Mikhail Tal – a favourite of Caissa

by Nagesh Havanur
11/9/2015 – The 9th of November happens to be the birth anniversary of Misha Tal, who continues to be adored by the chess world long after his death. In 1959 he won the quadruple round robin Candidates Tournament, and the next year he went on to beat Botvinnik in the World Championship match. He was only 24 years old. Prof. Havanur presents a delightful episode from his career.

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Mikhail Tal – a favourite of Caissa

By Prof. Nagesh Havanur

The Candidates' Tournament 1959 was one of the greatest triumphs of Tal’s career. It was a star-studded field with eight players: Vassily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Tigran Petrosian, Mikhail Tal, Svetozar Gligorich, Pal Benko, Fridrik Olafsson and a 16-year-old Bobby Fischer! (Misha beat him 4-0). The event began rather ominously for Tal, with losses to Smyslov and Keres. But he picked up pace with courage and confidence. By the end of the second cycle it was already clear that the real struggle for the first place lay between Tal and Keres. The third cycle of the Tournament commenced in Zagreb. Harry Golombek recalled:

"If the audience had been surprisingly large at Bled, then they were still more impressive in their numbers at Zagreb where popular enthusiasm for chess is clearly very great indeed. The hall of play had some 700 seats but all tickets were sold well in advance and it was the custom for the crowds to assemble outside the playing room at each session..."

Spectators got their money's worth in excitement in the first round at Zagreb. Despite Tal's wonderful record it was an open secret that Smyslov was rather contemptuous of his play which seemed to him to allow to too great a role to chance and luck. In fact a few days before he had given an interview to a reporter of the Zagreb Evening News in which he indicated how lucky he thought Tal had been thus far in the tournament and that he regarded it as part of his duties as a grandmaster to beat Tal in a proper manner when next they met.''

Smyslov had reason to be unhappy. The former world champion was beaten in no uncertain terms in the eighth round by the young upstart. It was time for him to put the pretender in his place. We have the rest of the story from Tal himself:

'Up to a certain point Smyslov played the game brilliantly, and completely outplayed me, while in addition I had only 2-3 minutes left for some 15 moves. I had nothing to lose, there was no time for hesitation, and I only attempted to complicate my opponent's task in any way possible. And then, with my flag horizontal, and a further four moves still to make. Smyslov ran into almost the only swindle I had managed to think up."

[Event "Candidates Tournament"] [Site "Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade"] [Date "1959.10.03"] [Round "15"] [White "Smyslov, Vassily"] [Black "Tal, Mihail"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B42"] [PlyCount "80"] [EventDate "1959.09.07"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "28"] [EventCountry "CRO"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. Nxc6 bxc6 7. O-O d5 8. Nd2 Nf6 9. Qe2 Be7 10. Re1 O-O 11. b3 a5 12. Bb2 a4 13. a3 axb3 14. cxb3 Qb6 15. exd5 cxd5 16. b4 Nd7 17. Nb3 e5 18. Bf5 e4 19. Rec1 Qd6 20. Nd4 Bf6 21. Rc6 Qe7 22. Rac1 h6 23. Rc7 Be5 24. Nc6 Qg5 25. h4 Qxh4 26. Nxe5 Nxe5 27. Rxc8 Nf3+ 28. gxf3 Qg5+ 29. Kf1 Qxf5 30. Rxf8+ Rxf8 31. fxe4 dxe4 32. Qe3 Rd8 33. Qg3 g5 34. Rc5 Rd1+ 35. Kg2 Qe6 36. b5 Kh7 37. Rc6 Qd5 38. Qe5 $2 {[#]} (38. Qh2 { wins outright.}) 38... Rg1+ $1 39. Kh2 (39. Kxg1 Qd1+ 40. Kh2 Qh5+ $11) 39... Rh1+ $1 40. Kg2 (40. Kxh1 Qd1+ 41. Kh2 Qh5+ 42. Kg2 Qf3+ $11) 40... Rg1+ 1/2-1/2

“As I later found out, he had seen my rook sacrifice on g1, but on h1 – no. Smyslov is normally imperturbable at the board, but here after 39...Rh1+, his face changed, and after thinking for some three minutes, he made his reply and slammed his clock with furious force. Some of the pieces fell over, but contrary to my normal practice, I first gave check with my rook on...g1, pressed my clock, and then only began to restore order on the board. White could no longer escape from perpetual check.''

