Saturday, October 24, 2009

Zurich 1953: Vasily Smyslov, A night at the Opera with the Winner

Vasily Smylsov was born March 24, 1921 in Moscow and learned to play chess from his father at the age of 6. His father was a good player. That and his father’s library created the foundation of this contender. He was a tenor opera singer. Had it not been for his narrowly failing an audition for the Bolshoi Opera in 1950, he might never had made it to Zurich 1953. He once said, “ I have always lived between chess and music”. He once sang operatic extracts on Swiss radio and during the interval of a serious chess game against Botvinnik he sang to an audience of thousands.

In 1938, at 17, he showed some promise as he won the USSR Junior Championship and tied for 1st and 2nd place in the Moscow city Championship. During WWII, international tournaments were very limited. He placed 3rd in the 1940 USSR Championship ahead of Botvinnik. . He won the 1942 Moscow Championship and finished strong in several other regional events.

Despite hitting a post war slump between the period of 1945 -46 with up and comers like Bronstein, Keres and Botvinnik at his heels, his earlier results earned him a place in the Howard Staunton memorial in August of 1946. He finished in third place. For the next couple of years, his results showed a consistent pattern of high finishes against strong company, but with virtually no tournament championships. Smyslov had never actually won an adult tournament other than the Moscow City Championship, before he played in the 1948 World Championship Tournament.

How did he get to Zurch?

Smyslov was one of the five players selected to compete for the 1948 World Chess Championship tournament to determine who should succeed the late Alexander Alekhine as champion. His selection was questioned in some quarters, but this criticism was amply rebutted when he finished second behind Mikhail Botvinnik, with a score of 11/20.

Finishing second seeded him in the 1950 Budapest Candidates Tournament but finished behind Bronstein and Boleslavsky. FIDE granted him the International Grandmaster title in 1950 on its inaugural list.

The third place finish in 1950 seeded him into the 1953 Candidates match in Zurich. To recap, he was a pretty good player back in a day under local competition, showed that he could fight like the big guns in international play though not quite a first place finish, could make the opera, and was a freshly minted GM in 1950 seeded into both cycles of candidates matches.

Enter Zurich 1953. After his win against Euwe in round 3, he takes an early lead in the match. This game was a pendulum swinging back and forth. Smyslov played the black side of a Grunfeld and forced Euwe into an IQP dynamic. Euwe had a lot of theoretical preparation for the line and moves ahead with marching the d-pawn. Euwe follows up with an exchange sacrifice that gives him a couple of passed pawns, one being very advanced. Smyslov finds the move that underscores the very weakness of the advanced pawn on d6. In a resourceful maneuver, Euwe attempts a decoy to draw the rook away. Finally, Smyslov accurate play leaves Euwe with a slight inaccuracy that allows Black to come hammering down on the material. He defeats Euwe in both occurrences in this match ( again in round 18). This was the confidence builder he needed. In contrast to the Howard Staunton Memorial where he finished behind the former World Champion, this was the boost he needed.

By round 8, the American was taking the lead. The expectation in round 10 was to see a huge battle. Instead, both players were more into reconnaissance of the other players and saving their major battle for the second have. Indeed, by round 25, Smyslov was leading by ½ a point. Reshevsky needed the win. Smyslov had White and opens with the Reti, which REshevsky had a prepared line that pitched his knights against the Bishop pair. The middle game was a heated dance with neither side conceding to a draw. Then , on move 33, Smyslov plays Rc2 because it prepares a battery on the long diagonal and opens the position up in favor of White.

Prior to this round, Smyslov faces off with Keres in round 24. Keres, with white, launches a strong rook attack on Smyslov’s king side. Had he made a couple more supportive moves ( blocking the Balck King’s escape) he might have actually gotten the point. Smyslov sees through Keres’ rook sacrifice and passes on it to play a more accurate move that opens up the diagonal, the d-file, and strong points in the center. In the first half of the tournament, in round 9, Smyslov put Keres under cross fire in an inferior QGD.

