The Candidates Tournaments 1959 and 1962

by Johannes Fischer
3/13/2018 – Candidates tournaments have always been special tournaments. After all, the winner of the candidates becomes the challenger the reigning world champion and, possibly, new world champion. The candidates tournament 1959 was won by a brilliant Tal, the candidates tournament in Curacao 1962 caused a scandal. | Photo: Mihail Tal

Learning from the World Champions Learning from the World Champions

With famous classical examples from the works of the giants, the author talks in detail about principles of chess and methods of play that we can use during every stage of the game.


History and games

Candidates Tournament 1959: Bled, Zagreb, Belgrad

In contrast to the candidates tournaments in Zürich 1953 and in Amsterdam 1956 only eight players took part in the candidates tournament 1959. But they played a four game round-robin, 28 games altogether. Mihail Tal coped best with this challenge. He won the tournament with 20.0 /28, Keres finished second with 18½ / 28.

Final standings

Rg. Title Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Pts.
1 GM Mihail Tal   1000 ½½½½ 0½11 1111 1½11 ½111 111½ 20.0 / 28
2 GM Paul Keres 0111   ½0½½ 0½1½ 1100 1½½1 0111 1111 18.5 / 28
3 GM Tigran V Petrosian ½½½½ ½1½½   ½0½½ ½1½1 ½0½1 0½10 ½11½ 15.5 / 28
4 GM Vassily V Smyslov 1½00 1½0½ ½1½½   ½10½ 100½ 11½½ 101½ 15.0 / 28
5 GM Robert James Fischer 0000 0011 ½0½0 ½01½   ½1½0 11½0 ½½11 12.5 / 28
6 GM Svetozar Gligoric 0½00 0½½0 ½1½0 011½ ½0½1   1½0½ ½½½1 12.5 / 28
7 GM Fridrik Olafsson ½000 1000 1½01 00½½ 00½1 0½1½   100½ 10.0 / 28
8 GM Pal C Benko 000½ 0000 ½00½ 010½ ½½00 ½½½0 011½   8.0 / 28

This result is even more remarkable if one keeps in mind that only a few days before the start of the tournament Tal had to go into a hospital to get his appendix removed. Yuri Averbakh, who supported Tal as a second at the candidates, was "horrified" when he met him: "He looked pale and haggard. Only his eyes were just as piercing, burning with an unquenchable fire." (Quoted in: Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov, Russians vs. Fischer, Everyman 2005, p.32)

Mihail Tal | Photo: Tournament book Candidates Tournament 1959

Tal himself played down the operation: "I was allowed 10 days to recover. ... I was not much troubled by the effects of the operation, apart from in a purely mechanical sense; during a game I did not feel inclined to stroll about, and I was unable to walk quickly. I was able to devote myself to the battle ... ." (Mihail Tal, The Life and Games of Mihail Tal, RHM Press 1976, p.118)

Still he had a bad start into the tournament – in the first three rounds he only scored one point. But then he came back to form. He was particularly successful against the four players at the bottom half of the table: he scored 14½ / 16 against them, winning 13 games and conceding three draws. His result against the players finishing on places two to four was, however, less impressive: Tal only scored only 5½ / 12, and with three wins, four losses, and five draws he did not even reach the 50 percent mark.

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.

But it was the way in which Tal won his games that enchanted chess players all over the world. He did not shy away from risk nor sacrifice. This style caused the occasional defeat but also led to numerous brilliancies. One example for an uncecessary defeat caused by Tal's desire to sacrifice material when ever possible is his loss against Paul Keres in round 10:


But such slips were rare - more often Tal's opponents could not handle the problems Tal posed them:


Great interest was caused by the duel between Tal and the 16-year old Bobby Fischer. Tal won all four games against the young American even when Fischer had outplayed him.

Bobby Fischer 1959 | Photo: Tournament book Candidates Tournament 1959

Fischer later included one of his four losses against Tal into his 60 Memorable Games - an indicator how much the defeat affected him.


Master Class Vol.1: Bobby Fischer

No other World Champion was more infamous both inside and outside the chess world than Bobby Fischer. On this DVD, a team of experts shows you the winning techniques and strategies employed by the 11th World Champion.

Grandmaster Dorian Rogozenco delves into Fischer’s openings, and retraces the development of his repertoire. What variations did Fischer play, and what sources did he use to arm himself against the best Soviet players? Mihail Marin explains Fischer’s particular style and his special strategic talent in annotated games against Spassky, Taimanov and other greats. Karsten Müller is not just a leading international endgame expert, but also a true Fischer connoisseur.

In 1959 there were no suspicions at all that the Soviet players had tried to manipulate the tournament by arranging games. Though Tal and Petrosian apparently had agreed to a non-aggression pact – their four games ended all more or less quickly with a draw – Tal's result against Keres and Smyslov was much too bad for serious conspiracy theories.

But three years later, at the candidates tournament 1962 in Curacao, such theories came back with a vengeance. Tal also played in Curacao but as a former world champion. In 1960 he had won the world championship match against Botvinnik but Botvinnik again used his right for a return match which he won to regain the title.

Candidates Tournament Curacao 1962

The format of the candidates tournament 1962 was the same as three years before: eight players, 28 rounds, four games round-robin. One should think that these conditions were difficult enough to let the best players win. But the tournament in Curacao created a scandal. This was caused by Bobby Fischer. On August 20, 1962, he published an article with the title "The Russians Have Fixed World Chess" in the American magazine Sports Illustrated that made the news all over the world. In this article Fischer claimed that the Soviet players (which Fischer, ignoring political and national nuances, always calls "Russians") had manipulated the tournament:

"The international Candidates' Chess Tournament that ended June 28 in Curacao left me with one conviction: Russian control of chess has reached a point where there can be no honest competition for the world championship. The system set up by the Fédération International des Echecs, the governing body of world chess, insures that there will always be a Russian world champion because only a Russian can win the preliminary tournament that determines the challenger. The Russians arranged it that way."

