Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part II)

by Nagesh Havanur
7/4/2012 – 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.

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Triumph and Tragedy: Part II

Part one

Life is full of ironies. Paul Keres was Tal’s childhood idol. But now they were rivals vying for the right to play the world championship match with Botvinnik.

Tal on his first meeting with Keres

The year 1954 began for me with my first tournament game against a Grandmaster, none other than Keres. We traveled to Tallin for the traditional friendly match… The surprises, some of them really touching, began as early as the station in Tallin when among those there were to meet us we saw Keres. We, who were mainly lads, were taken in his car to the hotel, and for literally each of us he found a friendly, welcoming smile. The first round was played that evening. Our game began with the King’s Indian Defence…I played sharply, Keres seized the initiative, and I admired the way that, in time trouble he left himself literally 3-5 seconds for his last move and, having worked everything out, captured my piece, not fearing the series of checks which then commenced. Of course I lost the adjourned game, but I drew the second as Black, finding an unexpected move in a somewhat inferior ending.
Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, RHM Press 1976.

Estonian world class GM Paul Keres

But they had met before – in a simultaneous display. Asked by a journalist whether he had always wanted to do battle with famous players, Tal replied: "Yes, of course, I very much wanted to do so. Even at that time I was occasionally able to do this, though only in simultaneous displays. My first such encounter was with Keres, our neighbour from the North, our idol. He came to give a simultaneous display against us, and although he was engaged at that time in the battle for the chess crown, I considered it unethical to play against him in a normal display. I was, after all, a finalist in the Latvian Championship, a solid first category player. So I put my name down for a display with clocks, which Keres gave on ten boards. He suffered two defeats-at the hands of future grandmasters Gipslis and myself. And I was very pleased with this game, not so much because I won, but more because I defeated Keres in this Botvinnik Variation. I thought that psychologically this would be a terrible shock for him, since Keres and Botvinnik were always considered to be, as it were, fundamental opponents at the chess board. Time passed. Paul Petrovich and I played together in tournaments for several years. And once I asked him whether he remembered our first encounter. Yes, he replied, in Tallin, in the match between Latvia and Estonia. No, I told him, earlier, in Riga, in a simultaneous display. And here paul Petrovich admitted that he had completely forgotten this game. And I had thought that a defeat in the Botvinnik Variation would remain in his memory for ever…"

Keres was a combinational genius. In his youth he used to revel in wild positions as much as Tal did later. However, he changed over the years. He attained maturity and strove for perfection. He did retain his combinational style, but now it was refined by a fine positional understanding. He had beaten Tal twice in this tournament. Unfortunately, his phenomenal intuition let him down in the crucial 17th round. Tal had a half point lead, and Keres saw an opportunity to beat him in this encounter when Tal chose a poor line of Sicilian Paulsen Variation. He went all out for an attack, thinking that Tal would be uncomfortable in defence. Here is what happened:

