Interview with Vassily Smyslov
By Arvind Aaron

         Age is no bar for chess. One of the celebrities of the game, Vassily Smyslov, 73, is in Calcutta participating in the 6th Goodricke International Open tournament.

        Smylov became FIDE's seventh world champion in 1957 beating champion Botvinnik in a match. Among the six (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov) presently living champions in chess history, Smyslov is the second oldest, after Botvinnik.

        Smyslov's discipline and calmness has captivated the minds of many. The chief arbiter Shankar Lal Harsh of Bikaner is one of them. "He arrives at the board ten minutes before play, and wishes all the arbiters before occupying his seat", said a highly impressed Harsh.

       He holds the record for being the oldest player to figure in the world championship candidates qualifying rounds. While at 63, he was eliminated by Kasparov, a student of his contemporary, Mikhail Botvinnik.

      This March, he will turn 74, but his ideas at the board as young as he ever was. His opening theory might not be the latest but his middlegame and endgame still has the magic precision which made him world champion 38 years ago.

      After his seventh round game against fellow Russian Konstantin Sakaev, the legendary Vassily Smyslov, the tallest world champion spoke to Arvind Aaron in an exclusive chat. Excerpts from an hour long conversation had with an interpreter.

      Q : (Arvind Aaron) At 73, how do you manage to play chess well. Do you still have any ambitions left?
      A : (Vassily Smyslov) Normally it is thought that a younger player can play better. With my experience and past efforts I am able to play chess sincerely and professionally.

      Q : Do you then prepare at all? You seem to be very strong; especially in the ending against IM Prasad yesterday.

      A : When I was young I took all efforts and did laborious work to be updated in the opening theory. I have studied many games and that of many players from all over the world. As a student I was guided by the theoretician Capablanca who adviced me to be methodical and prepare strongly, the theory part of the game.

      Q : How many hours of chess did you dedicate in your younger days and now?

      A : I dedicated maximum time to theory around the 1960's and it was necessary for every chess player in the Soviet Union to do so.

      Q : You must have written many chess books yourself. Which one would you rate as the best?

      A : I wrote a book on the ending jointly with another author. Now I have released a book with 326 Selected Games. And this covers the most important and interesting matchesin the history of chess played in the time period of 1934 to 1994.

           After returning from a tournament at Paris, once in Moscow I will work on another endgame book. This will also take a lot of my time as I will have to study theory of endings before completing this book.

     Q : Which has been your best chess playing years and whom would you consider your strongest rival of your time?

      A : I think it is the beginning of the fifties until the beginning of the sixties. Without doubt the strongest player of my time was Mikhail Botvinnik.

     Q : The divided chess world with the FIDE and PCA has brought more money into the pockets of the professional of our time. What is your comment?

     A : As a player of the fifties and sixties, I never thought of chess as a source of earning. In our period there was no comparable remuneration for the best players.

     Q : The role of computers in chess preparation is rapidly growing. Do you see the chess playing varieties like Fritz and Chess Genius as a threat to human players?

     A : Like in all the fields, computers are here to help man do things better. It should be a tool to prepare for the present players. In my opinion, computers should assist the chess player and should not be made basically to go against the interest of chess. If the computers are made to play in tournaments, it is dangerous to the development of the game.

          I believe that they could simulate the standardised chess games. As far as creativity is concerned, the computer has not yet developed to reach the level of  eminent chess players.

    Q : Last month, in an interview on Deutsche Welle television, the economist who won the noble prize for his contribution to 'games theory' said, "in a game like chess where the possibilities are finite, the person having the understanding of maximum number of positions usually wins". Do you accept this statement and is chess finite?

   A : I do not wish to disagree with the noble prize winner. But to a human mind, especially that of a chess player of today, chess is not finite. It is such a creative game that it cannot be mechanically predicted where a player will win and where he will lose by set of permutations and combinations.

        So my conclusion is, theoretically there might be a set of possibilities but they are not practicable.

   Q : Most of the thirteen world champions originated from Russia. What is their social status there?

   A : In the Soviet Union, the champions and ex-champions are highly respected but this does not have its analogue in the form of material compensation from the Govt. or any organisation. I work as a chess professional and provide guidance to provide for my living as the pension received from the Govt. is insufficient.

   Q : Whom do you consider as the strongest player now, Kasparov or Karpov?

   A : Since there is an understanding between the two organisations, technically, Garry Kasparov is the world champion. He is the strongest player today. The winner in the Sanghi world chess semi-final series, including Karpov will have to play Kasparov.

  Q : What do you like to say about chess in India, also believed to be the birth place of chess?

  A : Chess activities in India is booming and is taking off in a big way. Chess originated in India and after a long period of sneezing, India woke up to explore the possibility of organising chess. Unfortunately, I am not going to Sanghi Nagar as I have to participate in a tournament in Paris. I also intend to take some rest before returning to Russia.

 Q : What do you think about GM Viswanathan Anand?

  A : Anand is an exceptional talent. When he was a younger chess player I had the privilage to observe his games. His strength as a chess player consist in the fact that he combines logic with intuitiveness well. But whenever he has an advantage over his opponent, I have observed him to be a bit impulsive and then he starts playing very fast which he normally should not be doing. This is his emotional side of his play. He can go far ahead of others if he goes on to combine logic with intuitiveness, minus his impulsiveness. I have no doubt that this will take him to the highest place in the professional level.

 Q : Any predictions for the next Anand-Kamsky match?

  A : It is difficult to predict because Kamsky is a relatively young man. He is a determined player with emphasis on carefully chosen chess theory.

        A chess player can reap good results only after year long efforts. This I have learnt from Botvinnik. Professional chess and a world champion quality demands fanatical devotion without an exception. It was also true in the case of Bobby Fischer. I have the question : How serious is Anand?

  Q : You might probably be knowing that Karpov and Kasparov have paid grandmasters, Epishin and Makarychaev and others to work for them. Their job is to create novelties and update them on the recent theoritical ideas. Valery Salov calls it an unethical practice and gives this as a reason why chess has not become popular and has seen only two world champions in more than the last two decades. What is your comment?

  A : It is true that they have competent assistants. It is the discretion of the players concerned. I do not see anything wrong in them employing assistants.

        I did not have any like that. I worked on my own analysis and this naturally decreases my chances in competitive chess. During my world championship match I was given two seconds and worked with them temporarily for about one month prior to the match.

Extract from Chessmate April 1995

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