New Smyslov research project

by Andrey Terekhov
9/7/2020 – Four years ago, the Russian-born FIDE Master Andrey Terekhov – currently based in Singapore – started off a Smyslov research project. Benefiting from access to Smyslov's private archive and other Soviet-era archival material, a first volume is scheduled to be published by Russell Enterprises in November 2020. We reproduce an extensive interview with the author conducted by Olimpiu G. Urcan – and a wonderfully annotated Smyslov game.

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Vasily Smyslov, the seventh world champion, had a long and illustrious chess career. He played close to 3,000 tournament games over seven decades, from the time of Lasker and Capablanca to the days of Anand and Carlsen. From 1948 to 1958, Smyslov participated in four world championships, becoming world champion in 1957.

Smyslov continued playing at the highest level for many years and made a stunning comeback in the early 1980s, making it to the finals of the candidates’ cycle. Only the indomitable energy of 20-year-old Garry Kasparov stopped Smyslov from qualifying for another world championship match at the ripe old age of 63!

In this first volume of a multi-volume set, Russian FIDE master Andrey Terekhov traces the development of young Vasily from his formative years and becoming the youngest grandmaster in the Soviet Union to finishing second in the world championship match tournament.

Andrey Terekhov on his Smyslov Project

On August 24, 2020, Olimpiu G. Urcan published on his Patreon page the following interview with Andrey Terekhov. In this interview, reproduced here with permission, Andrey Terekhov describes his long-term project focused on the life and games of the 7th world champion, Vasily Smyslov:

Benefiting from access to Smyslov's private archive and other Soviet-era archival material, Andrey Terekhov has produced a first volume of the Smyslov project, which is scheduled to be published by Russell Enterprises in November 2020. In the following interview Orcan asked the author a few questions about this substantial multi-volume book.

Olimpiu G. Urcan: Why the choice for a new book on Smyslov (of all champions or elite masters)?

Andrey Terekhov: I always felt that Smyslov is greatly underappreciated – if one could say that about a World champion – and I always found that baffling. For example, both Mikhail Tal and Vasily Smyslov were World champions for only one year, and yet there are dozens of books about Mikhail Tal but hardly a single volume about Smyslov, other than a few books that Smyslov wrote himself. Of course, Tal’s combinations are mind-bending and he would forever be a fan favorite because of his brilliant playing style, but still the difference is staggering. To take a different example, Botvinnik and Smyslov played more than a hundred games against each other. They contested the world championship four times (three matches and a match tournament). This record would only be beaten by Kasparov and Karpov. Smyslov’s struggle with Botvinnik defined the 1940s and the 1950s in particular, and yet somehow this titanic struggle is almost forgotten.

I knew some of Smyslov’s most famous games since I was a kid. My coach was a big fan of Capablanca and he often said that this line of intuitive, positional players continued with Smyslov and Karpov. In my opinion, Magnus Carlsen also belongs to this category.

In 2012 I bought Smyslov’s magnum opus, a collection of the best games that he played from 1935 to 1994. Over the next year I played through all 326 games in this book. I was even more impressed by Smyslov’s incredible play and wrote a blog post arguing that it deserved to be known better.

The years went by, but none of the established chess authors stepped forward to write a book about Smyslov. So in 2016 I decided that I would do it myself.

OGU: How did you obtain access to Smyslov's personal archive?

AT: About a year into the project, I reached out to several Russian chess historians, asking whether they had any photos or archival information about Smyslov. One of them, Sergey Voronkov, was kind enough to connect me with Smyslov’s relatives.

After a few conversations over email and the phone, I asked Smyslov’s heir whether I could visit him and get access to Smyslov’s archives. He agreed and in September 2017 I took a night flight from Singapore and the next morning I arrived on the doorstep of Smyslov’s house, just outside Moscow, where the 7th world champion lived for many years. Apart from the owner, I was greeted by Smyslov’s cat, Belka, which features in many photographs of Smyslov that were taken in his final years.

For the next week I was busy sorting out the boxes with Smyslov’s books, manuscripts, photos and letters. During this time I scanned or photographed tons of materials that had to do with the first 25-30 years of Smyslov’s long chess career. I also visited the Chess Museum at the Moscow Chess Club, which had a special exhibition on Smyslov, and the Moscow Science and Technical Library, which hosts an extensive chess collection. These days felt like I was drinking from the fire hose. It literally took me many months to process everything that I gathered during this week!

What was the greatest challenge in terms of research for this first volume?

