The Top Chess Players in the World

GM Vasily Smyslov

Vasily Smyslov
Full name
Vasily Smyslov
Mar 24, 1921 - Mar 27, 2010 (age 89)‎
Place of birth
Moscow, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Soviet Union


Vasily Smyslov was the seventh World Chess Champion (1957-1958). He is the record holder for most Chess Olympiad medals, with 17 total medals, and was also a two-time Soviet Champion (1949 and 1955). Smyslov played at the highest level of chess for over four decades, and was a candidate in the world championship cycle in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and then again in the 1980s.

Early Life And Career

Vasily Smyslov learned to play chess at six years old from his father, who was also an accomplished chess player. Unlike most world champions, Smyslov didn’t begin to play in tournaments until he was 14 years old, but he developed rapidly. At the age of 17, he won the USSR Junior Championship, and tied for first in the Moscow City Championship.

Smyslov continued to grow into a world class player, and in 1948 he was one of the five players selected to play in the 1948 World Championship tournament. He finished second in this tournament (behind World Champion GM Mikhail Botvinnik). In 1953, Smyslov won the international Zurich tournament, allowing him to face Botvinnik for the world championship. Smyslov tied his 1954 match with Botvinnik with a 12-12 score, but that meant Botvinnik would retain the title.

Vasily Smyslov plays Mikail Botvinnik world championship
Smyslov (right) plays Botvinnik (left) for the World Championship in 1957. Photo: Dutch National Archives, CC.

World Champion

In 1956, Smyslov again won the Candidates Tournament, this time in Amsterdam. He and Botvinnik would meet again for another world championship match in 1957. In their second meeting on the largest stage, Smyslov defeated Botvinnik by a score of 12.5-9.5 (+6 -3 =13) to become the seventh world champion. Here is a classic Smyslov victory versus Botvinnik during their 1957 match:

Botvinnik was allowed a return match in 1958 by the FIDE rules of the time. Smyslov lost this match, 12.5-10.5, but his chess career was far from over.

After The Championship

Although he was World Champion for only one year, Smyslov stayed in the elite class of players for several more decades. He was a candidate in eight championship cycles, an incredible feat. In 1983, he reached the final round of the Candidates, which was now a series of matches, at the impressive age of 62. The winner of this match would face GM Anatoly Karpov for the world championship title in 1984, but Smyslov lost to a 21-year-old GM Garry Kasparov in the candidates final. Smyslov continued to play in tournaments for the rest of the 20th century.

Karpov Smyslov Euwe 1977
Karpov (left), Smyslov (right), and Euwe (seated) in 1977. Photo: Rob Croes/Dutch National Archive, CC.

Style And Legacy

Smyslov was known for his strong positional style, and machine-like technical skills in the endgame. He was not a single dimensional player, however, as he could also pull out spectacular tactical combinations in his games. Here is an example of Smyslov defeating former world champion Karpov using a mixture of positional and tactical themes:

Smyslov's long career also includes 17 Chess Olympiad medals, the most in history. In 1991, Smyslov became the World Senior Chess Champion. After his final tournament in 2000 (at the age of 79), his official FIDE rating was 2494. His legacy as a champion and player are marked by his positional style, brilliant endgame technique, and his numerous contributions to chess theory (most notably in the Ruy Lopez, Sicilian, English, and Grunfeld openings). Smyslov was simply a legend of the game.

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