Vasily Smyslov tijdens een Sovjet schaak toernooi, 1973. Fotograaf: Fred Grinberg/RIA Novosti

Bron: The guardian.

Vasily Smyslov, who has died aged 89, was world chess champion for a year in 1957-58 and among the game's best players for more than two decades. At his peak, Smyslov was renowned for his strategic and end- game play, and more recently he set new achievement records for a grandmaster in old age, reaching the world title semi-finals at 63 and maintaining his strength into his 70s. Yet chess was only his second career option, after he failed to become a singer with the Bolshoi Theatre.

Smyslov was born in Moscow. He learned chess at six from his father, a player of master strength who once won a game from the future world champion Alexander Alekhine. The 14-year-old Smyslov was inspired to take up the game in earnest after watching the Moscow international tournament in 1935. His progress was rapid. He won the Moscow title in 1938, placed third in the 1940 USSR championship, and, most significantly, came third again in the 1941 Soviet "absolute championship", behind only Mikhail Botvinnik and Paul Keres, who at that time were probably the two best players in the world.

Smyslov was excused military service due to poor eyesight, and used the war years to hone his game. He came second to Botvinnik in the 1944 USSR championship, yet still lacked international recognition. The US was the dominant chess power throughout the 1930s, with four successive gold medals between 1931 and 1937 in the biennial team Olympiads. So when the US and USSR met in a 10-board radio match in 1945, the Americans were favourites.

In the event, the Soviet team won 15.5-4.5, a score that included Smyslov's 2-0 victory over the four-time US champion Samuel Reshevsky. The mature style of the young Russian's wins made a big impression, especially the first game where the American was bemused by a prepared opening. After 23 moves the respective clock times read Reshevsky, one hour; Smyslov, three minutes.

Third place behind Botvinnik at Groningen 1946 confirmed Smyslov's position among the elite. That year Alekhine died, leaving a vacant title, and in 1948 a five-player match tournament decided his successor. Smyslov finished runner-up to Botvinnik. He was a decade younger than his rival, and the result established him as the new champion's heir apparent. By now he had perfected an intuitive, strategic style, which relied much more on a finely tuned sense of optimum squares for his pieces than on specific calculation of variations. His opening repertoire favoured long-term plans rather than theoretical debates, exemplified by his quiet 2 Nc3 against the fashionable Sicilian 1 e4 c5 and the several in-depth defensive systems he developed against the Ruy Lopez 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5. He liked the English 1 c4 as a route to simple, clear positions and to the endgames where he had no peers.

At the board Smyslov usually sat immobile, clenched hands to his cheeks. Tall and auburn-haired, he would pace the arena with a leisurely, almost stately mien. He had an individual technique, too, when moving a piece, grasping it midway down its stem rather than near the top as most players do, then placing it on its new square with a slight screwing action. The overall effect was of controlled, assured power.

In 1950 Smyslov, who had a fine baritone voice, was among several hundred singers who entered a national contest for a position at the Bolshoi, failing only at the final shortlist stage. Singing remained one of his great interests and he sometimes gave recitals during chess tournaments, often accompanied by Mark Taimanov, a fellow grandmaster.

Smyslov v Botvinnik, USSR championship, Moscow 1955. Smyslov beat his great rival in brilliant style by 1 Rd8+! Re8 If Rxd8 2 Qxa4 or Kg7 2 Qf3. 2 Qf3! Qc4 If Rxd8 3 Qf7+ and 4 Qxh7 mate, 3 Rd7! Resigns. If Rf8 4 Rxc7! Qxc7 5 Qxf8+! Rxf8 6 Rxf8+ Kxf8 7 Ne6+ and Nxc7 with an easy endgame win.

His bid for the Bolshoi helps explain why he finished only third in the 1950 Budapest Candidates tournament, but he made up for it three years later when winning the Zurich 1953 Candidates, one of the strongest tournaments of all time. From 1953 to 1958 he was in his prime, and fully the equal of Botvinnik; yet the older man held the world title for a total 13 years, as against just one year for Smyslov. The answer lay in Botvinnik's superiority in match play, in preparation, and in using the small print of championship regulations to his advantage.

