Features Sep 29, 2020 | 8:57 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

Smyslov’s Breakthrough Year

For the past several years the Russian chess historian Andrey Terekhov has been working on a biography of Vasily Smyslov. The first volume of this work, focused on the beginning of the chess career of the seventh World Chess Champion, will be released in November 2020. This article describes Smyslov’s first major victories in junior and adult tournaments, which took place in 1938. 

16-year-old Smyslov at the 1938 USSR Junior Championship

In the history of chess Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov (1921-2010) is mostly remembered as the strongest player of the 1950s, one who battled with Mikhail Botvinnik in three consecutive World Championship matches. More recently, in the 1980s, Smyslov surprised the world by making it through the Candidates all the way to the final match with Kasparov at the age of 63.

Today, however, only true connoisseurs of chess history know that in the beginning of his career, in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, Smyslov was a wunderkind of sorts. His swift rise from complete novice to the youngest grandmaster is the stuff of legend. In the 1930s only Paul Keres’s debut on the world stage could rival Smyslov’s pace of growth. Both Keres and Smyslov made their mark as juniors, and both became grandmasters at the age of 21.

1938 was the turning point in the chess career of the future 7th World Champion. At the start of that year, Smyslov had only been playing in official chess tournaments for two and a half years. In that short time span Smyslov had quickly marched through all the stages of the Soviet qualification system, and in the autumn of 1937 he became the youngest first category player in the Soviet Union. Naturally, Smyslov was considered a “promising young talent”, yet no-one could have predicted the quantum leap that he would make in 1938.

1938 Soviet Junior Championship

Smyslov’s first tournament of 1938 started in the very first days of January. On the 2nd of January the national junior championship, which was officially entitled the “Third All-Union Children’s Tournament,” kicked off in Leningrad, at the newly inaugurated chess section of the Palace of Pioneers. It was a bi-annual event, with the first championship organized in 1934, and the second in 1936. It was the last year when Smyslov was eligible to participate, as he graduated from school in the summer of 1938.

The structure of the championship was rather complicated. There were 18 teams representing the largest cities of the Soviet Union, and both personal and team scores were tracked. Each team consisted of four people: a 16/17-year old, a 14/15-year old, a girl chessplayer and a checkers player. (In the 1930s, chess and checkers were “joined at the hip” in the Soviet Union, with events often running side-by-side, and team competitions usually involving both chess and checkers players. 64 covered both chess and checkers until 1941.) All the players were divided into preliminary groups in their respective categories. The winners qualified for the final competition, with their scores from the preliminary group carrying over to the final.

Smyslov represented Moscow, along with Yury Averbakh, who played in the 14/15-year-old category. Exactly 80 years later, Averbakh recalled in the interview for this book (February 12, 2018) that in 1938 he shared a hotel room with Smyslov during the tournament and that they got along well. Smyslov was somewhat patronizing towards the younger and less experienced second category player. Averbakh explained they were in different “weight categories” at the time, both in terms of chess (Smyslov was already a first category player) and even in terms of their physical appearance – there was a 15 centimeter height difference between them at the time (182 for Smyslov, 167 for Averbakh), and so Smyslov called his younger teammate “a tot.”

There were only three first category chessplayers in the event, all taking part in the competition of 16/17 year olds – Smyslov, Zanozdra (Kiev) and Batygin (Sverdlovsk). The report in 64 also mentioned Steinsapir (Leningrad), who quickly rose from third category to first. During the tournament he was still listed as second category, but in February 1938 Shakhmaty v SSSR was already referring to him as a first category player.

Three or four first category players might not sound like much, but grandmaster Levenfish noted that the level of play in the third Soviet Junior Championship was much higher than in the previous one, and that he was certain that some of the participants would play at master strength in two or three years (Shakhist, #3/1938). In fact, Smyslov would earn the master title by the end of 1938!

In the preliminary phase, Smyslov easily crushed the opposition, winning all five games. One of these victories appeared in the report about the junior championship that was printed in Shakhmaty v SSSR (#2/1938, pp. 59-62):

Smyslov – Mazanov
Third All-Union Children’s Tournament
Leningrad 1938


Annotations by Alexey Sokolsky and Grigory Ravinsky:

“White won thanks to a striking, although not complicated combination: 26.Nf5! Bxf5 After 26... Rxd3 White mates with 27.Qb8+! Kf7 28.Qc7+, etc. 27.Qxd5+ Not 27.Rxf3 because of 27...Bxc2+ 27...Be6 28.Qa8+! Stronger than 28.Qxf3 Qxf3 29.Rxf3 Bd5 28...Rf8 After 28...Kf7, White captures the rook with check. 29.Qxf8+! Kxf8 30.Rxg3 and Black resigned on the 46th move.”

