INTERVIEW WITH MARK TAIMANOV
This interview was conducted by Joel Lautier on the 18th of May 2002 at the
NAO Chess Club in Paris. Mark Taimanov is an exceptional storyteller and this
interview has taken on larger proportions than usual. Nevertheless, it would
have been a pity to present a truncated version of it, it is therefore given
here in full.
Joel Lautier: Tell us about your parallel careers in chess and music.
How did they begin?
Mark Taimanov: (Smiles) It is not easy to describe in a few sentences
careers than span over seventy years! Everything began with music. As a small
child, I went to a music school where I studied the piano. In 1937, when I was
twelve years old, a major event took place in my life. In my town of Leningrad,
a film that was entitled "Beethoven's Concert" was being shot. Since
I was a good student in my music class, I was asked to perform the main part,
that of a young violinist. However, since I was studying the piano, I had no
knowledge of the violin and had to learn all the movements and postures. Apparently,
I did a decent job, since the film became a great success and was even awarded
a prize in the Paris Cinema Festival of the same year. That is how my aunt,
who lived in Paris and did not know me yet, saw me for the first time on a cinema
screen [Mark Taimanov's aunt is today an elderly woman of 92, and Mark is
staying with her during this tournament at the NAO Chess Club - J.L.].
In one day, I became a famous cinema actor! A few months later, I was invited
to the official opening of the Leningrad Pioneers' Palace. I should explain
to Western people what were the Pioneers' Palaces in the USSR. It was a remarkable
idea: children would be gathered after school and teachers would help them develop
any skill or talent they had for a specific subject. When I was asked which
topic I would choose (I was still eleven years old!), an inner voice whispered
to me: "chess!". And that is how, coming from music and passing through
cinema, I entered the world of chess. The director of the Leningrad chess school,
at the time, was none other than Mikhail Botvinnik. The best pupils were put
together in a separate section called "the Botvinnik group". Every
little boy dreamed to be part of it, and I had that privilege until 1941, when
the school stopped its activity due to the war.
During that time, I kept studying the piano with dedication and after the Music
School, I entered the Leningrad Conservatory. I met another student there, Lyubov
Bruk, we formed a piano duet and started a long concert career. We married at
the age of 19, so that our duet on stage also became a duet in life! As you
can see, my two careers as chessplayer and pianist developed concurrently from
a very tender age.
|The music you hear in the background is the Taimanovs
playing Mozart's Concerto for two pianos in E-flat, KV 365 Rondo Allegro,
with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. If you do not hear it automatically
click on the icon on the right and replay the MP3 wav file.
The hands of the maestro
Lautier: Indeed, it is impossible to summarise such a rich life in just
a few words. Please continue…
1950 was an important year, since I became an International Master and undertook
with my wife a series of concerts across the USSR. The fame of our duet quickly
spread abroad and we also began to perform in foreign countries. The discs you
know date back from those days [Mark Taimanov has offered our President,
Mrs Ojjeh, several discs containing the best performances by the Taimanov/Bruk
duet. They have been released by Philipps and are part of the prestigious collection
that presents the 100 greatest pianists of the 20th century - J.L.].
In 1953, I became a Grandmaster after the interzonal tournament in Saltsjobaden,
which qualified me for the famous Zurich tournament. The latter is beyond any
doubt the most beautiful tournament of the last century, not only in terms of
the games' quality, but also for the struggle's intensity. All of it has of
course been immortalised, thanks to Bronstein's magnificent book. In 1955, I
became USSR champion. Until the match with Fischer in 1971, everything went
smoothly in my chess career. This dramatic match changed my life into hell [as
everyone knows, Fischer won this encounter with the stunning score of six to
zero - J.L.].
Lautier: Tell us a little about this match.
Taimanov: As Fischer himself admitted at the time, the final score did
not reflect the true balance of strength. The terrible feeling that I was playing
against a machine which never made any mistake shattered my resistance. Fischer
would never concede any weakening of his position, he was an incredibly tough
defender. The third game proved to be the turning point of the match. After
a pretty tactical sequence, I had managed to set my opponent serious problems.
