Smyslov's chess education at home
Zubovskaya square in Moscow, not far from where Smyslov lived at the time. Early 1930s.

Smyslov's chess education at home

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Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov learned chess in 1927, at the age of six and a half. His first teacher was his father, Vasily Osipovich Smyslov, and he was quite a strong player himself. After all, how many amateurs could claim victories over not just one, but two World Champions? Obviously, one of these World Champions was his son. The other one was Alexander Alekhine, whom Smyslov Sr. defeated in a tournament game fifteen years earlier, in 1912. Here is this game with the annotations by the winner:

Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov was very proud of this game and regularly included it in the introduction of his own Best Games collections. 

Apparently, Smyslov Sr. was not only a strong player, but also a good teacher, although his approach to teaching chess was somewhat unusual. His son would later recall ("Smyslov's Best Games. Vol. 1: 1935-1957", p. 7):

In chess - and I immediately became fascinated by it - for the next few years my father was to be my sole teacher and opponent.

From the very start he instilled in me a love for so-called 'simple' positions, with the participation of only a few pieces. It is they that enable an inexperienced player not only to understand, but also to gain a deep 'feeling' for what pieces is capable of...

Most probably, [my father] was following a tried and tested teaching method - 'from the simple to the complicated' and, possibly, Capablanca's recommendation to begin studying chess with the endgame.

This approach certainly influenced the playing style of the future World Champion, who would be unmatched in the 'simple' positions and especially in the endgames. 

Kirill Osipovich Smyslov (left) and Vasily Osipovich Smyslov playing chess. Photo from "Shakhmaty v SSSR", #4/1963

However, Smyslov's statement that his father was his sole opponent is not entirely correct. In May 1928 he defeated his uncle, Kirill Osipovich Smyslov. This game was played with rook odds, and yet it was quite an achievement. Vasily Smyslov Jr. learned chess only half a year earlier, and his opponent was a strong chess player (Kirill Osipovich was a 2nd category player, a rare feat in those years).

This victory impressed Kirill Osipovich so much that he presented his nephew a book "My Best Games" by Alexander Alekhine, with the following inscription:

To Vasya Smyslov, the winner of the match and a future champion, from uncle. 29 May 1928.

Not surprisingly, this prophecy became an important part of Smyslov's family folklore. Amazingly, this book survived in Smyslov's personal library, and of course I could not resist showing its title page with the inscription by Kirill Osipovich in the first volume of "The Life and Games of Vasily Smyslov".

By the way, in terms of chess books, the future World Champion was spoilt for choice. Smyslov Sr. accumulated an impressive collection of chess books over the years (more than a hundred volumes!), and in the next few years his son would read them all.

Smyslov's first chess book was a "Chess Tutor" written by Jean Dufresne. It was arguably the most popular chess manual for beginners in Russian language at the time - it was published in at least ten different editions from 1896 to 1916. Smyslov's copy was published in 1903 and contained two additional chapters - Emanuel Lasker's lectures "Common Sense in Chess" and "Tips for beginners" (from unidentified "modern sources", translated from English). Somehow this book also survived several revolutions and two World Wars. More than a century later, this important relic is still there in Smyslov's personal library:   

Smyslov's copy of "Chess Tutor" by Jean Dufresne

For the next several years Smyslov continued studying chess at home. He mentions dozens of books that he read - from "Chess Fundamentals" by Capablanca to "My System" by Nimzowitsch - and notes that it helped him to accumulate the chess knowledge and to form his own playing style:

...[it was as though] I traced the evolution of chess thought and repeated its basic basic steps in my own development. I am convinced that any player with high ambitions should follow such a path. Despite the rapid development of theory, there is much that remains secret and unexplored in chess. In order to step even a little further, you must first of all understand what is the limit reached by your predecessors.

In addition to studying books, Smyslov also solved chess studies and played countless number of games with his father. 

Smyslov's "chess universities" at home lasted for seven and a half years, from late 1927 to early 1935.

In those years Smyslov's family lived in a communal apartment (i.e. with the kitchen and bathroom facilities shared with several other families) in the Khamovniki district of Moscow, across the river from Neskuchny Garden, the oldest garden in Moscow. Smyslov wrote that it was "on the outskirts of Moscow". Of course, today this area would be considered central and even rather posh, but given the transport situation at the time, it was indeed "away from it all".

Whilst Smyslov was poring over chess books, the world outside kept on turning. I would like to conclude this post with an incredible 9-minute video of Moscow in 1934 that I found on YouTube. Apparently, it was filmed by American visitors who captured the Moscow daily life in different seasons. It must have been a silent film originally, but the added piano music and the background noises create a magnificent contemplative mood.

This is how Moscow looked like at the time when Smyslov was about to emerge from the safety of his home to the world:


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