There was a rest day after the end of the preliminary competitions, but it was just as packed with activities as the game days. There were lectures with the analysis of preliminary rounds by master Ilya Rabinovich, 12 blitz tournaments and simultaneous exhibitions by Leningrad masters and first category players.

Most intriguingly, 64 reports that Botvinnik gave a simultaneous exhibition on 20 boards, with the result +7-4=9. It could have been the first encounter between Botvinnik and Smyslov, but according to Averbakh, the simultaneous exhibition was aimed at Leningrad schoolchildren, with the championship participants resting before the finals.

They certainly needed a break, for in the final part of the competition the rate of play intensified to two games per day – a decision that was harshly criticized by Sokolsky and Ravinsky in Shakhmaty v SSSR. This strenuous format clearly affected Smyslov, as his play in the final was not as convincing. Smyslov drew with Steinsapir and Batygin but lost to Zanozdra in what would be the most famous game of the latter’s short chess career. The brief report on the championship that was published in Shakhist (#2/1938) mentions that the interest in this game was so high that spectators broke the barrier separating them from the players! This game was later published in Shakhmaty v SSSR (#11/1938, p. 494) as an example of Smyslov’s underestimating the attacking chances of his opponents.

The fate of the title hung in the balance until the last moments of the tournament. Grandmaster Levenfish wrote in Shakhist (#3/1938) that Zanozdra showed inexplicable peacefulness in his last round game versus Steinsapir by agreeing to a draw in a better position – had Zanozdra won this game, he would have become champion by virtue of tying for first place with Smyslov and having better tie-breaks! A few years later Zanozdra quit chess and focused on a medical career, eventually becoming a famous cardiologist and professor.

The way things played out, Smyslov finished clear first with 8 points out of 10, Zanozdra second with 7½, and Steinsapir third with 7.

Sokolsky and Ravinsky gave the winner a glowing review (Shakhmaty v SSSR, #2/1938, p. 59):

Smyslov is a versatile player who has a great feel for positions and at the same time does not shy away from combinations. The good knowledge of theory and self-control that he demonstrated in this tournament also contributed to his success. There is no question that if he continues to work on improving his chess, he will grow into a player of high caliber.

We should also note the result of the “boys’ group,” which was won by Smyslov’s teammate Yury Averbakh with 7½ out of 10. This success made the 15-year old Averbakh the youngest first category player in the Soviet Union at the time, the distinction that had previously belonged to Smyslov (64, #7/1938).

Curiously, only ten days after their return from Moscow, Smyslov and Averbakh played each other on the first board of the match between the Stadium of Young Pioneers and the Palace of Young Pioneers. Smyslov scored a victory, and the concluding attack of this game was later published in Shakhmaty v SSSR (November 1938). The full score of this game has been considered lost, but during the research for this book it was discovered in Averbakh’s archives with his own brief commentary. It is analyzed in more detail in the book.

64 years later in 2002... 80-year-old Vasily Smyslov at the 80th birthday of Yuri Averbakh | photo: Jurgen Stigter, Wikipedia 

The First Adult Tournaments

A week later the newspaper 64 (#5/1938) mentions Smyslov as a member of a chess club at the Moscow Automobile Factory named after Stalin. He was brought to the club by his father who worked there as an economist and played in the factory’s chess competitions. In April-May 1938, Smyslov Jr. joined his father in the factory championship and won it by scoring 11½ points out of 13 (+10 =3). Shakhmaty v SSSR mentioned this in an article about the chess section of the Moscow Automobile Factory (#3/1939, pp. 104-106) noting that Smyslov Jr. did not spare his father, winning the intra-family encounter!

A little earlier, in March 1938, Smyslov started playing in the semi-final of the Moscow Championship. Shakhmaty v SSSR (#11/1938, pp. 490-491) claims that it was the first individual tournament in which Smyslov played against adult opposition. As 64 pointed out (#18/1938), Smyslov was also the youngest participant in the Moscow semifinals.

