By Donny Gray
Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov (March 24, 1921 – March 27, 2010) was a Russian chess grandmaster, and was World Chess Champion from 1957 to 1958. He was a candidate for the World Chess Championship on eight occasions (1948, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1959, 1965, 1983, and 1985). Smyslov twice tied for first at the Soviet Championship (1949, 1955), and his total of 17 Chess Olympiad medals won is an all-time record. In five European Team Championships, Smyslov won ten gold medals.
Smyslov was well known for being an expert in the ending. Many times when I review his games, I am amazed at many of his ending ideas, ideas that I doubt I would ever think about, much less do in a tournament game.
Here are three things Smyslov himself stressed about rook endings:
1. A strong player must be familiar with the theory of rook endings; he must know the typical positions and be able to play them.
2. The main practical recommendation is that the rook should be active. Following this golden rule, it is sometimes advantageous to sacrifice a pawn or even two, to achieve the maximum coordination of king and rook.
3. In rook endings the king is an extremely active piece. Without its participation virtually no problem can be solved.
With his credentials, it is a very good idea to listen to him on this subject!!
Let’s take a look at one of his games that went into a rook ending and see him in action. We will pick up the game after black’s 37th move. The game in full will be shown at the end of this article. One thing to remember is this game was played in 1939. WAY before computers and super chess programs. By using Komodo, the super chess program, I will see if Smyslov missed any quicker wins or if Konstantinopolsky missed any way to draw the game.
White: Smyslov, Vassily
Black: Konstantinopolsky, Alexander
Leningrad/Moscow Training Tournament, 1939
Before we start, let’s take a look at the position after black’s 37th move:
- The material is equal.
- White’s king is dominating the center which is important in almost every ending.
- Black’s king is pushed back and is passive.
- White has more pawns on the queenside with the c pawn passed.
- Black has more pawns on the kingside, but they are so far from queening to be of any use at the moment.
- White’s rook is very active, controls the only open file, and can go just about anywhere it wants.
- Black’s rook is passive and is in defensive mode.
Clearly white has an advantage here, but how to continue? Rook endings are notorious for being hard to win.
Very good! White places his rook so that, not only does it put pressure on the b pawn, but it also has the threat of beginning an attack on the black kingside pawns.
Black is trying to prepare for the enemy rook’s attack on the kingside. Other tries certainly do not work. Example 38.Re4 Ra5 39.Rb4 Ra2 40.Kd6 Ra1 41.Re4 Rd1+ 42.Kc5 and black has problems he can never solve
Winning, but according to Komodo, 39.Rf4 is even better. Example: 39.Rf4 f5 40.g4 fg 41.Rf7+ Ke8 42.Rh7 h5 43.Kd6
f5 40.Rf4 h5 41.Rd4 Kc7 42.b3 Rb8 43.Kc4 Re8 44.Rd6
Also winning for white is 44.Kb4
Re4+ 45.Kd5 Rxh4 46.Rxg6 Rg4 47.Rxa6 Rxg2
Black has two passed pawns of his own, but they are way too slow to make any difference. White’s passed c pawn is way too powerful to stop.
Trapping the black king to the edge is the beginning of the end for black. In these cases the constant back rank mate threat is too much to over come.
Kb8 49.Rh7 Rxa2 50.Rxh5 Rc2 51.Kc6 Ka7 52.Kb5 Re2 53.Rh7+ Kb8 54.Kb6 Re8 55.c6
White has now achieved a well-known winning maneuver.
f4 56.Rb7+ Kc8 57.Ra7 1–0
Speaking from experience, and as anyone that has ever had their own games analyzed by a program like Komodo know, usually your “brilliant” win has holes punched in it by the computer. What you thought was perfect play is shown to have many ways your opponent could have drawn or even won. What is amazing in this ending from move 38 until black resigns on move 57, not once did Komodo think black had a way to escape. Smyslov maintained the winning advantage the entire time! Only a couple of times did Komodo suggest a quicker win, but never could it dispute Smyslov’s winning technique! High praise indeed.