60 years ago: Botvinnik wins return match against Tal

by Johannes Fischer
5/12/2021 – 60 years ago today, on 12 May 1961, the return World Championship match between Mihail Tal and Mikhail Botvinnik, which had started in Moscow on 15 March, came to an end. Tal had won the first match in 1960 with 12.5-8.5, but in the return match Botvinnik regained the world championship title and defeated Tal 13-8 (+10, -5, =6). But despite the clear result Botvinnik's victory still failed to convince.

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The World Championship Match Mikhail Botvinnik vs Mihail Tal, Moscow 1961

Some World Championship matches receive a lot of attention, others less. The 1960 World Championship match between Tal and Botvinnik received a lot of attention, their return match in 1961 created less interest and a lot of people thought that the "wrong" player won.

Tal won the 1960 match to become the then youngest world champion of all time. His bold dynamic play thrilled fans all over the world and his victory against Botvinnik seemed to be a victory of fearless imagination against cold and rational logic and promised to be the beginning of a new era. But only a year later, in the 1961 return match, disillusionment followed: Botvinnik won 13 to 8 (+10, -5, =6) and reclaimed the world title. But the second match was played under unequal conditions.

Fundamentally unfair was the world champion's privilege to demand a return match. This rule forced the challenger to win the Candidates Tournament and two World Championship matches against the reigning world champion to capture the title, while the titleholder only needed to win one of possibly two matches to retain or recapture his title.

As if that was not enough Tal was also seriously ill during the return match in 1961. André Schulz writes:

Before the start of the match, Botvinnik ... had got into a dispute with Nikolai Romanov, the chairman of the sports committee. Romanov had informed Botvinnik ... that Tal had said he was sick and had a kidney colic and that the match might have to be postponed. Botvinnik, however, insisted on a medical certificate issued by a Moscow doctor. Tal had only provided a certificate from a Latvian doctor. He would therefore have had to travel to Moscow for the examination. At first Romanov thought this was unnecessary. Eventually, however, he demanded it from Tal, who then preferred to agree starting the match on time because he considered this procedure of getting a medical certificate complicated and insulting.

[Alexander] Koblenz [Tal's coach] later also revealed that Tal had suffered a mild heart attack two weeks before the competition. (André Schulz, Das große Buch der Schachweltmeisterschaften, New in Chess 2015, p. 150)

So the match began as planned on 15 March 1961 under unequal conditions, because Tal was ill and far from his best form. As a result of this Botvinnik indeed dominated the match and played the better chess. Moreover, he also seemed to be much better prepared.

In 1960, Tal had won the match against Botvinnik, among other things, because he repeatedly succeeded in creating positions which suited him and which allowed him to show his strengths. Botvinnik wanted to prevent that in the rematch.

In the return match with Tal, although by then I was already fifty, I prepared very well and surprised everyone, including Tal.  [Note: Botvinnik, who was born 17 August 1911, was in fact 49 when the return match began.] … In our second match I showed how to play against him. When Tal's pieces were leaping about the board, he had no equals, but when there was a solid pawn structure in the centre, then positionally he was weak, and therefore he had to be restricted, restricted. (Mikhail Botvinnik, Botvinnik – Tal, Return Match for the World Chess Championship, Moscow 1961, Edition Olms 2004, p. 12.)

In the return match, Botvinnik strove above all not to let Tal develop his strengths. Considering Botvinnik's reputation as a strategic-positional player and Tal's reputation as a tactical player, one might think that Botvinnik would have tried to aim for quiet positions and avoid tactical complications.

Always well prepared: Mikhail Botvinnik

But things were not that simple: in quite a few of the games in the match Botvinnik didn't shy away from complications, but even brought them about. What was important to him, however, was that he himself had the initiative.

A typical example is the seventh game of the match:


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But Botvinnik had not only studied Tal's games thoroughly, he had also tried to find out what deficiencies in his own play had caused him to lose the 1960 match. As a consequence, he developed strategies against his lack of stamina in the fifth hour of play, which had repeatedly been his undoing in the first match. To prepare for the return match, Botvinnik had worked on his fitness and had played training games against Semyon Furman in which he particularly focused to overcome his weakness in the fifth hour of the game. And Botvinnik discovered a magic potion: coffee!

When I  was very young, I couldn't understand why my opponents drank coffee. I did not need coffee to sustain me during a game. At that time I used to drink leman water, and this somehow helped me. But nevertheless my results deteriorated. I have to express my gratitude to chess players of the German Democratic Republic, who taught me in Leipzig [at the Chess Olympiad 1960] to drink coffee during a game, since there each participant was provided with a small thermos of coffee, and each could drink it when he wanted. There I observed that when I drank coffee during a game, I could last the whole five hours. Therefore in this match I switched to coffee. (Mikhail Botvinnik, Botvinnik-Tal 1961, p. 119)

Tal, however, seems to have taken things too lightly. After his victory in the 1960 match he seemed to have been convinced that Botvinnik would waive his right to a rematch and in general he seems to have been too confident. Tibor Karolyi writes:

