My life with chess and music

by ChessBase
5/23/2002 – "It is not easy to describe in a few sentences careers than span over seventy years," says Mark Taimanov. But nonetheless he tries and gives us a unique insight into a life that took him from movie actor to concert pianist to world-class chess player. Taimanov is an exceptional storyteller, and you can read all about his life (and listen to his music) in this wonderful interview by Joel Lautier.

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Interview with Mark Taimanov

This interview was conducted by Joel Lautier on the 18th of May 2002 at the NAO Chess Club in Paris. Mark Taimanov is an exceptional storyteller and this interview has taken on larger proportions than usual. Nevertheless, it would have been a pity to present a truncated version of it, it is therefore given here in full.


Joel Lautier: Tell us about your parallel careers in chess and music. How did they begin?

Mark Taimanov: (Smiles) It is not easy to describe in a few sentences careers than span over seventy years! Everything began with music. As a small child, I went to a music school where I studied the piano. In 1937, when I was twelve years old, a major event took place in my life. In my town of Leningrad, a film that was entitled "Beethoven's Concert" was being shot. Since I was a good student in my music class, I was asked to perform the main part, that of a young violinist. However, since I was studying the piano, I had no knowledge of the violin and had to learn all the movements and postures. Apparently, I did a decent job, since the film became a great success and was even awarded a prize in the Paris Cinema Festival of the same year. That is how my aunt, who lived in Paris and did not know me yet, saw me for the first time on a cinema screen [Mark Taimanov's aunt is today an elderly woman of 92, and Mark is staying with her during this tournament at the NAO Chess Club - J.L.].

In one day, I became a famous cinema actor! A few months later, I was invited to the official opening of the Leningrad Pioneers' Palace. I should explain to Western people what were the Pioneers' Palaces in the USSR. It was a remarkable idea: children would be gathered after school and teachers would help them develop any skill or talent they had for a specific subject. When I was asked which topic I would choose (I was still eleven years old!), an inner voice whispered to me: "chess!". And that is how, coming from music and passing through cinema, I entered the world of chess. The director of the Leningrad chess school, at the time, was none other than Mikhail Botvinnik. The best pupils were put together in a separate section called "the Botvinnik group". Every little boy dreamed to be part of it, and I had that privilege until 1941, when the school stopped its activity due to the war.

During that time, I kept studying the piano with dedication and after the Music School, I entered the Leningrad Conservatory. I met another student there, Lyubov Bruk, we formed a piano duet and started a long concert career. We married at the age of 19, so that our duet on stage also became a duet in life! As you can see, my two careers as chessplayer and pianist developed concurrently from a very tender age.

The music you hear in the background is the Taimanovs playing Mozart's Concerto for two pianos in E-flat, KV 365 Rondo Allegro, with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra. If you do not hear it automatically click on the icon on the right and replay the MP3 wav file.

The hands of the maestro

Lautier: Indeed, it is impossible to summarise such a rich life in just a few words. Please continue…

CD coverTaimanov: 1950 was an important year, since I became an International Master and undertook with my wife a series of concerts across the USSR. The fame of our duet quickly spread abroad and we also began to perform in foreign countries. The discs you know date back from those days [Mark Taimanov has offered our President, Mrs Ojjeh, several discs containing the best performances by the Taimanov/Bruk duet. They have been released by Philipps and are part of the prestigious collection that presents the 100 greatest pianists of the 20th century - J.L.].

In 1953, I became a Grandmaster after the interzonal tournament in Saltsjobaden, which qualified me for the famous Zurich tournament. The latter is beyond any doubt the most beautiful tournament of the last century, not only in terms of the games' quality, but also for the struggle's intensity. All of it has of course been immortalised, thanks to Bronstein's magnificent book. In 1955, I became USSR champion. Until the match with Fischer in 1971, everything went smoothly in my chess career. This dramatic match changed my life into hell [as everyone knows, Fischer won this encounter with the stunning score of six to zero - J.L.].

Lautier: Tell us a little about this match. 

