Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010) In Memoriam

Vasily Smyslov gives me a lesson in intimidation - By Michael Hoffer

At the 1987 New York Open, I was eager to meet Vasily Smyslov, who was World Champion when I was born. Another former World Champion, Boris Spassky, and I had both been patiently waiting for Smyslov to draw a difficult Rook and pawn endgame, which he did. Meanwhile, I held in my hand an original edition of his 1957 classic Theory Rook Endings in Russian. I approached Smyslov, only to be rebuffed by Spassky, telling me, "You don't understand, we are in a hurry to make it to Easter Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral." I replied, "No, you don't understand," and confidently held up the book, thinking Smyslov would be impressed, only for Vasily to swiftly scribble his signature in my book.

Smyslov and I later met in front of Madison Square Garden at the lobby of the historic New York Penta Hotel. This time Vasily was far more affable. When I told him I lived in Florida, he mentioned Arnold Denker, who in 1946, Smyslov drew at Groningen, and beat 2-0 in the famous USSR-USA team match at Moscow on 2nd board.

The next day, Smyslov's congeniality changed drastically at his simultaneous exhibition when I played a complex King's Indian Defense, violently storming Vasily's kingside. Our game was observed by GM Joel Benjamin. The expression on Joel's face told me he felt Smyslov was busted if I executed my crucial pawn break. Suddenly, Smyslov slammed his Knight on b5, screwed it into the board, leered at me, and smirked!

At the time, I did not think a former World Champion would resort to such intimidation tactics, so I reacted to his histrionics by making one defensive move on the queenside, upon which Smyslov's Knights began dancing over my crumbling position. I resigned a few moves later, sadly one tempo away from nirvana. When Benjamin saw us shaking hands, he thought I had won, giving me a thumbs-up. I humbly indicated otherwise.

When I got back home in Florida, I read a terrible translation of Psychology In Chess by Nikolai Krogius, Spassky's second in Iceland appointed for his psychological preparation with Fischer, yet Boris had simply used him as a go-fer. I was stunned to read how Smyslov was renowned in the Soviet Union for the Smyslov Screw! This was a valuable lesson that has served me well throughout my chess career; Play the board, not the man.

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