Tal's overconfidence was a key issue before the 1961 match, and it is worth considering the factors that contributed to it. To begin with, he had achieved more than any player before him at such a young age, and was idolized by fans, not only in his native Latvia, but around the world. (Tibor Karolyi, Mikhail Tal’s Best Games 2, 1960-1971, The World Champion, Quality Chess 2015, p. 67)

Mihail Tal

But Karolyi sees the main reason for Tal's defeat in the return match in Tal's lack of preparation:

Tal … did not prepare much at all. He was also somewhat out of practice against top-class opposition; even though he performed superbly in the second half of 1960, he did not face anyone at the level of Keres, Petrosian, Spassky, Smyslov or Korchnoi. … Tal also wrote a book about the 1960 match, performed several simultaneous exhibitions, and started smoking heavily, none of which were useful for his preparation. (Karolyi, p. 68)

One indication that Tal's preparation was indeed poor is his disastrous result with Black. With White Tal scored 5.5 out of 10, with Black he just scored 2.5 out of 11. And in contrast to the previous match, Tal in 1961 only rarely managed to put Botvinnik under serious pressure.

Mikhail Botvinnik
101½½½1011101½1½010½1 13.0 / 21  
Mihail Tal
010½½½0100010½0½101½0 8.0 / 21  

All games of the match


Of course it is idle to speculate how the match would have turned out if Tal had been sufficiently prepared and healthy, but presumably Botvinnik would then have had a lot more problems regaining the world title.

But in fact Tal lost the title he had won a year earlier. He continued to be one of the best players in the world until his death on 28 June 1992, but he never had another chance to play a match for the world championship.

However, after the 1961 match, FIDE abolished the right of the reigning world champion to demand a return match after losing the title. Still, thanks to this rule Botvinnik had managed to achieve the remarkable feat of being World Champion for a total of 13 years, although he could only win two of his seven World Championship matches: the 1958 return match against Vassily Smyslov and the 1961 return match against Tal.

Botvinnik became World Champion in 1948 after winning the World Championship tournament in The Hague and Moscow. Three years later, in 1951, he played his first World Championship match against David Bronstein, where he managed with some difficulty to reach a 12-12 draw. But that was enough, because Botvinnik, as the defending champion, was allowed to retain his title in the event of a draw.

The same scenario was played out in the 1954 World Championship match against Smyslov. This match also ended 12-12 and with this draw Botvinnik secured himself another three years on the world champion throne. But in 1957, at the second attempt, Smyslov was able to win against Botvinnik and became the new world champion. However, in their rematch in 1958 Botvinnik defeated Smyslov and regained the title.

In 1960 Botvinnik then lost the title to Tal, and again regained it one year later. But in 1963, he finally had to take his leave of the world championship throne after losing against Petrosian.

Seven years later, in 1970, Botvinnik ended his career. In the last tournament of his career, in Leiden 1970, he finished in joint third place with Bent Larsen behind the then World Champion Boris Spassky and Jan Hein Donner. But the last official event Botvinnik played in was the Match USSR vs Rest of the World in Belgrade 1970, where he defeated Matulovic 2.5-1-5 with one win and three draws.

Tal and Botvinnik met twice more after the 1961 competition, in the 1964 and 1965 Soviet Team Championships. The first of these two games ended in a draw, while Tal won the second.


This was the last game Tal and Botvinnik ever played against each other.

Master Class Vol.2: Mihail Tal

On this DVD Dorian Rogozenco, Mihail Marin, Oliver Reeh and Karsten Müller present the 8. World Chess Champion in video lessons: his openings, his understanding of chess strategy, his artful endgame play, and finally his immortal combinations.


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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Johannes Fischer Johannes Fischer 5/17/2021 02:49
Thanks for writing. The error was corrected.
Logos Logos 5/15/2021 10:17
I agree with those who mentioned that this article is somewhat biased in favour of Tal. Botvinnik took his chess extremely seriously and became a model of discipline and preparation to a generation of players. It is possible that both Tal and Smyslov underestimated Botvinnik's iron will and determination to improve and prepare for the return match. Regarding the doctor's note, Botvinnik's demand might have been sincere. In the Soviet days, connections within one's own republic were valuable and could provide favours. Perhaps Botvinnik suspected this and wished to have a second opinion to be sure. If so, this was not a crime, and the stakes could not have been higher. If Tal was as serious as Botvinnik about being in the best possible shape before the match, he could have obtained a second medical note and delayed the match until he was good and ready.
Keshava Keshava 5/15/2021 02:25
It may very well be that Botvinnik was destined to win anyway and so he really didn't need to make unreasonable demands so that he could play a sick Tal. Wouldn't it have been better to see a more competitive match?
Classique Classique 5/14/2021 03:23
Botvinnik's victory failed to convince? On the contrary! It was so convincing that the author seems to carry a grudge against Botvinnik for destroying Tal. The author blames Tal's health, yet details Botvinnik's systematic eliminaton of his own earlier weaknesses, his aggressive play for the initiative, his deep preparation--all to Botvinnik's credit and all independent of Tal's health. He then cites (in words of others--he can't bear to say it himself) what Tal failed to do before the match, e.g. play strong masters. Finally, he concludes with potshots at Botvinnik's entire match career and leaves with a game Tal won. In short, this is a partisan hit piece on Botvinnik.
pgnpioneer pgnpioneer 5/14/2021 12:32
Donner was second in Leiden not Larsen. Botvinnik did win his last tournament game against Larsen. A fine endgame ended his career. https://dgriffinchess.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/botvinnik-at-leiden-1970/
malfa malfa 5/14/2021 09:53
@ Keshava