The main challenge was the data scarcity, as very little information survived about Smyslov’s earliest years. Smyslov made his first steps in chess in a completely different era, which would be foreign to the chess players who grew up with databases. In fact, the vast majority of the chess games that were played in the Soviet Union in 1930s and 1940s did not survive. This applied even to the highest-level competitions, such as Moscow Championships or USSR Championship semi-finals. Even in the case of master tournaments, only the most brilliant games would appear in the press. The rest of the games were either immediately forgotten, or at best preserved in the personal archives of the players. Naturally, for the lower-ranked tournaments the situation was even worse.

In the case of Smyslov, this was exacerbated by the fact that his pre-war archives perished during World War II, when a bomb destroyed the home where he used to live. Because of that, only a fraction of Smyslov’s pre-war games survived. I spent many hours in the Russian libraries, trying to track down some of Smyslov’s lesser-known games and fragments in the Soviet newspapers and chess journals. Some of these games will be presented in the book for the first time.

I often find it challenging to deal with the Soviet-era sources for multiple reasons. From your experience, what are the trickiest aspects researchers should pay attention to in this regard?

The main challenge with the Soviet-era sources is that they could be notoriously biased. They would always tout anything coming from the Soviet Union as the best in the world, and it would always be supported by some kind of ideological argument. Chess also served this purpose – the victories in the international tournaments and world championships were supposed to demonstrate the advantage of the Communist system over the “rotting West.”

Very often the key takeaway from the Soviet document is not what was written in it, but what was left out. For example, I remember an article about German chess that was published in the 1942 Moscow Chess Championship bulletin. The author made sure to mention Alekhine’s infamous article on “Aryan and Jewish chess” and went to great lengths to mock the “washed up” players that took part in the tournaments organized by Nazi Germany but he failed to mention Paul Keres, who played in the Soviet Championship only a year earlier.

It does not mean that the Soviet sources are completely unreliable and could never be used, but one should remember that they always had a very clear agenda and thus should be taken with a large grain of salt. You could usually rely on the Soviet chess journals and newspapers to publish the correct tournament results and game scores. And when it comes to purely chess analysis, the level of the Soviet publications was superior to their American or British counterparts at least since 1940s. But the Soviet publications always had a clear agenda, and thus one should never expect them to be an impartial observer.

How many games do you plan to give in this multi-volume book? How did you make the selection?

There is probably going to be more than three volumes. So far I have annotated 100 games that cover Smyslov’s career from 1935 to 1957. The first volume includes 49 games from 1935 to 1948 (ending with the World championship match tournament). The second volume will have 51 games from 1948 to 1957 (ending with Smyslov becoming the world champion). So it will be probably about 50 games per volume, covering approximately a decade of Smyslov’s life. Of course, in addition to the games themselves, the books provide a detailed account of Smyslov’s life, with special focus on the key tournaments (such as 1940 USSR Championship or Groningen 1946).

What should the readers expect from your annotations?

The annotations in this book consist of multiple layers. First of all, I make sure to quote Smyslov’s own annotations when they are available (in some cases they come from his unpublished manuscripts). Smyslov was great at explaining the strategical plans and in pointing out short tactical variations that justified them. Secondly, I quote the annotations that were written by Smyslov’s contemporaries or that appeared in later years. For example, it is interesting to track the dialog between Smyslov and Keres, as they were debating some lines in their annotations to Smyslov’s games – sometimes they continued to refine each other’s variations for many years! Last but not least, I point out the improvements that were discovered with the help of computers.

I hope that this provides the reader with a complete picture for every game. I am approaching the annotations that were written in the “golden age of chess” with the utmost respect that they deserve, and yet I am pointing out the key moments when the existing narratives (e.g., of a “clean and logical game”) contradict the facts.

If you are to pick one game from this first volume for its immense instructional value for club-level players, which one would you pick?

It is difficult to choose just one, as Smyslov played so many “textbook” games. There are many famous games in the first volume, including Smyslov-Panov (Moscow 1943/44), a classical suffocation of the passive Old Indian, or Smyslov-Reshevsky (The Hague/Moscow, World Championship Tournament, 1948), which is one of the best samples of Smyslov’s clear positional style.

However, since your question focused on the instructional value for club-level players, I would go with a lesser-known game, Smyslov-Rudakovsky (USSR Championship, 1945). Every Sicilian player should study this game to understand the risks of weakening the d5-square with e7-e5 push. Smyslov deftly exchanged the pieces to get a permanent knight on d5 against Black’s bishop on f6 that was quite useless, and decided the game with a direct attack on Black’s king. It took many years and the genius of Boleslavsky and Fischer for Black to find sufficient counterplay against this simple plan.

