Mikhail Tal: Master of Magic and Mayhem

Blog Post 2 1200x628 Mikhail Tal

When it comes to Mikhail Tal, one should not count the number of years in his life but focus on the amount of life he packed into those years. Tal died at fifty-five but achieved so much in those years that he is still spoken of with awe thirty years later.

Mikhail Tal is known for his attacking play, but you do not become a World Chess Champion by being one-dimensional. Preferring to play attacking chess rich with sacrifices does not mean you cannot play endgames as well!

There are more games by Tal than any other chess player in both “The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games” and “Modern Chess Brilliances.” No matter how inspirational he was at the chess board, Mikhail Tal was also an inspiration away from the game.

GM Eugene Perelshteyn couldn’t put together a collection of “Modern GM Masterpieces” without including a game played by the Magician of Riga.

The Early Years of Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal was born on November 9th, 1936, in Riga, Latvia. Many chess players still call him the Magician from Riga.

Yuri Averbakh was the first grandmaster who Mikhail Tal defeated.
Yuri Averbakh was the first grandmaster Mikhail Tal defeated.

Tal began his chess career at the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club and, in 1949, beat chess master Ratmir Kholmov in a simultaneous game. The same year, Alexander Koblents began tutoring Tal, who soon became a strong player.

Three years later, Tal finished ahead of his trainer in the Latvian Championship and obtained the title of Latvian Candidate Master the following year, 1953.

Mikhail Tal earned a Soviet title in 1954 when he became a Soviet Master by beating Vladimir Saigin. In the same year, he won his first game against a grandmaster – Yuri Averbakh, who lost the game on time.

In 1957, Tal became the youngest player to win the USSR Chess Championship, beating several of the world’s best players. Although he had not played in enough international tournaments to qualify for his grandmaster title, FIDE waived these restrictions and awarded him a grandmaster title based on winning the USSR Chess Championship.

Mikhail Tal obtained a degree in literature from the University of Latvia and was a schoolteacher for a time in his twenties.

Dragging a Hippopotamus Out of a Marsh

Few chess players, if any, have not had the experience of stray thoughts entering their heads while calculating variations.

mikhail tal 1962
Mikhail Tal 1962

While playing white against Mikhail Tal, Kholmov spent an hour thinking after rejecting Tal’s draw offer. Kholmov needed a victory against Tal in the penultimate round to obtain a grandmaster norm but finally raised his head and said, “Draw.”

During their game analysis, when Tal asked Kholmov what he was thinking during that hour, he said, “About how I will win tomorrow with black against Bronstein.”

Later, when questioned by a journalist, Mikhail Tal spoke of how the lines of a couplet entered his head while he was trying unsuccessfully to calculate all the variations of a knight sacrifice.

“Oh, what a difficult job it was

To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus.”

(Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky)

After spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to accomplish this engineering task Mikhail Tal admitted defeat with this project. However, as suddenly as the thought of the hippopotamus entered his head, it left.

Tal said the sacrifice didn’t look as complicated then and promised an exciting game, so he played the sac. The following day the newspaper reported that after thinking for forty minutes, Tal played an accurately calculated piece sacrifice.

1959 Yugoslavia Candidates Tournament

The winner of the 1959 Candidates Tournament would play Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship title. Botvinnik had won a rematch with Smyslov in March 1958.

All the players in the Candidates Tournament would play each other four times. Along with Mikhail Tal, the other contestants were a young Bobby Fischer, Keres, Petrosian, Gligoric, Olafsson, Benko, and Smyslov.

Two weeks before the tournament, Tal had an operation to remove his appendix. He would later say it did not trouble him much because it only bothered him when walking, and he wasn’t inclined to go for walks during the game.

Mikhail Tal won all four games against Bobby Fischer during this Candidates Tournament, but things did not always go Tal’s way.

In round eight, he won a brilliancy prize for his victory over Vassily Smyslov by making numerous sacrifices that Tal said were “pure improvisation.”

Mikhail Tal – Vasily Smyslov, 1959.09.18, 1-0, Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates Round 8, Bled, Zagreb & Belgrade YUG

However, Paul Keres turned the tables on Tal in round ten by accepting the offered material and going on to win the game. According to Golombek, many of the people watching thought Tal could have resigned ten moves earlier.

Komodo Dragon agrees with the spectators and gives black a winning advantage of -10.

Mikhail Tal – Paul Keres, 1959.09.22, 0-1, Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates Round 10, Bled, Zagreb & Belgrade YUG

Perhaps it was games like this that inspired Tal to say, “There are two types of sacrifices: correct ones and mine.”

Despite this comprehensive defeat, Tal finished in first place with a score of twenty points, one-and-a-half points ahead of Keres.

Here is one of Tal’s victories over Bobby Fischer.

