Checkmate: A Memorable Love Story

by Nagesh Havanur
11/15/2019 – He was crazy and he drove everyone crazy. Misha Tal was the joy and despair of all who loved him. When it comes to the Wizard of Riga, truth is stranger than fiction. Last Saturday, November 9th, was his birth anniversary, which inspired PROF. NAGESH HAVANUR, to take a look at the reminiscences of Sally Landau, his first wife.

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Sally remembers Misha

Riga, 31st December, 1958. The New Year Eve Party is in full swing at Hotel Astoria. The crowd is young. The boys are handsome and girls, pretty. Conversation sparkles and wine flows.

Young Sally“Sally, meet my friend, Misha. You have heard of the famous Tal? Here he is!” She nods absently. No, she hasn’t heard of him. He may have won the USSR Championship and the Interzonal. But chess means nothing to her. She is a singer and actress. Her world is the theatre and the cinema. But he is dazed by her radiance and charm.

For once the voluble Misha is tongue-tied even as she gaily engages every one in conversation. His eyes follow her everywhere. That night she invades his dreams.

In the ensuing days she is bemused to hear from friends that the young genius (“why do they all call him a genius?”) is “dying” to meet her. For once her curiosity is piqued, and she lets herself be invited home. She meets his mother Ida, brother Yasha and Uncle Robert. There follows a whirlwind romance (Misha is no novice in the game of love!) followed by a stormy courtship.

The storm and the rainbow

Misha is possessive and demands complete submission to his will. She has to live for him and him alone. Sally refuses point-blank and tells him time and again, “No way. I have a life of my own. Much as I love you I shall not give up my professional life. I value my individuality and my personal space. I shall not sacrifice my freedom and give away my rights.”  It’s a spirited defence, and she would well have stuck to it. But Misha persists. He will not take no for an answer. In the end she succumbs.

Tal and SallyHe loves surprising every one around him. Now it’s Sally, the object of his desire. When they go to the government office for marriage registration, a camera man is waiting for them. He is the photographer for the magazine, Soviet Union.

“Do you want the entire Soviet Union to hear about this historic moment?” she asks Misha in jest.

“Not the entire Soviet union,” he replies tongue in cheek, “Only its readers!”

He adores her and she basks in the warmth of his love.

“I shall teach you chess,” he insists.

“But I won’t know how to play with you!”

“I shall show you how to win!”

Does any one know who wins and who loses in the game of love?

So they sit down to play and the pieces come to life.

She is enchanted by the dance of those magic figures on the board. 

Sally plays chess

As it turns out, those moments together become less and less. Life becomes hectic soon. Misha had already won the Candidates’ during their courtship. Now he proceeds to win the world championship. When the hero returns to Riga, the city goes wild.

Riga crowd

On the family front the couple is blessed with a child and they call him Gera. It seems they have every reason to be happy. It is not to be.

Tals with child

Tal Family and Apartment Album | Photo: Svetlana Punte

Heartbreak

In two years Sally discovers the downside of Misha’s character. He is a philanderer and loves amorous conquest. He takes no interest in his responsibility as a husband or father. Then comes the fall. He is seriously ill before the return match with Botvinnik and the Patriarch would not hear of a postponement. Misha is of course defiant. “Who is going to play the match, me or the doctors? I shall beat him.” But the illness has its effect. He is unrecognizable in the match. There are few flashes of brilliance, if any. The result is a foregone conclusion.

Sadly, the disaster does not sober him in any way. He continues to lead the same wild, dissolute life. During the Curacao Candidates’ Tournament he takes seriously ill and is forced to withdraw.  Meanwhile, money is in short supply. He is forever borrowing cash from Uncle Robert, buying expensive presents for friends and more importantly for his lady love, actress L. He begins to spend more time in Moscow than Riga. As for the family, it’s in dire straits. Sally finds it hard to make both ends meet, with her meagre salary as an actress in theatre. She takes up a job with a travelling orchestra.

Sally singing

Photo: russkije.lv

The scandal and the warning

Meanwhile, Misha’s life has become a scandal. Early in 1964 he is summoned to the Central Committee and told, “Mikhail Nekhemevich, you are famous throughout the world. But you live in the Soviet Union. You are a Soviet citizen. Here you have a family, a wife and a child. Now everybody in the world, even in the West, is gossiping that you have a mistress. Do make up your mind. Either live with your wife and forget your mistress. Or if you must, divorce your wife and make an honest woman out of your mistress.”

He tells them curtly, it’s none of their business, and he will do as he pleases.

 “Well, you can make your own decision,” the officials tell him. He is soon to learn of their decision….

To be continued...

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Topics: history, Mikhail 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 two decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 11/16/2019 05:14
In an interview (Tr.Chess Today, 2003) Sally Landau said, “We fought often, over everything imaginable. Once it got so bad that I threw his engagement ring in the toilet, he got it back, and put it back on my finger. Ah, we would fight, swear, break up, and get back together again... Well, in fact, we were children….”
Sadly, it became worse over the years.
genem genem 11/15/2019 09:59
The first photo in this article is the only photo of Tal I have ever seen wherein his unusual right hand was almost fully visible. Tal was very practiced at slyly hiding his right hand from cameras. I guess attitudes were different back then.
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