Sally and Misha: Parting of ways

by Nagesh Havanur
12/21/2019 – Sally Landau marries Misha Tal for love. Soon she discovers the downside of his character. He is a philanderer and enjoys amorous conquest. His affair with actress L becomes a scandal. Early in 1964, he is summoned to the Central Committee and is told that he has to choose between his wife and his mistress. He is reminded that he is a public figure and has to conduct himself as a responsible citizen. He tells them curtly it’s none of their business, and he will do as he pleases. “Well, you can make your own decision”, the officials tell him. He is soon to learn of their decision… | Photo: Svetlana Punte

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This is part two of a story on "Checkmate" (see part 1), a book authored by Sally Landau

Ida's gambit

Misha loved mischief. The arrival of his bride had added to his mirth. On occasion, he would plant a kiss on Sally’s lips right in public. If mother Ida reproached him for this open display of love he would reply, "Ma, would you have liked it if I had kissed someone else's wife?"

But now the marriage was on the brink on account of his affair with actress L. What is more, his career was also under threat. The authorities had decided not to let him play in the Amsterdam Interzonal (1964). But desperate situations demand desperate remedies. What happened next is in Sally’s own words:

Ida asked me to write a letter to the Central Committee, saying that Misha was not at all guilty, that he was a wonderful husband and father, that I was a bad wife, that it was me who had been long unfaithful to him, and that I didn’t want to live with him in any case. It was hard for me to make myself write such a letter, but I convinced myself to do it: if the letter would help Misha I would write it, whatever it cost me. So I wrote the letter and we sent it to the Central Committee. Misha was summoned to the Committee again and they showed him the letter. 

They had a real laugh at him. They told him that usually the letters they received from the wives said the opposite — that the wives asked for their husbands to be punished, to be thrown out of the party and banned from travelling abroad. This was the first time they had received a letter from a wife defending her husband after bad behaviour. They joked they would frame it and hang it on the wall.

The 'confession' came as a shock to Misha. To add insult to the injury, they told him Sally’s letter was insufficient, and if he wanted to continue to date actress L then he would have to divorce Sally first.

Mikhail Tal, Sally Landau

Happier times — Misha, Sally, Ida and Uncle Robert | Photo: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family and Apartment Album

The charade had them fooled 

So Ida's gambit had failed. But she did not lose heart. This time she conjured a whole combination worthy of her son. Sally would submit a petition to the court to divorce Misha and, on that basis, the authorities would allow him to play in the Interzonal. Once that happened, she would withdraw the petition.

"Mum!" — Sally always addressed Ida that way — "I am ready to do anything for Misha.  If I have to submit a petition then I will, but how can I withdraw it? If he loves that woman, if he wants to live with her, a divorce will untie his hands".

"No, that’s the whole point. Mishanka has no plans to divorce you. You will see it will all work out in the end".

So they all went to the court together. After their petition was accepted, Misha hugged Sally and said, "Thank you Saska. Believe me, it’s gong to be fine for all of us. Whatever happens, I’ll never forget this my entire life". [1]

An announcement of the impending divorce soon appeared in a Riga newspaper with a report that revealed the fact that Sally Landau had petitioned to divorce Mikhail Tal. The announcement was sent to the Central Committee. The charade had them fooled. They thought Misha had submitted to their will and allowed him to play in the Interzonal. How wrong they were! As soon as it happened, Sally withdrew her petition for divorce. 

Years later Sally mused, "To this day I cannot understand how I, with all my pride and independence, forced myself to write that letter and why, not wanting a divorce, I first filed for one and then withdrew my petition". Perhaps she thought she could salvage both his career and their family life. 

Pictured: Ida and Misha | Photo: Svetlana Punte / Tal Family and Apartment Album

Once again on the way to the Olympus

So Misha went on to play in the Amsterdam Interzonal in May 1964. His troubles with the authorities early in the year and the uncertainty of participation till the last minute had hardly given him any peace of mind, let alone time for preparation. He couldn't score a single win against any of his direct rivals and was clearly lost in quite a few games with players who occupied the lower half of the tournament table. He had the gambler’s luck, however, and prevailed over them. Yet, there were also inspired moments when he played "crazy chess", like the following:

 

This game is an essay in combinational fantasy and defies rational analysis. 

Anyway, when the tournament concluded, Tal had scored 17/23 points (+11, -0, =12) and occupied first to fourth places together with Spassky, Smyslov and Larsen, qualifying for the Candidates. [2]

Leonid Stein, Vasily Smyslov

Leonid Stein v Vasily Smyslov during the 1964 Interzonal | Photo: Harry Pot / Anefo

In the ensuing Candidates’ Cycle, he beat Portisch and Larsen in successive matches, and went down only to Spassky. It was an impressive performance. 

On the home front, however, Sally's hopes were belied. Misha's affairs continued unabated. She could not put up with these 'simultaneous displays' any more and got out of the Tal apartment with her little son, much to the dismay of Ida and Uncle Robert (a cousin of Misha's parents who lived in the house).

She had to make a living and bring up her son. So singing became her profession. Misha would be away playing in tournaments, and she would be away singing for her orchestra. They drifted apart without knowing. In the end it was a bittersweet parting of ways.

To be continued...


[1] Landau, S. (2019). Checkmate: Elk & Ruby.

[2] Leonid Stein and David Bronstein, who occupied fifth and sixth places, were ruled out on account of the FIDE rule limiting the number of players from one country (read the Soviet Union). So, Lajos Portisch and Borislav Ivkov, who came next, qualified for the Candidates'.


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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.