt, which worked out perfectly, thanks to Botvinnik's breakthrough performance.

However, an event of this magnitude was a costly affair, and one should not forget that the Soviet Union was still a poor country at the time. In fact, from 1931 to 1934 the food was rationed, and it was only on 1 January 1935 that the rationing was officially abolished.

The following Soviet documentary that looked back on the events of 1935 provides a good vantage point. It starts with lengthy panoramic shots of the abundance of food in a grocery store, then switches to the staged scene of a dinner at home, and only one and a half minute later the narrator finally lands the key message:

No need to hassle with the ration cards! Here it comes, the historical day that proves the wise leadership of the Communist Party. Bread without rationing! We are a rich and cultured country! 

And yet, despite all the shortages, the Soviet authorities organized a stunning event. The participants lived in the poshest hotel in Moscow, "The National", and played at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The unusual choice of the venue was dictated by the desire to allow up to 4,000-5,000 spectators per day. There was certain logic in hosting the royal game among the beautiful paintings and sculptures, but even the organizers admitted that the venue presented certain challenges. After all, one cannot easily move a sculpture, and the ventilation in the museum could not cope with the throngs of visitors to the chess tournament. 

Moscow 1935 tournament. Chekhover vs Spielmann in the foreground

Sensations started already in the first round. The invincible Capablanca lost to Nikolai Riumin, who was playing in his first international tournament. Capablanca overstepped the time limit whilst making his 29th move (the time control was 2.5 hours for 37 moves), but by then his position was already hopeless.

Even more surprising was Botvinnik's super-miniature victory over Rudolf Spielmann - this game lasted only 12 moves!

The spectators studying the final position of Botvinnik-Spielmann game
Let's look at this famous game: 

Naturally, the Moscow tournament was frontpage news. Most Soviet publications reported on the results of the games, and some newspapers dedicated full pages to the reporting.

Perhaps the most detailed coverage was offered by "Vechernyaya Moskva" (Evening Moscow). The chess section in this newspaper was led by Abram Rabinovich, an old master who participated in the international tournaments before the 1917 Revolution.

It was also this newspaper that published an article about the tournament by Varlam Shalamov, who would later become famous for his stories of the horrible experience in the Gulags, known as "Kolyma Tales". It is a little-known fact of Shalamov's biography that one of his first published articles was about chess.

On the same page with Shalamov's first article "Vechernyaya Moskva" also published the following short note:

The fourth round game Capablanca-Goglidze quickly ended in a draw. As the former World Champion was walking out, he ran into a pioneer [=schoolboy and member of youth Communist organization] who carefully studied the positions on the demonstration boards. The surprised Cuban was told that many young pioneers are playing decent chess.

By the way, Moscow pioneers asked the tournament committee to organize a simultaneous exhibition by the former World Champion Lasker. This will be decided in the next few days.

The story about Capablanca's surprise was definitely invented by the writer, for the World Champion knew the strength of the Soviet schoolchildren firsthand. In fact, only a week earlier Capablanca registered an ignominious result in a simul that he delivered in Leningrad: +10 -11 =9. It was not even his worst performance in the Soviet Union, for later on he would score +7 -14 =9 in another simul in Moscow! 

Salo Flohr did comparatively better in Leningrad (+18 -10 =22) but also had to concede a negative score in Moscow (+12 -20 =18).

Lasker smartly declined an invitation to do simuls before the tournament, but agreed to do one in mid-March, once the tournament has ended. His score against the Moscow schoolchildren: +14 -6 =5. 

It is too bad that the conversation with the schoolboy was probably invented by the journalist, for if it were real, Capablanca could have been looking at Smyslov, as the 13-year-old Smyslov was in the audience on that day.

I was able to study the handwritten manuscripts of Smyslov's book, from which the quote at the beginning of this article is taken, and it contained one extra sentence at the end - the sentence that Smyslov later deleted:

...and I even remember Lasker's victory over Chekhover to this day...  

Smyslov's manuscript of "In Search of Harmony", published in 1979

When I first read this phrase, I immediately looked up this game in the database, expecting to see some dazzling fireworks. I should have known better - the game is by no means flashy, but it definitely fits in well with Smyslov's own playing style!

Here is this game, annotated by Chekhover for the tournament book:

The ninth game featured perhaps the most anticipated game of the whole tournament, the battle of the heavyweights, Lasker vs Capablanca. As if defying his advanced age, Lasker played very energetically, while Capablanca was strangely passive. Lasker's attack netted him a queen and pawn against rook and bishop. Later on Lasker won another pawn but then he started shuffling pieces around and did it for 25 moves without making any progress, but simply biding the time until the adjournment. 

The round report in "Vechernyaya Moskva" featured a discussion of this game with a certain schoolboy:

I notice a familiar figure in the crowd - a pioneer who is a regular visitor. I wanted to ask him when does he find time to do his homework and whether he is getting reprimanded at home, but then I decide not to hurt his pride.

"Well, what do you think?" I ask him. "Who stands better?"

"I think Lasker has the upper hand. Material advantage, attack and chances to push pawns. He should win."

"Tell me something" - I could no longer resist - "don't you get flak from your elders for coming home late every night?"

The pioneer smiles in reply: "Well, I come here with my parents, there they sit. We are going to analyze this game with my dad once we get home." 

It is tempting to think that it could have been Smyslov talking to the journalist, but unfortunately it was too good to be true. A few days later this boy was quoted in the newspaper once again, but that time his first name was mentioned, and it was Nikolai, not Vasily...

In any case, the schoolboy was right - Capablanca resigned the game without resuming it.

Naturally, the coverage of the tournament in "Vechernyaya Moskva" was not restricted to chess analysis. The editors did not forget about the need to entertain the readers. For example, it reported on a funny incident in the game Capablanca-Bohatyrchuk. The World Champion was walking around during his opponent's move when he heard something that sounded like a chess clock being pressed. He came back to his board, immediately captured a pawn and pressed the clock. Bohatyrchuk calmly put the captured pawn back on the board and explained that he didn't yet make his move. Capablanca apologized profusely and the game continued. It was eventually drawn on move 80.

Sometimes the tournament was used as a backdrop for political commentary, as in the cartoon below. The caption reads: 

In the Fine Arts Museum.

David to Moses: Good that the tournament takes place in Moscow, not in Berlin. Otherwise we, as non-Aryans, would not be allowed to watch it...

The tournament lasted a full month, but the winner was not decided until the very last moment. Botvinnik and Flohr had the same score going into the last round and both of them drew their final games, thus sharing the first place with 13 out of 19. The third place surprisingly went to the 66-year-old Lasker, who finished only half a point behind the winners and didn't lose a single game. Capablanca was fourth with 12 out of 19 - definitely a setback for his aspirations of winning back his championship title. Rudolf Spielmann finished fifth with 11/19. 

The Moscow 1935 tournament played a huge role in Smyslov's development as a chess player. It was the first time that he saw Lasker, Capablanca and other foreign grandmasters in person, and it made a huge impression on him. Alas, Smyslov would never get a chance to play against Lasker or Capablanca (or against Alexander Alekhine, for that matter).

However, the experience of watching the top grandmasters of the world up close must have taught Smyslov something new about chess. At the very least, it served as a great motivator. A few months later Smyslov finally signed up for his first tournaments and quickly started making his way up through the ranks. 


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