Chess and Music Part 5: Taimanov plays, Smyslov sings

Continuing our exploration of the links between classical music and chess, we now turn to perhaps the first player since Philidor to reach the top in both disciplines – Mark Taimainov (1926-).

You’re probably aware of Taimanov’s long and (mostly) successful chess career. Jeff Sonas, on his Chessmetrics site, ranks Taimanov in the top ten throughout the late fifties, peaking at 5th in January 1957, and again, briefly, in 1970-71, until his 6-0 Candidates Match drubbing by Fischer, which, unfortunately, is how many chess fans will remember him. He also gave his name to an enduringly popular variation of the Sicilian Defence.

Taimanov’s musical career is perhaps less well known. He studied piano at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he met and married (at the age of 19) a fellow student, Lyubov Bruk. They decided to specialise in the repertoire of music for two pianos and had a very successful partnership within the Soviet Union. Due to travel restrictions imposed by the Soviet régime they were unable to perform abroad until the early seventies. Their marriage broke up, though, which brought an end to their musical collaboration and to Taimanov’s career as a concert pianist. You can hear them here in the final three movements of Rachmaninov’s First Suite for Two Pianos.

Taimanov, who married again late in life and fathered twins at the age of 78, recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Our next chess playing musician, Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010), became the seventh World Champion in 1957, and Sonas’s computations (to the end of 2004) rate him the 16th strongest player up to that time as well as the strongest player in the world for much of the mid 50s. The son of a master strength player who once beat Alekhine, he was something of a prodigy, reaching the world top 10 when he was still in his teens. In 1984, at the age of 62, he reached the Candidates Final where he lost to the 21 year old Garry Kasparov, and he continued playing high level chess into his 80s, when he was handicapped by failing eyesight.

As a young man he pursued parallel careers in chess and music. Unlike his contemporary, Taimanov, he was not an instrumentalist but an opera singer, specifically a baritone. It was only when he narrowly failed an audition to the Bolshoi Theatre in 1950, having already been one of the world’s elite for a decade, that he decided on a full time chess career. He sometimes gave vocal recitals at chess tournaments, often accompanied by Mark Taimanov on the piano. Listen here as he sings the popular Russian song Stepan Razin. (Razin was a Cossack leader who led an uprising against the nobility and bureaucracy in southern Russia in 1670-1671. The words to this song were written in 1883 and set to a Russian folk tune which some of my older readers might recognise as it was also used by The Seekers for their 1965 hit The Carnival is Over.)

Here are two games between Smyslov and Taimanov for you to enjoy.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.