In a position that I considered to be winning, I could not find a way to break
through his defences. For every promising idea, I found an answer for Fischer,
I engrossed myself in a very deep think which did not produce any positive result.
Frustrated and exhausted, I avoided the critical line in the end and lost the
thread of the game, which lead to my defeat eventually. Ten years later, I found
at last how I should have won that fatal game, but unfortunately, it didn't
I have written a book about this match, entitled "How I became Fischer's
victim", it represents an essay on the American player and describes how
I perceived his style and personality, once the match was over.
Lautier: What were the consequences of this defeat?
Taimanov: The sanctions from the Soviet government were severe. I was
deprived of my civil rights, my salary was taken away from me [all Soviet
grandmasters received from their government a substantial salary - J.L.],
I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press. It was unthinkable
for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an
American, without a political explanation. I therefore became the object of
slander and was accused, among other things, of secretly reading books of Solzhenitsin.
I was banned from society for two years, it was also the time when I separated
from my first wife, Lyubov Bruk.
Lautier: How were the sanctions lifted ?
Taimanov: In 1973, I was qualified by FIDE to participate in the interzonal
tournament. My case was examined at the Central Committee of the Communist Party
and the higher authorities decided to "forgive" me. The case was thus
closed. As the bureaucrat whom I met explained to me: "we had the choice
between hammering the nail until the end or pulling it off altogether. We have
finally decided to pull it off". To me, it was quite obvious that the nail
in question was my own coffin's !
Lautier: An explanation that sends cold shivers down the spine…
Taimanov: Yes, it was a horrible feeling. From then on, however, everything
gradually became normal again for me and I was able to resume both of my professions.
The most difficult was to reconstruct my career as a pianist, since my first
wife and I had been one of the very best duets in the world. As a solist, however,
it was a different matter. Nevertheless, I began giving concerts again and at
the same time, I experienced new successes in chess. The following years were
peaceful and since the fall of the communist regime, everything has become much
simpler. As my friend Rostropovich put it : "Before we were sent abroad
on missions, now we can travel wherever we please". I was thus able to
reply positively to your kind invitation, which would have been impossible in
former days. As a matter of fact, I now play in more tournaments than during
my best years. It has of course become much more difficult, since I usually
give odds of forty to fifty years on average to most of my opponents!
Lautier: You must have been asked this question a hundred times, but
how did you manage to lead two careers simultaneously and at such a high level?
Taimanov: I did not mix my two professions, I alternated between the
two. As I used to say, 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 whole life
has been one long holiday!
Lautier: Don't you think that you could have achieved even more in
one of your professional careers, had you devoted your whole time to it?
Taimanov: First of all, it is absolutely unclear whether I would have
reached a higher level in one of my two fields of activity. What is certain,
on the other hand, is that my life would have been at least twice as less interesting
! I am happy that I was unable to choose between my two professions for my whole
life. It had indeed a lot of advantages: I got over failures much better than
others, since I always a second occupation to fall back on. It also gave me
more inner freedom and allowed me to keep good relationships with my colleagues
in both worlds. I provoked no jealousy from their side since chess players considered
me as a musician and musicians looked at me as a chess player! It also had the
incomparable virtue of avoiding routine. Sincerely, I must say I never dreamed
of achieving more than I have. I never thought of becoming world chess champion,
for instance. Everything is actually much simpler when you don't have one unique
goal in your life. In my case, I always felt like an amateur in both of my professions!
Lautier: Have you any projects?
Taimanov: I just finished writing the book of my memoirs, called "Remembering
the greatest…". It describes my meetings with all the great people
I was lucky to know. I talk of Churchill, Khruschev, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro,
Juan Peron… Among the musicians, I have closely known Shostakovich, Rostropovich,
Khachaturian, the great pianist Richter and many famous violinists. Of course,
I also write extensively about my chess colleagues, namely Botvinnik who was
always a model for me. The book will be out later this year.
Lautier: Who are your favourite composers?
Taimanov: I've always had a preference for romantic and Russian music.