It's ironic that the 7-year-old Smyslov received the popular Alekhine game collection as his first book, yet his own style emerged as being closer to Capablanca's style. Care to comment on that?

This book was presented to Smyslov by his uncle, Kirill Osipovich Smyslov, who was also a decent player. There is even a photograph of Vasily Osipovich and Kirill Osipovich playing chess against each other – I could not resist including it into the book.

You are right that Smyslov’s style had little in common with Alekhine, and yet I don’t find it ironic, for two reasons. First of all, this book was presented to Smyslov mostly because Alekhine was the reigning champion. Had Smyslov played his uncle a year earlier, he would have been probably presented with a Capablanca book!

Secondly, Smyslov’s father possessed a great library of chess books – more than 100 volumes, which was a veritable treasure at the time – and his son ended up reading them all before he finally started playing outside of his home at the age of 14. Smyslov later wrote about the books that had the greatest influence on him, and this list includes games from Morphy, Steinitz and Chigorin all the way to Alekhine, Capablanca and Rubinstein. However, Smyslov was quick to point out that “…the style of a player should not be formed under the influence of any single great master.” And it was certainly the case for Smyslov. His style was indeed closer to Capablanca than to Alekhine, but it was not all black and white. For example, Capablanca never played the Grünfeld Defense with Black, while both Alekhine and Smyslov did. In general, Smyslov was not averse to openings experiments – he was playing Chigorin Defense, Old Indian, Pirc Defense and many other non-classical openings.

I think that it would be fair to say that Smyslov diligently studied the games of the great masters, absorbed something from all of them, and yet developed a style that was distinctly his own.

What were the key ingredients that contributed to Smyslov's quick rise in a very competitive environment?

The main ingredient was Smyslov’s incredible talent, and it certainly helped that he grew up in a family with rich traditions for chess (and music). To the best of our knowledge, Smyslov did not play a single game of chess outside his home until he was 14 but somehow he arrived on the scene already as a well-rounded, complete player. Smyslov was probably the closest that the human race had to AlphaZero story – he studied at home, mostly on his own, then came out and defeated everyone!

Of course, Smyslov was not AlphaZero, and in fact their styles could not be more different. Smyslov learned chess with his father, who was a strong club player, and he was taught simple endgames first. As a result, Smyslov retained great love for endgames and more generally for “simple” positions. He had a natural talent for positional play, which was complemented by good tactical vision. He almost never missed simple tactical shots, and because his play was based on solid positional foundations, tactics often worked in his favor.

Another strength that Smyslov had from the very beginning was his enormous tenacity in defense. His knowledge of openings was never that great (it was perhaps Smyslov’s only true weakness, at least in the beginning of his career), but even when he landed in difficult positions, he was extremely hard to beat.

When you add it all up – the natural gift for positional play, great endgame technique, nice tactical vision and tenacity in defense – you get a really great player.

For the first few years of his career, Smyslov was winning almost all tournaments that he played in, sometimes with 100% score. Even though he started to play in the official competitions relatively later, even by the standards of that time, he quickly became the youngest 1st category player in the Soviet Union (in 1936), then the youngest master (in 1938), and finally the youngest grandmaster (at least in the Soviet Union and arguably in the world – in 1941).

It was only the absolutely best grandmasters in the world that Smyslov could not overcome right away. It would take him ten years, until 1948, to get on the equal footing with Botvinnik and Keres.

How would you describe Smyslov's relationship with Botvinnik during the late 1930s and 1940s?

Smyslov certainly looked up to Botvinnik, especially in the beginning. I quote a little-known fact in my book that Smyslov actually dedicated one of his first chess compositions to Botvinnik (it was published in 1936). It is not surprising, as Botvinnik was a clear leader of the Soviet chess at the time, head and shoulders above the rest. Botvinnik was the only Soviet player who could compete and win in the international tournaments.

In 1940 this order almost blew up when to everyone’s surprise Botvinnik finished out of the medals in the USSR Championship. In fact, Smyslov got a bronze medal in his first-ever Soviet championship, while Botvinnik shared 5th and 6th places with Boleslavsky. However, Botvinnik quickly recovered by pulling the right political strings and essentially erasing this calamitous result by organizing a new, so-called “Absolute Championship” in early 1941, which Botvinnik duly won.

