Misha Tal: The fall of the eagle

by Nagesh Havanur
11/29/2018 – Last time our columnist offered a glimpse of young Tal as seen by his friend, Valentin Kirillov: Then we saw a young eagle soaring in the sky. Now we see him with wings burning and falling. Here is how the tragedy unfolded. | Pictured: Mikhail Tal and Boris Spassky at blitz | Photo: chess-news.ru

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 Mystery of Mikhail Tal

After winning the 1958 Interzonal, Tal gave an interview to Dimitrije Bjelica:

Question: “Who would you like to play in a match for the world championship, Botvinnik, Smyslov or Keres?”

Misha Tal: “It would save time to play them simultaneously!”

Tal’s rise was meteoric and his play was phenomenal. The early part of the book Team Tal: An Inside Story captures the euphoria of those days.

While I was researching its background I found a film in which the author himself is speaking. Here he revisits the life and times of Tal. He takes you right into the house in which Misha was born and grew up. His zest for the subject is to be seen to be believed. Besides, the film also has some rare memorabilia.

The film directed by Sergei and Marina Makarichev way back in 2003 is a labour of love. However, given the limitations of the medium Kirillov’s own narrative here is relatively short:

That brings us back to the book. To resume our narrative, Tal won the USSR Championship for two consecutive years, 1957 and 1958. Subsequently he scored victory in the Interzonal and also triumphed in the Candidates’ Tournament ahead of Keres, Smyslov and a very young Bobby Fischer.

Next year he wrested the world championship title itself from Botvinnik. He was 24 when he reached the Olympus and found the world at his feet.

Video Credit: British Pathé

Fate held many temptations for our young charismatic hero and he succumbed to them all. It was a Faustian bargain that cut his life short.

Paradise Lost

Tal lost the Return Match to Botvinnik with a decisive score in favour of the Patriarch.

Kirillov writes:

"Misha was sick, inadequately prepared, and a bit too compliant during the pre-match negotiations. Naturally, he could have requested the match be delayed a month or two, but Botvinnik insisted Tal provide detailed doctor’s certificates and basically demanded he undergo a medical examination in Moscow, making it seem as though Tal had been faking it all along.”

It’s all true. But what about Tal himself? Did he not bring about his own downfall?

Kirillov knows he did. But he cannot bring himself to blame Tal. In chess as in life, one is one’s own enemy. That was the case with Tal. The full story of the Return Match is yet to be written. Meanwhile, Tal fans should care to read and find out what Koblenz has had to say about his defeat. It leaves you deeply troubled even as you know it all happened years ago.

Koblenz book cover

“Reminiscences of a chess player” by Alexander Koblenz

Any way Botvinnik fans have had reason to celebrate his return:

Video Credit: British Pathé

A Wake-up Call

To return to the story of Tal, another crisis was to follow. During Curacao Candidates’ his condition became critical and he was admitted to hospital. In these circumstances, there was no question of his continuing participation. After consultation with both doctors and officials Yuri Averbakh, the Head of the Soviet Delegation announced Tal’s withdrawal from the tournament. As Averbakh recalled later, Tal was furious when he heard the news as he still wanted to play. It took quite some time for him to accept the fait-accompli. Be that as it may, the defeat in the Return Match with Botvinnik and the crisis in Curacao were a wake-up call for our hero. But not for long.  He continued to lead a wild life to the dismay of family and friends.

Koblenz and Tal

Alexander Koblenz and Misha Tal in happier times | Photo: Team Tal, Elk and Ruby Publishing House, 2017

It was especially hard for Koblenz who had known Misha from his childhood and trained him all the way to the world championship. Till 1960 Misha was a faithful pupil ready to follow his mentor’s advice. But after he became world champion he was less inclined to listen to him.

Misha falls behind

Meanwhile the competition was getting stronger. In Candidates’ Matches Tal was eliminated by Spassky in 1965 and by Korchnoi in 1968. Next year he fell seriously ill and was advised an operation in which his kidney had to be removed. The surgery and the hospitalization meant that he would not be able to play in the USSR Championship that also served as the Zonal for the world championship cycle. So he ignored the emergency and played. It was a disaster and he ended up, sharing 14th and 15th place with Liberzon. The years 1970-1972 saw the ascent of Bobby Fischer and culminated in his conquest of the world championship.

