Endgame Riddle: Is Smyslov right or is he wrong?

by Karsten Müller
10/22/2020 – Vassily Smyslov, the 7th World Champion, was an endgame specialist, and for generations of chess players Smyslov's book about "Rook Endings", which he wrote together with Grigory Levenfish, was the "Bible of Rook Endings". However, is everything in this "bible" really true? Karsten Müller and Zoran Petronijevic have doubts - and ask the readers to help analysing a fascinating endgame, which Smyslov presented in the third edition of his classic. | Photo: Dutch National Archive

Endgames of the World Champions Vol. 2 - from Steinitz to Spassky Endgames of the World Champions Vol. 2 - from Steinitz to Spassky

Enjoy Capablanca's fine technique, Tal's magic, Lasker's fighting spirit, Petrosian's defensive skills, Smyslov's feeling for harmony, and Alekhine's and Spassky's flair for the attack.


Endgame riddle V. Smyslov - P. Benko

For a long time Vassily Smyslov (March 24, 1921 - March 27, 2010) was one of the best players in the world, and after beating Mikhail Botvinnik 12½-9½ in their World Championship match 1957 Smyslov became the 7th World Champion in the history of chess. However, one year later, Smyslov lost the revenge match in 1958 with 10½-12½ and was thus World Champion for only one year.

Smyslov's feeling for the harmony of the pieces is legendary and he is considered one of the greatest endgame players of all time. The book "Rook Endings" which he wrote together with Grigory Levenfish, was for generations of chess players the "Bible of rook endgames".

Endgame analyst Zoran Petronijevic has also studied this book thoroughly, and a position that first appeared in the third edition of the book has particularly fascinated him.


Petronijevic writes about the final of this game Smyslov - Benko:

Despite the progress of chess engines, the many good chess books and the large number of fantastic players, rook endings still remain a big mystery. One reason for this is the uncanny dynamics of these endgames. This position in the Smyslov - Benkö game has intrigued me for years and I have analyzed it again and again.

Smyslov won against Benko and as his comments and analyses show, Smyslov also considered the starting position of the endgame as won for White. But is that really so - or is Smyslov wrong?

This is where the help of the readers is needed: Is Smyslov right? Is this position really won for White? And if it is not won, then where have White and Black made mistakes - and what is Benko's last mistake?

Share your analyses in the comments. Endgame expert and endgame detective Karsten Müller looks forward to your insights!



Karsten Müller, born 1970, has a world-wide reputation as one of the greatest endgame experts. He has, together with Frank Lamprecht, written a book on the subject: “Fundamental Chess Endgames” in addition to other contributions such as his column on the website ChessCafe as well as in ChessBase Magazine. Müller's ChessBase-DVDs about endgames in Fritztrainer-Format are bestsellers. The PhD in mathematics lives in Hamburg, where he has also been hunting down points for the HSK in the Bundesliga for many years.
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Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 11/2/2020 08:56
Yes indeed. Smyslov is playing for two results all the time - win or draw and 62...Rg7 would have led to a tablebase draw.
lmcarter lmcarter 11/1/2020 07:05
62 Rg7 is 0.00. Black is never ahead.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/27/2020 06:14
Of course I agree. And even better is a team of centaurs or like here a kind of analysis duel of centaurs. Really fascinating what has been found out in the endgame riddles like Charles Sullivan's amazing 66.Kc2!!= in a line in Spielmann - Rubinstein or here your 46...Rb8!!=. Both by the way deep drawing discoveries in rook endings, where a few engines give more than +4 or even +5 along the way. Chess is really a deep game...
albitex albitex 10/27/2020 04:32
Mr Muller, in the end, the intervention of man fixes the engine analyzes a little. The best method of analysis is still the "centaur", the man who directs, supervises the engines, in spite of every A.I.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/27/2020 09:15
albitex: Charles Sullivan and Zoran Petronijevic have proved that your 46...Rb8! indeed draws. Well done!
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/26/2020 07:42
albitex: Zoran Petronijevic has proved that I am wrong. After 48.a5 Black draws with 48...bxa5. So indeed the question is still open, if 46...Rb8! draws.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/26/2020 05:25
albitex: Against your 47...Re8 I suggest to advance the a-pawn: 48.a5 Kc7 49.axb6+ Kxb6 50.b5 +-
albitex albitex 10/26/2020 04:22
Mr Muller You propose: 46. .. Rb8 47. Rb1 Rg8 48. c5+ Kc7 49. cxb6+ Kxb6 50. Re1 Kc6 51. Re5 +- ecc.. and now White wins.
My idea is to put the black Rock on the e-column to prevent Re1-Re5 White moves:
46. .. Rb8 47. Rb1 Re8! 48. c5+ Kc7 49. cxb6+ Kxb6 50. Rb3 Re6 51. f3 gxf3 52. Rxf3 f6 =/+ it is now difficult for White to win. Example >
(53. Kd3 Kc6 54. Rf4 Kc7 55. g4 Kc8 56. Rf5 Kd8 57. Ra5 Rd6+ 58. Kc4 Rc6+ 59. Rc5 Re6
60. Kd4 Re1 =/+)
(53. g4 Kc7 (53. .. Kc6 54. Rc3+ Kb7 =/+) 54. Rf5 Kc6 55. Rf2 Kb7 56. Rf3 Kc7 =/+)
I don't see a way for White to win. 47 ... Re1 seems to me just better than 47 ... Rg8, and maybe Black can resist, do you think?
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/26/2020 10:41
albitex: I can now offer a "winning proof line": 46...Rb8 47.Rb1 Rg8 48.c5+ Kc7 49.cxb6+ Kxb6 50.Re1 Kc7 51.Re5 Rb8 52.Kc4 Kd6 53.Ra5 Rb6 54.Rd5+ Ke7 55.Rd4 and White wins.
What do you think? Can you find an improvement for Black?
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/26/2020 09:51
albitex: Well done! The only question I have is, if your strong prophylactic 46...Rb8! really saves Black or if White wins also in this case. Can you go deeper here and give more details?
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/26/2020 09:09
brain8871: I agree that over the board it would still have been a technical job. But most likely Smyslov would have won. The computer also gives 57.Rxg4 Re5 58.f4 Rxh5 59.Rh4 as winning for White.
After your 56...Re6 Stockfish 9 gives +6.19, which I have written to the CB Let's Check database.
albitex albitex 10/26/2020 02:27
sorry after 44... Rg8 ana 46... Rb8 is +/- slight advantage White and not draw as I annotated down
albitex albitex 10/26/2020 02:21
This ending is full of inaccuracies, from both colors. I list only the most important ones in my opinion:
44... g5?! (44. .. Rg8 =)

