Home BEYOND THE LIMITS Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov- The champion who competed in tournaments for 66 years

Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov- The champion who competed in tournaments for 66 years


In our series ‘World Champion Born on this Date’, today we will learn about a Champion who was a World Championship Candidate on 8 occasions, played 3 World Championship matches and competed in Chess tournaments for long 66 years, from age 14 to 80. I believe that the readers need no further introduction! It is none other than the legendary Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov.

Early Life

Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov was born on 24th March 1921 at St Petersburg in a Russian family. His father, Vasily Osipovich Smyslov, worked as an engineering technician and had represented the St. Petersburg Technical Institute in inter-collegiate Chess competitions. Smyslov, the senior, had also studied Chess for a time under the tutelage of legendary Russian Champion Mikhail Chigorin and therefore became the Junior Smyslov’s first Chess teacher. The Senior Smyslov, who had scored a surprise victory over the future world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1912, gave his son a copy of Alexander Alekhine’s book ‘My Best Games of Chess 1908–1923’ and Smyslov Junior often mentioned that this book became his constant reference.

Competitive Chess Journey

From the age of 14, Smyslov started taking part in classification tournaments. In 1938, 17, he won the USSR Junior Championship. That same year, he tied for 1st-2nd places in the Moscow City Championship

In his first Soviet final, (the 12th USSR Chess Championship, Moscow, 1940), Smyslov performed exceptionally well and was placed 3rd, ahead of the reigning USSR champion Mikhail Botvinnik. 

However, the World War II stopped all sports activities including Chess. Smyslov’s form hit seriously in the immediate post-war period. However, he recovered by 1951-1952 and, thereafter, had a brilliant career for another five decades. 

Botvinnik vs Smyslov (right)
Botvinnik vs Smyslov (right)

Smyslov won the Candidates’ Tournament in Zurich in 1953, to become World Championship Challenger for the first time. He played a match with Mikhail Botvinnik for the Crown the following year. The match, after 24 games, ended in a draw, (seven wins each and ten draws), enabling Botvinnik to retain his Crown.

Smyslov again won the Candidates’ Tournament, this time at Amsterdam, in 1956. This qualified him for a second World Championship match against Botvinnik in 1957. Assisted by trainers Vladimir Makogonov and Vladimir Simagin, Smyslov won the World Championship with a crushing score 12½–9½. However, the following year, Botvinnik exercised his right to a rematch, and regained the title with a final score of 12½–10½. Thus, over the course of the three World Championship matches, Smyslov had 18 wins to Botvinnik’s 17 (with 34 draws), and yet he was the Champion only for a year.

Smyslov was a Candidate for the World Chess Championship on 8 occasions (1948, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1959, 1965, 1983, and 1985). In 1983, at the age of 62, Smyslov played the Candidates’ Finals against 20 year old Garry Kasparov (who eventually went on to emerge the youngest World Champion in the same World Championship cycle).

Smyslov represented USSR in 9 Chess Olympiads and his total of 17 Chess Olympiad Medals is an all-time record. In 5 European Team Championships, Smyslov won 10 Gold medals, (5 Team and 5 Individual).

In 1991, Smyslov won the inaugural World Senior Chess Championship. In  2000, the 80-year Champion participated in what was to be his final tournament, Veterans Vs. Ladies in Amsterdam. 

Life, other than Chess

Besides Chess, Smyslov was also an accomplished Baritone singer. He had a powerful voice, and had performed at the Bolshoi Opera. Despite failing eyesight, Smyslov remained active in the occasional composition of Chess Problems & Studies, until shortly before his death on 27th March 2010.

Analysis- A lesser-known match of Smyslov

I was lucky to see this match at a very young age in the famous book ‘Kurs Debutov’ (Way to Chess Openings) by World Correspondence Chess Champion Grandmaster Yakob Estrin. The game made a deep impression on me then and it does so even today.

Smyslov vs Botvinnik [C18]

19th World Championship, Moscow, 3rd March 1954

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Ba5 6.b4 cxd4 7.Qg4!

We see that Vassily Smyslov, though more famous for his strategic ideas and Endgame Compositions, was capable of playing extremely aggressively and energetically in his youth.  Smyslov, who had lost three games in first four, decides to follow his hero- Alexander Alekhine- in this game.

7…Ne7 8.bxa5 dxc3 9.Qxg7 Rg8 10.Qxh7 Nd7?

Black is afraid of the White’s Passed Pawn in the ‘h’ file. Alekhine had often succeeded in winning by promoting this Pawn. However, 10….Nbc6 was better as Black needs to create some counterplay against White’s King.

11.Nf3 Nf8 12.Qd3 Qxa5 13.h4! Bd7 14.Bg5 Rc8 15.Nd4 Nf5 16.Rb1!

Beginning of a simple but effective combination.

16…Rc4 17.Nxf5 exf5 18.Rxb7 Re4+?     

18…Rxg5 19.hxg5 Qxa3 was necessary, though White keeps a winning position with simple 20.f3! vacating ‘f2’ for the King.

Let us now have a look at the game continuation.




Position after Black’s 18th  move.

19.Qxe4! dxe4 20.Rb8+ Bc8 21.Bb5+! Qxb5 22.Rxb5 Ne6 23.Bf6 Rxg224.h5 Ba6 25.h6!                      

Black resigned. 1–0

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Praveen Thipsay is one of the earliest Grandmasters and the first Indian to win the Commonwealth Chess Champion. He is a FIDE Senior Trainer who has been a coach to many promising Indian Chess players.


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