His victory in Rounds 24 and 25 cinched the victory as he entered round 26 a full pont nad a half ahead of Reshevsky. By round 27 he maintains a 2 point lead only to shrink ny ½ point in one round by Bronstein in round 28. On October 23, 1953, he finished round 30 with 18 points in a clear 2 points ahead of Bronstein, Keres and Reshevsky.


Following the Candidates match, he faced Botvinnik. After 24 games ending in a drawn match, Botvinnik retained his title. The next interzonal cycle had him seeded once again for the 1956 Candidates Match in Amsterdam. He won that match again with another shot at the World Champion. Assisted by trainers Vladimir Makogonov and Vladimir Simagin, Smyslov won by the score 12.5-9.5. The following year, Botvinnik exercised his right to a rematch, and won the title back with a final score of 12.5-10.5. Smyslov later said his health suffered during the return match, as he came down with pneumonia, but he also acknowledged that Botvinnik had prepared very thoroughly.[2]Over the course of the three World Championship matches, Smyslov had won 18 games to Botvinnik's 17 (with 34 draws), and yet he was only champion for a year.

Smyslov continued to play in other World Championship Qualifiers though he never ended up qualifying for another World Championship. Even at the age of 62, he played in the Candidates Final in 1982. He lost to Gary Kasparov who went on to defeat Karpov, the World Champion at that time.

End notes:
This concludes my biographical study on this historic series on the Zurich 1953 Candidates match. Right now I will park the Delorean and tune her up for my next journey. The time machine is being calibrated for the late 1970’s. Stay tuned to see where I land next.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Zurich 1953: David Bronstein, Attack with Defense

David Ionovich Bronstein was born on February 19, 1924 in Bila Tserkva (near Kiev) in Ukraine. He learned to play chess at the age of six from his grandfather. He was trained by an International Master, Alexander Konstantinopolsky as a youth. At age 15, he came in second place at the Kiev championship. He earned a Master’s title at age 16.

Upon graduating high school, WWII broke out and interrupted his plans to study Mathematics at Kiev University. After the war, he attended Leningrad Polytechnical Institute for one year. Chess took precedent over his studies. In 1944, he defeated the Soviet Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik at the USSR Championship. This launched him into playing on the Soviet team during the famous 1945 USSR versus USA Radio Chess Match.

It was during the 1948 interzonals in Saltsjobaden where he won the tournament that earned him a grandmaster title. The win earned him a spot in the 1950’s Candidates match in Budapest. His best friend, Boleslavsky and David both won the match and had to endure a play off. He beat Boleslavsky and went on to contest Botvinnik for the Championship. The Moscow World Championship Match in 1951 ended in a draw ( 12-12) and Botvinnik retained the title. He came real close to taking the title leading by a full point by game 22. Speculation about Bronstein being forced to lose the match was rumored. He was quoted as saying ( in his book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice:
"I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not."
And a little further in the book:
“I had reasons not to become the World Champion, as in those times such a title
meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many
formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character.”
In any case, his results in 1951 entitled him as a seed into the candidates match here in Zurich 1953.

I’ll cut to the chase. In the previous post I mentioned about the conspiracies lurking at Zurich. In round 12 , we have Paul Keres as Black against Bronstein. Move 5 is suspect as well as further along when Keres willingly exchanges his strong king side defender, the dark squared bishop, and pretty much hands Bronstein the game. The comment Bronstein makes on this move is “ a little too straightforward, an opinion Black soon comes to share himself.”, is a little revealing in a subtle way.

It is move 14..Bd4+ which forces the exchange and allows White to dominate the king side that I find most suspect. Bronstein’s previous quote about chess bureaucracy may have resonated with Keres here. By round 12, the fix was in for either Bronstein or Smyslov to take down the American, Reshevsky.

Going into round 13, Reshevsky was undefeated and in the lead a full point and a ½. Bronstein was under extreme pressure to WIN. Bronstein plays the King’s Indian as black, a strong defense and very well theorized by the author. It starts down a common KID with lots of maneuvering. Reshevsky tries to cash in on an initiative in the center preparing an exchange sacrifice with a mating combination. Instead, Bronstein exchanges off the strongest attacker, the knight. After the dust settles, Reshevsky offers a draw but Bronstein brings it home with a very sharp and instructional Queen versus opposite bishops endgame. At a tense moment, both sides were avoiding queen exchanges due to mutual annihilation. It ends with White being Zugzwanged. This win closed the gap to only ½ point difference between Reshevsky and him.