[Event "Candidates' Tournament "] [Site "?"] [Date "1959.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Paul Keres"] [Black "Mikhail Tal"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B42"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "1959.??.??"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 {The Paulsen Variation} 5. Bd3 Nc6 $6 {This move order is consdered inaccurate according to present opening theory.} (5... Bc5 {is preferred today.}) (5... Qb6 $5 {also deserves attention.}) 6. Nxc6 (6. Be3 {is a reasonable alternative.}) 6... dxc6 ({Tal had played} 6... bxc6 {and after} 7. O-O d5 8. Nd2 {experienced difficulties in an earlier game with Smyslov in the same tournament.} (8. c4 $5 {is the modern preference.})) 7. O-O e5 $1 {At once stopping the e5 advance by White and freeing the diagonal for his light-squared bishop.} 8. Nd2 {The knight has no future on c3. But from d2 he may move to more useful posts like c4 and e3.} (8. a4 {has also been played here.}) 8... Qc7 9. a4 {This move prevents mobilisation of Black's queenside with...b5.} ({But} 9. Nc4 {freeing the diagonal for the dark-squared bishop and targeting e5 and d6 is preferred by some commentators.Their reasoning is that} b5 {would only allow the knight to go to a square that he intended.} (9... Nf6 10. Qf3 $5) 10. Ne3) 9... Nf6 10. Qf3 {This move could wait until he develops other minor pieces.} (10. Nc4 {freeing the diagonal for the dark-squared bishop and targeting e5 and d6 points looks better.}) 10... Bc5 11. Nc4 O-O 12. Ne3 {Keres is bent on spearheading a kingside attack with the knight.} ({With} 12. Bg5 {he could have forced a small retreat with...Be7 or...Ne8.}) (12. Qg3 {is met by} Re8 13. Bh6 Nh5) 12... Re8 ({If} 12... Be6 13. Nf5 {and it is not easy to dislodge the knight from his outpost.} g6 14. Bh6 Rfe8 15. Ng7 $36) 13. Bc4 Be6 14. Bxe6 Rxe6 15. Nf5 g6 16. Nh6+ (16. Be3 $6 gxf5 17. Bxc5 Nxe4 {is good for Black.}) 16... Kg7 17. Rd1 (17. Bg5 Rd8 18. Rad1 Rxd1 19. Rxd1 Rd6 $11 {would have offered little for White.}) 17... Rd8 18. Rxd8 {This move, surrendering the d-file to Black is risky.} ({Not} 18. Be3 $6 Bxe3 19. Qxe3 Rd4 $17) (18. Bg5 {connecting the rooks is safer, although here also White has to be careful after} Red6) 18... Qxd8 19. Bg5 $2 {The fatal error. White leaves the critical d4 square unattended.} (19. c3 $2 Nxe4 $1 20. Qxf7+ ({Not} 20. Qxe4 $4 Qd1+ 21. Qe1 Qxe1#) 20... Kh8 21. Be3 (21. Qxe6 $4 Qd1#) 21... Bxe3 22. fxe3 Rd6 23. Qb3 Nc5 24. Qc2 (24. Nf7+ Kg7 25. Nxd8 Nxb3 26. Ra3 (26. Nxb7 $2 Rd7 $1 {wins the knight}) 26... Na5 27. b4 Nc4 $19) 24... Kg7 25. Ng4 Rd2) (19. g4 $5 {would have offered better chances of complicating the position. After} Qe7 20. g5 Nd7 {White can alternate attack on both wings with moves like a5 and h4.}) 19... Qd4 $1 {This move threatens .. .Qxe4, ...Qxb2 and...Qxf2+ picking up the loose bishop.