Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part I)

by Nagesh Havanur
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.

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Mikhail Tal: Triumph and Tragedy (Part I)

28th May, 1992. The traditional Moscow Blitz tournament is in full swing. The field is led by World Champion Kasparov himself who has beaten one opponent after another.

Garry Kasparov played the great champion exactly one month before he passed away

But this time there is a kind of electricity in the air. Seated opposite him is a pale emaciated figure who appears to be a shadow of himself. It's only the burning eyes that offer a glimpse of the flame within.

Mikhail Tal shortly before his death

For it's none other than Mikhail Tal, former world champion... the Paganini of chess as he was called in his time. The crowd watches with bated breath. Few are aware that the Latvian genius is critically ill and nearer death's door than ever before. In fact he has sneaked out of the hospital to participate in his favourite tournament. The play begins and Kasparov is soon treated to a Hussar-like cavalry charge. It appears that the World Champion is going to be mated.

Mikhail Tal: living by the sword and dying by the sword (with English subtitles)

The alert Garry beats off the dashing attack, retaining the extra material.... only to overstep the time limit! A stunned Kasparov extends his hand in resignation. Pandemonium breaks out in the hall..... That game was to be Tal's swansong. A month later, on 28th June 1992 he breathed his last in a Moscow hospital and was buried in his native Riga, the city that he loved. The maestro is gone, the magic still lingers.

Mikhail Tal

How time flies! Only a few decades ago the world had seen a different Tal.

Mikhail Tal in 1959

It was this youthful, dashing figure that had captured public imagination with his brilliant play. The ebullient, charismatic grandmaster soon became the darling of the chess world. He had won the USSR Championship twice and came first in the Interzonal the year before. Then he played in the Candidates’ Tournament in Yugoslavia. It was a star-studded field with eight players: Smyslov, Keres, Petrosian,Tal, Gligorich, Benko, Olafsson and a 16-year-old Bobby Fischer!

The event began rather ominously for Tal with losses to Keres and Smyslov.

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. Paul Keres was a living legend. In his long illustrious career spanning four decades he had scored one glittering victoy after another in  international tournaments. Perhaps the greatest of them all was his joint first prize with Reuben Fine ahead of four world champions, Botvinnik, Euwe, Capablanca and Alekhine, not to mention Samuel Reshevsky and Salo Flohr. At that time he was only 22-years-old!

Keres and Fischer playing one of their titanic struggles

During his life time Keres beat every world champion from Capablanca to Fischer in individual games. He had few peers in combinational play and endgame artistry. Unfortunately, his ascent to the world championship suffered a series of setbacks, and during the 1950s he was called Paul the Second as he would invariably occupy the second place in the candidates’ tournaments. In the 1950 Candidates it was David Bronstein who came first. In 1953 and 1956 Candidates it was Vassily Smyslov who pipped him to the post. So this time it was a determined Keres who fought his way through the tournament, although the 43-year-old veteran had handicapped himself by losing to Petrosian and Fischer.

Paul Keres and Misha Tal analyze together

But the great Estonian had shown himself very capable of dealing with Tal's fierce play: he had beaten him twice. In an interview at the end of the tournament Tal was asked what he regarded as the turning point of the event and he replied,

The game against Keres in Round 17... I went into the lead for the first time. The game with Keres thus took on an even greater significance. Before going in for some forced complications he offered me a draw. I recalled two games I had already lost to him in the tournament, and besides I was leading by half a point. Thus a draw was desirable on all accounts, except one:the position was highly interesting and I did not want to part with it. The subsequent play was very lively, and although I got into some time trouble ...I managed to win.”

In the next part of the article we shall see that encounter.

To be continued...


1) The story of Kasparov’s last encounter with Tal is described in his book, Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors Part II (Everyman Chess (2003))

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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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