Sunday, 28 March 2010

The accidental world chess champion

Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov was a fine baritone singer who once attended an audition with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1950. Unfortunately for him, he was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the appeal of music remained very strong in him and on many occasions he gave stirring recitals to appreciative private audiences in the old Soviet Union and perhaps outside the country too. Sometimes, he would be accompanied by concert pianist Mark Taimanov.

I first met this great man briefly in 1982. That was in Lucerne, Switzerland. The second and last time that I bumped into him was eight years later, in 1990, at the VIP Lounge of the Subang international airport. On both occasions, I found him to be a very polite gentleman who always had time for his admirers.

Vasily Smyslov, born on 24 Mar 1921, was 89 years old when he died of heart failure yesterday in a Moscow hospital. He could have had a professional career in music but he achieved great success elsewhere.

Did I mention that officially, he was the seventh world chess champion? Yes, he certainly was. He took part in the final of three world chess championship matches in 1954, 1957 and 1958 and on all three occasions, he played with Mikhail Botvinnik. The 1954 match was drawn at 12-all but in 1957, he beat Botvinnik 12½-9½ to claim the title. There was a rematch the following year which Smylov lost 10½-12½ and allowed Botinnik to reclaim it.

Since then, he had never ascended such great heights again. He still took part in the Candidates world championship cycles but never again did he qualify for the right to meet the reigning world champions of the day.

In 1983, at a ripe age of 62, he surprised the chess world by advancing to the final of the Candidates cycle in which he met a young, rising chess star by the name of Gary Kasparov. The dynamism and aggressiveness of the younger player put paid to any more of Smyslov's hopes and he went out of the cycle with a 4½-8½ defeat. As we all know, Kasparov went on to become great chess rivals with Anatoly Karpov for many, many years.

In his final years, Smyslov won the inaugural Senior World Chess Championship in 1991. His last tournament was at the Klompendans Veterans versus Ladies tournament in Amsterdam in 2001. He never played competitively again. His last published Fide rating was 2494.

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