A son remembers Misha

by Nagesh Havanur
1/8/2020 – Sally Landau marries Misha Tal for love. Then she separates from him on account of his affairs with other women. Meanwhile, she has to make a living and bring up her son, Gera, so she takes up a job with a travelling orchestra. On one of these trips she leaves the little boy with Ida, her mother-in-law. Unfortunately, Ida falls seriously ill. So a friend who works in a sanatorium takes in Gera for the time being. | Photo: Svetlana Punte / "Sally Landau" Album

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This is part four of a story on "Checkmate" (part 1 | part 2 | part 3), a memoir by Sally Landau

In a home for orphans

The little boy is lonely and miserable. He cannot understand why he is kept in this dismal place. His mother had told him it’s a seaside resort and a nice holiday home. It is not. This is a sanatorium for orphans.

Checkmate, Sally LandauOne day Misha, his dad, comes to visit him and his joy knows no bounds. Of course Dad is fond of him. He never calls him by his proper name, Gera. Instead he has all sorts of funny names: “Goose”, “Goosevich”, “Goosenysh” and so on. Dad is always away in Moscow and busy playing chess. He has never taken him to a cinema or a joy ride.

But this time it’s different. Dad takes him to a restaurant and then to the circus. The boy thinks Dad has come to take him away from this place. Then he receives a bitter blow to his hopes. Dad tells him he has to go for a tournament and children are not allowed there. So he is leaving him behind. But he is not to worry. Mum would come and take him home soon. He doesn’t believe Dad and pleads with him to take him with him right now. Dad tells him sweetly and nicely, it’s not possible. Then Dad leaves. The boy is inconsolable. 

Now he is treated like any other orphan in this place. His head is shaven and has to wear grey overalls just like others. Days and weeks pass. There is no sign of Mum, as Dad promised. Then as if by miracle she turns up. He rushes into her arms. She is shocked to see his appearance and weeps. She reproaches herself for what happened, though it is not entirely her fault. She brings him home.

Misha makes amends

Back home he still misses Dad. Time and again he “celebrates” his birthday without seeing him, who is forever busy with tournaments, if not carousing with companions in Moscow. Even when he is in Riga he seldom calls his son and it hurts the boy. One day he phones Uncle Robert and tells him he would never see Dad again. An hour later Dad calls, “Goosevich? Forgive me, my dear boy! Your Dad got exhausted from playing…But I was thinking about you all the time…You know how hard it is to call you from abroad…Forgive me, Goosevich, or should I go and drown myself?” He feels ashamed at having taken offence at Dad. He goes straight to see him and apologizes. Dad acts as though nothing happened, and ever since he loses his  “selfishness” as a son. It’s then that he realizes: this is the father he has and no other! Thus begins a rare bonding between father and son…

Misha picks up “suicide chess”

When Gera is 18, he picks up “suicide chess”.  One day he challenges his father to a game. Misha comments, “That kind of game is only good for lunatics”. But he is curious. So he agrees to play and promptly loses! “Stuff and nonsense”, he mutters and asks for a “return match”. This time he wins. So the father and the son play a series of matches and the score is close, 3:2 on either side. But if Dad has a glass of vodka he leaves Gera with no chances.

On occasion Gera accompanies Dad to tournaments. First, it is exhilarating and then exhausting. He doesn’t have Dad’s stamina for smoking, drinking, playing day and night.
Otherwise, he is happy to see him and be with him.

Mikhail Tal, Gera TalTime and again he would receive a call from Dad.

“Goosevich, hi! I am in Riga. How are you?”

“Hi Dad! For how long will you be here?”

“A couple of weeks. Why, have you had enough of me?”

Now how do you answer that question? He doesn’t want his Dad to wait for long. So he gets to Gorky Street as fast as he can.

“Goose, I don’t know if you have grown faster, but you’ve certainly grown. How are you?”

“Fine, and you?”

