In the past few years, I wrote a biography of the 7th world champion, Vasily Smyslov. The first volume, focused on the beginning of his chess career, is now available.
I have analyzed hundreds of Smyslovs games and tracked every step of his path from learning chess to becoming world champion. In this article, I will share some lessons from Smyslovs chess career, especially from his early years. How did Smyslov progress so rapidly from an unranked player to a grandmaster in just six years? What were the areas that he focused on? And most importantly, what we can learn from Smyslov that we can apply to our own chess?
Reflecting on what I learned about Smyslovs chess career, I believe that there were five key things that fueled Smyslovs chess growth from novice to grandmaster:
The beginning of Smyslovs chess career was quite unique. He learned chess at the age of six from his father, but for the next eight years, he did not play a single game outside his home. As a result, Smyslov spent his formative years playing with his father, a strong club player, and studying chess books. Smyslov later wrote that his fathers library had more than 100 chess books, and he studied them all, from the old masters (Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen) to the top players of the time (Jose Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, and Aron Nimzowitsch). By the time Smyslov finally started to play in regular tournaments, he already had a solid knowledge of chess classics, and it paid off in his games.
For example, the very first of Smyslovs games to appear in a chess publication has a strong similarity to a famous victory by Akiba Rubinstein:
Compare that with this famous game known as Rubinsteins Immortal:
There is no doubt that Smyslov knew this game, and it helped him to find the key attacking idea of a rook swing from d8 to d3 and then to h3. It is a great example of why it pays to study classical games.
Today, it is hard to imagine a chess player that would have the patience to read a hundred chess books before enrolling into his or her first official tournament, but fortunately, these days there are many other options for catching up on chess classics. The books are still there, but the games are also readily available in chess databases, often with detailed annotations. Classical games are analyzed in online articles, or in countless chess videos. There are chess coaches that you can work with, in person and online.
Whatever you doinvest your time in studying chess classics, and it will create a solid foundation for everything else that you do in chess.
Smyslov is sometimes characterized as a dry positional player, but in fact, he had a keen eye for tactics. Of course, this should come as no surprise, as one cannot become a grandmaster (much less a world champion) without being really good at calculation. Although Smyslov is not exactly known for tactical fireworks or long combinations, he was especially good in short tacticsshort variations, usually hinging on an unexpected move, that would win material or deliver a killing blow.
Mikhail Botvinnik noted this when he was analyzing the style of his opponents before the 1948 World Championship tournament. This is what Botvinnik wrote in his private journal about Smyslov:
Good combinational vision... calculates well and uses tactical tricks while converting an advantage. - Mikhail Botvinnik
This is actually an important point, which can be generalized. Somewhat paradoxically, one of the best ways to improve your tactical chances is by improving your positional play. If you are outplaying your opponent positionally, most often the combinations will follow naturally. And indeed, this is a common scenario in Smyslovs gameshis position slowly got better, and better, until his opponents defenses simply crumbled.
Even in those games that hovered around equality, Smyslovs opponents would often fall into one of the many traps that Smyslov would set along the way. These were never traps for their own sake but rather tactical ornamentations that supported his strategical goals.
The following game is a good case in point:
Smyslovs chess education had another peculiarityit started with endgames. Smyslovs father thought that the best way for a young player to learn what do pieces like and dont like was to learn endgames. Most of us were taught differently, but it is never too late to start studying endgames, or at least to start to appreciate them.
Most beginners instinctively avoid exchanges, especially queen exchanges, as they are not comfortable in endgames. Sometimes, keeping the queens on the board requires some concession and forces one to accept a slightly worse game.
Smyslovs approach was exactly the oppositehe was always ready to exchange the queens, even if the endgame was only a bit better for him. Today, Magnus Carlsen plays in a similar style and has scored many points by outplaying the world-class grandmasters in the endgame. Both of these world champions seem to follow a simple motto: if you are good in the endgames, you can fight for the full point for much longer.
The following example from Smyslovs youth is quite nice:
When the game is not going well for you, knowledge of endgames becomes even more important. Many difficult positions can be saved by simplifying into an endgame that is down a pawn, or even two pawns, but is still within the drawing limits:
From his early days Smyslov had a reputation as a tenacious defender. It appears that he developed this skill out of necessity. Smyslov did not like to study openings, and as a result, he often found himself in bad positions, especially with Black pieces. So what can we learn from Smyslov on defense?
First of all, do not get discouraged. No one likes defending bad positions, but it is important to keep composure and prepare yourself for a long grind. Resist the temptation to lash out with a wild attack or speculative tactics. This is usually a reliable way to lose quickly.
Secondly, dont stay passive if you can avoid it. Look for counterplay and strive to create weaknesses in the enemy camp. If you can grab some material and you do not see a direct refutation, it might give you something to look forward to as you brace yourself for the attack.
Finally, stay on the lookout for the unexpected moves. It is common for the attacking side to focus only on the most obvious defenses, and sometimes it is the strange moves that turn the game around, as in the following two examples:
Smyslov played approximately 3,000 tournament games in his lifetime. Granted, his career spanned almost 70 years, but it is still a lot of chess.
Moreover, Smyslov probably played many more games than survived for posterity. In the first years of his career, Smyslov spent all of his summer months playing chess in the pavilions of Gorky Park, and the rest of the year he played in multiple chess clubsin his own district, at the Stadium of Young Pioneers, at his fathers factory chess section, and so on. Smyslov played blitz, offhand and tournament games, non-stop, almost every day. Unfortunately, the scores of these games perished during the Second World War, when Smyslovs house was hit by a bomb, but it certainly played a huge role in his formation as a player. Smyslov might have learned the foundations of chess from the books, but there is no substitute for practice.
There are many examples in Smyslovs practice where he won several games with the same opening idea or the same plan in the middlegame. I am sure that all of us, even beginners, are familiar with this feeling.
Three years later Smyslov encountered a similar scenario in a game against a much stronger opponent.
Fast forward another three years, and we find another example of the same pawn storm.
In this article, we looked at five things that one can learn from Smyslov. Of course, the 7th world champion had a unique talent, so imitating his chess is easier said than done. However, I am sure that any chess player can learn a lot from studying Smyslovs games and his approach to chess.
If you would like to learn more about Smyslovs chess, check out my book or view my video series on Smyslovs games here on Chess.com!
See the article here:
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