“There are two types of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine.” – Mikhail Tal
Chess has a long history. There have been, and there are now, many outstanding chess giants from whom we can learn plenty of key chess concepts.
One of these chess geniuses was the eighth World Chess Champion, Mikhail Tal.
Mikhail Tal was one of the most inspirational players to ever touch the chess pieces.
His games are timeless and continue to motivate players of all levels through his tireless resourcefulness, incredibly daring attacks, and technical precision in the endgame. Tal’s games are full of moves that radically overhaul the position, ripping his opponent out of their comfort zone and hurling them into the center of chaos.
He was known as “the Magician from Riga” for his incredible ability to create attacks seemingly out of nowhere, finding astounding sacrifices to conjure up chaos for his shell-shocked opponents.
The Amazing Career Of An Epic Chess Talent Of The 20th Century
But what do we really know about Mikhail Tal? Nowadays, many chess players are reluctant to study the games of all the World Champions, the great classics from the past, and so they miss out on learning key concepts from the masters of the past.
It’s a bit sad to see that many club players today only have a vague idea of Mikhail Tal’s aggressive style and his countless sacrifices, but can’t name or recall a single game he played.
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For this reason, in this article, we’re going take a journey through time to retrace Mikhail Tal’s glorious chess career from an early age to when he sadly passed away, far too young in 1992, aged 55.
How did the chess prodigy, who was born in Riga in 1936, manage to beat Mikail Botvinnik in a match for the chess crown in 1960? Why did Tal lose the title to Botvinnik in the subsequent year? What were his strengths and weaknesses?
You’ll learn why Mikhail Tal is considered one of the best attacking players of all time.
Play Like Tal – Test Positions
To start with, you have the opportunity to learn actively, and solve 4 puzzles from Mikhail Tal’s games. Put yourself in Tal’s shoes: (You’ll find all the solutions at the end of the article.)
Mikhail Tal’s Early Games
“In my games, I have sometimes found a combination intuitively, simply feeling that it must be there. Yet I was not able to translate my thought processes into the normal human language.” – Mikhail Tal
Mikhail Tal learned to play chess in his early childhood and worked hard to improve during his youth.
In 1953, at the age of 16, he became the Latvian Champion. One year later, in 1954, Tal managed to beat his first grandmaster, GM Yuri Averbakh, who lost on time in a balanced endgame position (see the diagram on the right).
Only a few years later, in 1957, he won the Soviet Championship and thus became a grandmaster.
At that time, the Soviet school of chess was dominant in world chess and Mikhail Tal had to beat many of the world’s best players to win the Soviet Championship.
An outstanding success for the 20-year-old (see the image below – source: ChessBase):
Mikhail Tal played many great attacking games in his younger years and it’s not easy to choose which of his remarkable games to cover. In this article, we chose two of his early games which are analyzed by none other than Super-GM Peter Svidler.
Svidler is a lifelong fan of the attacking genius and former world champion, Mikhail Tal, who made a strong impression on the future Russian Champion. In this video, Peter shows just how great Tal’s attacking play was – and reveals a few of his secrets in the process!
The first game features Tal as Black against Georgian GM Bukhuti Gurgenidze in 1957. Peter Svidler notes that already at a young age, Tal’s opening repertoire was set up to play to his strengths: he played the sharp Benoni against 1.d4.
The second game against GM Alexander Tolush, a former coach of Boris Spassky, is by no means calmer. Here, we see Tal dealing with the Poisoned Pawn Variation in the Najdorf Sicilian – one of the sharpest chess openings to exist.
Mikhail Tal Becomes World Champion
“You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.” – Mikhail Tal
In hindsight, his path to becoming the World Chess Championship contender looks remarkably smooth. He won the 1958 Interzonal Tournament with 13,5/20 ahead of Gligoric (13/20) and Petrosian (12,5/20). The first 6 players qualified for the Candidates Tournament in 1959 (see the image below- source: Wikipedia):
The Candidates Tournament in 1959 featured eight players – the six qualifiers from the Interzonal Tournament plus the two best players from the previous Candidates Tournament – Smyslov and Keres.
Each player played four games against each of the other participants. Tal managed to beat Pal Benko (3,5:05), Friðrik Ólafsson (3,5:05), Bobby Fischer (4:0), Svetozar Gligoric (3,5:05), and Vasily Smyslov (2,5:1,5), drew his match against Tigran Petrosian (2:2) and only lost to Paul Keres (1:3).
Keres, however, lost his match with Petrosian and only managed to draw his matches with Smyslov and Fischer. This was enough for Mikhail Tal to qualify for the match against the reigning World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik (see the image below – source: Wikipedia):
Finally, Tal, aged 23, also managed to defeat Mikhail Botvinnik in the World Championship Match in Moscow in 1960. He won the 24 game match with 12½–8½ (six wins, thirteen draws, two losses) and became the youngest World Chess Champion ever.
This record was surpassed 25 years later by Garry Kasparov, who became World Champion at the age of 22.
One game from this match really stands out and is often quoted as Mikhail Tal’s most famous chess game ever. Let’s take a look:
Botvinnik, Mikhail – Tal, Mikhail (World Chess Championship Moscow 1960, Game 6)
With the White pieces, Botvinnik begins the game with a flexible set-up, eventually transposing to the Fianchetto Variation of the King’s Indian Defense.
