Sally and Misha: Epilogue

by Nagesh Havanur
3/28/2020 – Sally Landau marries Misha Tal for love. Then she separates from him on account of his affairs with other women. While both marry again, they remain friends. For some time Sally brings up her son, Gera, alone. After a spell of estrangement a rare bonding develops between father and son. Gera becomes a doctor and saves his father in one emergency after another. He settles down in Israel and begs dad to come there and stay with him for good. Misha adores his son, but he does not want to be a burden to him. Importantly, he loves his freedom and wants to live as he pleases. Gera feels helpless as he cannot change his decision. So Misha plays hide-and-seek with Death as ever before, and Death mocks, “How long?” In this concluding part of the series on Sally Landau’s story, our columnist unveils the last secret of Misha’s life.

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Continued from Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Moscow, 28th June, 1992. They did not want her at the funeral. “No, not you. It’s for Family,” they had told her. Her heart had quailed and she had shed quiet tears after they had left. Who was she? It was the woman with whom Misha had chosen to spend the last days of his life. Why did he have to do it with a wife and a daughter waiting for him to return home? It’s a story that needs to be told.

He was homesick

After his participation in the last Soviet Championship Misha’s mind was full of plans.

Soon there was going to be an Olympiad and, hopefully, also a national championship. He was going to play. He would prepare with his friend, Rafael Vaganian.

Misha, Vaganian and Razuvaev | Photo: chesspro.ru

If doctors forbade him to play he would be a commentator. He would meet other grandmasters and they would analyze games round after round.

Photo: chesspro.ru

He needed the excitement and buzz of the tournament hall round him all the time.

Misha analyzing with Romanishin, with Vitolinsh and Ljubojevic

Misha analyzing with Romanishin, with Vitolinsh and Ljubojevic among the kibitzers | Photo: chesspro.ru

Meanwhile, where was he going to live? Who was going to look after him?

In the turmoil that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union he had lost his home in Riga. He and his family had moved to Germany. Ernst Eimert, a friend of Misha, had offered them a house to stay and acted as the local guardian.

Photo: chess-news.ru

Zhanna was training to become a professional musician and Gelya ran the house.

Misha with Gelya and baby Zhanna in 1975

In happier days: Misha with Gelya and baby Zhanna in 1975 | Photo: chess-news.ru

But Misha was restless. Once when he was admitted to hospital in Cologne, he complained to visiting friends, “Take me home!” Moscow was home, Cologne was not. Now that his wife and daughter were well-settled he felt had every reason to resume his life in Moscow.

The last woman in his life

Enter Marina Filatova. He had met her way back in 1983 and they had struck a friendship. Over the years it had become a loving relationship. Now she became his live-in companion. In the old days he used to dictate reports on tournaments to young players and they used to take it down and forward it to chess magazines.

Photo: chesspro.ru

Henceforth she would do that work for him. She knew his needs. She would call up his friends and invite them home. She would fix his appointments with doctors and hospitals.

She was devoted to him and she would do everything He trusted her. He knew she cared for him and when she looked at him kindness shone in her eyes.

“We, boys don’t tell!”

Sally had known none of it and when she called up Gelya to make enquiries about Misha, the latter blurted out, “Don’t worry, he is not alone…He tells everybody, she is his secretary.” Gelya was angry. Stunned, Sally confronted her son, Gera (“a woman’s curiosity is insurmountable!” as she put it) and asked what was going on. Did he know of Misha’s affair? Misha always confided in his son and Gera would tell no one, not even his mother. Gera had known about Misha’s latest venture from the very beginning, but he had firmly kept it as a secret between boys.

Unfazed, he said, “Dad has the right to follow his instinct. It can’t be explained and no one should criticize him.”

“But what is your opinion?”

 “My opinion is just my opinion and nothing more than that.”

“Daddy’s boy,” she thought.

Sally writes in her book,

 “I don’t know the woman Gelya was referring to and I don’t want to say anything bad about her, though I heard absolutely everyone was in shock at this liaison.”

Suffice to say, it’s unfair to the woman who was devoted to Misha in his last days.

The last hurrah!

In the summer of 1992 it was Marina who got Misha admitted to hospital in a critical condition. This time it was a game of dice with Death itself. Misha, who had forever gambled with life, now found himself on the brink of defeat. His restless spirit still yearned for chess. What happened next is a story oft repeated. One fine morning the hospital staff found the bed empty and there was a frantic search. Where was Tal? He had escaped to play a blitz tournament in which Garry himself was playing. Here is that magic moment:

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. 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. 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. 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...