They meet again in round 28. By this time, Smyslov was in clear first place with 16 points and Reshevsky and Bronstein were even with 14 ½ points. The heat was still on. They go into a main line Ruy Lopez 18 moves before Bronstein takes the first detour. He plays 18 g3 to prevent Black from landing on f3 with a knight. The middle game then struggled around White preventing black from landing his knight on d3 while trying to land his own on d5. Reshevsky offered draws on several occasions as time pressure loomed. Bronstein plays a trap against the American under time pressure and it works. Black was forced to give up the exchange ( rook) or face being mated.

These three games were the highlight of the drama and tensions felt at the Zurich event. I’d like to point out one of the other nice wins that has some technical merit. His first round win against Taimanov was a nice Benoni with a queen side attack with Bronstein playing a pawn sacrifice in the opening. The b5 line undermined White’s d5 advance and opened the a- and b-files for a marauding raid on the queenside.


The concession of placing second was to write the epic tournament book that is still instructional today. He qualified for the 1955 Goteborg Interzonals and landed a another near miss at the Candidates match in 1956 Amsterdam where he tied for third through seventh place behind runner up Keres and winner Smyslov. He had to Qualify for the 1958 Interzonal in Portoroz but didn’t make it to the candidates match in 1959 by ½ point. He missed the next round of zonal qualifiers in 1962 as well.

Bronstein was also a six times winner of the Moscow Championships, and represented the USSR at the Olympiads of 1952, 1954, 1956 and 1958, winning board prizes at each of them, and losing just one of his 49 games in those events. Along the way he won four Olympiad team gold medals. In the 1954 team match against the USA (held in New York), Bronstein scored an almost unheard-of sweep at this level of play, winning all four of his games on second board.

He had successes in other international events like Hastings 1953-54, Belgrade 1954, Gotha 1957, Moscow 1959, Szombathely 1966, East Berlin 1968, Dnepropetrovsk 1970, Sarajevo 1971, Sandomierz 1976, Iwonicz Zdrój 1976, Budapest 1977, and Jūrmala 1978.

His greatest legacy in my opinion was in his books. Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 reached the largest circulation and he continued to write until his 70’s with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice being an autobiographical section along with games that amplify the ideas behind the player’s moves. His work gives insight to a romantic vision of chess.

His contributions to several openings extends this legacy with special regards to his work on the king’s Indian defense.

Bronstein was a chess visionary. He was an early advocate of speeding up competitive chess, and introduced a digital chess clock which adds a small time increment for each move made, a variant of which has become very popular in recent years. ICC wouldn’t have some of the time limits today had it not been for this genius.

He was married three times. His first wife was Olga Ignatieva, a Soviet woman International Master, and they had one son. Little is know about his second wife Marina Viktorovna. He was divorced in the mid 1960’s. Then, in 1984, he married Tatiana Boleslavsky, the daughter of best friend GM Isaac Boleslavsky.

His health was in decline in his last couple of years, suffering from high blood pressure. He died on December 5, 2006 in Minsk, in the arms of his wife Tatiana.

“I still wonder why people in general have respect only for world champions and not for all chess players,” he wrote. “Is it not clear that we all play the same game of chess?”

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Zurich 1953: Possible Conspiracies and Controversies.

In my previous post on Paul Keres, I made a reference to some controversy about game fixing at the Zurich 1953. A couple of readers posted comments and links to articles that seemed to substantiate more behind the scenes activities around this. I felt remiss in not elaborating early. This was in part by my attempt to keeping the perspective to just the games and the brief biographies of the players. This didn’t provide the correct vantage point. It is like peering through a key hole to watch a parade. I thought I’d use this post to climb up on top of the rook and attempt to provide some perspective on the topic of Soviet domination in chess, the Cold War, and the KGB, from still a limited perspective.