} 20. h4 {Keres gives up the b2 pawn to deflect the Black queen and seize the d-file.} (20. c3 $2 Qxf2+ (20... Qxe4 $4 21. Bxf6+ Rxf6 22. Qxe4 $18) 21. Qxf2 Bxf2+ 22. Kxf2 Nxe4+ $19) 20... Qxb2 {Tal takes up the gauntlet.} 21. Rd1 {Now White threatens both the direct Rd7 and the more insidious Rd8.} Bd4 $1 (21... Qxc2 $2 22. Rd8 $1 { threatening a spectacular mate with 23.Qxf6 Rxf6 24.Rg8#} Qxf2+ 23. Qxf2 Bxf2+ 24. Kxf2 Rd6 $1 25. Rb8 b5 26. Rb7 $1) 22. Rd3 {threatening both Rb3 and c3} ( 22. Kh2 $5 c5 $1 (22... Qxc2 $2 23. Rxd4 $1 exd4 24. e5 Kf8 25. Bxf6 d3 26. Bg7+ $1 Kxg7 27. Qxf7+ Kxh6 28. Qf8+ Kh5 29. Qf4 h6 30. g4+ Kxh4 31. Qg3+ Kg5 32. Kh3 $1 $18)) 22... Qxc2 23. Rxd4 $1 exd4 24. e5 {"The point of White's play:the knight is lost, since neither can it be moved nor can the pawn be captured. Most of the onlookers, including a number of grandmasters, thought that Tal could not escape defeat, but they were wrong...." P.H.Clarke} Kf8 $1 { Brilliant play.Now White's attack fizzles out. For the rest of the game Keres tries to infiltrate Black's position. To no avail.} 25. exf6 (25. Bxf6 $2 Qc1+ $1 26. Kh2 Qxh6 27. Bg5 Qg7 28. Bf6 Rxf6 $1 29. exf6 Qh6 $1 30. Qe4 Kg8 31. Qxd4 Qf8 $19) 25... Qc3 26. Qg4 ({If} 26. Qf4 $1 Qe1+ 27. Kh2 Qe5 $19) 26... Qe1+ 27. Kh2 Qxf2 28. Qh3 {Keres tries to reach the back rank with the queen.} ({Instead he should have activated his minor pieces with} 28. Bf4 $1 {and it would have demanded precise play by Black to overcome the resistance.} d3 $1 29. Nf5 d2 $1 (29... gxf5 $4 30. Qg7+ Ke8 31. Qg8+ Kd7 32. Qxf7+ $18) 30. Bh6+ Ke8 31. Ng7+ Kd7 32. Nxe6 fxe6 33. Bf4 h5 $19) 28... Qe1 $1 {Centralisation at its best. From this point the queen controls both g3 and e5.} ({Not} 28... Qb2 $2 29. Qg3) 29. Qb3 (29. Qa3+ $2 Ke8 30. Qc5 Qe5+ $19) 29... b5 30. axb5 cxb5 ( 30... axb5 $2 {would play into White's hands. After} 31. Qa3+ {he would have the counterplay he wants.}) 31. Qa3+ (31. Qd5 $2 Qe5+ $19) 31... b4 32. Qb3 Qe5+ 33. Kh1 Qe1+ 34. Kh2 Qe5+ {"Playing for time, not a draw!"-P.H.Clarke} 35. Kh1 Qd6 36. Kg1 {By now both players were in a fierce time scramble. So Tal rushes with the pawn.} d3 {This does not spoil things, but it does give White an opportunity to "mix it up".} (36... Qc5 $1 {would have ruled out any counter play for White.}) 37. Qd1 $2 (37. Qc4 $1 Ke8 (37... Qb6+ 38. Kh1 Qb5 { Black prevents both Qc5 and Qb7. But White still has some counterplay left after} 39. Qc8+ Re8 40. Qc1) 38. Qc8+ Qd8 39. Qxd8+ (39. Qb7 $2 Qb6+ $19) 39... Kxd8 40. Nxf7+ Ke8 41. Nd8 Rxf6 $1 $19 ({Not} 41... Kxd8 $4 42. f7+ $18)) 37... Qc5+ 38. Kh1 Qc2 39. Qf3 d2 40. Bxd2 Qxd2 {And Keres resigned.(Some of the analysis is based on the commentary in the book, Mikhail Tal's best Games of Chess by P.H.Clarke. I have also made discriminating use of annotations in the collection,Mikhail Tal: Games (1949-1962) by Sergei Soloviov (Chess Stars.1994) ) among other sources.} 0-1