IMVHO spelling errors are not an option with such names, especially if repeated twice, which is what I meant to convey with my deliberately sarcastic remark. I find them an inexcusable sign of carelessness, to say the least, but that is just my opinion.
Keshava Keshava 5/14/2021 07:51
I typed too fast and therefore spelled his name phonetically. Of course I didn't intend any disrespect to GM Spassky. And of course most readers knew who I was referring to. Perhaps a less annoying way of pointing out a spelling error would be "I think you meant to type 'Spassky'", but that is just my opinion.
malfa malfa 5/13/2021 02:25
@ Keshava

transliteration rules exist for a purpose, like respect for great men, unless you are used to write of Einstin, Marradonna, Pikaso and the like.
Keshava Keshava 5/13/2021 02:11
@lajosarpad, I assume that you have heard of Fischer and so you must know who he got his title from - even though my phonetic rendering was not correct. Or if someone writes 'the world champion Fisher' it is rational to write 'Incidentally, nobody has ever heard of this "Fisher"'? Out of respect I give the wikipedia spelling: 'Boris Spassky'
but I don't know how to write it in Russian which may be more correct.
malfa malfa 5/13/2021 01:25
@ lajosarpad

One can only speculate on how history would have gone if Botvinnik could not have taken advantage of the infamous rematch rule, especially since he was not as dominant a world champion as, say, Carlsen, Kasparov or even Alekhine. Incidentally it should not be forgotten that the latter had profited from that rule many years before Botvinnik, not to mention the personal management of the world title that Alekhine himself and at least one of his predecessors like Lasker were used to. Anyway history is not made of "what if".
lajosarpad lajosarpad 5/13/2021 12:10
Botvinnik was one of the greatest chess players in history. So was Tal. Tal won in 1960 convincingly. Botvinnik won the rematch convincingly. However, I fully agree that he should have had to qualify, this special privilege just for Botvinnik to have a rematch was ridiculous. If the defending champ has a rematch right, then Smyslov and Tal should have had similar rights after losing their World Championship title. As about this psychological game imposing the demand of a Moscow doctor to analyze Tal's health was subhumane in my opinion. So, as a chess player Botvinnik won convincingly, but his attitude was not noble at all.
malfa malfa 5/13/2021 10:08
@ Keshava

The psychological fight is part of the game, so the one who wins the overall battle, is *always* the best one until the next title match. Incidentally, nobody has ever heard of this "Spaasky" (sic).
Keshava Keshava 5/13/2021 05:07
And of course Fischer was a rating favorite against Spaasky. But that didn't stop Fischer from starting his chess battle against Spaasky OFF the chessboard.
Keshava Keshava 5/13/2021 05:02
A match is not always won by the best player but by the best PERFORMANCE. Botvinnik made an unreasonable demand, hoping that he could lure Tal into playing in an unhealthy condition - and it worked! Fischer did something similar with Spaasky - demand after demand until Spaasky became unsettled and was ready to agree to anything! Both Tal and later Spaasky were defeated off the chessboard!
tom_70 tom_70 5/13/2021 04:40
Tal is one of the players that a lot of us try and emulate with little success. Who doesn't wanna launch kingside attacks after a few moves into the game? The chain smoking, womanizing, binge drinking just added to his aura. He was a rock star of the chess world.
sshivaji sshivaji 5/12/2021 08:16

Fully agree. While Tal was a crowd favorite because of his enterprising charm and style, he was not organized or even serious in his preparation. A seasoned champion has to take care of his body and come back strongly after a loss. Tal, unfortunately, acted like a one-hit-wonder. A lot of talent, but almost no discipline for remaining a world champion.

Botvinnik's preparation methods on the other hand showed the grit of a many-time world champion. Our hearts yearn for Tal, but our rational side will realize this won’t happen.
malfa malfa 5/12/2021 07:05
"But despite the clear result Botvinnik's victory still failed to convince." On what grounds can such a statement be made? Of course it is Tal, rather than Botvinnik, the one who lives deep in the hearts of all us chess lovers, but Misha never showed any care for his tormented body, whereas it is players like Botvinnik and Smyslov who pointed out to their modern successors how important is to keep a champion's body in the best possible form: it is as vital a part of a sportsman's preparation as it is the deepest study of his discipline, so what exactly was unconvincing with Botvinnik's victory? Of course he always had a lot in his favour: the rematch rules, his political influence, his sheer determination in demanding all the most favourable playing conditions as he still were the Champion, his unrestrained ability to create psychological pressure on the opponent, but which champion wouldn't play all his cards in order to prove himself as the best player in the world? And he did, full stop.