Endgame riddle: Tal vs Najdorf, Bled 1961

by Karsten Müller
4/3/2022 – A strong 20-player round-robin tournament took place in 1961 at the traditional chess city of Bled. Mikhail Tal won the event ahead of a young Bobby Fischer, who impressed with his undefeated performance. In the final round, Tal converted an endgame with rook and bishop against rook and knight in his game against Miguel Najdorf. But was the endgame winning all along? Or could have Najdorf held a draw? Help GM Karsten Müller find the answer to these questions!

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A jubilee celebration in Bled

Bobby Fischer, Mikhail TalThirty years after Alexander Alekhine dominated the 1931 Bled Tournament, obtaining an undefeated 20½/26 score against strong opposition, the then-Yugoslav city organized a jubilee celebration to commemorate the event. A 20-player single round-robin tournament took place from September 3 until October 3 at the traditional chess city.

About four months after losing the World Championship title to Mikhail Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal was among the participants. An 18-year-old Bobby Fischer also made his way to Bled, where, besides Tal, he joined the likes of Tigran Petrosian, Paul Keres, Svetozar Gligoric, Efim Geller and Miguel Najdorf.

In the end, Tal, aged 24 at the time, prevailed. The magician from Riga scored eleven wins and only lost to Fischer. The young American was the only player to finish undefeated, but his eight wins left him a full point behind the Soviet genius in the final standings table.

Going into the final round, Fischer was trailing Tal by a half point. The rising star from Chicago had the black pieces against Borislav Ivkov, while Tal faced a 51-year-old Najdorf. Fischer and Ivkov drew, as Tal got the better of Najdorf after converting an endgame with rook and bishop against rook and knight — which takes us to our riddle.

The duel bishop against knight can be very deep and fascinating. On an 8x8 board, both pieces are approximately of equal value, and who gets an edge depends on the circumstances. In this case, Tal’s bishop is superior. But the advantage is surprisingly difficult to convert.

Was the endgame winning all along? Or could have Najdorf held a draw?


Please share any analysis you come up with on the comments section. You may also like to use more powerful engines to assist you in your efforts. Fat Fritz, for instance, goes for some unconventional continuations and surprises. I will evaluate your submissions and discuss them with you.

Magical Chess Endgames Vol. 1 & 2 + The magic of chess tactics

In over 4 hours in front of the camera, Karsten Müller presents to you sensations from the world of endgames - partly reaching far beyond standard techniques and rules of thumb - and rounds off with some cases of with own examples.


Karsten Müller is considered to be one of the greatest endgame experts in the world. His books on the endgame - among them "Fundamentals of Chess Endings", co-authored with Frank Lamprecht, that helped to improve Magnus Carlsen's endgame knowledge - and his endgame columns for the ChessCafe website and the ChessBase Magazine helped to establish and to confirm this reputation. Karsten's Fritztrainer DVDs on the endgame are bestsellers. The mathematician with a PhD lives in Hamburg, and for more than 25 years he has been scoring points for the Hamburger Schachklub (HSK) in the Bundesliga.
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alaomega alaomega 4/15/2022 04:43
A side note and one that if is inappropriate, you may delete with no hard feelings, Zoran is a strong chess instructor as well as endgame analyst.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 4/9/2022 09:08
rakerchess: Many thanks! 27.Qb3?= is wrong and 27.b4!+- right and 35...Ra5?! is indeed weaker than 35...Rf8! and 36...Ra1+? is a losing error as 36...Ra5!! should defend. Now everything is solved.
rakerchess rakerchess 4/8/2022 07:35
MickyMaus90: you're right, 48...Ra3 49 h3 Nb3+ 50 Ke1 Nc5 (only move)= is an easier way to reach a draw.

Fat Fritz 2 running on the Beast points out mistakes (in addition to the blunders mentioned earlier) by the players: Najdorf's 15...Bd5?, giving up the two bishops, handed Tal a large advantage, where 15...g6 16 Nd2 Ne7 17 Ne7 Qe7= was equal.

Tal's 27 Qb3? left him with only a small advantage, where 27 b4 Qd5 28 Bd5 Kf8 would have left him with his large advantage.

