A star is born

by Nagesh Havanur
11/9/2012 – Sixty-four years ago: a twelve-year-old lad is excited that Mikhail Botvinnik is visiting his city. "I am going to challenge him,” he proclaims. To his dismay he is not allowed to go anywhere near the World Champion, but the boy gets to play in a simul against Botvinnik's sparring partner Vyacheslav Ragozin. You know of course who the boy was – today would have been his 76th birthday.

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An encounter in Riga

Little Misha was excited. Botvinnik had come on a holiday to enjoy the seaside at Riga. "Botvinnik is here," he grandly announced to his parents. "I am going to challenge him."

His father looked at him quizzically. "Botvinnik is World Champion. He has beaten so many great players. Don't you know?" – "But he has not played with me!" protested Misha with the irreproachable logic of a 12-year-old.

"Mishenka, You have to go to school first," his mother quietly reasoned with him. His parents knew, Botvinnik was a big man and would not wish to be disturbed. Besides, the local hosts would not allow anyone to go near him.

Our little hero was disappointed. Some times parents are so… unreasonable. They don’t understand a thing. Why not ask Maestro to help? "Who is Maestro?" you ask. "You don't know Maestro? Surely, you are new to this place! Every one knows in Riga knows him. He is Alexander Koblentz. But I call him Maestro."

"They are not allowing me to beat Botvinnik," complained an indignant Misha to the Maestro. The wise teacher gave him an indulgent smile. Of course Misha was going to play with Botvinnik. But they were going to prepare first. Misha's parents trusted Maestro. He was a friend of the family. No one understood their parental concerns as well as he did. All arguments about Misha in the house ended with the same words,
“Ask Alik, Alik knows best.” They knew, he loved their Mishenka ever since he saw this lanky little boy with dark penetrating eyes.

But what about Big Misha... Botvinnik? He escaped! Otherwise our lion cub would have pounced on him, and he was still looking for prey. So who comes next? Vyacheslav Ragozin, the friend and sparring partner of Botvinnik himself.

The famous master from Moscow had crossed swords with the likes of Lasker and Capablanca, not to speak of national rivals, Levenfish, Romanovsky and Kan. And he was going to give a simultaneous display in Riga. The announcement was music to Misha's ears. Surely, he was going to beat Ragozin and then the master from Moscow would go to see Botvinnik and give him the bad news: "Mikhail Moiseyevich, there is a little boy in Riga and he is going to take away your crown."

It's time to stop daydreaming. The master from Moscow should not be kept "waiting". When Misha reaches the venue, the hall is already packed, waiting for the celebrity. Soon he arrives and there is thunderous response. People are craning their necks to see this legendary player who had beaten Lasker himself in the famous Moscow 1936 Tournament.

When Misha takes his seat at the display, he is given the black pieces. The master has the advantage of the first move, he is told. Misha shrugs his shoulders. Let him make the first move. Little Misha would make the last – checkmate! That would be nice...

Ragozin moves quickly and confidently, hardly taking notice of our little hero until he is struck by a bolt from the blue.