Botvinnik took an early lead in their 1954 series, exploiting weaknesses in his challenger's openings. Though Smyslov levelled, Botvinnik regained a narrow advantage and kept enough in hand to draw the match 12-12 and retain his title for another three years. Smyslov then won the 1956 Candidates in Amsterdam, and this time came better prepared for the championship. His strategic and endgame skills proved much superior and he won 12.5-9.5 with two games to spare. It was very different in the 1958 mandatory return match, which Smyslov began not fully recovered from a bout of influenza. Botvinnik unleashed the Caro-Kann 1 e4 c6 as an opening surprise, took a 3-0 lead and, though he tired near the finish, regained the title 12.5-10.5. They called Smyslov "the winter king" and his brief tenure seemed to diminish his motivation.

He was still favourite for the next Candidates in Yugoslavia in 1959, where his chief rival was the dazzling new talent Mikhail Tal. Tal specialised in the calculation of complex tactics, the complete antithesis to Smyslov's mastery of positional nuances. Before they met in the first round, Smyslov declared he would punish Tal's unsound style, but it was the younger man who triumphed. Soviet officials, who preferred a Russian to the Latvian Tal as candidate, were then scandalised when the normally staid Smyslov whose wife, Nadezhda Andreevna, had stayed at home in Moscow, started a public relationship with a Yugoslav woman grandmaster that affected his play.

His failure in Yugoslavia seemed to mark the end of Smyslov's career as a serious world-championship contender, but he continued to enjoy high-level success and the creative satisfaction of his artistic games. He won eight successive tournaments in the mid-1960s, with victories ranging from Havana to Hastings and Monte Carlo to Moscow.

Then, to everyone's surprise, he qualified as a candidate again at the age of 62 in 1983, and was paired in his quarter-final with the West German No 1 Robert Hübner. After extra time and a 7-7 scoreline, the organisers decreed that the match should be settled by the roulette wheel in the Austrian casino hosting the match. Smyslov flew back to Moscow without waiting for the denouement, but the wheel stopped at his colour, red, and he advanced. He beat Hungary's Zoltan Ribli in fine style in the semi-final before losing, despite a tough resistance, to the rising star Garry Kasparov in the final.

Smyslov continued to perform at a high level well into his 70s. Nobody of his age had ever maintained grandmaster strength, though later another durable ex-Soviet, Viktor Korchnoi, achieved similar results. In 1991 Smyslov won the inaugural World Senior (over 60) championship, and he had several impressive scores in the annual Veterans v Ladies match. By now his eyesight was deteriorating badly, so that he was virtually calculating without sight of the board.

He could still fight his corner, as when David Bronstein, who had tied for second at Zurich 1953, claimed that Soviet officials had pressured himself and other Russians to arrange results to ensure that Smyslov finished ahead of the American Reshevsky. Smyslov denied any knowledge of pre-game arrangements at Zurich, and countered that Bronstein's own success in the 1950 candidates was deliberately staged when he was a point behind the leader with two rounds left and allowed to catch up.

The title of Smyslov's 1979 autobiography V Poiskakh Harmonii (In Search of Harmony) referred both to his abortive musical career and to his belief that smooth interplay of the pieces was the key to practical success. Grandmasters respected his achievements as an icon of the golden age of Soviet chess and he was often invited as an honorary guest to tournaments.

Smyslov and his wife of more than half a century spent their final few years in near-poverty as his heart ailment deteriorated. Nadezhda survives him.

• Vasily Vasiliyevich Smyslov, chess grandmaster, born 24 March 1921; died 26 March 2010

• This article was amended on 29 March 2010. The original omitted to mention that Smyslov was survived by his wife.

Laatst aangepast (dinsdag, 30 maart 2010 09:51)