Vasily Smyslov, who died last weekend at 89, was the world’s best player for most of the 1950s but held the championship crown for only one year and was nicknamed ‘The Winter King’.
Smyslov understood chess more profoundly than his great rival Mikhail Botvinnik, against whom he contested three world championship matches with honours even. But Botvinnik was the better psychologist, had a shrewd knowledge of chess politics and made wily use of rules where 12-12 kept his title in 1954 and his 1957 defeat gave him a return series where he caught the flu-stricken Smyslov at the start.
Smyslov took his major reverse phlegmatically. Chess for him was an art form allied to his love of music and summarised in the title of his best games book, In Search of Harmony. His placid temperament at the board stemmed from his intuitive and deep strategic grasp. Smyslov could calculate but this was secondary to his ability to understand key factors in any position.
His greatest strength was the endgame where he co-authored a classic book on rook endings, but he could also deal with opening surprises. In the late 1950s the ten-time British champion Jonathan Penrose had success with the tricky Goring Gambit 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 c3 dxc3 5 Nxc3. When he tried it against Smyslov in the 1958 Olympiad, the great man swiftly replied Bb4xc3, won in 25 moves, then commented laconically in his broken English “Goring Gambit very riskant”.
Occasionally his intuition let him down, notably in the 1959 candidates where the rising star Mikhail Tal, whose play he had criticised, outplayed him with mazy tactics. But the energy-saving aspect of Smyslov’s approach undoubtedly aided his achievements in old age. At 63, he reached the candidates final against Garry Kasparov, and at 70 he won the inaugural World Senior championship for over-60s. He would have continued to perform at a high level but for deteriorating eyesight. Even when nearly blind he was still a strong grandmaster.
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– GM Susan Polgar