Mikhail Tal – Robert James Fischer, 1959.09.15, 1-0, Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates Round 6, Bled, Zagreb & Belgrade YUG

Mikhail Tal Becomes World Chess Champion

In 1960 the world would see the magician’s triumph over the strategist. The fun and games began before the first move got made at the chessboard.

mikhail botvinnik 1962
Mikhail Botvinnik 1962

Mikhail Botvinnik knew that most support favored Mikhail Tal and commented, “At that time, everyone was rather fed up with me, especially my grandmaster colleagues. How long could one person continue to occupy the chess throne?”

Alexander Koblenz, Tal’s trainer, believed Botvinnik employed a psychological strategy ahead of world championship matches. He thought Botvinnik deliberately asked for terms he knew others would find unacceptable.

The moment his opponent objected, it allowed Botvinnik to have an argument. The emotional distress this caused would linger within the challenger.

Following Koblenz’s advice, Mikhail Tal agreed to every demand Botvinnik made, which included the toilets being supervised so a trainer could not speak to a player.

The match lasted from March 15th until May 7th, 1960, and consisted of twenty-four games. In the event of a tie, the champion would keep the title.

The champion retained the right to a rematch if he lost the crown.

This rule was done away with by FIDE in 1959 but only applied to the next World Chess Championship match.

There was a lot of interest in the match throughout the USSR, particularly in Moscow – where the match was held. Despite tickets costing five roubles, about half the monthly rent on an apartment, they were in great demand.   

Mikhail Tal Gets off to an Excellent Start

Before the start of the match, Mikhail Tal was not in an optimistic frame of mind. This is unsurprising when you realize he had a habit of starting tournaments with a loss – the 25th USSR Championship, the International Tournament in Zurich, the USSR Spartakiad, and the Candidates Match all started with a zero on the scoresheet.

One of Tal’s friends suggested he skip game one and show up for game two. There might have been some debate about when to start the match.

How to start the match was decided well in advance.

After he won the Candidates Tournament, a radio commentator asked Mikhail Tal what his first move against Botvinnik would be. Tal told him he’d start with 1.e4 and did not want to break his promise.

Mikhail Tal – Mikhail Botvinnik, 1960.03.15, Botvinnik – Tal World Championship Match Round 1, Moscow URS

Seven games into the match, Tal had won the first, sixth, and seventh games, with the other four games ending in draws. Tal acknowledged these wins were mainly due to mistakes made by Botvinnik in time trouble.

Botvinnik struck back by winning games eight and nine.

In game eight, Botvinnik had a positional advantage at move fifteen, was a pawn up by move twenty, and enjoyed being a pawn up with a positional advantage at move twenty-five.

This position arose in game eight between Mikhail Tal and Mikhail Botvinnik during their 1960 world championship match.

However, after some inaccurate play, Tal had the chance to win the game with 34…Rec8 (see the above position) but played 34…Rbc8. When the game got adjourned, Botvinnik’s sealed move was the winning 41.Nf7+.

The chess engine evaluates the position after 34…Rec8 as -4, but after 34…Rbc8 drops to 0.00. It does not take much to throw away a win in chess.

Botvinnik went on to win game nine too, and after a draw, Tal won game eleven.

The players then took turns requesting a break because of illness. Botvinnik asked for a pause in proceedings after game eleven and Tal after game thirteen.

Tal would go on to win games seventeen and nineteen as well and win the match with an overall score of 12 ½ to 8 ½.

A well-deserved victory because he outscored Botvinnik by three wins to one in the match.

The Legacy of Mikhail Tal Today

We can undoubtedly learn a lot from the games of past players and world champions, but defensive skills have improved a lot over time. That is why it is important not to overlook the excellent play of today’s best chess players.

All of us love to play excellent attacks, and naturally, we learn a lot from Tal that we use in our games today. Titled players are no different from us in this regard, so be sure to include modern games in your chess training.

Enjoy this excellent attacking game by Wei-Yi, the youngest player to reach 2700, as he plays calmly after sacrificing a rook and a bishop.

In Conclusion

Petrosian once said, “The healthiest of us all is Mikhail Tal. Nobody else would live longer than a year with his illnesses.” although Mikhail Tal did not hold the title very long, it was a fitting reward for a man who did not let illness stand in the way of his love of chess.

Mikhail Tal kept playing in tournaments until 1992 despite his physical challenges. The more you learn about Tal, the more you admire his honesty, modesty, and good-natured personality.

Of course, his play on the chess board speaks volumes, and Mikhail Tal left an enduring legacy and greatly influenced modern chess.

As much as we admire great players from the past, there is much we can learn from chess players today. When it comes to attacking play, we are fortunate to have a wealth of excellent games to help us improve.

Learning from Tal will undoubtedly help you improve, but we can learn from many others. GM Csaba Balogh has put together a high-quality course of Modern Masterpieces for you to enjoy.

Take your chess up a notch with this 5-star course featuring 15 hours of unique games and highly instructive analysis.

Don’t hesitate! Buy your copy of “Secrets of Modern Masterpieces (The Balogh Method)” now! You will save 50% and get instant access to a wealth of chess knowledge!

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