[Event "Simultaneous Display, Riga"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Vyacheslav Ragozin"] [Black "Little Misha"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D31"] [PlyCount "80"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 c6 4. Nc3 dxc4 {The Noteboom Variation of the Slav Defence. But Little Misha was playing by instinct, not by book.} 5. a4 Bb4 6. g3 {A deviation leading to a kind of Catalan position.} (6. e3 b5 {is standard. }) 6... c5 $5 {A sharp move. Little Misha intends to undouble the pawns and aim for rapid development of queenside pieces. The flipside of the coin is that it opens up the diagonal for the White bishop on g2.} (6... Nf6 {would be more usual.}) 7. Bg2 Nc6 8. Be3 Nf6 9. O-O Ng4 10. Ne4 (10. Ne5 Ncxe5 11. dxe5 Nxe3 12. Qxd8+ Kxd8 13. fxe3 Ke7 $13) 10... O-O 11. Rc1 cxd4 12. Bxd4 f5 $1 { This move leaves the e-pawn backward.But little Misha is least concerned about theoretical shibboleths.} 13. Neg5 {Fishing in troubled waters. But what was he to do?} ({If} 13. Nc3 e5 14. Be3 Nxe3 15. fxe3 Bc5 16. Qd5+ (16. Nd5 e4 17. Ne1 Be6 $19 {is a variation on the same theme, the precarious position of Nd5 and e3 pawn.}) 16... Qxd5 17. Nxd5 Rd8 18. Rcd1 e4 19. Ne1 Be6 $19 {and the e3 pawn falls.}) 13... h6 14. Nh3 e5 $1 15. Bc3 Bd6 $2 {Typically, little Misha avoids the exchange of queens.} ({Nevertheless,} 15... Be6 $1 {is stronger as Black's superior development tells in the end.}) 16. Qd5+ Kh7 17. Qxc4 Qe7 18. e4 f4 19. Rfd1 fxg3 20. hxg3 Ne3 $5 21. Nhg5+ $6 ({He had to accept the Greek gift with} 21. fxe3 $1 Bxh3 22. Bxh3 Rxf3 {and he would have rallied round with } 23. Kg2 Raf8 24. Qe2 {(with the threat of Bf5+ cutting off the rook on f3)} Qg5 25. Qxf3 Rxf3 26. Kxf3 Qf6+ 27. Kg2) 21... hxg5 22. fxe3 Bc5 23. Bd2 Bb6 24. b4 Bg4 25. Rf1 Rad8 26. Rc2 $2 {Anxious to support the bishop on d2 as the knight defending him is also under attack.But it should have proved inadequate in the end.} (26. Qe2 $1 {was a better way of defending the bishop.}) 26... Bxf3 27. Bxf3 Nd4 $5 {An imaginative combination, if not winning outright.} ({ More precise was} 27... Rxd2 $1 28. Rxd2 Bxe3+ 29. Kg2 (29. Rdf2 {fails to} Rxf3 $1 $19) 29... Bxd2 30. Rh1+ Kg6 31. Bh5+ Kf6 32. Rf1+ Bf4 33. b5 (33. gxf4 gxf4) 33... Nd4 $19) 28. exd4 $2 (28. Kg2 {was the lesser evil, though after} Nxf3 $1 ({But not} 28... Nxc2 $4 {and White turns the tables with} 29. Rh1+ Kg6 30. Bh5+ Kf6 (30... Kh7 31. Bf7#) 31. Rf1#) 29. Rxf3 Rxf3 30. Kxf3 Qd7 31. g4 Qxa4 $17 {Black should prevail.}) 28... Rxd4 29. Kg2 {The experienced master keeps everything complicated with the hope that the kid could still make a mistake.} ({Saving the queen with} 29. Qa2 {only eases Black's task.} Rxd2+ 30. Kh1 Rxc2 31. Qxc2 Qxb4 $19) 29... Rxc4 30. Rxc4 g4 31. Be2 Rxf1 32. Kxf1 Qf6+ 33. Ke1 Qf2+ 34. Kd1 Qg1+ 35. Kc2 Qxg3 36. a5 Bd4 37. Rc7 Qg2 38. Kd3 Qh3+ 39. Kc4 g3 $1 {Played with impish humour.} 40. Rxb7 $4 Qc8+ $1 {And Black wins the rook. This is what the great master had overlooked.} 0-1

A shell-shocked Ragozin resigns. A star is born. The conversations above are a fictional representation. Everything else happened. Who is little Misha? Of course you know! 9th November is his birth anniversary.

Mikhail Tal

November 9, 1936 – June 28, 1992

Mikhail Tal (Latvian: Mihails Tals) was a Soviet-Latvian chess grandmaster and the eighth World Chess Champion. Widely regarded as a creative genius and the best attacking player of all time, he played in a daring, combinational style. His play was known above all for improvisation and unpredictability. Every game, he once said, was as inimitable and invaluable as a poem.

Tal was often called "Misha", a diminutive for Mikhail, and "The magician from Riga". Both The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games (Burgess, Nunn & Emms 2004) and Modern Chess Brilliancies (Evans 1970) include more games by Tal than any other player. Tal was also a highly regarded chess writer. He also holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history.

On May 28, 1992, dying from kidney failure, he left hospital to play at the Moscow blitz tournament, where he defeated Garry Kasparov. He died one month later. The Mikhail Tal Memorial is held in Moscow each year since 2006 to honour his memory. [Source: Wikipedia]

Previous ChessBase articles

The Immortality of Mikhail Tal
09.11.2006 – Had he lived, had he not succumbed to chronic ill health and an excessive life style, today Mikhail Nekhemievich Tal, the "Magician from Riga", would have celebrated his 70th birthday – today, on the first free day of the Tal Memorial tournament in Moscow. The greatest attacking player in history is sadly missed but never forgotten. In memoriam.
Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part I)
28.06.2012 – Exactly 20 years ago, on June 28, 1992, one of the greatest and most popular champions of all time, Mikhail Tal, passed away. In a fitting conclusion to his own legacy of chess before all, the Magician from Riga had escaped from the hospital on May 28, where he was dying from kidney failure, to play in the Moscow Blitz championship where he faced Kasparov. A tribute by Prof. Nagesh Havanur.
Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part II)
04.07.2012 – Twenty years ago one of the greatest and most popular champions of all time, Mikhail Tal, passed away. In a previous column Prof. Nagesh Havanur described how the Magician from Riga spent his final days. Today he describes the friendship and rivalry between Tal and another world-class player, GM Paul Keres. Two encounters between the two are presented as deeply annotated games.

Copyright Nagesh Havanur/ChessBase

Prof. Nagesh Havanur (otherwise known as chessbibliophile) is a senior academic and research scholar. He taught English in Mumbai for three decades and has now settled in Bangalore, India. His interests include chess history, biography and opening theory. He has been writing on the Royal Game for more than a decade. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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