True to his style, Tal plays very aggressively and strives to create maximum complications as soon as possible. With 21. …Nf4!? the attacking legend speculatively sacrifices a piece to disrupt White’s coordination, embarking on a dangerous attack that confused the legendary Botvinnik.
This game really is fascinating as you can see both player’s respective styles – Tal was an insane attacker who would never hesitate to sacrifice and jump into complications, while Botvinnik saw the game through the eyes of a scientist and preferred a calmer, more patient strategy to strangle his opponents into submission.
Although Botvinnik did handle the attack reasonably well and proceeded to sacrifice the material back in order to obtain good drawing chances, Tal conducted a beautiful endgame with the two bishops and extra pawn to convert the full point after 47 moves.
In the subsequent year, Botvinnik had the right to face Mikhail Tal in a rematch for the chess crown. This time, Botvinnik, who deeply analyzed Tal’s aggressive style in the meantime, was better prepared and managed to regain his title by winning the match with 13:8 points.
Generally speaking, Mikhail Botvinnik is one of the most important figures in chess history. The 6th World Champion actually lost his title 3 times but came back to beat Smyslov and Tal, in rematches (there was no rematch against Petrosian) showing an incredible will to win and to learn from his mistakes.
Mikhail Tal’s Brilliancies
“Of course, errors are not good for a chess game, but errors are unavoidable and in any case, a game without errors, or as they say ‘flawless game’ is colorless.” – Mikhail Tal
Even though Mikhail Tal never again qualified for a World Championship Match, he managed to stay near the top of world chess for almost three more decades.
He also played many more fantastic attacking games, showing his daring, combinatorial style.
Very often, he managed to muddy the waters and emerge on top in tactical complications against his opponents.
If we want to put Tal’s playing style into words, we need to distinguish between 2 types of sacrifices in chess:
- Calculated, where you sac a bishop on h7, knowing you either win a pawn or deliver mate in a few moves. And,
- Intuitive, where you don’t see a definite win but since the position and pressure you get will be worth it.
Mikhail Tal had a fantastic feeling for the latter type of sacrifice. His second game from his quarterfinal match against Lajos Portisch at the Candidates Tournament 1965 is an excellent illustration of his ability to successfully execute his intuitive sacrifices:
With such intuitive sacrifices like 16.Rxe6!? , he managed to create huge complications, and many of the world’s best players could not solve all the problems over the board.
Mikhail Tal’s Last Tournament Game
“Quiet moves often make a stronger impression than a wild combination with heavy sacrifices” – Mikhail Tal
Mikhail Tal continued to play on a very high level even in the late 80s. In 1988, he won the World Blitz Chess Championship ahead of Kasparov and Karpov, for example.
However, he was seriously ill for many years and finally sadly passed away at the age of 55.
Therefore, in this final section of the article, we’re going to take a look at a very special game that Tal played in 1992.
It’s the final game Mikhail Tal played in an open tournament in Barcelona, three weeks before his death.
He played against the Junior World Chess Champion of the time, Vladimir Akopian, who was already higher rated than Tal, and the favorite in this game.
The game is not famous for Mikhail Tal’s brilliant attacking chess, but for the last move he played in this game and thus the last move he ever played in his chess career.
Tal, playing White, finished the game with the move 38.Ke1 and his opponent resigned. In his excellent video series, Super-GM Peter Svidler comments on this move:
“[In the final position], any king move wins, but the move Tal chose is quite emotionally moving – at least it is for me. […] The final move Tal made in tournament chess is Kf2-e1, returning to the original square. The king returns home. And the game is over. Black resigned because he is clearly getting mated soon. This was the last game and the last move he ever made in tournament play.”
Make sure to see what happened in the game:
Tal, Mikhail – Akopian, Vladimir: Barcelona 1992
Mikhail Tal – The Magician From Riga
Today, Mikhail Tal is known as the archetype of the attacking player among chess players.
His approach to chess was very pragmatic. He created extremely complex positions over the board and went for intuitive sacrifices which, objectively speaking, could have been refuted with long analysis in the aftermath of the game.
However, in the heat of the battle, his opponents very often did not manage to find the correct path and lost themselves in the complications.
We hope that this article about the eighth World Chess Champion motivated you to become creative in your own games.
Trust your intuition and go for the attack – channel your inner Tal!
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Solutions To The Test Positions:
- Rossetto – Tal (Portoroz 1958): 1…Rxe3! 2.fxe3 Qxg2+ 3.Ke1 Nf3#
- Tal – Rantanen (Tallinn 1979): 1.Bxg7+! Kg8 2.Bh8! Kxf7 3.Qxf6+ Kg8 4.Qg7#
- Ostrauskas – Tal (Vilnius 1955): 1…Bg2+ 2.Kxg2 Rf2+ 3.Kxf2 Qxh2 4.Ke3 Qxc2 -+
- Maus – Tal (Germany 1990): 1…Re1+! 2.Kh2 (2.Rxe1 Qxd4 -+) 2…Qxd4 3.Rxd4 Rxa1 -+
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