The result was no fluke. They met again in the 22nd round. This time Tal gave up a piece that could be called “half sacrifice and half blunder” in his words. But the resulting complications proved too much for Smyslov and it was he who blundered on reaching the time control.

Tal-Smyslov in round eight, move six – Tal won this one in 26 moves

Tal went on to win the Candidates’ Tournament and the last ride was not without adventure. Next year in 1960 he beat Botvinnik in the world championship match. He was only 24 years old. The aftermath also deserves a mention. He was beaten in the return match by Botvinnik. Misha lost the title, but not his wit. With characteristic irony he quipped, “I have a new title, I am the youngest ex-champion.”

Decades later he won the World Blitz Championship ahead of Kasparov among others. For once there was no way of stopping him. By then he was past fifty and had only four years to live. He breathed his last on 28th June, 1992 in Moscow.

By way of post script I should add the following: Smyslov left his disappointment far behind and bore no grudge against Tal for surpassing him in Candidates’. Indeed, he treated young Misha with rare affection thereafter. Time and again Tal would visit the Smyslov dacha and they would spend a happy day playing blitz or looking over the veteran’s games. Here is a combination that Tal admired. Smyslov played it when he was just 14, one year before Tal was born.

[Event "Moscow Championship"] [Site "Moscow"] [Date "1935.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Gerasimov"] [Black "Smyslov, Vassily"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D05"] [PlyCount "48"] [EventDate "1935.??.??"] [EventType "game"] [EventCountry "URS"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2009.11.30"] 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. e3 e6 4. Bd3 c5 5. b3 Nc6 6. Bb2 Bd6 7. O-O Qc7 8. a3 b6 9. c4 Bb7 10. Nc3 a6 11. Re1 cxd4 12. exd4 O-O 13. Na4 Bf4 14. Ne5 dxc4 15. bxc4 Nxe5 16. dxe5 Qc6 17. Bf1 Rfd8 18. Qb3 Ng4 19. h3 Rd3 $1 20. Qxb6 {[#]} Rxh3 $1 21. Bd4 ({If} 21. Qxc6 Bh2+ 22. Kh1 Nxf2#) 21... Bh2+ 22. Kh1 Bxe5+ { and White resigned. If} 23. Kg1 Bh2+ 24. Kh1 Bc7+ {wins the queen.} 0-1

Today Tal and Smyslov are no more. One was the maestro of fantasy and the other of harmony. The Moving Finger writes and having writ moves on… (Omar Khayyam).


A star is born
11/9/2012 – Sixty-four years ago: a twelve-year-old lad is excited that Mikhail Botvinnik is visiting his city. "I am going to challenge him,” he proclaims. To his dismay he is not allowed to go anywhere near the World Champion, but the boy gets to play in a simul against Botvinnik's sparring partner Vyacheslav Ragozin. You know of course who the boy was – today would have been his 76th birthday.

Tal in Memoriam
6/29/2015 – The 28th June happens be the death anniversary of Misha Tal. Few players in chess history have been loved and adored as much as this charismatic figure. Nagesh Havanur pays a tribute to this legendary player, recalling a rare encounter with Garry Kasparov. The second is a hussar-style duel with elegant tactical play throughout. Sheer magic!

Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part I)
6/28/2012 – Exactly 20 years ago, on June 28, 1992, one of the greatest and most popular champions of all time, Mikhail Tal, passed away. In a fitting conclusion to his own legacy of chess before all, the Magician from Riga had escaped from the hospital on May 28, where he was dying from kidney failure, to play in the Moscow Blitz championship where he faced Kasparov. A tribute by Prof. Nagesh Havanur.

Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part II)
7/4/2012 – Twenty years ago one of the greatest and most popular champions of all time, Mikhail Tal, passed away. In a previous column Prof. Nagesh Havanur described how the Magician from Riga spent his final days. Today he describes the friendship and rivalry between Tal and another world-class player, GM Paul Keres. Two encounters between the two are presented as deeply annotated games.

