Although Smyslov only held onto the World Championship title for a year he outscored Mikhail Botvinnik over the course of their three matches and demonstrated a precise positional style that was later developed by Anatoly Karpov. Vladimir Kramnik has described Smyslov as “truth in chess” and recommended his games to children because “he plays the game how it should be played”.
Smyslov was introduced to chess at the age of six by his father, who himself studied under the legendary Russian player Mikhail Chigorin. Smyslov saw Lasker and Capablanca play in the 1935 Moscow tournament and soon became a formidable player himself, winning the 1938 USSR Junior Championship as a 17-year-old. Two years later he finished third in the adult Championship, ahead of Botvinnik.
Smyslov had mixed results during the war and its aftermath, but he finished clear second to Botvinnik in the five-player World Championship of 1948. He was third in the 1950 Candidates tournament behind Boleslavsky and Bronstein, but finished a full two points clear of the field at the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates to earn the right to play Botvinnik. Their 1954 match was one of the most topsy-turvy in World Championship history, with Botvinnik winning three of the first four games, Smyslov taking the lead by game 11, and Botvinnik winning four of the next five games. Ultimately they tied and Botvinnik retained his title, but Smyslov had the appetite to challenge again by winning the 1956 Candidates in Amsterdam. This time he won the title in 1957 by defeating Botvinnik 12.5:9.5. His reign at the top was cut short as he lost the 1958 rematch 12.5:10.5 after Botvinnik started with three wins and never looked in danger.
Although Smyslov never again played a World Championship match he remained a formidable player even in his 60s, playing in the Candidates Final against the young Garry Kasparov in 1984. He was also a talented baritone singer who only finally decided on a career in chess when he failed an audition for the Bolshoi Theatre in 1950.
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