Going strong at 85 – Mark Taimanov's birthday

2/16/2011 – For decades he was one of the world's top grandmasters. Mark Evgenievich Taimanov, who last week turned 85, has led a very full life, as a child actor, concert pianist and as a proud father (having children 57 years apart!). For his birthday this extraordinary personality gave a number of interviews and with them a unique insight into contemporary chess and his personal life.

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Mark Taimanov at 85 – a chess career and more

Mark Evgenievich Taimanov was born on February 7, 1926. He became a chess grandmaster in 1952, and was in the world's top ten for over a decade. He played in the USSR Championships a total of 23 times and twice tied for first, losing the playoff against Botvinnik in 1952 and beating Averbakh and Spassky in the tiebreaks in 1956.

Taimanov played in the Candidates Tournament in Zurich in 1953, where he tied for 8th. In 1971 he was a candidate for the World Championship, but lost 6-0 to Bobby Fischer, severely embarrassing the Soviet government in the process. The "disgrace" was moderated somewhat when GM Bent Larsen was also defeated 6-0 by the American some months later.

Mark Taimanov has opening variations named after him in the Sicilian Defense and Nimzo-Indian.

Interviews at 85

For his 85th birthday, Taimanov, still in sparkling form, gave a number of interviews, including the following:

  • Sport Weekend: “The best musician among chess players and the best chess player among musicians”, Vladimir Vashevnik
  • Rossijskaja Gazeta: “Life is a game”, Evgeny Tsinkler
  • Izvestia: “Playing black and white”, David Genkin

Chess in Translation has provided us with some of the highlights from those interviews.

Music and chess (Rossijskaja Gazeta)

Taimanov was introduced to music by his mother, who taught the piano at the conservatory in Kharkov, Ukraine, before the family moved to Leningrad. His first brush with stardom came early on. He became famous for playing the role of the violinist in the film “Beethoven’s Concerto”. But how did an 11-year-old boy play a violinist in a film, despite being a pianist?

They gave me a teacher, who in a short space of time taught me not only how to hold the violin elegantly and correctly, but also to play some fragments of Beethoven’s concerto. I had to learn the fingering with my left hand on the fingerboard and bowing with my right. It seems I managed – even in close-ups you can’t see anything wrong.

Many many years later the wonderful American violinist Isaac Stern came to give concerts in Russia. We were on good terms and spent a lot of time together. He once shared his impressions with me after a master class in the conservatory: “You’ve got a lot of talented young violinists, but strangely they all have a very dull and inartistic way of holding the instrument. I’ve only once in my life seen a young Russian violinist who really held the violin elegantly. That was in the film “Beethoven’s Concerto”. “Isaac”, I said, “that wasn’t a violinist, that was me!”

Taimanov is often very modest about his achievements in music, but at the very least he was a top pianist in the Soviet Union, and eventually achieved international recognition:

My highest honour in music was our duet being included in the “Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century” series produced by Philips and Steinway. Among the seventy albums, along with names I’ve always bowed down to – Rubinstein, Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Gilels – there’s a sole piano duet, Lyubov Bruk and Mark Taimanov. That was a total surprise and an incredible source of pride.

Of course as a chess player who was in or close to the world top-10 for over 20 years, Taimanov has often been asked how he managed to combine his two careers.

Having two professions meant I managed to avoid professional jealousy – musicians could consider me a chess player and chess players – a musician. I considered those I played against not opponents, but partners: together we created a work of art – the game of chess. It was the same as the way in which my first wife, Lyubov Bruk, and I would create works of music at the piano. [Sport Weekend]

It is not hard to find music by Taimanov and Bruk on the internet. The following, for instance, is wonderful:

You can also click on the icon on the right to listen to Taimanov playing Mozart's Concerto in E-flat, KV 365 Rondo Allegro, with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra.

The hands of the maestro

Bobby Fischer

Mark Taimanov knew Bobby Fischer since the latter was a teenager, and often talked about him. Asked about the American chess genius for whom "nothing existed in the world except chess" Taimanov replies:

Yes, but perhaps that’s precisely why he was interesting. After all, he wasn’t simply a professional chess player, but a minister of that cult. I never even saw him without a chessboard.

Here’s an example. For a period of time he was fascinated (which happened extremely rarely with him) by a charming St. Petersburg woman called Polina. She didn’t speak English, however, and Fischer asked my wife, Nadya, to be an interpreter on their romantic date. Polina was running late. Fischer was dressed strangely: despite the summer heat wave he was wearing a leather coat, with all the buttons fastened, while he had a bag in his hands which, of course, contained a chess set. The first question he asked Nadya was: “Do you play chess?” And then, until Polina appeared, he couldn’t find another topic to talk about.

Chess was his life, his philosophy. He even said that the five years he spent in school were lost for him, as he could have devoted that time to chess. He probably was uneducated, but you couldn’t under any circumstances accuse him of a lack of erudition. His IQ was incredibly high.

At the same time Fischer had some abnormalities. For example, he hated communists and was a terrible anti-Semite, although his mother was a practising Jew. Yes, at certain moments he could be unpleasant and even insufferable. But he was a genius, which means he had the right to certain oddities, as after all genius is an abnormality in itself.