Master Class Vol.2 - Mikhail Tal
6/9/2014 – The first volume in the Master Class was based on Bobby Fischer, one of the most popular and revered players in history. What better player to follow up than Mikhail Tal, the Magician of Riga, whose imaginative play inspired and enthralled generations of players? Here his openings, middlegame, and endgame are scrutinized and analyzed by grandmasters. An in-depth review.

Master Class Vol.2: Mihail Tal

By Dorian Rogozenco, Dr. Karsten Müller, Mihail Marin, Oliver Reeh

No World Champion has enchanted the chess world as much as Mihail Tal did. His reign as World Champion was short but in his time Tal’s star burned with unknown intensity. With his combinations and his intuitive sacrifices the young Tal ran over his opponents, and thrilled the chess world with his risky uncompromising attacking play, which inspired many players to emulate him. In 1960 he beat the reigning World Champion Botvinnik but one year later he lost the title of World Champion again in a return match of doubtful competitive value. But even though Tal was no longer World Champion, he still remained one of the best players in the world. At eight chess Olympiads he won gold with the Soviet team. Six times he became USSR-Champion. In 1973/74 he managed to remain unbeaten in 93 consecutive games, a still unmatched record. In 1988 he won the Blitz World Championship. Despite his frail health Tal enjoyed life to the fullest and was a funny and brilliant man, who loved nothing more than chess. Through the games of Mihail Tal this DVD provides a unique access to the realm of chess tactics. Tal’s colleagues dubbed their tactical guru „Magician“, because in his games seemingly incomprehensible moves in the end blended into a successful whole, as if by magic. But Tal was also a master of strategy and endgame play. 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. In an interactive test they invite you to try to find combinations like Tal did. The DVD also contains all games by Tal, many of them annotated, plus comments and tournament tables.

  • Video running time: 4 hours 13 min (English)
  • Interactive tactics test with video feedback
  • Tactic training with 245 questions.
  • Collection of every Tal game, tables, backround, short biography
  • Tal powerbook – the World Champion’s repertoire as an opening tree
  • ISBN: 978-3-86681-372-4 – EAN: 4027975007960
  • Delivery: download, post
  • Price: €29.90; €25.13 without VAT (for customers outside the EU);
    $26.99 (without VAT)

Topics History, 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 a decade. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 11/16/2015 03:51
That’s right. After 37…Qf5! 38.Rc1 Rd3 39. Qe5 Qf3+ Black has perpetual check.
White should have played 37. Rc3! first, preventing “accidents” on the third rank as pointed out by Tibor Károlyi.
Both Tal and Smyslov were fighting on the edge of precipice, with time control approaching in a matter of minutes.
The_Tenant The_Tenant 11/12/2015 12:09
Smyslov, Vassily–Tal, Mihail

37... Qf5! draws outright!
Denix Denix 11/10/2015 06:40
What a tournament! Imagine playing 28 games in a single tournament, and look at the scores then count the draws - as if it was a blitz tournament.
Offramp Offramp 11/10/2015 05:35
Does anyone have any clear photos of his right hand?
Penny66 Penny66 11/9/2015 08:47
Tal was a brilliant player but one with many faults .Notwithstanding that, he is one of the best-loved and admired chess players of all time!
semprun semprun 11/9/2015 07:27
@Nino-sp I have thought that since I read Fischer's bio in the 70's!

I was also impressed on how, upon drawing to a 2300 player in Seville (1992) Tal proceeded to analyse in very friendly manner, smiling. I know a lot of lesser players would have stamped off. Great guy!
CostaMaison3 CostaMaison3 11/9/2015 07:27
Tal is a creative player. He treats chess as an art. The article is well written. Thanks Chessbibliophile.
algorithmy algorithmy 11/9/2015 06:37
wonderful article.really, a pleasure to read.
Papatactics Papatactics 11/9/2015 03:33
Beautiful combination by Smyslov.. the Rd3 reminds me of a Svidler game with same motif a few years ago I believe
Nino-sp Nino-sp 11/9/2015 01:57
Looking at the crosstable, it could be argued that the score against Fischer was decisive for Tal won against Keres in the final standings.
Offramp Offramp 11/9/2015 01:31
I think it's amazing how well Tal's sacrifices stand up to modern day computer analysis.
andreadangelo andreadangelo 11/9/2015 11:54
Happy Birtday Great Mikhail my Hero
RaoulBertorello RaoulBertorello 11/9/2015 10:12
Great article.