Smyslov’s Breakthrough Year

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. 

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.

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

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 0
0
10.Bd3 Re8 11.Qc2 h6 12.0
00
c6? 13.h4 Qc7 14.Rhe1 Bxh4?! 15.Nxh4 Qf4+ 16.Qd2 Qxh4 17.Rh1 Qf6 18.f4 Rd8
19.g4 Rd7? 20.g5
i
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 11.0
0
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.

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. 


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