7th World Champion Vasily Smyslov dies at 89

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
7th World Chess Champion Vasily Smyslov died on Saturday of heart failure, Russian television reported. Smyslov, who turned 89 on Wednesday, was taken to a Moscow hospital earlier in the week after complaining of heart problems. He died on Saturday morning.

TV report

Vasily Vassilievich Smyslov (Moscow, March 24, 1921) learned the game in 1927, from his father, who himself had received chess lessons from the great Mikhail Chigorin. In 1938, at the age of 17, he won the Junior Championship of the Soviet Union, and three years later, in 1940, he scored a great result by finishing 3rd in the overall Soviet Championship, ahead of Mikhail Botvinnik. Chess was of secondary importance during the war, although Smyslov managed to play actively, winning the Moscow Championship in 1944-1945.

After the war, Smylsov didn't score so well in a few tournaments, but his third place at the legendary Groningen 1946 tournament (which was won by Botvinnik) was a sign of what was destined to come. There followed some tremedous results, most importantly his 2nd place in the The Hague/Moscow World Championship tournament of 1948 (again finishing behind Botvinnik) and his victory in the Candidates tournament, Zürich 1953, possibly the greatest tournament ever held.

By this time, it was clear Smyslov and Botvinnik were the two strongest players in the world, and they were to play three matches for the World title in the following years. The first match, held in Moscow, 1954, ended in a 12-12 tie, which allowed Botvinnik to keep his title. After winning the Amsterdam Candidates Tournament in 1956, 1,5 point ahead of Paul Keres, he went on to play his second match against Botvinnik, held in 1957 in Moscow, and this time his play was so strong that he beat his rival with a 3 points difference: 12,5-9,5, thus gaining the title of seventh World Champion. However, Botvinnik had the right to a revanch match and regained the title just a year later, in 1958, beating Smyslov (who claimed to be ill during the match) 12,5-10,5.

After this defeat, Smyslov's star declined somewhat, which no doubt was also due to the arrival on the scene of another great star: Mikhail Tal. In the 60s and 70s, Smyslov still played at the highest level, but he never again succeeded in seriously competing for the world title, until 1983, when to the amazement of the entire world he qualified for the World Championship Candidate final against Garry Kasparov, a match (played in 1984) which he lost only after some very interesting chess.

Garry Kasparov wrote about Smyslov in his My Great Predecessors, part II:

Because of the apparent simplicity of his style, Smyslov is rarely mentioned among the players who have made the greatest contributions to the development of the ancient game. However, his victories at the peak of his career are amazing for the lack of a clear defence for his opponents, and a careful study reveals that no one in the world could withstand Smyslov's very fine technique. His credo was as follows: 'I will make 40 good moves and if you are able to do the same, the game will end in a draw.' But it was precisely this 'doing the same' that was the most difficult: Smyslov's technique was ahead of his time. (...)

I think that it is this innate sense of harmony which has helped Smyslov to break all records for chess longevity. (...) This phenomenon was wittily explained by Spassky: 'Vasily Vassilievich has an incredible intuition, and I would call it his "hand" - that is, his hand knows on which square to place every piece, and he does not need to calculate anything with his head.'

The great Dutch writer/grandmaster J.H. Donner liked to philosophize about Smyslov's magic touch:

Smyslov is the great magician who masters all problems, but in the way of an elegant animal. His play has something incomprehsibly superficial, opportunistic. And this is typical for the talent: it is only interested in the surface of things, for all deep problems are human, and talent is in fact 'super'-human. Therefore we must admire players like Smyslov, but it is always admiration mixed with a touch of jealousy. It is admiration for something we do not have, and cannot have.

Smyslov's played his last tournament in Amsterdam, 2001, in the so-called 'Klompendans' tournament. In the 6th round, I watched him play Alisa Galliamova. Smyslov was already almost completely blind at the time. He exchanged queens on move 7 and went to win the endgame in impressive, typical Smyslovian style. Smsylov made an even bigger impression on me in 1994, when I was a board boy at the Donner Memorial tournament, also in Amsterdam. During the first round, I happened to be sitting next to Smyslov's board for the entire game. Against Svetozar Gligoric, he played a quiet line of the French Winawer and manoeuvred his way to victory in immaculate fashion. I realized that this was indeed chess from another world, and in retrospect I think Donner was absolutely right in his assessment of Smyslov.

Vasily Smyslov loved music and was a gifted baritone singer, auditioning for the famous Bolshoi Opera in 1950. Here's an example of his singing from '81: [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"208","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","height":"385","width":"480","style":""}}]]

He was a fine endgame composer and various chess opening variations bear his name, among others, in the King's Indian 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Nf3 followed by Bc1-g5 and, of course, in the Grünfeld Indian, 3...d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4 Bg4, which he first played in 1945 (against Kotov, a game that he lost) and which was also played by Bobby Fischer in his famous game against Botvinnik at the 1962 Varna Olympiad.

With Smyslov's death, the chess world has lost one of its greatest living legends.
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