Misha Tal-Garry Kaspaov Blitz Tournament, Moscow 1992
 

This game is Misha's swansong. Back in the hospital his condition deteriorates. Slowly he loses his consciousness and life ebbs away from his frail body. Over the years it had submitted to every impossible demand that his indomitable will had made on it and now it can not take it any more. For Marina it is a nightmare. He is no longer recognizable. It’s a wrench for her to see her once charismatic, ebullient idol turn into a cadaverous shadow of himself. She is helpless before it all:

Queen Sacrifice 4 / 4 (10.44/15.11)

In the hour of crisis wife, Gelya and daughter Zhanna are informed and they hurry from Cologne. The end comes in the early hours of 28th June, 1992.

“He was asking for you”

Both Sally and son Gera have a premonition of Misha’s death. The call from Gelya only confirms their worst fears. Gera assures his anxious mother that he will go first and check out what is happening in Moscow. But he has a tough time securing a visa (it’s the week-end in the Russian Consulate). When he rushes from Antwerp to Moscow it’s too late. His mind is numb as the cab takes him from the airport to the hospital.

When he comes to the information desk he is met with cold indifference.

“I want to see my father.”

“Where is he?”

“In intensive care.”

“They won’t let you in.”

“They will, which way is it?”

 “Your father’s surname?”

“Tal.”

“Let me check” (dials a number).

“Where is Tal?”

”Oh? (a pause). OK, I’’ll try” (she turns to Gera)

 “I…have…to tell you … “

“When?!”

“Three hours ago…You can go up there…”

He feels as if he has been hit on the head with the back of an axe.

His mind becomes blank. He rushes upstairs and he is stopped by the medical assistant.

“We can’t let you in. We haven’t tidied up yet.”

 “How did it happen?”

“Profuse bleeding, esophageal varices…”

There is nothing to do but wait.

Then the medical assistant tells him, “He was waiting for you…and when he was conscious he was asking for you.”

Gera writes, “Those words still ring in my ears today and will ring in them until my final hour.”

This self-effacing son leaves the centre-stage to his parents in the book. His is the voice of sanity and he offers a fascinating contrast to them, a passionate couple who fought like children, parted ways and came together again.

Sally, a vulnerable woman

As for Sally, one has mixed feelings. The reader is with her all the way as the young woman in love, the long-suffering wife and the responsible mother. But not thereafter as she drifts from one relationship to another. Let us just remember, she was insecure and vulnerable. What redeems her story is her honesty and love of Misha that lasted through her second marriage. Joe Kramarz, her other husband, brought them together and held them close to his heart with utter selflessness. Five years after Sally married Joe, Misha said to her, “I know why God gifted you this treasure. He is a reward for all the pains that I caused you.”

Tal is Tal!

For all his apparent candour in public life Misha Tal often hid his real self from the rest of the world. He was a complex and ambivalent figure. It’s in this book that one hears his inimitable voice and there is more than one Misha here: ardent lover, remorseful husband and affectionate father. Exhilarating and exasperating by turns, he leaves you mesmerized.

Epilogue

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.

Sally and Misha lived in an era that has now ceased to exist. I have tried to recreate it as well as possible. In this series I have also brought in views of other women who loved Misha.  I have not passed judgement on them.

In love as well as life we are only patzers.

Sally Landau’s reminiscences of her life with him offer an intimate portrait of the Latvian genius as never seen before.

This book is well-produced with as many as 35 black and white photographs and they capture some memorable moments from the lives of Sally and Misha. It’s far from perfect, though. The narrative swings back and forth. The translation by Ilan Rubin is smooth and racy, save an awkward turn of phrase here and there.

Much as I cherish Sally Landau’s reminiscences I have sympathy for other women in Misha’s life. Each sought love and happiness with him and none could bring herself to blame him alone for what happened between them. The flame that he lit in their hearts was never extinguished. They deserve our understanding. This series is dedicated to the last of them, Marina Filatova, who loved him and served him selflessly to the end.


Notes

1) Marina Filatova resides in St.Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), the city in which she was born and raised. She still remembers the day on which she met Misha, 25th June 1983. He was representing Riga in the USSR Chess Spartakiad at Moscow. This was a day off for players. He was 46 and she was only 26. The difference of 20 years had not mattered. They had sporadically remained in touch for 9 years till Misha decided to settle in Moscow for good at the end of 1991. Then they were together till the end. In a rambling narrative she describes her whole encounter with him: http://shsd.vvo.biz/archives/3726

After all these years and in the absence of corroboration it is not easy to accept every claim that she makes on her relationship with Misha. Three days before his demise he is said to have told her, “I always said I want to marry you! I still want to, but I will never betray those for whom I once took responsibility!”

Did he? We shall never know.

2) A recurring theme in the book is Misha’s wooing of Sally with the line, ? ?????? ???? ?? ??? ????? (“I have told you not all the words”). It’s from a Russian film song that was very popular then (1959).

3) Carlsen was fascinated by this book: 

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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.