The players competed in five different groups, with the winner of each group qualifying for the All-Union Tournament of First Category players and the first two places also qualifying for the Moscow finals.

The tournament lasted for more than four months, apparently as a result of poor management – the brief report on the semi-finals in 64 (#37/1938) concluded with a harsh verdict: “The organization of the tournaments by the Moscow chess section should be deemed absolutely unsatisfactory.” However, that did not prevent Smyslov from winning his group with 9 points out of 12, one and a half points ahead of a first-category player Solomon Slonim (who still had one unfinished game at the time the report was published) and future grandmaster Vladimir Simagin.

In the summer of 1938, Smyslov graduated from school with distinction. His grades allowed him to enroll in the Moscow Aviation Institute (commonly abbreviated as MAI) without entrance examinations. It was a decision that Smyslov would later regret, as studies in the technical institute consumed too much time. Smyslov would spend almost 10 years studying at MAI, but would never graduate from it. It was clearly a sore point for Smyslov. I discovered Smyslov’s own reflections on this topic that he wrote for the 1979 book In Search of Harmony but deleted from the final text. This fragment appears in “The Life and Games of Vasily Smyslov” for the first time.

The All-Union Tournament of First Category

Smyslov is third from the left in the second row from the top in this group photo from the tournament in Gorky

In August 1938, Smyslov traveled to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) to participate in the All-Union Tournament of First Category Players, which gathered 56 of the strongest first category players from across the country. It was a showcase of the “next wave” of Soviet chess. Most participants were adults or university students, although there were a couple of school-age players, such as Smyslov or Mark Stolberg from Rostov-on-Don, who was even younger. The players were divided into four groups of 14 players. It was announced prior to the tournament that the winner of each group would receive the newly introduced title of candidate master.

In the first round Smyslov won an interesting game against Nikolay Rudnev, which Smyslov later included in a collection of his best games and that is indeed characteristic of his style. In the early middlegame, Smyslov launched an all-out pawn storm on the kingside, but rather than trying to mate his opponent’s king, he exchanged into a better endgame that he easily converted into a full point.

Smyslov – Rudnev 
All-Union First Category Tournament, Gorky 1938
French Defense [C10]

Smyslov’s opponent in this game, Nikolay Rudnev (1895–1944), had a very unusual chess career. He started playing before the 1917 Soviet Revolution, won multiple championships of his hometown Kharkov and attained the master title for winning “Hauptturnier B” in Manheim 1914, the tournament played on the eve of World War I. After 1917 Rudnev moved (or perhaps was deported) to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He won the Central Asia Tournament in 1927 and became Uzbekistan Champion in 1938.

One might ask why a master was playing in a first category tournament. The answer is that in the 1930s Soviet Union, a master title was not permanent. The most accomplished players were sometimes awarded “Honored Master”, which was for life, but the rest of the masters had to confirm their title by performing at the expected level in tournaments. Rudnev lost his master title in 1935 and became a candidate master by winning a first category tournament in 1939. He died in 1944 during World War II.

This game was published with Smyslov’s own annotations (64, #49/1938).

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Bd3 

Smyslov’s attack in this game could have been inspired by another game that was played two years earlier: 6.Bg5 Be7 7.Bxf6 Nxf6 8.Nxf6+ Bxf6 9.c3 00 10.Bd3 Re8 11.Qc2 h6 12.000 c6? 13.h4 Qc7 14.Rhe1 Bxh4?! 15.Nxh4 Qf4+ 16.Qd2 Qxh4 17.Rh1 Qf6 18.f4 Rd8 19.g4 Rd7? 20.g5i hxg5 21.fxg5 Qd8 22.Qf4 Rd5 23.Rdg1 Bd7 24.g6 f5 25.Rh7 Qf6 26.Qh2 1–0 Dzagurov-Ryman, Moscow-Kiev school match 1936. Smyslov was sitting next to his teammate Dzagurov in that match, so it is not surprising that he is implementing a similar plan in this game.

