Misha in memoriam

by Nagesh Havanur
11/15/2018 – Last week saw the birth anniversary of Mikhail Tal, (1936-1992) 8th World Champion and legendary player. Few players captured the imagination of the chess world as he and Bobby Fischer did. We offered him a small tribute and here is another by our columnist who also draws our attention to a slim volume that deserves to be better known. | Photo: Riga greets Tal

Master Class Vol.2: Mihail Tal 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.


The prankster from Riga

A group of boys has gathered near the telephone booth. Eager and excited, they want their ringleader to make the first move. “Go in and call. They won’t know a thing” he nudges his friend. “You said, you were going to do it.” “Never mind, it’s your turn. I shall back you up if something goes wrong.”

“Hello, Good Morning. Is this the zoo?”

“Yes, what can we do for you?”

“Would you call the Director?”

“He is busy in a meeting…”

“This is a call from Moscow. Tell him, it’s urgent and important”. By now the receptionist is on red alert and calls the Director on the other line.

“What is it? I told you I won’t be disturbed.”

“Comrade, it’s a call from Moscow.”

“Give it to me immediately”

“Sorry, sorry. I am the Director. I could have called you myself if I had known... What can do I for you?”

“Never mind, comrade. Do you have an elephant in your zoo?’


Photo Credit: Centre for Baltic Heritage

“Yes, he is well looked after. I hope, no one has made a complaint on that account.”

“No, we do have a message for him. Could you call him right him away?”

The Director, bemused, asks, “What? The elephant… in my office…?” and then getting the “message”, roars, “Who are you? What kind of nonsense is this? I shall have you….” 

It takes some time for him to realise that his caller has already put the phone down. The boy is out of the booth, grinning from ear to ear. His pal, laughing, shakes hands with him, “I told you, you could do it.” The rest of the friends gather around them. Congrats are in order. Then the little crowd, hooting and whistling, disappears from the street lest they be caught in the act.*

Team tal book cover

Team Tal book cover (click or tap to expand) — the boys, Misha and Valentin lived in Riga

This slim volume is the story of the two boys. One grew up to be world champion and a living legend. The other made only modest progress. He became a chess coach and a journalist. More importantly, he took care of his friend in a critical period of his life and remained loyal to him till the end. Welcome to the world of Misha Tal and Valentin Kirillov.

Kirillov and Tal

Kirillov and Tal | Photo: Team Tal, Elk and Ruby Publishing House, 2017

Admittedly, this book is only for Tal fans.  If your aim is no more than raising your rating from 2200 to 2400 it’s not for you. There is hardly any game in it. But if you are not the narrow utilitarian type you will want to read this book.

The narrative itself goes back and forth, with the author going down the memory lane. So in this part of the story I shall only mention only a few highlights.

The boys, Misha and Valentin lived in Riga. It was here that they met their mentor, Alexander Koblenz.

Koblenz Aivar Gipslis and TalUnder Alexander Koblenz (photo [right]: publiclibrary.ru Archives) as their mentor, they became firm friends. There were also other talented players like Janis Klovans and Aivar Gipslis (seen here with young Misha | photo [left]: Chessnews.ru). The young Latvians shone competing with older and more experienced teams from Moscow and Leningrad.

What I found in the story touching was young Misha’s eagerness to help his team mates, be it opening analysis or adjournment. If someone lost, he would be all tact, cheer him up and assure him, he would do better next time. With success, he spent more time in Moscow and he lost contact with old friends like Valentin who also drifted away with changing careers. But the same affectionate ties remained between the boyhood friends.

Misha meets the legends of his time

One of the first tournaments young Misha played was the USSR Championship 1956.** Here he met quite a few illustrious figures in chess history:

Levenfish and Tal

Tal with Grigory Levenfish who had crossed swords with Lasker, Capablanca, & Alekhine and also won the USSR Championship way back in 1937 | Photo: Team Tal, Elk and Ruby Publishing House, 2017

Tolush and Flohr with Tal

With Alexander Tolush (seated) and Salo Flohr, a great contemporary of Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Keres & Fine. Tal beat Tolush in a fierce combinational struggle in this championship. Their rivalry was to last three years. | Photo: Team Tal, Elk and Ruby Publishing House, 2017

A modest debut

The USSR Championship had a relatively “weak”field in that the big guns, Botvinnik, Smyslov and Keres were not playing. Nevertheless, it was still strong with experienced campaigners, Averbakh, Boleslavsky, Ragozin, Taimanov and Tolush participating. The younger lot included Spassky, Korchnoi and Polugaevsky. It would have intimidated any newcomer. Not Misha. In the first round he escaped with a draw after getting into trouble with Antoshin. In the second round he outplayed Khasin and finished the game with a neat queen sacrifice.

A scintillating Performance


Then came the third round and here he met Vladimir Simagin (photo: Wikireading.ru).

The veteran master was a highly original player and his openings drew their inspiration from the Hypermoderns, especially, Tartakower. 

Here's a stunning performance that made headlines in the chess world and served as a “visiting card” of the new talent. It also led to a lively debate. One commentator who was effusive in his praise of the game was Igor Bondarevsky (the well-known trainer who later became a mentor of Boris Spassky.

Tal-Simagin, USSR Championship 1956


Spassky and Bondarevsky

Bondarevsky (right) with his protégé, Boris Spassky | Photo: e3e5.com

However, Bondarevsky also made some critical remarks on Simagin’s idiosyncratic opening play in his report in the tournament bulletin. Stung by the criticism, Simagin wrote an indignant letter to the editors, justifying his play.

The game had another curious aftermath. Simagin was the Editor of the Yearbook of Chess and here he offered a fine analysis of Tal’s games in the Championship. While he lavished praise on the Latvian for his inspired play he also marked his overindulgence in combinative play and fantasy, not to mention carelessness and lack of technique.

Tal acts in a film

The present generation of players knows Simagin only as the loser of this game. His own chess career was relatively modest as compared to leading grandmasters of the day. But Tal did not measure people in terms of their sporting success. He saw a genuine creative artist in Simagin. He used to tell others, “Simagin is the Don Quixote of chess.” The Russian film, “Grossmeister” (Grandmaster) (1972) is said to be inspired by his life.

According to Kirillov, the author of this book, Tal was even asked to play the lead role. In the end, it did not come about. However, both Tal and Korchnoi enjoyed themselves as supporting actors:

Tal and Korchnoi flying high in film

The true knight of the chessboard

Why did Tal admire Simagin so much? Take a look at the position here:


Play your moves on the live diagram!

Simagin has three pieces en prise. Meanwhile, his opponent is threatening mate in two. So what did he do? Give it a try and then see it for yourself.


A game that Tal would have loved to play himself!

Simagin's grave

A grave for a restless spirit (click or tap to expand) | Photo: SerSem CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

To be continued...

In the next part of this article let us see more of Tal and his devoted friend who wrote this book.

*I have used some creative license to imagine the whole scene. Otherwise, yes, they did call up the zoo with a “message” for the elephant.

** Tal scored 10½/17 points sharing 5th-7th places with Kholmov and Polugaevsky. He finished half a point behind Korchnoi and one point behind the winners, Averbakh, Spassky and Taimanov.  Author, Tibor Karolyi put the performance in perspective, “Tal scored remarkably well against the bottom eight players, scoring seven points, but against the top nine opponents he scored seven draws and two defeats without a single win.”

(Mikhail Tal’s Best Games Vol.1 The Magic of Youth, Quality Chess.2014)

He was only 20 and his best was yet to come.

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


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register