“Revolutionary” Smyslov Chessmen

These impressive chess pieces are named after World Champion Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010), who is seen as a young man in a rare photo playing with a set of this design and size. Berlin artist and collector Porat Jacobson calls these pieces “revolutionary” because they reject the neoclassical column structure of Staunton and late Tsarist stems, replacing them with a trumpeted, dendriformic stem echoing modernist column designs.

Vasily Smyslov with pieces named after him. Dated 1937 according to Soviet chess historian Jorge Njegovic Drndak. Photographer unknown.

Porat Jacobson and I also believe Smyslov pieces appear in a 1927 photo of a game between Botvinnik and Panchenko.

Mikhail Botvinnik and Nil Panchenko, Leningrad 1927. See their game here.
Photographer unknown.

What really sets these pieces apart are their trumpeted stems, which begin narrow at the base and widen as they rise, flaring at the top where they meet the pedestals upon which the King, Queen, Bishop, and Pawn signifiers rest. Unlike the Botvinnik-Flohr II and Voronezh designs, where the pedestals are a seamless continuation of the top of the stem’s concave curve, here they are distinct structural parts, delineated by a discernable seam.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Visually, the royals and cleric signifiers rest within inverted isosceles triangles whose tips rest on the wide bases. Somehow the set still manages to convey an appearance of stability, perhaps due to the wide bases. The queen wears a unique, large globe-shaped finial perched on a stem above her coronet.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The bishops wear massive miters topped with discs, perhaps a truncated form of globus cruciger as seen in the Laughing Knight pieces. Similar discs or spheroids sit atop the Baku clerics as well. The kings of my set are 11 cm tall with a base of 4 cm, and the pieces are reasonably well-weighted.

The design appears in other sizes and finishes. Here is a set from the Steven Kong collection with 9.5 cm kings. The “White” pieces are finished in red.

9.5 cm version in red. Steven Kong Collection, photo.

Here is an undated photograph of what appears to be the 9.5 cm. version in action.

Source: Steven Kong in Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery. Photographer unknown.

The set’s counterintuitive stems remind me of the “dendriform” columns of the S.C. Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1939. Those columns are only 9 inches in diameter at their base, but blossom to 18.5 feet in diameter at the top, and support ten times the structural load requirement.

Dendriform columns Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the S.C. Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. S.C. Johnson photo.

Dendriform columns were no stranger to Soviet design of the 1930s. They can be found in the Kropotkinskaya metro station in Moscow, completed in 1935 and designed by Alexey Dushkin and Ya. Likhtenberg. The station received international recognition and received the Stalin Prize for architecture and construction.

Dendriform Columns of the Kropotkinskaya Metro Station, Moscow.
<a href=”http://NVO, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wiki Commons photo.

The Smyslov’s trumpeted, dendriformic stem seems to have appeared by at least 1927, seven years before the the convex stem/pedestal structure appeared in the Botvinnik Flohr II design. It’s not a stretch to think these pieces were a major step towards the structure that represents a major element of Soviet chess piece design.

The Smyslov’s dendriformic stem seems to appear in photos of the set used in the 1949 Moscow Championship, acquiring the name “Averbakh Set” by virtue of a photo of Yuri Averbakh playing with them in that event, and sets of the 1950s that seem to evolve or derive from the 1949 set. In this way the revolutionary elements of the Smyslov design have enjoyed a long and impactful life.

Author: Chuck Grau

I'm a chess collector, chess player, and retired attorney. I've been collecting Soviet and Russian chess sets since 2014. I'm interested in their history, design, and the people who made and played with them.

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