6...Nxe4 7.Bxe4 Nf6 8.Bg5 Be7 9.Bxf6 Bxf6

In the earliest annotations, Smyslov criticized this natural move and suggested that only 9...gxf6?! was correct, but in later years he conceded that this evaluation was too harsh. At the highest levels, 9...gxf6 had only been played a few times previously: Marshall-A. Rabinovich, Karlsbad 1911 and a Tarrasch-Mieses match game in 1916. The time it occurred on a high level was... in 1995: 10.Qe2 c6 11.00 Qb6 12.c4 Bd7 13.c5 Qc7 14.Rfd1 h5 15.Nd2 Rd8 16.Nc4 Bc8 17.Qe3± and White quickly won – Anand-Vaganian, Riga 1995.

10.c3

In the later games White mostly preferred 10.Qd3!?, preventing Black from castling short and preparing White’s own long castling without c2c3.

10...Qd6 11.Qe2 0–0 12.0–0–0+/= 


Smyslov evaluated this position as better for White, who is better prepared for an attack on the kingside than Black is on the queenside. However, this advantage is temporary in nature. If Black catches up in development, he would not be worse thanks to the bishop pair and good pawn structure.

12...c5

12...Bd7!? is a typical idea for Black in such positions. By sacrificing a pawn Black gets to quickly mobilize his pieces and create unpleasant pressure on queenside: 13.Bxb7 Rab8 14.Be4 Ba4 15.Rd2 c5 =/∞ 

13.Kb1?!

Smyslov is playing rather slowly, allowing Black to catch up in development. 13.dxc5 Qxc5 14.h4!? deserved attention, with the ideas Ng5 or g4g5

13...cxd4 14.Nxd4 Qb6 15.f4?!

15.Nb5!?+/=, preventing development of Bc8.

15...Bd7

Now the position is roughly equal.

16.Qc2 h6 17.Nf3 Bc6 18.Bxc6 Qxc6 19.h4

Threatening Nf3g5.

19...Rfd8 20.Rdf1?!

White continues to play for an attack and thus avoids exchanges. Smyslov thought that Black does not have enough time to create counterplay (his annotations make it clear that he only considered b7–b5–b4 plan) but in fact that was not the case.

20...Qc4?

Black does not find a good way to parry the g2g4g5 threat and thus tries to simplify into an endgame that looks only slightly worse at first glance but turns out to be difficult.

However, he could strive for more with 20...Qb5 21.g4 Rac8⇆, when the best option for White is to seek the simplifications that he just tried to avoid: 22.Qb3 (22.g5? loses to 22...Rxc3−+; 22.Ka1?! Qa5! with the idea of 23.g5 Rxc3! 24.Qb1 Qd5! 25.gxf6 Rxf3) Black can insist on exchanging on his own terms by playing 22...Qd3+!? (it is also possible to play 22...Qxb3 23.axb3 Rd3 24.g5 Bxc3! 25.bxc3 Rcxc3 26.Ne5 Rxb3+ with a perpetual) 23.Qc2 Qe3! 24.Qc1 (24.g5? Bxc3−+) 24...Qxc1+ 25.Kxc1 Rc4 26.g5 Bd4! and it is White who has to fight for a draw.

21.g4 Qd3?!

White’s pawn storm is about to crash through and hence Black’s desire to exchange the queens looks absolutely natural.

In his annotations, Smyslov only considered 21...Qxf4? 22.g5 Be7 23.Nd4! Qe3 24.Rf3 Qe5 25.gxh6.

It was difficult not to panic, as Black’s position looks extremely dangerous. However, with the calm 21...g6! Black could still defend, for example 22.g5 (22.f5 is less scary: 22...exf5 23.gxf5 Qd3 24.fxg6 fxg6 25.h5 g5 26.Nh4 Qxc2+ 27.Kxc2 Bg7 and Black survives) 22...hxg5 23.fxg5 Bg7 24.h5 gxh5 25.g6 f5 and somehow Black is still in the game, although any mistake in such a sharp position would be the final one.

22.g5 Qxc2+ 23.Kxc2 Be7

Smyslov points out a brilliant forced variation: 23...hxg5 24.hxg5 Be7 25.Rh3 Bd6 26.f5! exf5 27.Rfh1 Kf8 28.Nd4 g6 29.Ne6+!, winning an exchange, since 29...fxe6?? leads to mate: 30.Rh8+ Kf7 31.R1h7#.

24.gxh6 gxh6 25.f5!

Damaging Black's pawn structure even further.

25...exf5 26.Nd4± 


As a result of his (partial bluff) attack Smyslov has an endgame with a powerful knight and a better pawn structure. The rest of the game showcases his famous technique in converting this advantage into a full point.

