The Immortality of Mikhail Tal

11/9/2006 – Had he lived, had he not succumbed to chronic ill health and an excessive life style, today Mikhail Nekhemievich Tal, the "Magician from Riga", would have celebrated his 70th birthday – today, on the first free day of the Tal Memorial tournament in Moscow. The greatest attacking player in history is sadly missed but never forgotten. In memoriam.

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In memoriam: Mikhail Tal, 1936–1992

Mikhail Nekhemievich Tal was born in Riga, Latvia, on November 9, 1936. He learnt to play chess by watching his father when he was eight, and soon became a member of the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. When he was 12 he received training from Alexander Koblencs, and his game improved rapidly. At 14 he qualified for the Latvian Championship and the next year he finished ahead of his trainer. At 16 he won his first national title and was awarded the title of candidate master.

In 1956, before his 20th birthday, Mikhail Tal had qualified for the USSR Chess Championship, which he finished joint fifth. In the following year he became the youngest player to win the championship. Even though he had not fulfilled the grandmaster norms completely – he had not played enough games against non-Soviet opponents – FIDE awarded him the title in that year. Tal won the Soviet Championship again the following year, and won the interzonal tournament for the world championship at Portoroz, and played for the Soviet Union at the Chess Olympiad..


Tal vs Botvinnik in 1960

The Candidates Tournament of 1959 was held in Bled, Zagreb and Belgrad, and was a quadruple round robin with eight players. Tal finished first with 20/28 points, ahead of Keres, Petrosian, Smyslov, Gligoric, Fischer, Olafsson and Benko. He won all four games against the 16-year-old Bobby Fischer. In 1960 he went on to defeat world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, becoming the youngest ever world champion (at 23). He held the title for just one year, and was defeated in 1961 by Botvinnik in the return match.

In spite of failing health Tal continued to play successfully in a number of Candidates Tournaments, losing in 1965 only in the final to Boris Spassky, in 1968 in the semi-final to Viktor Korchnoi, and in 1980 in the quarter-final to Lev Polugaevsky. He won the Soviet Championship four more times. In 1979 he finished equal first with Anatoly Karpov in the 1979 Montreal "Tournament of Stars", and in 1988, at the age of 52, he won the famous World Championship in Blitz in St John's, Canada, in a 32-player field that included Kasparov and Karpov. The first prize was $50,000.

Mikhail Tal was known as "The Magician from Riga" for his incredible tactical feats on the chessboard. He was the world's greatest attacking player, often sacrificing material speculatively in search for the initiative, creating threats to which his opponents found it almost impossible to respond. Tal managed to conjure up complications in almost any position and was almost always able to solve the ensuing problems better than his opponent. He played close to 3000 games during his career, winning more than 65 percent of them.

For decades Tal suffered from bad health and had to be hospitalized frequently throughout his career. He was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. On June 28 1992, Mikhail Tal died of kidney failure in a Moscow hospital.

On a personal note

I met Mikhail Tal a number of times. I believe the first time was in April 1987, at the super-GM tournament in Brussels, where he was playing together with Kasparov, Karpov and Korchnoi, and finished sixth with 6.0/11 points. He often came to the press room, and there, on one occassion, he spotted us trying to solve a problem that GM Jim Plaskett had given us.


White to play and win

We had already spent a lot of time shuffling the pieces around on the board, occasionally being helped by one of the super-GMs, but to no avail. Nobody solved the problem that day. Except Misha Tal, who studied it unsuccessfully for about ten minutes, then left the press room. An hour later he suddenly popped in again and gave me the solution. Apparently he had worked out the main idea during a walk in the park. The full story of this puzzle is to be found here.

The most time I spent with Misha Tal was in 1988, when he played in the World Blitz Championship in St John's, Canada. He won that event ahead of the best players in the world and, I'm sure he would not be angry that I mention this, in an inebriated state. In fact I had to help him to reach his table for one of the rounds after he had imbibed a stiff quicky at the hotel bar. Some years later when I chided him for reckless disregard of his health – I had quit smoking and strongly advocated that he do the same – he smiled broadly and said, "Ah, but is life worth living if you have to worry about so many things?"

Frederic Friedel


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