Najdorf's 35...Ra4? gave Tal a large advantage, where 35...Rf8 36 Rb4 Kc7 (only move) 37 Rh4 h5 (only move) would only have given Tal a small advantage.

Finally, Najdorf's 36...Ra1+? (give a check) gave Tal a winning advantage, where 36...Ra5 37 Bf3 d5 38 Kg2 Kc7 39 Rb4 e4 40 Bd1 Nc6 41 Ra4 Rb5 42 Ra2 Rb6 would have limited Tal to a large advantage.

I have not commented on mistakes after the blunder 44...Nb7??, since they don't affect the outcome of the game (win for Tal)
arzi arzi 4/8/2022 06:51
Winner is the one who makes the second last mistake.
MickyMaus90 MickyMaus90 4/7/2022 09:06
rakerchess: Many thanks for your input!
One question to your analysis at Black's move 44, if you don't mind.
44...Kd8 45.Rxh7 Rc2 46.c4 e4+ 47.Ke3 Rc3+ 48.Kd2. In my commentary I have given 48...Ra3 the preference here, to get maximum attacking distance. In contrast you give 48...Rb3 as only move. Could you give me more details about this?
Best wishes,
Wolfram Schön
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 4/7/2022 04:10
rakerchess: Many thanks! I think that

1) 31...axb5? was indeed wrong and 31...a5! called for
2) 33.Rb6 was a mistake and 33.g3+- or 33.Bd5 was called for
3) 43.Ra8? was a mistake and 43.h4 was indeed called for
4) 44...Nb7? was a mistake and 44...Kd8 was called for

Well done! But there are more mistakes to be found...
rakerchess rakerchess 4/7/2022 03:56
Comments by the "Beast", an HP Z8 workstation with two Intel Xeon processors running @ 3 GHz, 48 cores, 192 GB RAM, and using Syzygy tablebases, opening book turned off, one minute analysis per move, commenting only blunders (??), not mistakes (?):

Although not so obvious to human eyes, Najdorf's 31....ab5??+- was a blunder, where 31....a5 32 b6 Nc6 (only move) 33 Rb5 Kd7 would have left Tal with only a small advantage.

Tal blundered in his turn with 33 Rb6??, leaving him with only a small advantage, where 33 g3 Rc7 34 Bd5 Ke7 35 Kf1 Kd7 36 Ke2 Kc8+- would have kept his winning advantage. I trust that the Beast's strategic and endgame judgment is good in this even material position, again, not so obvious for human eyes.

Tal blundered and lost his winning advantage with 43 Ra8??=, where 43 h4 Nc5 44 Ra7+ Kd8 45 Rh7 Rc2 46 c4 e4+ 47 Ke3 (only move) Rc3+ 48 Kd2 Rb3+- would have kept it.

Najdorf made the final blunder with 44....Nb7??+-, but the road to equality was long and tortuous (with many only moves required), and it seems unlikely that he have found the eye of the needle: 44....Kd8 45 Rh7 Rc2 (only move) 46 c4 e4+ (only move) 47 Ke3 Rc3+ (only move) 48 Kd2 Rb3 (only move) 49 Rh4 g5 (only move) 50 Rh8+ Ke7 (only move) 51 h4 gh4 52 Rh4 e3+! 53 fe3 Rb2+ (only move) 54 Kc3 Rb3= and Najdorf would have drawn two pawns down
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 4/4/2022 08:24
brian8871: 44...Nb7? was indeed the decisive mistake as 44...Kd8 defends and draws.
brian8871 brian8871 4/3/2022 09:53
Instead of 44...Nb7, 44...Kd8 allows Black to fight on for a while longer.
Karsten Müller Karsten Müller 4/3/2022 08:40
brian8871: 35...Ra4?! is indeed not precise, but probably still defendable. And 47...Nc5 does not save the game anymore. Please have a deeper look again!
brian8871 brian8871 4/3/2022 06:59
35...Ra4 is not best. 35. ...Rf8 would be better. But the game losing mistake was 47...Rb5. 47...Nc5 was the last chance to save the game.