Let My Pieces Sing

‘Perhaps it was Philidor’s prodigious musical intuition that somehow gave him a special insight into how the chess pieces should be harmonised’


Blind, and in straitened financial circumstances, the oldest surviving ex-world chess champion died in March, aged 89. Perhaps Vassily Smyslov felt forgotten at his life’s end; he would not have done had he been able to see his obituaries, published worldwide, all of which paid tribute to his uniquely harmonious style of play.

Smyslov’s own memoir was entitled In Search of Harmony, but this was not just a reference to the way he made the chess pieces sing. He was himself a notable baritone whose first love was music. It was only when he failed at the final elimination competition for entrance into the choir of the Bolshoi opera that the young Smyslov devoted himself entirely to chess. 

He wrote in his autobiography: “It was probably because of my strong attraction to music from childhood that I became accustomed to thinking of chess as an art…And moreover, an art which is in some ways closer to music than it is customary to think. Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty which are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp.”

If there is a link between chess and music, one would expect it to lie in the field of composition, rather than performance. Is not the constructor of a symphony the closest to a grandmaster as he attempts to bring order out of the chaos of mere sound? There was one man whose life was organised on precisely those lines: François-André Danican Philidor, who was born in 1726 into a musical dynasty — many of them employed by the French court. François-André joined the royal choir of Louis XV at the age of six and began composing at the age of 11. As an adult, he became one of France’s most successful composers of operas, none of which is performed today. 

Philidor well understood that he was being usurped in popularity by other composers during his lifetime. And, as Smyslov did two centuries later, he decided to concentrate on chess instead. It might seem remarkable that he felt he could better support his family in this way, but Philidor was already the strongest chess player in the world. His book, Analyse du jeu des Echecs, became the game’s definitive instructional work for more than a century. Philidor’s understanding of chess was far ahead of his time: his games display a profound strategic grasp that most of his opponents were quite unable to understand, let alone counter. 

Perhaps — who knows? — it was Philidor’s prodigious musical intuition that somehow gave him a special insight into how the chess pieces should be harmonised: how that army of symbols (rather than singers) could be made to combine best together. Just as the best musicians can hold entire symphonies in their head, without needing a score, so Philidor had an extraordinary ability to play chess without sight of the board. In London in 1783, Philidor played three games simultaneously blindfold. His defeated opponents signed affidavits, under the impression that the wider public would otherwise not believe that such a thing were possible. Since then, much more prodigious feats of chess visualisation have been achieved, but in the 18th century Philidor was untouchable in his virtuosity.

There is one living human being who has combined a career as a virtuoso, in the musical sense, with that of a chess grandmaster. Mark Taimanov was one of Russia’s leading concert pianists, although his greatest successes had been as part of a duet with his wife, Lyubov Bruk, whom he had met at the Leningrad Conservatory. Some years ago, Phillips released several discs of the couple’s performances as part of its series of “100 greatest pianists of the 20th century”. Yet Taimanov, now 84, also found the time to become one of the Soviet Union’s most successful chess grandmasters, in which role he developed his own line of the Sicilian Defence — the Taimanov Variation, of course.

Perhaps it was because he kept these two aspects of his life entirely separate that Taimanov managed to achieve so much in each field. As he said: “When I gave concerts I was taking a rest from chess and when I played chess I was resting from the piano. As a result my life has been one long holiday.”

It was no holiday in 1971, however, when Taimanov played Bobby Fischer in a world chess championship quarter-final. Fischer won every game. In Soviet eyes, this was a political humiliation, and they treated Taimanov as they would a dissident: “I was deprived of my civil rights, my salary was taken away from me. I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press.” One man who stuck by him, apparently, was Smyslov. The two had on occasions performed informally together, Taimanov at the piano, Smyslov singing (of course).  

I have had the pleasure of meeting both these men of deep culture and intellect, although I recall with embarrassment the look Taimanov gave me in Moscow in 1985, when I told him that I had had a pleasant conversation with a man, who, it turned out, had been one of his persecutors within the Soviet chess federation. Smyslov I had met briefly a couple of years earlier, during his world championship semi-final in London against the Hungarian Zoltán Ribli. 

Smyslov was by then 62, his always bad eyesight deteriorating. We all thought him most unlikely to last the pace against a very durable opponent fully 30 years younger. In fact, it was Smyslov who showed the greater energy throughout, winning the match and earning the right to a final eliminator against Garry Kasparov. This is the stupendous game with which Smyslov, with the white pieces, took control of his match against Ribli — to see it being played live was a privilege, like hearing a Beethoven or Mozart in the act of composition at the piano:

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.c4 d5 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e3 Nc6 7.Bd3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.a3 cxd4 10.exd4 Bf6 11.Qc2 h6 12.Rd1 Qb6 13.Bc4 Rd8 14.Ne2 Bd7 15.Qe4 Nce7 16.Bd3 Ba4 17.Qh7+ Kf8 18.Re1 Bb5 19.Bxb5 Qxb5 20.Ng3 Ng6 21.Ne5 Nde7 22.Bxh6! Nxe5 23.Nh5! Nf3+ 24.gxf3 Nf5 25.Nxf6 Nxh6 26.d5 Qxb2 (with a combination of rare geometric beauty, Smyslov now finds a way of exploiting the new position of Black’s Queen on b2) 27. Qh8+ Ke7 28.Rxe6+!! fxe6 29.Qxg7+ Nf7 30.d6+! Rxd6 (if Kxd6 31.Ne4+ is another way of winning the Q on b2) 31.Nd5+! Rxd5 32.Qxb2 b6 (Black has some material compensation for his lost Queen, but his King remains fatally exposed) 33.Qb4+ Kf6 34.Re1 Rh8 35.h4 Rhd8 36.Re4 Nd6 37.Qc3+ e5 38.Rxe5! Rxe5 39.f4 Nf7 40.fxe5+ Ke6 41.Qc4+ and a shell-shocked Ribli resigned.