Half a century ago, Vassily Smyslov became the chess champion of the world. His 12 1/2 - 9 1/2 victory over Mikhail Botvinnik in the 1957 world championship match in Moscow was the highest point of his career.
A quarter-century later, the 61-year-old Smyslov finished second behind Hungary's Zoltan Ribli at the 1982 Interzonal tournament in Las Palmas, Spain, and qualified for the Candidates matches. His 1983 match with Robert Huebner of Germany had an unusual ending. When it ended in a tie, both players agreed to let the outcome be decided at the roulette table rather than playing tiebreaking games. Huebner's luck ran out and Smyslov advanced, defeating Ribli in the next match. Smyslov, one match away from playing for the world championship for the fourth time, lost to Gary Kasparov in the 1984 Candidates Final.
A Gentle Hand
Smyslov had a remarkable chess career, spanning more than 60 years. At 86, he does not play anymore, but still visits major chess events in Moscow. Playing over his games, one has the impression that moves came to Smyslov easily. He credits his father for showing him simple positions demonstrating the power of individual pieces. "I just play by hand," Smyslov once jokingly described his intuitive style, based not so much on calculations as on a great understanding of the interaction between the pieces. It earned him the nickname "the Hand."
Smyslov was tough to beat. We drew all our games, except for two consecutive days in 1979 when fortune smiled on me and I defeated him twice. At that time, Smyslov was still the top board on the Burevestnik team from Moscow when we met in the semifinal of the European Club Championship. I will always cherish these victories. Here is a fragment from the second win.
After 46 moves we reached the position on today's diagram (White: Ke3, Ra5, Bb5, P:g4,h4; Black: Kh7, Rd5, Nb2, P:g7). White's rook and bishop are pinned on the fifth rank and black threatens 47...Nc4.
47.Ke4 Nc4? (A losing blunder. After 47...Rc5 48.Kd4 the black rook can't stay on the fifth rank anymore to pin the bishop. Black should have tried 47... Rd6 or 47...Rd8, hoping to bring his lost knight to the kingside. White, on the other hand, would have enough power to go after the black king.) 48.Kxd5 Nxa5 49.Bc4! (The knight is cut off and black can't avoid losing in the pawn endgame.) 49...Kg6 (After 49...Nxc4 50.Kxc4 white wins the pawn endgame.) 50.Ba2 Kf6 51.Kd6! Nb7+ (After 51...g6, 52.Bd5! takes the knight out of play.) 52.Kc6 Nd8+ 53.Kc7 Ke7 54.Bd5! Ne6+ (After 54...Ke8, 55.Kd6! wins; and 54...Nf7 55.Bxf7 Kxf7 56.Kd7 Kf8 57.Ke6 transfers to the actual game.) 55.Bxe6 Kxe6 56.Kd8! Kf7 (After 56...Ke5 57.Ke7 Kf4 58.g5 Kg4 59.Kf7 Kxh4 60.g6! wins.) 57.Kd7 Kf8 58.Ke6 Ke8 (On 58...Kg8 comes 59.Ke7!) 59.Kf5 Kf7 60.Kg5 (After 60...Kg8 61.Kg6 Kh8 62.Kf7 or 62.h5 Kg8 63.g5 Kh8 64.Kf7 Kh7 65.h6 g6 66.Kf6 white wins.) Black resigned.
In the June issue of Chess Life Andy Soltis pointed out that Smyslov was second only to Capablanca in making a draw after a loss.
And he was among the best in avoiding double losses. The statistics were taken from the 1978 Russian article "After a Loss" by Nikolai Krogius, a psychologist and a coach of Boris Spassky during the 1972 world championship match with Bobby Fischer.
Krogius used results up to 1977, when Smyslov's career was far from over.