March 28, 2010 6:54

7th World Champion Vasily Smyslov dies at 89

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:

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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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


R.Mutt's picture

My favourite chess player - I love going through his game collections.

I also was at the klompendans 2001 tournament and watched him play the final official game of his career, against Zhu Chen. He walked with such difficulty towards the board, and because of his poor eyesight he had to move his head so close to the pieces to study the position, that you really wondered if he wasn't getting too old for chess. But then he played 10.Nb6! and I realized how quick-witted he still was. Too bad he let her slip away later in the game...

Topafan's picture

last time i checked, india is still a third world country. therefore it is understandable that they cannot find sponsors. Anand is famous in the chess world but he is nothing compared to cricket players for example

Wim's picture


Kees-Jan Schilt's picture

What are you talking about? Both reports are very different...

Antichrist's picture

There's one thing I haven't worked out yet.

Is ChessVibes using all the words from ChessBase's reports or are ChessBase using all the words from ChessVibes's reports?

I noticed that Chessvibes get the goodies in before ChessBase when it comes to the reports so until proven otherwise I'll assume ChessBase are copying ChessVibes.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery! lol

rateodoro's picture

Legends never die, just moves from our presence...
Thanks Vassily, for make me a better player.
R.I.P ''maestro''

Vooruitgang's picture

One of the best chess books ever...Smyslov Endgame Virtuoso.
Rest in Peace and in God's love GM Smyslov.

Pam's picture

Another sad day for chess ...
RIP GM Vasily Smyslov

ratjak's picture

---deleted, not very chique under an In Memoriam article...---

Daniel's picture

Thanks Smyslov! R.I.P.

ratjak's picture

I expressed my contempt for rateodoro's comment 'Thanks Vassily, for make me a better player' which I think is rather pathetic, not to mention the broken English.
However, the webmaster removed my comment even though I had not used unacceptable language.
So I would recommend that the exhortation 'Speak your mind' should be taken with a grain of salt.
I wonder if this comment will be removed

Peter Doggers's picture

Normally we try to be as tolerant as possible, ratjak, but under an article about the death of a chess legend it's different. Please show some respect and start bashing on others in a different thread, it you really must.

pete's picture

one of the very finest of his time and probably ever. I really like players like him who are humble and let chess speak for themselves. R.I.P.

john's picture

One of the champions who made chess look easy, he will be missed deeply.

T. Goto's picture

R.I.P. I used to play a variation in Caro-Kann named after him. Although I decided that I was too sloppy to follow his path (one of the best defender ever), I like how the position looked like after opening. It was a great time for Soviet chess, for the great four (Botvinik, Smyslov, Bronstein and Keres) are evenly matched in talents.He was probably the most subtle among them.

Wim's picture

Still have that small lp, GM Vassily Smyslov singing. He wrote also a book "in search of harmony" (1979) where he described a parallel between the art of chess and music. Smyslov did it his way, always leading to success!

Knallo's picture

Somewhere between Capablanca and Karpov lies Vassily Smyslov, another genius to whom the moves came naturally.
If I remember the absolutely titanic team of the USSR that won the European Team Championships in Kapfenberg correctly, Korchnoi is the only one who is still with us (Spassky wasn't playing).
His games interested Alekhine, he played a Candidates Final against Kasparov; he had a long and rich life in chess for which we can all be grateful.
He will be remembered as long as chess is played.

redwhitechess's picture

RIP, another sad news for chess fan, just days ago we read the passing of the young Elena Tairova and now Grandmaster V. Smyslov.

Eddie Holloway's picture

What a wonderful talent.I enjoy the comments from our great Grandmasters.

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