Monday, March 29, 2010

World Champion, Endgame Virtuoso Vasily Smyslov Passes Away

One of the most significant intellectual, cultural and sporting figures of the 20th century passed away over the weekend but unless you regularly peruse chess websites you likely did not hear or read anything about the death of Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010), the seventh official World Chess Champion (1957-58). During his long professional career, Smyslov won several very strong events, including the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates Tournament. That triumph earned him the right to face World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik in a 24 game match. Smyslov battled Botvinnik to a 12-12 tie, but by rule Botvinnik retained the title. Smyslov then won the Amsterdam 1956 Candidates Tournament and this time he defeated Botvinnik 12.5-9.5. Smyslov had to outduel the world's top players in grueling competition prior to facing Botvinnik but the rules of the time allowed Botvinnik the right to ask for an automatic rematch within a year of losing the crown. Botvinnik exercised that option and beat Smyslov 12.5-10.5. Thus, in three head to head matches Smyslov outscored Botvinnik 35-34 but because of the rematch clause Botvinnik reigned for a total of 13 years between 1948 and 1963 while Smyslov only enjoyed one year as the World Champion (in the next championship cycle after his third match versus Smyslov, Botvinnik lost to Mikhail Tal only to immediately regain the title in a rematch but Botvinnik retired from World Championship play after he lost to Tigran Petrosian in 1963 when the rematch clause was no longer in effect).

Smyslov never again contested a World Championship match but he qualified for the Candidates round three more times. In 1982, Smyslov became the oldest player to ever advance that far but his championship drive was halted by young phenom Garry Kasparov, who went on to become the youngest World Chess Champion ever.

Smyslov earned a record total of 17 medals (including team and individual honors) in Chess Olympiad play, winning 69 games, drawing 42 and losing only twice. Smyslov was a stalwart member of the Soviet team in the European Team Championships, winning individual and team gold medals in each of his five appearances in that prestigious event, tallying 19 wins, 15 draws and just one loss. In 1991, Smyslov won the first ever World Senior Chess Championship (open to players who are at least 60 years old). He retired from tournament play 10 years later due to failing eyesight. Smyslov made extensive contributions to chess theory; his innovations are seen in the English, Grunfeld, Ruy Lopez and Sicilian openings and his book Rook Endings (co-authored with Grigory Levenfish) is considered by many to be the definitive work on that subject. Smyslov was an endgame maestro and his virtuosity in that highly technical aspect of the game reflects his overall chess philosophy, admiringly described by Vladimir Kramnik, the World Chess Champion from 2000-07:

He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style. By the way, why do you think he lacks that aura of mystique like Tal or Capablanca? Because Smyslov is not an actor in chess, his play is neither artistic nor fascinating. But I am fond of his style. I would recommend a study of Smyslov’s games to children who want to know how to play chess because he plays the game how it should be played: his style is the closest to some sort of ‘virtual truth’ in chess. He always tried to make the strongest move in each position. He has surpassed many other of the World Champions in the number of strongest moves made. As a professional, this skill impresses me. I know that spectators are more interested in and downs. But from the professional standpoint, Smyslov has been underestimated.

I disagree with Kramnik's contention that Smyslov's play was not "artistic"--it would be more precise to say that Smyslov's play was not as "flamboyant" or "risky" as Tal's--but Jeff Sonas' rating calculations confirm Kramnik's impression that Smyslov "has been underestimated." According to Sonas, despite the fact that Smyslov only enjoyed a brief official reign at the top Smyslov was actually the strongest player in the world for the vast majority of the period extending from November 1953 through September 1958 and Smyslov achieved the sixth best 20 year peak rating ever. Boris Spassky, the ninth World Chess Champion, called Smyslov "one of the great chess geniuses of the 20th century."

Smyslov was also an accomplished baritone singer who once wrote (in Smyslov's 125 Selected Games), "My study of chess was accompanied by a strong attraction to music, and it was probably thanks to this that from childhood I became accustomed to thinking of chess as an art, and have never regarded it as anything else, for all the science and sport involved in it. And, moreover, an art which in some ways is closer to music than it is customary to think. Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty which are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp, or perhaps by something else." In that same book, Smyslov declared:

In music I am an admirer of the classics, especially vocal. I love classical opera and classical romance. In such music I see and feel the striving of the composer to express his idea in a single, unique form. Strict beauty and harmony, spontaneity and elegance, the faultless intuition of the artist, the absolute mastery of technique and therefore complete independence from it--this is my ideal. In chess I am also a staunch supporter of classical clarity of thought. The content of a game should be a search for truth and a victory should be a demonstration of its rightness. No fantasy, however rich, no technique, however masterly, no penetration into the psychology of the opponent, however deep, can make a chess game a work of art, if these qualities do not lead to the main goal--the search for truth. Taken on their own, they merely point to the striking talent of their possessor, and nothing more.
Despite Smyslov's immense talents and his quite significant contributions to art and sport, his passing has largely been ignored by the mainstream media; an internet search of his name reveals that most of the coverage of his death has been limited to websites specifically devoted to chess (the New York Times and The Guardian also published nice tributes).

You can read more about Smyslov here, while this page provides an audio clip that is purportedly a recording of a 60 year old Smyslov singing an old Russian folk song. Here is some archival footage of Smyslov playing the piano, singing and competing against Botvinnik:

World Chess Champion Smyslov 1957

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