Background: the rise of Soviet Dominance in Chess ( 1920’s through late 1940’s)

First, I’d like to point to an article that appeared recently in the Slate: . Christopher Beam’s article, titled, Red Squares, Why are the Russians so good at chess? Postulates that since the Bolshevik revolution, it became a national pastime that was subsidized. Vladimir Lenin’s supreme commander of the Soviet Army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state sponsored chess. This opened the doors to chess schools and state run tournaments. It was promoted as a vehicle for international dominance. Alekhine was the first Russian to win a world championship.

At this time, FIDE used a complicated “London Rule” to determine the Champion ( per request of Capablanca). That being: the first player to win 6 games would win the match and the former champion would have a year to defend his title. In addition to this, the challenger had to raise $10,000 for prize money. The Soviet union refused to join FIDE mainly because of the financial requirements for the world championship matches. Had it not been for an Argentina businessman backing Alekhine, the match would never havee occurred. But in 1927, Alexander did manage to defend Jose Capablanca for the title and changes were being put in place on the conditions for future challengers.

Without getting into too much further mud with the FIDE’s changing landscape over the debate of determining challengers either by commission or the Dutch proposal, I’d rather focus on what the soviets were proposing. The Dutch solution, the AVRO 1938 tournament, brought together the best players in the world. Paul Keres won this on a tie break against the American, Reubin Fine. Mikhail Botvinik came in third. Botvinik challenged Alekhine for the World championship immediately following the 1938 tournament. Keres also challenged the world champion and both had the $10,000 prize fund. The problem was World War II broke out. Estonia was in a tug of war with German-Nazi occupation for a period and then back the USSR by the end of the war. Negotiations with Botvinik were sustained but Keres was prevented by the Soviets on the grounds that he had collaborated with the Germans during their occupation of Estonia. ( he played in a tournament while under German occupation). Ultimately, Capablanca’s challenge to the title was accepted and the rival’s were to play in Buenos- Aires in 1940. They never got a chance to play the match due to travel restrictions during WWII.

As for Keres, keep in mind the severity of the Stalinism and ideologies of the Cold War. In WWII, Red Army soldiers, if captured by the Germans and later freed, would often be shot by their own army on grounds of ideological contamination. Now, Keres was neither a soldier or a defector. Playing in Nazi-organized tournaments while Estonia was under German occupation and later suspected him of assisting anti-Soviet Estonian Patriots definitely clouded Paul’s ability to challenge the World title. By virtue of AVRO 1938, he had the right to challenge Alekhine for the World title. With Estonia now back under USSR control, Keres had to stand aside while his country man, Botvinnik, challenged the World Champion ( despite placing third in AVRO).

FIDE’s decision to allow the match with Capablanca (though they never played) did not bode well with a country who’s national pastime was sense of pride. Following the War and shortly after, Alekhine’s death, a interregnum made the normal procedure of challenger versus contender impossible. Problems with money and travel checkered FIDE’s decisions on how to proceed. The Soviet Union realized it could not afford to be left out of the discussions about the vacant world championship, and in 1947 sent a telegram apologizing for the absence of Soviet representatives and requesting that the USSR be represented in future FIDE Committees.

The people’s hero: Mikhail Botvinnik:

As the USSR joined the discussion, Mikhail Botvinik put a proposal based on the 1938 AVRO tournament with the omissions of the late Alekhine and Capablanca dignitaries. The proposal ended up defining the three year cycle which the challengers to the World Champion would be selected. The 1948 world championship match ended up being a five player quintuple round robin event with the following players: Max Euwe (from Holland); Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres and Salo Flohr (from the Soviet Union); and Reuben Fine and Samuel Reshevsky (from the United States). But FIDE soon accepted a Soviet request to substitute Vasily Smyslov for Flohr, and Fine dropped out in order to continue his degree studies in psychiatry. Botvinik won the title in 1948, and kicked off an era of Soviet domination.