“Oh, great! I am missing a kidney, screwed up at the tournament, lost money. Everything else is terrible.”

They sit together in companionable silence…

Years pass. Gera studies medicine and becomes a junior doctor. It’s a tough time in his life. He has little money. He even gives blood once a week, earning extra cash as a donor.

The first crisis

One day Gelya, his stepmother, calls him at work. She is in panic. Dad has been taken to hospital. Doctors say it’s internal bleeding.

But how does he leave? He is on duty, the only doctor covering four wards. But if he doesn’t go, he may never see Dad alive. It’s a harsh dilemma.

Finally, Gera is able to get away from duty. He grabs a cab and reaches the hospital. Dad is in the ICU. First, he is relieved to find the family doctor, Joseph Geikhman, a dear friend of Dad. Then he is anxious to see the troubled face of the old physician. Geikhman shows them the X-Ray, and they see a tumour in the belly. Doctors recommend an emergency operation. But the patient has lost a lot of blood. So he first needs blood. Gera offers to give away his own blood.  They look at his arms covered in pricks and refuse. He is desperate; he shouts and demands that they pour his blood into Dad’s; they have the same blood group. The doctors whisper among themselves, then place him on the table, extract his blood, pour it into Dad and take him away for the operation.

His head is spinning after donating so much blood. They put him in a wheel chair and take him to the balcony. Inwardly he addresses a few words to his father, “Dad, you have laughed your whole life, turning everything into a joke. I beseech you, show us you are joking this time too. Make everyone stupefied with amazement. You can do it!” 

Then he reproaches himself. Dad has tumour and has internal bleeding. How can he be joking?

The operation is over. Dr. Geikhman appears again. He has the expression of a man who has just realized he is a complete fool.

“He’s OK and the tumour is not there! I don’t know where it has gone. But we have taken care of the stomach lining and stopped the bleeding for good…”

It’s a miracle and nothing in the knowledge and experience of doctors can explain it. Gera, a trained physician, cannot understand it either.

Dad recovers and when he wakes up, he smiles, “What are you hanging around here for, Goosenysh?” Relief all round.

Mikhail Tal, Interzonal 1964

Healthier days — Mikhail Tal during the 1964 Interzonal | Photo: Harry Pot / Anefo

The second crisis

Two weeks later Gera receives a call at night. Gelya is weeping into the receiver.

“Dad is in hospital again”

“What do you mean again?”

“Didn’t you know, he ran away from hospital?”

“What do you mean he ran away?”

“He said he was bored. He put his rain coat on over his pajamas, surreptitiously ordered a cab and came home. The lift was not working. So he took the stairs to the third floor and rang the bell. Before I knew it, he was happily drinking cabbage soup…then another basin full of blood… They’ve just taken him away in the ambulance.” 

Gera chucks some brandy into his bag and rushes to the hospital. Dad is pale and unconscious. His heart quails, “Why are you doing this, Dad? Why do you keep pulling at Death’s nose? Well, if you like those games, then play them.  But please take a break. We are only human.”

They need blood for the patient and it has to be the right group. He offers to donate his blood again and they refuse. He has to argue and fight his way through. Finally when they agree, he gets a crazy idea. Maybe brandy helps. He goes into the bathroom and takes the brandy bottle and drinks it away.

The same thing all over again. He has to lie motionless on the table. They have to extract his blood and insert it into his father. After about five minutes Dad opens his eyes and says, “Goose … I feel like I have just drunk brandy!”

Dad lives.

Gera remains concerned

Gera settles down in Israel and begs Dad to come there and remain with him for good. No way: old Misha adores his son, but he does not want to be a burden to him. Importantly, he loves his freedom and wants to live as he pleases.

Gera feels helpless as he cannot change his decision. But then no one can, once Dad makes up his mind about something.

So Dad plays hide and seek with Death as ever before. And Death mocks, “How long?”

To be continued...


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 three decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.


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