I think that this taught Smyslov an important lesson, which was “don’t mess with Botvinnik.” In any case, it was not in Smyslov’s nature to ruffle someone’s feathers, so he did not get burned in 1941 (unlike Bondarevsky, whose fall from grace after sharing 1st place in 1940 championship was really hard). Instead, Smyslov spent the 1940s establishing himself as a clear number two in the Soviet hierarchy. It was not easy, given that he had to compete with players that had enormous success internationally prior to the war, such as Paul Keres, Andre Lilienthal and Salo Flohr, and with the strongest Soviet players, such as Alexander Kotov, Igor Bondarevsky, Isaak Boleslavsky and later David Bronstein.

By the end of 1940s Smyslov was seen as a kind of “younger brother” to Botvinnik. He was ten years younger and very often he was the only one who could challenge Botvinnik. However, in 1940s Smyslov was regularly coming up short, both in individual encounters and in tournaments. Hence it was a big surprise when in the 1948 world championship match-tournament it was Smyslov - and not Keres, Reshevsky or Euwe - who scored best in his mini-match with Botvinnik. It would take Smyslov another decade, until 1957, to make that leap and finally topple Botvinnik.

To whatever extent it can be known, was Smyslov a true believer in Communism/Socialism?

 

Smyslov never spoke publicly about anything personal, but by all indications, he never believed in Communism. There are a lot of arguments that indirectly support this thesis. First of all, Smyslov never joined the Communist Party, despite the obvious advantages that it conferred in the Soviet Union. Secondly – and this is a minor detail, but I find it telling – Smyslov had a strange habit of using the older, original names for all cities that were renamed after the Soviet Revolution. For example, he would call Leningrad St. Petersburg, or he would refer to Kuibyshev as Samara. Finally, Smyslov was a deeply religious man and in the latter, more “relaxed” years of the Soviet Union (during so-called “Brezhnev Stagnation”), he did not even hide that, which was highly unusual and one might even say career-limiting (although as a former world champion, Smyslov must have felt more secure than “mere mortals”). In private conversations Smyslov would even go as far as to renounce the Soviet power as “devilish."

It’s not that Smyslov was a non-conformist – in fact, one could say he was exactly the opposite. He mastered the art of pronouncing the right Communist formulas in public and developed a great personal network at the top layers of Soviet bureaucracy. For example, even in 1970s, when Smyslov fell out of contention for the world championship and was generally coasting, he still did not have any problems getting invitations to the foreign tournaments and travelling internationally, and these were the most coveted benefits for the Soviet players at the time.

It could be said that Smyslov was well integrated into the Soviet life and yet he carved himself a niche that allowed him to live almost independently from it.

Did you discover new things about Smyslov's interest in music, his other lifelong passion?

Smyslov’s interest to music comes from the same source as his love for chess. Smyslov’s father, Vasily Osipovich, was passionate about both music and chess. He played piano, he had a fine baritone and according to family legend he even auditioned with the legendary Russian singer, Feodor Chaliapin. Alas, for Smyslov’s father chess and music remained just a hobby. However, Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov spent the whole life realizing his father’s dreams. In 1940s chess dominated everything else, but already then Smyslov’s friends mention him singing arias from the operas. In early 1950s music almost overtook chess in Smyslov’s life – more on that in the second volume.

Peter Svidler wrote an interesting foreword for this volume. Did you get to play against him in your early years?

We grew up in the same city and went to the same chess section at the Palace of Young Pioneers in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Peter Svidler is just a year older than me, so we met each other in the juniors, but Svidler made a giant leap in his early teens and our paths diverged. If I recall correctly, Svidler won the USSR junior championship in 1990, then the World Junior championship a few years later. As for me, I made it to the last USSR junior championship in 1991. After that, I’ve regularly played in the Russian junior championships but of course that was on a different, lower level.

Many years later we ran into each other again in German Bundesliga. I was living in Munich at the time and played for the chess club of FC Bayern, the famous football club. Our team was made up entirely of amateurs but we managed to qualify to the top tier. My debut in Bundesliga fell on the match against Baden Baden, the strongest team in the competition. I was paired against Pentala Harikrishna and when I came to the board, I noticed Peter Svidler sitting at the next board. Before the match started, he looked at me quizzically and asked something to the effect of “What are you doing here?” It was a good question, but I was not the only one – our whole team had no business playing against Baden Baden.

Do you play any serious tournaments these days?