26...Rd6 27.Nxf5 Re6 28.Rhg1+ Kh8 29.Re1 Bc5 30.Rgf1 Rae8 31.Rxe6 Rxe6?!

After this move, the position remains static and the black bishop turns out to be mostly useless. Black had to do something drastic to get rid of the dominating Nf5, so 31...fxe6! was the most tenacious defense, with the following illustrative variation: 32.Nxh6 Kg7 33.Ng4 Rh8 34.Ne5! (34.Rh1?! Rh5! and the h4-pawn is going to fall anyway) 34...Rh5! 35.Re1 Bf2 36.Re2 Bxh4 37.Nf3 Bf6 38.Rxe6 Kf7±  Black is a pawn down but given the limited material he still has some drawing chances.

32.b4 Bb6?!

It was better to play 32...Bf8, covering the d6 and h6-squares, even if it does not change the overall evaluation of the position.

33.Rd1 Rf6 34.Rd5 Bf2 35.h5 b6 36.Kd3 a6 37.c4 Rc6 38.a4 Be1 39.b5

White has achieved complete domination on the light squares.

39...axb5 40.axb5 Re6?

This loses on the spot. 40...Rf6 41.Ke4 Re6+ 42.Re5 Rf6 was more stubborn. White is winning after 43.c5 bxc5 44.Rxc5 Rb6 45.Kd5 Bf2 46.Rc8+ Kh7 47.Nd6 Bg3 48.Rc6!+− but Black could still hope to sacrifice his bishop for both White pawns.

41.Rd6 Rxd6+ 42.Nxd6 Kg7

42...f6 43.c5 bxc5 44.b6 Ba5 45.b7 Bc7 46.Nf5 and White wins by marching his king to c8.

43.c5 Black resigned in view of 43.c5 bxc5 44.b6 Ba5 45.b7 Bc7 46.Ne8+ Kf8 47.Nxc7+−.

In the first eight rounds Smyslov scored seven points, but surprisingly it turned out to be not enough for an outright lead in the tournament table. The special correspondent of 64, N. Viktorov, captured the excitement in his report “Before the finish” (#47/1938):

Undoubtedly, the most tense and interesting struggle takes place in the second group. This group is led by two players who are completely different in style, age and their chess path – Ufimtsev and Smyslov. Their match-up in the ninth round is highly anticipated by everyone. However, regardless of the outcome of this captivating sports duel, no one doubts that both in the young Muscovite and in the original, deep tactician Ufimtsev we have up-and-coming candidate masters.

The face-to-face encounter between the two leaders initially did not go well for Smyslov, but in the middlegame he stabilized the position, then seized the initiative and won.

This win seemed to all but guarantee Smyslov’s victory in the tournament. However, in the very next round he unexpectedly lost to Shakhrai, a player from Tajikistan who finished at the bottom of the crosstable. The final sequence was annotated by grandmaster Lilienthal first in 64 (#49/1938) and later in Shakhmaty v SSSR (#10/1938).

Because of this setback, Smyslov was caught in the standings not only by Ufimtsev, but also by another talented schoolboy from Rostov-on-Don, Mark Stolberg. They had an equal number of points going into the last round and won their last games too, thus sharing 1st/3rd places with 10 points out of 13. As a result, all three winners of this group were promoted to candidate masters.

The November 1938 issue of Shakhmaty v SSSR featured a special article about Smyslov, which was published in the section “Our first category players.” This section had been introduced in May 1938 (previously Shakhmaty v SSSR profiled only the newly minted masters) but for some reason disappeared for the next six months. Smyslov was only the second person to be profiled in this section, but curiously, he was already a candidate master when the article was still being written (it included two games from the tournament in Gorky), and he earned the master title almost at the same time as the issue reached the readers!

It is interesting to read what the author of the article, master Mikhail Yudovich, considered to be Smyslov’s strengths and weaknesses at the time:

Tactical resourcefulness, initiative and purposefulness are the basis of the young candidate master’s chess style. Strategy and playing in equal positions currently remain a weakness in Smyslov’s fighting game, especially when the circumstances on the board do not dictate the solutions. A few games also demonstrate another gap – underestimating the opponent’s chances, and especially the opponent’s combinational aspirations. Vasya’s opening repertoire is diverse and, which is very important, unconventional.