Taimanov: As Fischer himself admitted at the time, the final score did not reflect the true balance of strength. The terrible feeling that I was playing against a machine which never made any mistake shattered my resistance. Fischer would never concede any weakening of his position, he was an incredibly tough defender. The third game proved to be the turning point of the match. After a pretty tactical sequence, I had managed to set my opponent serious problems. In a position that I considered to be winning, I could not find a way to break through his defences. For every promising idea, I found an answer for Fischer, I engrossed myself in a very deep think which did not produce any positive result. Frustrated and exhausted, I avoided the critical line in the end and lost the thread of the game, which led to my defeat eventually. Ten years later, I found at last how I should have won that fatal game, but unfortunately, it didn't matter anymore! I have written a book about this match, entitled "How I became Fischer's victim", it represents an essay on the American player and describes how I perceived his style and personality, once the match was over.

Lautier: What were the consequences of this defeat?

Taimanov: The sanctions from the Soviet government were severe. I was deprived of my civil rights, my salary was taken away from me [all Soviet grandmasters received from their government a substantial salary - J.L.], I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press. It was unthinkable for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an American, without a political explanation. I, therefore, became the object of slander and was accused, among other things, of secretly reading books of Solzhenitsin. I was banned from society for two years, it was also the time when I separated from my first wife, Lyubov Bruk.

Lautier: How were the sanctions lifted? 

Taimanov: In 1973, I was qualified by FIDE to participate in the interzonal tournament. My case was examined at the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the higher authorities decided to "forgive" me. The case was thus closed. As the bureaucrat whom I met explained to me: "we had the choice between hammering the nail until the end or pulling it off altogether. We have finally decided to pull it off". To me, it was quite obvious that the nail in question was my own coffin's!

Lautier: An explanation that sends cold shivers down the spine…

Taimanov: Yes, it was a horrible feeling. From then on, however, everything gradually became normal again for me and I was able to resume both of my professions. The most difficult was to reconstruct my career as a pianist, since my first wife and I had been one of the very best duets in the world. As a solist, however, it was a different matter. Nevertheless, I began giving concerts again and at the same time, I experienced new successes in chess. The following years were peaceful and since the fall of the communist regime, everything has become much simpler. As my friend Rostropovich put it: "Before we were sent abroad on missions, now we can travel wherever we please". I was thus able to reply positively to your kind invitation, which would have been impossible in former days. As a matter of fact, I now play in more tournaments than during my best years. It has of course become much more difficult, since I usually give odds of forty to fifty years on average to most of my opponents!

Lautier: You must have been asked this question a hundred times, but how did you manage to lead two careers simultaneously and at such a high level? 

Taimanov: I did not mix my two professions, I alternated between the two. As I used to say, when I gave concerts I was taking a rest from chess and when I played chess, I was resting from the piano. As a result, my whole life has been one long holiday!

Lautier: Don't you think that you could have achieved even more in one of your professional careers, had you devoted your whole time to it?

Taimanov: First of all, it is absolutely unclear whether I would have reached a higher level in one of my two fields of activity. What is certain, on the other hand, is that my life would have been at least twice as less interesting! I am happy that I was unable to choose between my two professions for my whole life. It had indeed a lot of advantages: I got over failures much better than others, since I always a second occupation to fall back on. It also gave me more inner freedom and allowed me to keep good relationships with my colleagues in both worlds. I provoked no jealousy from their side since chess players considered me as a musician and musicians looked at me as a chess player! It also had the incomparable virtue of avoiding routine. Sincerely, I must say I never dreamed of achieving more than I have. I never thought of becoming world chess champion, for instance. Everything is actually much simpler when you don't have one unique goal in your life. In my case, I always felt like an amateur in both of my professions!

Lautier: Have you any projects?

Taimanov: I just finished writing the book of my memoirs, called "Remembering the greatest…". It describes my meetings with all the great people I was lucky to know. I talk of Churchill, Khruschev, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Juan Peron… Among the musicians, I have closely known Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Khachaturian, the great pianist Richter and many famous violinists. Of course, I also write extensively about my chess colleagues, namely Botvinnik who was always a model for me. The book will be out later this year.