Even if I have a lot of respect for classical composers such as Bach and Mozart,
I have more pleasure when listening to pieces of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert…
I also like very much French composers, I have played Francis Poulenc (my first
wife and I were the first to perform his works in the Soviet Union), Debussy
and many others. Among Russian composers, my favourites are Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky,
Shostakovich and Khachaturian.
Question asked by our President Mrs Ojjeh: Did the fact that you were
also a pianist influence your way of playing chess? Was your perception of the
game different from the other grandmasters?
Taimanov: I do think that my taste in music reflects in my chess style.
I conceive chess first and foremost as an art, and when I play chess, I try
do so as an artist. Chess players who share my artistic credo are closest to
Lautier: I was just about to ask you the question. Who are your favourite
Taimanov: (Without hesitation) Alekhine, Tal and Kasparov. As you can
see, my preferences in chess follow the same romantic inclination as in music!
Lautier: Could you name the greatest pianist and the greatest chess
player according to you ?
Taimanov: No, it is impossible to name only one for each of these fields.
The three chess players I just mentioned are in my opinion the greatest of all,
as for pianists, they are quite many of them. I would choose the following:
Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould.
Lautier: What do you think were the best books written on chess ?
Taimanov: As I said earlier, Bronstein's book on the Zurich tournament
of 1953 is a masterpiece. However, the books of Nimzovich were those which made
the deepest impression on me. During my learning years as a chess player, his
books, among which "My System" obviously, played a fundamental role.
When I teach chess, I always tell my pupils to study all of Nimzovich's books,
I also recommend them those of Tarrasch. The latter had a gift to formulate
in clear sentences the essential principles of our game. And of course, he is
also the author of the most beautiful words written on chess: "Chess, like
love and music, has the power to make people happy" (Smiles).
Lautier: Do you have any other hobbies in life, apart from chess and
Taimanov: Writing and journalism have always been important to me. I
have thus written a great deal of articles and books about chess, I was also
the commentator for the Russian press on the numerous matches between Kasparov
and Karpov. However, my main hobby is the love of life. The greatest gift of
nature is love, and the love of women has always been an essential part of my
Lautier: Please forgive this rather brutal transition, but what do
you think of the current young players? Do you see any among them that could
dominate chess in the near future?
Taimanov: Honestly, I don't see any worthy replacement to Kasparov at
the moment. For me, there is a clear gap between Kasparov and the other players.
He has introduced into the game an exceptional dynamic style, he always manages
to give every piece a little more power than it can contain. Of course, Ponomariov's
recent performance is a brilliant success, but I don't consider him as a player
whose games one can study and learn from. He is an excellent practical player,
a sportsman who plays good moves with regularity. In that respect, he very much
resembles Gata Kamsky. But this type of player brings me no joy.
Lautier: And what do you think of the other players in this tournament,
namely Yoshiharu Habu and Edouard Bonnet?
Taimanov: For Habu, it is difficult to have a precise opinion after
so few games. But I appreciate his way of playing, as they say in my country,
he plays "with taste". He is not yet formed as a player and he lacks
practice, but I have noticed that routine moves are foreign to him and that
he is also very inventive in defence, those are valuable qualities. He will
certainly become the first International Master from Japan. I would in fact
be happy, if the half point I gave away to him could prove of help! I like very
much the little Bonnet. He plays with a lot of freshness, he has original ideas
that have yielded him good positions in this tournament. Even if he didn't manage
to convert them all, he has shown great potential at fourteen. [I mention
to him that he is even younger - J.L.] Sorry, he is only twelve? Even better!
Lautier: What remain as your greatest memories in both your chess and
piano careers ?
Taimanov: In spite of the dramatic outcome, I consider my match with
Fischer to be the culminating point of my chess career. I should also mention
my participation in the fabulous tournament of Zurich 1953. As for music, my
greatest pride is that the duet with Lyubov Bruk has been chosen to be part
of a collection on the greatest pianists of the previous century. I am there
among the greatest!
Lautier: Thank you for having answered our questions.