Smyslov is a chess composer and a good one at that. His knowledge of studies and work on chess compositions that are very close to practical play certainly perfected his endgame skills. Many experienced first category players could learn a great deal from Vasya’s skill in converting better endgames.

Yudovich went on to analyze several examples of Smyslov’s play, including not only the games he won, but also two of his losses – against Shakhrai from the first category tournament and against Zanozdra in All-Union School competition.

The article concluded:

[Smyslov] currently has a correct and original understanding of positions, a high quality of play in sharp positions, great tactical ingenuity. His minuses are not organic, but rather a result of a lack of experience playing against strong opponents. They could be overcome if one is aware of them.


1938 Moscow Championship

The very next tournament presented Smyslov with a great opportunity to test himself against stronger opponents. In October 1938, as the issue of Shakhmaty v SSSR with this article went to press, Smyslov started to play in the final of the Moscow Championship. It marked the first time that Smyslov was playing against masters in tournament games rather than in simultaneous exhibitions. In fact, there was even an international grandmaster playing in the Moscow Championship. Andor Lilienthal, who had won a brilliant game against Capablanca in Hastings 1934/35, was residing in Moscow at the time and was invited to participate in the championship.

In the first two rounds Smyslov drew against two masters – Alexander Chistiakov and Sergey Belavenets. In the third round Smyslov played against Lilienthal. An account of this game appeared in a tournament report in 64 (#56/1938):

The beginning of Smyslov’s tenure in the rank of candidate master is marked by strenuous tests – after two masters (Chistiakov and Belavenets) he played grandmaster Lilienthal in the third round. Naturally, the attention of the large audience was focused on this very game. For it was not long ago that the opponents played on slightly different terms – the grandmaster gave a simultaneous exhibition in the Leninsky House of Pioneers and Vasya Smyslov was one of the many participants (that game ended in a convincing victory for Smyslov). However, the tournament game between them also started favorably for Smyslov. It is not the first time that the Soviet chessplayers (Konstantinopolsky, Rauzer, Panov) outplayed Lilienthal in the French Defense. In the game against Smyslov, Lilienthal once again failed to prove that Black can equalize in this opening. Smyslov’s victory was met with applause from the audience.

A grainy photo of Smyslov’s first victory over a grandmaster that appeared in the Soviet chess newspaper 64 (#56/1938)

Three decades later Lilienthal published a “novelized” and wildly embellished account of this encounter in his memoirs Zhizn – shakhmatam (A Life for Chess, Moscow, 1969, pp. 10-11):

I will never forget the last round of this tournament. A tall, slender youth was sitting across the board from me. As they say, history repeats itself – this teenager had played several games against me in simultaneous exhibitions, but I did not recognize him. Several years earlier something similar happened with me and Capablanca. [AT: in the book Lilienthal shared the story of first drawing Capablanca in a simul in Vienna in 1930 before defeating the former World Champion in a Hastings 1934/35 tournament game, and that Capablanca did not recall their first encounter either.] I only had to draw the game to secure the honorable title of Moscow Champion. Nobody doubted that I would achieve this. My fans prepared a huge bouquet of flowers for me. The organizers agreed that I would talk about the course of the event at the closing ceremony.

My opponent decided otherwise. He scored a convincing victory in our game. My triumphant speech never took place and “my” flowers were presented to him instead.

That was Vasily Smyslov.

Incidentally, it seems that with this victory Smyslov also caught the attention of World Champion Alexander Alekhine. Mikhail Botvinnik later recalled in his book Achieving the Aim (Pergamon Press, 1981, p. 71):

As soon as we met in Amsterdam before the [AVRO] tournament, he struck up a conversation about the new star Smyslov (Alekhine had found a mistake in analysis published by Smyslov!)

Comparing the dates of Smyslov’s publication in the Soviet press with the date of this conversation, it seems likely that Alekhine referred to Smyslov’s victory over Lilienthal. The game was published in 64 on October 20, and the issue could have reached Alekhine just before the AVRO tournament, which started on November 6.

After this historic victory, Smyslov went into a bit of a slump. Over the next six rounds he only scored three points, winning two games with White, but losing two games with Black. After nine rounds, Smyslov had five points, which was not a bad result for a young candidate master. However, in the final stretch of the tournament, Smyslov went on a tear, scoring 7½ points out of 8!