The result of the tournament in Curacao was indeed a triumph for the Soviets. First place went to Tigran Petrosian (17½ /28) who one year later became new world champion after winning his title match against Botvinnik - who this time lost his title for good because the FIDE no longer granted the reigning world champion the right of a return match.

Tigran Petrosian 1959 | Photo: Tournament book Candidates Tournament 1959

Half a point behind Petrosian followed Keres and Geller on places two and three. Fischer finished fourth, three points behind Keres and Geller. On place five followed Viktor Kortschnoi, ahead of Pal Benkö. Miroslav Filip and Tal shared last place - Tal's health had troubled him again. A short time before the tournament he had to undergo a kidney operation and in Curacao the kidney troubled him again. After 21 rounds he withdrew from the tournament and went into hospital.

Final standings

Rg. Title Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Pts.
1 GM Tigran V Petrosian   ½½½½ ½½½½ ½1½½ 1½1½ ½1½½ 1½1  ½1½1 17.5 / 27
2 GM Paul Keres ½½½½   ½½½½ 10½½ 1½½½ 1011 ½11  ½11½ 17.0 / 27
3 GM Efim P Geller ½½½½ ½½½½   10½1 ½½1½ ½½½1 ½11  1½1½ 17.0 / 27
4 GM Robert James Fischer ½0½½ 01½½ 01½0   001½ ½011 1½½  ½½11 14.0 / 27
5 GM Viktor Lvovich Kortschnoj 0½0½ 0½½½ ½½0½ 110½   0½½½ 0½1  1111 13.5 / 27
6 GM Pal C Benko ½0½½ 0100 ½½½0 ½100 1½½½   1½0  1½01 12.0 / 27
7 GM Mihail Tal 0½0  ½00  ½00  0½½  1½0  0½1    ½10  7.0 / 21
8 GM Miroslav Filip ½0½0 ½00½ 0½0½ ½½00 0000 0½10 ½01    7.0 / 27

No wonder Boleslavsky, coach and attendant of the Soviet delegation, was happy:

"Our overall objective at the tournament in Curacao - which was that the challenger for the world championship title should become a Soviet player - proved not so difficult, since the first two rounds showed that our main rival, Robert Fischer, was not properly prepared for the forthcoming struggle." (Quoted in: Dmitry Plisetsky and Sergey Voronkov, Russians vs. Fischer, London: Everyman 2005, p.84)

But were Fischer's claims that the Soviet players had manipulated the tournament still justified? Was there an agreement between four Soviet players or only between Petrosian, Geller and Keres? Were these private agreements or were they politically orchestrated? Was there political pressure to lose certain games? Or were Fischer's claims only the nagging complaints of a 19-year old spoiled chess genius and bad loser who was not ready to acknowledge that he was not yet the world's best player? Fischer admits that

"[a]ny loser explaining why we can't win the world championship, or arguing that the setup makes it impossible for us to compete with the Russians on equal terms, seems to be suffering from sour grapes; it's said that there is nothing in the Russian control of international chess that a few victories by others wouldn't fix. Well, I now know better."

The numbers are not in favour of Fischer: after all, in the end the American was no less than 3½ points behind the tournament winner and did not win even one of the mini-matches against the first three. Against Petrosian and Geller he lost 1½-2½, against Keres he drew 2-2.

But at least one claim of Fischer is definitely correct: Petrosian, Geller, and Keres had made a non-aggression pact and drew all their games against each other, usually after only a few moves.

At the same time the Soviet players betrayed each other. One example: In the penultimate round Keres had to play against Benko and with a win he would have passed Petrosian and taken the lead. This would have given him good chances to win the tournament. Keres had won all his previous seven games against Benko but in this crucial encounter luck deserted him. When the game was adjourned Keres was worse and could at best hope for a draw. But Benko reports that Petrosian and Geller visited him secretly - though Benko, a refugee from Hungary, was actually a persona non grata for the Soviets - and offered to help him analysing the adjournament. Benko rejected the help and won the game easily. (See Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions, Los Angeles: Siles Press 2003, p.127-128).

For all the questions what really happened in Curacao it seems to be certain that Keres, Petrosian, and Geller teamed up, and that Petrosian and Geller then secretly teamed up against Keres when winning the tournament was at stake. One might assume that those responsible in the Soviet delegation did not propose the pact between Petrosian, Geller, and Keres but that they agreed to it because it would help a Soviet player to win the tournament. But the Soviet delegation probably did not go so far to force individual players to lose games - even if only because there never was any danger that a non-Soviet player would win the tournament.

All this leads to the conclusion that Fischer's claim that the Soviet players were willing to manipulate the candidates tournaments to give no western player the chance to challenge the world champion was justified. However, in 1962 Fischer was probably not yet strong enough to become world champion.

The discussion about manipulations in Curacao overshadowed the tournament and only a few games from this candidates tournament became better known. One of these games in Petrosian's brutal victory against Viktor Kortschnoi.


Fischer's public criticism drew attention to the manipulation of the candidates tournaments by the Soviets and had far-reaching consequences. In the next world championship cycle the FIDE replaced the candidates tournament with candidate matches, which FIDE then later replaced with a mix of matches and tournaments. Only in 2013 did FIDE reintroduce the classical candidates tournaments.


Coming soon: the candidates tournaments 2013, 2014, and 2016...


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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