Misha Tal: A tale of two fathers

by Nagesh Havanur
2/2/2020 – When Sally Landau published her reminiscences of her life with Misha Tal it created a controversy. Tal’s other wife, Angelina and daughter Zhanna slammed the work. One point that rankled them was the way in which Misha’s paternity was questioned in the book. This is a delicate issue and our columnist advises caution before drawing conclusions. | Photos: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family Apartment album / Original source(s) unknown

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.

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This is part five of a story on "Checkmate", a book authored by Sally Landau
(Elk and Ruby) | Read part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

“He is our doctor’s son!”

Riga, April 1957. The city is celebrating spring. Not Misha. Suffering from pneumonia he has been admitted to hospital. They all know him here as the Doctor’s son.

book coverMisha’s father, Nekhemia Tal is an outstanding physician. Having received a medical education in St. Petersburg, he has travelled extensively throughout Europe and knows several languages. Anyone can call Dr. Tal by phone at night, and without complaining, without grumbling, he would get out of bed and offer help. He knows and loves the whole city. He is a senior doctor in this hospital. A calm dignified man, he is well respected by his colleagues and staff.

But now the Doctor’s son has also become famous in his own right. Barely twenty, he has won the USSR Chess Championship and Riga papers have carried his picture. It has resulted in some curiosity and wonder at the hospital.

“Do you know, he is Dr. Nekhemia’s son?”

“Really, are you saying, he beat all those grandmasters? He looks so young!”

So when Misha is admitted as a patient, there is concern all round. He gives them a wan smile and worries how long he has to be here, covered by blankets, drinking bitter syrups.

(“Can I have some vodka, please?” he asks the nurse giving him an injection. “Only when you go home,” she admonishes him, trying to look stern.)

“Where is Father?”

Father, Dr. Nekhemia comes to see him as often as he can and Misha looks forward to his visits. But one day he does not come. They say, he is busy, but he does not believe them. Dad always makes time for him. So why is he not there? No one answers the question. There is a kind of eerie silence around him. Then there are muffled sounds of wailing from the floor below. What is wrong? A little later he sees grief-stricken faces, mother Ida Grigorievna, brother, Yasha and Uncle Robert. His mother holds him in his arms and even before she has told him he knows. His father is no more. Stunned, he turns numb with shock. Ida, who is herself in need of solace, is anxious. “Cry!” she urges him. But he just stares at the wall in silence. Day after day he refuses to eat.

“Hello, I am Napoleon!”

Having won the USSR Championship Misha is a celebrity in Riga. So all kinds of rumours spread about him. He has had a nervous breakdown. He has gone mad and so on. Stories, funny and sad, circulate in town. One goes like this…

 A notary comes to see Misha in the hospital as he needs his signature on a document.

"Hello, I am a notary."

"Hello, I am Napoleon."

Stunned, the notary backs away and jumps out of the room.

Ida finds the cure

Meanwhile, Ida worries, how to arouse his interest in life. Suddenly she has a flash of intuition: chess, only chess can get him out of sick bed!

“You know, Yasha,” she says, “Soon it will be May Day and there will be a blitz tournament at the Riga Club. Do you think, Misha can play?

“Of course he can!” says Yasha enthused by the idea.

“But… how can he?” she asks, gesturing at the frail, sleeping body of her younger son.

“I shall take him in a cab” answers Yasha confident as ever.

The patient slowly turns his head, “When are you taking away the body?”

Ida shudders:  A funereal joke!

Now hospital rules don’t allow a patient to be taken away without a proper discharge, certainly not to play chess.

But Ida explains her idea to the doctors and reluctantly they give their consent.

He scores 17-0 in Blitz!

On the day of the competition, Yasha carries him in his arms to a waiting cab and brings him to the club premises. Then the miracle happens. Misha, hungry for the game attacks his opponents with such frenzy that he scores 17-0 and wins the tournament. He has recovered his appetite for life. Medicine is no longer needed. He begins to recover quickly.

Misha’s love of his father and indeed, his reverence for him are well-known.

Who was Misha’s father?

Robert, Ida and Dr. Nekhemia

So it is with astonishment that one reads Sally Landau’s “revelation” that Misha was not Dr. Nekhemia’s son and the biological parent was Uncle Robert. How did this happen?

[Photo: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family Apartment album]

Soon after Yasha’s birth Dr. Tal was struck by a powerful virus. This resulted in his complete and untreatable impotency. Ida was a young passionate woman with an unquenchable thirst for life. At this point Robert, a distant cousin of the Tal couple appeared on the scene.

He arrived from Paris like a charming Devil. He was charismatic, intelligent and had great manners. Ida fell in love with him and Robert was already in love with her. Thus, a love triangle appeared. Curiously it was without rancour and recrimination. Dr. Nekhemia understood everything, and he did not hold it against Ida and Robert. He accepted the whole situation with dignity like a man. Importantly he continued to love his wife as before. After Misha was born he lavished attention on him as if he was his own offspring.

Dr. Nekhemia with young Misha

Dr. Nekhemia with young Misha | Photo: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family Apartment album

After Dr. Nekhemia Tal’s death it was Uncle Robert who took care of the family till the end.

book coverGenna Sosonko, who knew Tal for years, also gives credence to the story. On occasion Uncle Robert would reprimand young Misha. If he defended himself against the charge.

Ida would say, “Misha, don’t be rude, please. Don’t forget, he is, after all, your father.” (Russian Silhouettes, New in Chess, 2010.)

Sally Landau’s claim concerning Misha’s paternity first appeared in the original Russian edition of her reminiscences way back in 1998.

It was strongly contested by Misha’s other wife, Gelya and daughter Zhanna who slammed the book in their interviews. Unfortunately, none of the three protagonists (Dr.Nekhemia Tal, Ida and Uncle Robert) is living. In the absence of clinching evidence or an unimpeachable witness it would be inappropriate to draw a conclusion one way or the other.

Uncle Robert was a father figure

Robert and MishaMisha depended on Uncle Robert for both his material needs (“Jack, please send me another thousand”) and even mundane practical tasks like shaving.

 Uncle Robert remained close to Misha and Ida till the end. He was also affectionate to Sally and forever concerned about Gera.

Along with Ida he did his best to prevent an unhappy separation between Misha and Sally. He didn’t succeed, though.

Whatever be the truth of Sally Landau’s claim, Tal was fortunate to have two father figures in his life.

[Photo: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family Apartment album]

To be continued...

Note: The story of Misha’s hospitalization, his father’s death and his own recovery are taken from Viktor Vasiliev’s book, Загадка Таля. Второе «я» Петросяна  (“The Mystery of Tal and the Second Self of Petrosian”), 1973. It may also be found in an enlarged version, Актеры шахматной сцены" (“Actors on the Chess Stage”) 1986.

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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 two decades. His articles and reviews have appeared on several web sites and magazines.
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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 2/2/2020 01:50
By way of record, actress “L” (who figures in Sally Landau’s book) also said in an interview that Uncle Robert was the biological father of Misha Tal. It is not conclusive evidence, though. One has to be very careful and circumspect on considering these claims and counterclaims.
Rambus Rambus 2/2/2020 01:40
There is more to "Uncle Robert" than meets the eye!
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