Prior to the last round, Belavenets was leading the tournament with 12 points, while Lilienthal and Smyslov had 11½. As fate would have it, all three leaders played Black. Unfortunately, only one of these games survived in its entirety, so we mostly have to rely on the verbal descriptions of the games in the contemporary press to reconstruct the events of the last round.

The article about the Moscow Championship in Shakhmaty v SSSR (#12/1938, p. 539) reported that Belavenets got a cramped position out of the opening versus Chistiakov and was primarily focused on equalizing the game. Looking at the score of this 22-move draw, one could argue that it was Belavenets who stood better out of the opening. Lilienthal obtained a significant advantage versus Yeltsov but could not find a way to convert it and quickly agreed to a draw. This game did not survive.

Smyslov was the only leader who managed to win in the last round. He equalized by going for a sharp variation of the Ruy Lopez that was developed by his coach Abram Rabinovich (the first 12 moves of Slonim-Smyslov were quoted by Dzagurov in the annotations to his own victory over Bonch-Osmolovsky – see 64, #46/1939). The queens were exchanged as early as move 12 and then Smyslov outplayed his opponent. The express report on the last round in 64 (#60/1938) mentions how this crucial game was decided:

[Smyslov] exploited Slonim’s mistake with a fine combination and forced a victory with a temporary piece sacrifice.

As a result, Smyslov caught up with Belavenets and sensationally shared 1st/2nd place in the 1938 Moscow Championship with 12½ points out of 17, a half-point ahead of Lilienthal (12). According to the tournament regulations, the winner or runner-up of the championship was to be awarded the master’s title, and thus Smyslov became the youngest master in the Soviet Union (64 ran the announcement in #60/1938). Smyslov had made the jump from first category to candidate master and then to master in two successive tournaments that were played in a span of only three months.

The newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva (Evening Moscow) published a profile of the new master on November 1, in which Smyslov is repeatedly compared to Botvinnik:

The chess history of the USSR has only known one case of a similarly rapid progression of such a young player. It is the Soviet grandmaster Botvinnik, who became a Champion of Leningrad at the age of 18 and a master at 16...

The style of the new master is both positional and combinational. Smyslov prefers clear and calm positions, in which he demonstrates a rare ability to find hidden tactical elements. At the same time, the young Moscow Champion gladly goes for sharper play and easily figures out complex, tangled positions. Finally, Smyslov’s play is very aggressive. Some masters find it similar to the current style of Botvinnik.

Smyslov has a great “vision” of the chess board. This partially explains why he spends less time thinking about his moves than his opponents. An interesting fact is that in all 17 games of the [Moscow] Championship Smyslov was never in time trouble. In his game versus Baturinsky he spent only one hour for 35 moves, while his opponent used up almost all of his time, 2½ hours.

The Komsomol [Young Communist] member Smyslov is a valuable addition to the ranks of the Soviet masters. There is no doubt that in the next few years Smyslov is going to become one of the strongest masters of the Soviet Union. One should only ensure the necessary conditions for the creative growth of the young, talented master.


* * *

In 1938 Smyslov won practically all the tournaments in which he took part. Many years later, at the end of the 20th century, Smyslov pointed out the importance of this year for his chess career (“Letopis’ shakhmatnogo tvorchestva”, which was later published in English as “Smyslov’s Best Games”):

My chess youth concluded at the same time that I finished high school in 1938. Early in the year I became junior champion of the country and the chief arbiter of the tournament, grandmaster Grigory Levenfish, ceremoniously awarded me my first real prize – an inscribed “Longines” watch, which still, for more than 60 years, continues to count out the time of my chess career. After the junior tournaments came others, now among adults. At the end of the year I shared first place in the Moscow Championship with the master Belavenets and was awarded the master title.

It led to a time of severe tests in meetings with the best players, a time of fascinating battles in interesting and difficult events. 



FM Andrey Terekhov

Andrey Terekhov (@ddtru) grew up in Russia, lived in many countries and currently resides in Singapore. His best results at the board are victories at the Munich Open (2008), Nabokov Memorial in Kiev (2012) and shared 2nd place at the Washington Open (2018). He is the author of the Two Knights Defense course on Chessable. For the past few years Andrey has been writing a book about Vasily Smyslov, with publication planned for November 2020.



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