A terrific struggle! It was a triumph for Tal and a tragedy for Keres. Although he did manage to beat Tal again in a marathon game in this tournament, he couldn't stop the Latvian's race to the post in the end. Tal went on to play the World Championship in 1960 and beat Botvinnik.

World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik

A memorable vignette on the 1959 Zürich tournament won by Tal

"And then came Tal. He didn’t bother about correctness at all… I have witnessed it in Zürich, the growing unease as he sacrificed a piece or more in every game and won, while afterwards the entire affair turned out to have been highly dubious, if only the others had found the best moves during the game. During analysis it was clear that while Tal had calculated much, much deeper than the average player, he also had a tendency to be extremely optimistic about his own chances. It turned out, in fact, that in these post-mortems, when many hands were grabbing about the board, only Keres was able to hold his own against him. “But my dear friend, what is your reply to this?" and Tal laughing it off: “Who won?”
The King, New in Chess 2006.

In spite of his painful defeat Keres harboured no ill-will towards his young rival. He had known Tal since he was a lad of 18. They remained good friends till the end. Of course their rivalry over the board continued in the next Candidates' Tournament (Curacao 1962).This time it was Keres' turn to beat Tal:

[Event "Candidates' Tournament 1962 "] [Site "?"] [Date "1962.06.02"] [Round "?"] [White "Mikhail Tal"] [Black "Paul Keres"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C96"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1962.??.??"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4 Nd7 {The Keres Variation. Black plays for the control of he point e5. The knight also vacates the f6 square for the occupation of the bishop. Keres had lost with this variation to Fischer in Round 7. The famous encounter is included in Fischer's book, My 60 Memorable Games.} 12. Nbd2 cxd4 (12... exd4 13. cxd4 Nc6 14. d5 Nce5 15. Nxe5 Nxe5 16. a4 Rb8 17. axb5 axb5 18. f4 Ng6 19. Nf3 $16) 13. cxd4 Nc6 14. a3 {This move preventing ...Nb4 preserves the present position for the bishop on c2. But it would lose a tempo if White has to play a4 later.} ({He has other alternatives like} 14. Nb3) (14. Nf1) (14. d5) 14... exd4 15. Nb3 Nde5 16. Nfxd4 Bf6 17. Bd2 $6 (17. Nxc6 Nxc6 18. f4 Be6 {deserves attention.}) 17... Nxd4 18. Nxd4 Nd3 19. Nc6 $6 {Keres: Tal tries for the greatest possible complications in every position....The combination initiated by the text move is indeed very complicated, but it eventually turns to Black's advantage.} (19. Bxd3 Bxd4 20. Qc2 Qf6 21. Bc3 Bxc3 22. Qxc3 Qxc3 23. bxc3 $11) (19. Ba5 Qxa5 20. Qxd3 g6 $11) 19... Nxf2 $1 20. Qf3 $2 (20. Qh5 $5 Nxh3+ $1 (20... Qb6 $6 {During the game Keres had intended this move and calculated} 21. e5 Ne4+ 22. Kh2 Bxe5+ 23. Nxe5 Nf6 {Here John Nunn found the stunning} 24. Bxh7+ $1 Nxh7 25. Ng6 $1 fxg6 26. Qd5+ Kh8 27. Qxa8 Bb7 28. Qe8 $1 Bxg2 $1 (28... Rxe8 $4 29. Rxe8+ Nf8 30. Rxf8+ $18) 29. Be3 $1 ({Not} 29. Kxg2 $2 Qf2+ 30. Kh1 Rxe8 31. Rxe8+ Nf8) 29... Rxe8 30. Bxb6 Be4 {and White is only slightly superior. A phenomenal might-have-been!}) 21. Kh2 (21. gxh3 $2 Qb6+ $1) 21... g6 $1 ({Tal: At this moment I thought up a very interesting combination and after making a preparatory move, I even went up for Petrosian and joked, "I am going for the brilliancy prize." The point was that I was planning to sacrifice my queen for only two minor pieces.} 21... Qc7 22. e5 g6 23. exf6 gxh5 24. gxh3 Qxc6 25. Be4 Qd7 26. Re3 $40) ({Tal: ...but after writing down 20.Qh5 I saw} 21... Be5+ 22. Qxe5 dxe5 23. Nxd8 Rxd8 24. Ba5 Nf4 {and now on} 25. Bxd8 {I conjured up 25... Rxd8!!? when Black would be a piece up. So I changed my mind.}) 22. Qf3 Be5+ 23. Nxe5 dxe5 $19 {If} 24. Bh6 $2 Qh4 $1) 20... Nxh3+ $1 ({Tal was a dangerous adversary even in bad positions.} 20... Qb6 $2 21. e5 Ng4+ 22. Be3 Nxe3 23. exf6 $1 Nxc2+ 24. Kh1 Nxe1 25. Rxe1 $40 {and White has an attack going for him. }) 21. Kh2 (21. gxh3 $2 Qb6+ $1 {juat as in the line after 20.Qh5}) 21... Be5+ 22. Nxe5 dxe5 23. Red1 (23. Bb4 $2 Ng5 $1) 23... Nf4 24. g3 (24. Bxf4 $2 Qh4+ $1) 24... Ne6 25. Bc3 Qg5 26. Rd6 (26. Rd5 $2 Qh6+ 27. Kg2 Ng5 $1 $40) 26... Qh6+ 27. Kg1 (27. Kg2 $2 Nf4+ $1 28. gxf4 Qxd6 $19) 27... Nd4 28. Rxh6 (28. Rxd4 $2 exd4 29. Bxd4 Qd2 $19) 28... Nxf3+ 29. Kf2 gxh6 30. Kxf3 Re8 31. Rh1 Kg7 32. Bb3 Bb7 33. Bd2 f5 34. Rxh6 Rad8 35. Rb6 Bxe4+ 36. Ke2 Bf3+ 37. Ke1 f4 38. Bc3 fxg3 39. Rxa6 Rd4 40. Ra7+ (40. Bxd4 {also loses.} exd4+ 41. Re6 Rxe6+ 42. Bxe6 d3 43. Bf5 d2+ $1 44. Kxd2 g2 $19) 40... Kh6 41. Rf7 {and Tal resigned. A great battle in which so much action remained behind the scenes.} 0-1

The games between these great masters are a delight to watch and their camaraderie, a memory to be cherished.

Paul Keres and Misha Tal analyze together

Tal’s account of his performance in the Chess Olympiad, Skopje 1972

I had managed to win all my games, but it is the resumption of with Radulov that I recall. We split up into groups for analysis and my consultant was Grandmaster Keres, our team’s trainer. I have quite a large number of chess memories, but that night of analysis with Keres is one of the most pleasant. The work was calm, flowing, as it were of its own accord; every hour a cup of coffee… And I never even suspected that such an apparently uninteresting ending – I was a pawn up with rooks and opposite-coloured bishops – could contain so many beautiful ideas Incidentally, the analysis proved to be highly productive … before the second resumption Radulov resigned without further play.
Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, RHM Press, 1976.

Copyright ChessBase

Topics Mikhail Tal, Tal

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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