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.”…
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