Taylor Kingston is a historian who has several articles with Chess Café. His article: The Keres-Botvinnik Case Revisted: A further Survey of the Evidence points to the +4 -1 score against Keres, his best opponent and previous winner at AVRO, to be suspect of falling prey to the oppressive Stalin regime. Botvinnik was becoming an acceptable icon of Soviet Culture.

Though he agrees that no real smoking gun came from the KGB files follwoign the fall of the USSR, looking at the games really was inconclusive due to mixed results from several strong players ( Hans Ree, Jan Timman, Larry Evans, John Watson and John Nunn). Taylor points more in the direction of the politics in the day. To allow Keres to win the 1948 championship is “comparable to a Mormon becoming Pope” and may hold the key to the evidence of coercion. He cites that the Soviets may have motive and opportunity, ultimately lack of proof makes this argument more speculative.

The article references a few other historians. One by Valter Heuer, who was a friend of Keres examines Keres’ WWII postwar situation through 1948. Though Keres had to sustain many hardships and distractions, they were not construed as deliberate Soviet Policy to help Botvinnik. Another was Ken Whyld who know Keres basically claims that he was not ordered to lose the games but the emphasis was on that if Botvinnik failed, it was not Keres’ fault.

In an interview with Botvinnik, he comes out and says that the orders for Smyslov and Keres to lose came directly from Stalin himself during the second half of the match. Botvinnik then went on to state that he found the proposal insulting and refused.

To recap thus far: FIDE’s World Championship title was up in the air following the death of Alekhine in 1946. Having boycotted FIDE under principles of the London Rules not a true invitation for true challengers unless they were backed by beneficiaries, decides to chime in on how the championship should be won and has their architect win it!

Bronstein and Boleslavsky duke it out in the next cycle to challenge Botvinik. Bronstein draws the match against Botvinnik. Because drawn matches go to the defender, Botvinnik retains the title.

What really went down in Zurich 1953?

With 5 years into the Soviet architected FIDE championship cycle matches, we arrive at Zurich. This was also the same year that Stalin had died and the arrest and execution of Lavrenti Beria and others connected to the KGB. Bronstein’s second was not allowed to travel to Switzerland because he was an officer in the secret police. So the atmosphere was politically charged.

With the Cold War also in full swing, 9 soviets were represented in the Candidates match out of a field of 15 to insure the World Championship title be held by the USSR. By round 11, Reshevsky, the American, was leading the tournament. In the book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bronstein claims he was under pressure by heads of the USSR delegation and ordered him to win. Reshevsky was not to be allowed to advance . In my next post I will comment on this 13th round game that became a positional masterpiece.

The second half of the tournament Smyslov was leading by one point over Bronstein and Reshevsky. Keres was catching up. The Soviet’s delegates ordered physicals for Keres, Bronstein and Smyslov at this point and concluded that Smyslov was weakened and wouldn’t make it to round 30. In short, a lot of draws were seen in the middle rounds so that by round 22 Reshevsky and Smyslov were tied with 13 ½ points followed by Bronstein with 12 ½ and Keres with 12.

Reshevsky lost to Kotov in Round 23. This was gave the Soviets a slight break since Smyslov had a bye that day. It allowed Bronstein and Keres to move up to 13 points. Round 24, Keres had white against Smyslov. In the Tournament book, Bronstein only makes the comment that Keres was motivated by “psychological circumstances” in taking a risky Kingside attack.

Later, Bronstein in a 64 article, describes the struggle the Keres was under. Before the round, the KGB tried to convince him to make a draw with White against Smyslov so that he could use his strength against reshevsky in round 25. Keres lost ( game will be highlighted in a later post on Smyslov).

In round 24 Bronstein was also approached by the delegates and was told that Geller was asked to throw his game against Bronstein to insure his standings. Bronstein tried to protest but decided to play for a draw instead. Bronstein ended up losing to Geller.
The KGB thought it was Geller’s strong will to defy them and suggested to Bronstein to make a quick draw with Smyslov even having a conversation with him prior to the game.

A lot of this is one person’s word over most probable speculations. With out definitive proof, it's hard to reveal this without a shadow of doubt. It definitely adds to the color of the games played in Zurich 1953.