A Gift from God

One of my most cherished chess books is a Russian book by the seventh world champion Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov (1921-2010), the title of which is, in translation: Chronicle of Chess Creativity. A massive tome of almost 800 pages with 324 analysed games. I bought it in Moscow in 2002 during the first Aeroflot Open for a bargain price and saw after I had bought it that it contained a signature of Smyslov as a bonus.

 If you sometimes have problems in real life, games by Smyslov can give tranquillity to the mind, because you think: yes, so simple and clear is truth. As Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe would play over a Capablanca game to clear his mind after a hard case. Many people have it with Bach.

 Boris Spassky called Smyslov “The Hand” because that hand intuitively put the pieces on the right squares. Smyslov himself called this a gift from God.

 I know this from a new book by Genna Sosonko, Smyslov on the Couch. In recent years, Sosonko has published three beautiful books about great chess players from the Soviet Union whom he knew very well. First David Bronstein, then Viktor Kortchnoi and now Vasily Smislov.

 Smyslov on the Couch, that’s the name of the book because it mainly consists of what he told over the course of decades in conversations with Genna. Doctor Gennady Borisovich listens patiently and sometimes gives a short explanation. Smyslov emerges as an amiable person whose kindness was based on enormous self-confidence. More than Bronstein and Kortchnoi, he shows a great interest in all kinds of things that did not directly affect him.

 He often believed in strange things. UFO’s, table tipping, Nostradamus, a Philippine miracle surgeon and the spirit of Caruso who had spoken to him to give advice for his singing. According to Sosonko these were passing whims, but Smyslov’s faith in God was permanent.

 “What did God do before he created the world?” asked the rationalist Genna Sosonko. “Then he was busy designing hell for people who ask such questions,” Smyslov said. A good answer, I think.

 I was flattered to read that Smyslov spent time pondering about a game against me that we had played at the Donner Memorial in 1994 and which had ended in a draw. “I keep thinking about how I was up a pawn against Ree today. I must have missed a win somewhere,” he said to Sosonko. And later he came back to it. “I can’t stop thinking about today’s game against Ree. Wasn’t there a win somewhere? There must have been. Do you have a chess set at home?”

 Of course after reading this I had a second look at that game, this time with the assistance of Stockfish 10. Had there been a win for Smyslov? Maybe, but not easy and never clear.

 I was moved by Sosonko’s description of the life of Smyslov and his wife in his final years. He was almost blind. Around 2000, when he was still playing tournaments, he could still see the vague outlines of the pieces on the board, but not the time on the clock, so he had to act on a feeling of how much time he had used, obviously needing quite a big margin to avoid overstepping the time limit.

 He was in love with his cat, often indulgently saying about her behavior: “That’s what women are.” It was an expression he used often. Then the cat turned out to be male after all.

 I will not say that there were no swindlers and thieves in the new capitalist Russia, but his fear of thieves became obsessive, even to the point that he considered emigration to European countries that he considered to be safer. Genna Sosonko describes him as one of the impoverished millionaires, not uncommon among people of old age. He writes: “You didn’t have to be a financial whiz to realize that their apartment in central Moscow, garage and dacha with its sizable land plot in Razdory were worth a few million dollars, but they were too haunted by thoughts that they would be cheated, deceived or even killed to take any steps to improve their financial situation. So, they didn’t have the cash to cover their daily expenses, especially during their last few years when they truly needed help.”

 Yes, old age is a cruel punishment for almost everyone. But all in all, it seems that Smyslov skillfully managed to live a decent, harmonious and prosperous life in a vexing period of Russian history.

 There is only one game printed in Sosonko’s book. He quotes Smyslov: “What do you think? What game do I cherish the most? You’ll probably say some game against Botvinnik, Keres or Reshevsky. You’re way off! It was against Gerasimov! I was fourteen and this was the first game of mine to be published.”

 The second game in the viewer is from the candidates semi-final in 1983, when Smyslov, in the Indian Summer of his chess career convincingly beat the Hungarian Zoltan Ribli. Only in the final would he be eliminated by Garry Kasparov, a force that had become unstoppable by that time.

 Click here to view the Smyslov games.