No, unfortunately. I was normally playing in one or two tournaments a year, but recently I became even idler, as the time I spend playing is the time that I am not writing the book! The last time I competed in a tournament with long time control was in 2018. I had a few days off in the middle of a business trip to the US. I found out that there was an open tournament happening over the long weekend, and so I signed up. It went surprisingly well, I ended up sharing 2nd to 4th places in the Washington State Open.

Who are your favorite Russian players among the current elite?

The Russian player I currently like the most is Daniil Dubov. A few months ago I had an opportunity to interview him by email. Dubov is such a creative player and his games are always entertaining. Watching him play is a roller-coaster kind of experience! The other Russian player that I am following is Ian Nepomniachtchi. He is incredibly gifted, confident and calculates variations at warp speed, but he is also a bit inconsistent, at least compared against the likes of Caruana or Ding Liren. Last but not least, I am always rooting for Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk, as representatives of “my generation.” I refuse to think of them as veterans – after all, Botvinnik became a world champion at 36, which is exactly Grischuk’s age today!

About the author

St. Petersburg native Andrey Terekhov (picture) is a FIDE Master, an ICCF International Master (correspondence chess) and holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science. His best results at the board were victories in the 2008 Munich Open and the 2012 Nabokov Memorial. He currently resides in Singapore. This is his first book for Russell Enterprises.

Acknowledgement: The photograph at the top of this report shows a young Smyslov during the 1938 USSR school championship in Leningrad and is presented here with author’s permission.

Game annotated by Andrey Terekhov

 



St. Petersburg native Andrey Terekhov (picture) is a FIDE Master, an ICCF International Master (correspondence chess) and holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science. His best results at the board were victories in the 2008 Munich Open and the 2012 Nabokov Memorial. He currently resides in Singapore.
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Steven Gerrard Steven Gerrard 9/27/2020 11:07
Thanks for your comment, have your book under pre-order now. Have had the Moravian ones myself for sometime now, two of my favorites.
ddtru ddtru 9/10/2020 06:08
Yes, I was referring to Smyslov's magnum opus - "Smyslov's Best Games" (in 2 volumes), published by Moravian Press, which is a translation of "Letopis' shakhmatnogo tvorchestva" (original published in the 1990s in Russian). Not sure if it's in print or not, but the publisher still sells it. If you are looking for the games annotated by Smyslov himself, it's a must buy (note that it has almost no biographical details, though).
Steven Gerrard Steven Gerrard 9/9/2020 01:20
Moravian chess had a two volume set of Smyslov's best games which I think was a english translation of the book referred to in the article. It is OOP now though.
John Upper John Upper 9/9/2020 04:28
Wow! A very nice mix of historical human notes and computer analysis. I am looking forward to these books.
BZH92 BZH92 9/8/2020 07:29
Thanks for this article and annotations! I'm interested in the book
Gerald C Gerald C 9/8/2020 06:44
Beautiful article !
ddtru ddtru 9/8/2020 01:24
Smyslov Sr. passed away in January 1943. He witnessed his son becoming a Soviet grandmaster (1941), but he did not live to see his son's first victory over Botvinnik in a tournament game (in Moscow championship 1943/44) or Smyslov becoming a World champion (1957).
Jarman Jarman 9/7/2020 09:38
Great interview - I will be definitely checking out the books. Most Chessbase articles make for a great read, but the historical ones are this site's strong suit.
ludovicus ludovicus 9/7/2020 08:52
Very interesting article and interview. I played over the Rudakovsky game (very interesting) but cannot save it? When I hit the save icon I come to the login screen, even though I am already logged in as a premium member. When I log in the game is gone and where it was is blank white. If I return to the Chessbase site, I have to log in again, in an endless loop. Please fix this!
SoDesuKa SoDesuKa 9/7/2020 08:24
Fr0m the first photograph to the last, an excellent article and interview. No stock questions or answers, only carefully thought out inquiries and detailed, coherent, informative responses. And all of it interesting. Knowing very little about Smyslov, I found it impossible to stop reading until the very end, when I knew very much more. The interviewer asks at one point which Smyslov game might be most instructive for club players. I would say this whole interview provides ample material for exhaustive study at the club level, and I am sure the upcoming books will find their way into many a club library where the games of great players like Smyslov are still studied and enjoyed.
CMPonCB CMPonCB 9/7/2020 07:59
Nice to be reminded of the synergy between Smyslov and his father, and the fact that they shared the same two passions.

It begs the question ... did his father live to see Vasily reach the pinnacle of his chess and music endeavors?
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