Lautier: Who are your favourite composers?

Taimanov: I've always had a preference for romantic and Russian music. Even if I have a lot of respect for classical composers such as Bach and Mozart, I have more pleasure when listening to pieces of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert… I also like very much French composers, I have played Francis Poulenc (my first wife and I were the first to perform his works in the Soviet Union), Debussy and many others. Among Russian composers, my favourites are Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Khachaturian.

Question asked by our President Mrs Ojjeh: Did the fact that you were also a pianist influence your way of playing chess? Was your perception of the game different from the other grandmasters?

Taimanov: I do think that my taste in music reflects in my chess style. I conceive chess first and foremost as an art, and when I play chess, I try do so as an artist. Chess players who share my artistic credo are closest to me.

Lautier: I was just about to ask you the question. Who are your favourite chess players?

Taimanov: (Without hesitation) Alekhine, Tal and Kasparov. As you can see, my preferences in chess follow the same romantic inclination as in music!

Lautier: Could you name the greatest pianist and the greatest chess player according to you?

Taimanov: No, it is impossible to name only one for each of these fields. The three chess players I just mentioned are in my opinion the greatest of all, as for pianists, they are quite many of them. I would choose the following: Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould.

Lautier: What do you think were the best books written on chess?

Taimanov: As I said earlier, Bronstein's book on the Zurich tournament of 1953 is a masterpiece. However, the books of Nimzovich were those which made the deepest impression on me. During my learning years as a chess player, his books, among which "My System" obviously, played a fundamental role. When I teach chess, I always tell my pupils to study all of Nimzovich's books, I also recommend them those of Tarrasch. The latter had a gift to formulate in clear sentences the essential principles of our game. And of course, he is also the author of the most beautiful words written on chess: "Chess, like love and music, has the power to make people happy" (Smiles).

Lautier: Do you have any other hobbies in life, apart from chess and music?

Taimanov: Writing and journalism have always been important to me. I have thus written a great deal of articles and books about chess, I was also the commentator for the Russian press on the numerous matches between Kasparov and Karpov. However, my main hobby is the love of life. The greatest gift of nature is love, and the love of women has always been an essential part of my life.

Lautier: Please forgive this rather brutal transition, but what do you think of the current young players? Do you see any among them that could dominate chess in the near future?

Taimanov: Honestly, I don't see any worthy replacement to Kasparov at the moment. For me, there is a clear gap between Kasparov and the other players. He has introduced into the game an exceptional dynamic style, he always manages to give every piece a little more power than it can contain. Of course, Ponomariov's recent performance is a brilliant success, but I don't consider him as a player whose games one can study and learn from. He is an excellent practical player, a sportsman who plays good moves with regularity. In that respect, he very much resembles Gata Kamsky. But this type of player brings me no joy.

Lautier: And what do you think of the other players in this tournament, namely Yoshiharu Habu and Edouard Bonnet?

Taimanov: For Habu, it is difficult to have a precise opinion after so few games. But I appreciate his way of playing, as they say in my country, he plays "with taste". He is not yet formed as a player and he lacks practice, but I have noticed that routine moves are foreign to him and that he is also very inventive in defence, those are valuable qualities. He will certainly become the first International Master from Japan. I would in fact be happy, if the half point I gave away to him could prove of help! I like very much the little Bonnet. He plays with a lot of freshness, he has original ideas that have yielded him good positions in this tournament. Even if he didn't manage to convert them all, he has shown great potential at fourteen. [I mention to him that he is even younger - J.L.] Sorry, he is only twelve? Even better!

Lautier: What remains as your greatest memories in both your chess and piano careers?

Taimanov: In spite of the dramatic outcome, I consider my match with Fischer to be the culminating point of my chess career. I should also mention my participation in the fabulous tournament of Zurich 1953. As for music, my greatest pride is that the duet with Lyubov Bruk has been chosen to be part of a collection on the greatest pianists of the previous century. I am there among the greatest!

Lautier: Thank you for having answered our questions.

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