Mark Taimanov is perhaps best known for losing 6:0 to Bobby Fischer in 1971. The American grandmaster then went on to beat Bent Larsen by the same scoreline, overcome Tigran Petrosian by a slightly more respectable 6.5-2.5, and then clinched the World Championship by beating Boris Spassky. It was also a turning point for Taimanov, who suffered repression from the Soviet authorities solely, it seems, on account of Soviet chess having suffered a serious loss of face:

After that encounter they took away my “Honoured Master of Sport of the USSR” title, banned me for some time from overseas trips and forbid me from being printed. The formal pretext for the punishment was supposed to be that the customs officers found a book by the then still Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn – “In the First Circle”. But, despite all that, I recall that encounter with Fischer with enormous pleasure. Yes, the sporting result was depressing, but I had no reason to be embarrassed by the content, the creative side of the games... But more than that, I’m glad that fate in general allowed me to play a match against that great grandmaster. I was also one of the last to have the chance to meet Robert Fischer at the chess board. In 1992 I wrote a book with the title “I was a victim of Fischer”. I sent the first copy to Robert. His reaction was immediate: Fischer expressed his gratitude and said that he liked the book. [Izvestia]

I probably shouldn’t have lost by such a score. Fischer himself conceded that. He said the result didn’t correspond to the way the struggle went in the match, and that by the sixth game in his opinion the score should have been no more than 3.5-2.5 in his favour. But the psychological factor played a role. It was the first time I was encountering not a playing partner, but a computer that didn’t make mistakes. [Rossijskaja Gazeta]

Regarding contemporary chess, Taimanov is asked: "Alekhine, Tal, Botvinnik… In the past everyone knew the names of chess players. But, it seems, that ended with Kasparov. Why?"

Yes, I’d say that with Kasparov, the thirteenth World Champion, the golden age of chess came to an end. The thing is that up until the thirteenth they were all vivid, original personalities. There’s the great Lasker – a philosopher and thinker. The brilliant Capablanca – Mozart at the chessboard, a diplomat, a handsome man and a polyglot. There’s Alekhine – a prominent lawyer and the most interesting of men, there’s Euwe – a professor, a strong mathematician. Each World Champion was also interesting beyond the chessboard. It was always an event to watch the clash between people who were such opposites in terms of temperament, interests and public views. Take, for example, the Karpov-Kasparov match. That wasn’t just a chess encounter, it was a struggle between two worlds!

If you look at today’s champions, however, then the majority of them don’t arouse any particular interest beyond chess. Well, maybe Vishwanathan Anand stands apart – perhaps because he’s Indian. Besides that he’s extremely intelligent by nature and doesn’t get involved in any toilet scandals. [Rossijskaja Gazeta]

Chess stars and computers

Although understandably focussed on the past, Taimanov also comments on some of the up-and-coming stars.

Among the men the most talented representative of the “new wave” is the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. Before turning 20 he managed to win a number of super-tournaments and occupy first place on the rating list. It’s a pity that he withdrew from the Candidates Matches. In that regard he’s copying Fischer. [Sport Weekend]

I’ve been following American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura for a couple of years already. I’m impressed by the vitality, imagination and calculated risk in his games. I think the victory of the young American in Wijk-aan-Zee was a little unexpected, but fully deserved. I don’t think there’s any point rushing to the conclusion that he is the new Fischer. Robert Fischer was a genius, and geniuses, as we know, can’t be cloned. Moreover, in terms of the way he plays, and his character, Nakamura isn’t like Fischer at all. [Izvestia]

"Have computers been a factor in the way the game’s changed?" the octogenarian is asked.

Yes, they’ve been a negative influence. Chess has lost its analytical side. That function has been taken over by the computer. You can get a position after 15 moves in the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defence. I struggled with it for years, but the players don’t know what to do next. For some, independent play only starts on the 25th move, and ends two moves later – the computer considers the position drawn. The creative aspect has been strangled. Now it’s mainly a spectacle. They play at blitz speed. There’s no analysis of positions. You can watch the game at home, which is equivalent to listening to an opera on a recording instead of in the theatre. The media mainly covers scandals. For example, the toilet scandal during Kramnik’s match against Veselin Topalov. [Sport Weekend]

Family life

For an 85-year-old man, Taimanov has an unusual family situation. He remarried late in life and became the father of twins at an advanced age.

"When children appear in the world everything else really does appear trifling," he said. And I must say to those who are about my age that I’ve never felt happier than I do now, when life is focussed on these wonderful creatures. Thank you, Nadya, for that!" On the fact that the age difference between his first son and the twins is 57 years – in essence, two generations – he says: "We have a very funny situation. Misha and Dima end up being the aunt and uncle of my granddaughter. And she’s 27." [Rossijskaja Gazeta]

An NDR Russian YouTube portrait of Mark Taimanov (in Russian)

We wish Mark Evgenevich good health and to preserve the charge of cheerfulness for many years to come. Happy 85th Birthday!


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