46... Kc7? Now net White advantage (46... Rb8 =)

48. b5? White loses all the advantage, he won immediately with: (48. Ke5! bxa5 49. Rxa5 Rxb4 50. Rxa6 Rxc4 51. Rxh6 Rc2 52. Rf6 Rc5+ 53. Kf4 Rxh5 54. Rxf7 Rh8 55. Kxg4 +-)

55... Kb7? Black gives the parity granted from opponent's error. He maintained equality with: (55... Kc8 56. Kd6 Rh2 57. Rc4+ Kb7 58. g4=)

62. Rf6? White again loses all the lead, with 62. Ke7 winning.: (62. Ke7 f5 63. Kf6 f4 64. Kf5 Rh4 65. Kg5 Rh1 66. Kxf4+-)

62. .. Re4? Black did not take advantage of the opponent's mistake, he draw with: (62. .. Rg7 63. h6 Rh7=)
brian8871 brian8871 10/26/2020 01:56
In that line, after 56...Re6 57. Rxf7 Re5 58. Rg7 Rxh5 59. Rxg4, it's 3 pawns vs. 2, but hardly a clear-cut win.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/25/2020 03:38
brian8871: 53...Kc7? loses due to 54.Rf4 for example 54...Re6 55.Kd5 Rd6+ 56.Kc4 Rd2 57.Rxf7 Rc2+ 58.Kd4 Rd2+ 59.Ke3 Rd5 60.b6+ Kxb6 61.Rf6+ Kc5 62.Rxh6 Rf5 63.f4 gxf3 e.p. 64.Kf2 +-
brian8871 brian8871 10/25/2020 03:19
53... Kc7 looks like it may draw.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/24/2020 02:06
Yes indeed. But Anthony Miles could still have drawn with 58...g5! instead of the game move 58...Rc2?.
In a way like Benko in this case with.62...Rg7. Rook endings really have a large drawish tendency...
RolfKnobel RolfKnobel 10/24/2020 01:09
This ending reminds me to Karpov-Miles (Amsterdam 1985). There it had seemed to me that unnecessary black pawn activity was the reason for the black defeat, too.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/23/2020 01:13
JNorri: Many thanks for the idea! I will think about it. Definitely a fascinating rook ending!
JNorri JNorri 10/23/2020 12:24
For the future: I would suggest the 14th game of the 1958 Smyslov-Botvinnik match. Botvinnik called it maybe his most subtle rook ending.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/23/2020 09:31
brian8871: Yes indeed.
ays020209: 1) 57...Kxb6 is no real mistake as 57...Rd2+ loses as well.
2) The game move 59.g4 wins as well
3) The game move 60.Rf6+ wins as well
4) Indeed 62.Rf6? is a mistake
5) Indeed the game move 62...Re4? is a mistake
6) OK but Black is lost in the 63rd move in any case
There are more mistakes...
ays020209 ays020209 10/23/2020 04:21
The first move is still almost equal . Black's 57th move Kb6 loses . Rd2 was better . White's move g4 is a mistake . Rf6 would have won . White's 60th move Rf6 is a mistake Ke7 would have won . White's 62nd move Rf6 gives away the win Ke7 should have been played . Black's 62nd move Re4 is a big blunder Rg7 would have held . Black's 63rd move Kd4 clearly loses Kc4 would have been better . Benko's last mistake was on move no. 62 .
brian8871 brian8871 10/23/2020 02:28
62. Ke7 is a tablebase win. As mentioned, 62. Rf6 Rg7 draws.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 10/22/2020 07:38
Halflash: Right. 62...Re4? is a losing mistake. 62...Rg7 draws.
brian8871: But 43...g6 is playable and Black can draw with it with best play.
There are more mistakes...
Halflash Halflash 10/22/2020 06:35
62...Rg7! :)
brian8871 brian8871 10/22/2020 05:59
43...g6 looks suspect. 43...f6 seems like a better alternative.