Kirillov joins Team Tal

But what about Koblenz? Back in 1968 Genna Sosonko had joined Tal’s team and much to the relief of the old man he had proved himself to be an asset.


Gennadi Sosonko in 1979 | Photo: Dijk, Hans van / Anefo [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently Korchnoi “borrowed” Sosonko’s services from Tal and the latter readily agreed as he was no longer in the race for the World Championship. Then came the USSR Championship in 1971. Midway through the event, Koblenz left. Kirillov puts it rather diplomatically in the book:

The two of them had a contretemps, and the Maestro left town. The root of their conflict remained a mystery to me; I never did press them about it. It took me by surprise when I got a call from someone at the chess club who said, “Tal would like you to assist at the championship.”

That was how Kirillov became the official second of Tal. For Koblenz who never ceased to worry about Tal, it came as a great relief. At least he knew Misha was in safe hands.

That Match did not happen!

Meanwhile, hopes of Tal fans rose as he had an unbeaten run of 86 games. (+47 =39 -0). If he won the Interzonal and the Candidates’ the world championship duel would be between Fischer and Tal. That would be the Match of the Century!

Fischer vs Tal

Fischer-Tal, Leipzig Olympiad 1960, a sparkling miniature that ended in a draw | Photo: Ulrich Kohls, Bundesarchiv

The debacle in Leningrad

Their dream was shattered when they saw the results of 1973 Leningrad Interzonal. Karpov and Korchnoi shared the 1st and second place with Robert Byrne came third. They qualified for the Candidates’. [Photo: yandex.ru]

“This was no Tal I knew.”

Among the “also-rans” were Tal and Larsen. The Great Dane had a brilliant start with 3/3 from the first three rounds and then suffered setbacks in as many as five games, finishing with 10/17. Tal got off to a dreadful start with two defeats and then made only 2½/9 in the first half of the tournament to the dismay of friends and fans. Kirillov writes, “This was no Tal I knew.” So what happened? Here is what the Team Tal found:

Before the tournament, the USSR Sports Committee had issued some pills-supposedly the ones astronauts got-purported to improve one’s mental faculties. It all seemed so simple-you pop a pill and wash it down with some milk and you’re an intellectual giant! Daktari (Dr. Joseph Geikhman, Tal’s family doctor-NSH) who was accompanying us during this tournament, had no clue Misha was taking these pills (it was a secret!).

Team Tal acts!

So we convened an emergency meeting late at night, like military commanders. Gelya (Angelina, Tal’s wife-NSH) suggested we flush the rest of the pills down the toilet,  which we wound up doing….I wonder whether any other participants were taking stimulants. Once the pills were gone, Tal took off and finished the tournament with a 50% score garnering the brilliancy prize against Larsen. Can you imagine that?

Larsen and Tal | Photo Credit: chesspro.ru


Tal’s “elephants” performed a waltz! Subsequently, Tal wrote, “Strange as it may seem, I was grieved by the fact that my best game which was awarded a special prize, should have been against Larsen, with whom I sympathised, and who, I very much wanted to see amongst the winners.” (The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, RHM Press.1976)

To be continued...


  1. The standard work on the Return Match for the World Championship is Botvinnik-Tal Moscow 1961 by Mikhail Botvinnik (Edition Olms.2004). It’s a bit one-sided as it reflects only his point of view.
  2. Kirillov does not mention Curacao Candidates’ in this book as he was not yet a member of Tal’s team at that time. He became a member of the team during the Candidates’ Match 1968 with Korchnoi.
  3. The spoiler was Tal’s solitary loss to Balashov in the USSR Team Tournament before the Leningrad Interzonal 1973 after an unbroken run.
  4. Tal scored 8½ /17 and finished eighth in the Leningrad Interzonal.

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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