Mikhaïl Tal

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Mikhail Tal

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Mikhail Tal
Mikhail Tal 1961 Oberhausen.jpg
Full name Latvian: Mihails Tals
Russian: Mikhail Nekhemievich Tal
Country Soviet Union ( Latvia)
Born November 9, 1936
Riga, Latvia
Died June 28, 1992 [1] (aged 55)
Moscow, Russia
Title Grandmaster (1957)
World Champion 1960–1961
Peak rating 2705 (January 1980)

Mikhail Tal ( Latvian: Mihails Tals), Michail Nechem’evic Tal, sometimes transliterated Mihails Tals or Mihail Tal; November 9, 1936 – June 28, 1992) [1] was a Soviet– Latvian chess player, a Grandmaster, and the eighth World Chess Champion.

He was often called “Misha”, a diminutive for Mikhail, and “The magician from Riga” for his daring combinatorial style. Both The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games ( Burgess, Nunn & Emms 2004) and Modern Chess Brilliancies ( Evans 1970) include more games by Tal than any other player. Tal was also a highly-regarded chess writer; his professional career was that of a chess journalist.

The Mikhail Tal Memorial is held in Moscow each year since 2006 to honour his memory.

He holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history. [2] Many authorities consider him to have been the greatest attacking Grandmaster of all time. [3]


Early years

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Tal was born in Riga, Latvia, into a Jewish family. At the age of eight, Tal learned to play chess while watching his father, a doctor. Shortly thereafter he joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. His play was not exceptional at first but he worked hard to improve. Alexander Koblents began tutoring Tal in 1949, after which Tal’s game rapidly improved, and by 1951 he had qualified for the Latvian Championship. In the 1952 Latvian Championship Tal finished ahead of his trainer. Tal won his first Latvian title in 1953, and was awarded the title of Candidate Master. He became a Soviet Master in 1954 by defeating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. That same year he also scored his first win over a Grandmaster when Yuri Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position. Tal graduated in Literature from the University of Riga, writing a thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov, and taught school in Riga for a time in his early twenties. He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society, and represented Latvia in internal Soviet team competitions.

Soviet champion

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Tal first qualified for the USSR Chess Championship final in 1956, finishing joint fifth, and became the youngest player to win it the following year, at the age of 20. He had not played in enough international tournaments to qualify for the title of Grandmaster, but FIDE decided at its 1957 Congress to waive the normal restrictions and award him the title because of his achievement in winning the Soviet Championship. [4]

Tal made three appearances for the USSR at Student Olympiads, from 1956–1958, winning three team gold medals and three board gold medals. He won nineteen games, drew eight, and lost none, for 85.2 percent. [5]

He retained the Soviet Championship title in 1958 at Riga, and competed in the World Chess Championship for the first time. He won the 1958 Interzonal tournament at Portorož, then helped the Soviet Union win their fourth consecutive Chess Olympiad at Munich.

World champion

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Tal and Botvinnik, 1960 match

Tal won a very strong tournament at Zürich, 1959. Following the Interzonal, the top players carried on to the Candidates’ Tournament, Yugoslavia 1959. Tal showed superior form by winning with 20/28 points, ahead of Paul Keres with 18½, followed by Tigran Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov, Bobby Fischer, Svetozar Gligoric, Friðrik Ólafsson, and Pal Benko. Tal’s victory was attributed to his dominance over the lower half of the field; [6] whilst scoring only one win and three losses versus Keres, he won all four individual games against Fischer, and took 3½ points out of 4 from each of Gligoric, Olafsson, and Benko. [7]

In 1960, at the age of 23, Tal thoroughly defeated the relatively staid and strategic Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match, held in Moscow, by 12½–8½ (six wins, two losses, and thirteen draws), making him the youngest-ever world champion (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov, who earned the title at 22). Botvinnik, who had never faced Tal before the title match began, won the return match against Tal in 1961, also held in Moscow, by 13–8 (ten wins to five, with six draws). In the period between the matches Botvinnik had thoroughly analyzed Tal’s style, and turned most of the return match’s games into slow wars of maneuver or endgames, rather than the complicated tactical melees which were Tal’s happy hunting ground. [8] Tal’s chronic kidney problems contributed to his defeat, and his doctors in Riga advised that he should postpone the match for health reasons. Yuri Averbakh claimed that Botvinnik would agree to a postponement only if Tal was certified unfit by Moscow doctors, and that Tal then decided to play. [9] His short reign atop the chess world made him one of the two so-called ” winter kings” who interrupted Botvinnik’s long reign from 1948 to 1963 (the other was Smyslov, world champion 1957–1958).

His highest Elo rating was 2705, achieved in 1980. His highest Historical Chessmetrics Rating was 2799, in September 1960. This capped his torrid stretch which had begun in early 1957.

Later achievements

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Mikhail Tal, 1971

Soon after losing the rematch with Botvinnik, Tal won the 1961 Bled supertournament by one point over Fischer, despite losing their individual game, scoring 14½ from nineteen games (+11 -1 =7) with the world-class players Tigran Petrosian, Keres, Gligoric, Efim Geller, and Miguel Najdorf among the other participants.

Tal played in a total of six Candidates’ Tournaments and match cycles, though he never again earned the right to play for the world title. In 1962 at Curaçao, he had serious health problems, having undergone a major operation shortly before the tournament, and had to withdraw three-quarters of the way through, scoring just seven points (+3 -10 =8) from 21 games. He tied for first place at the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal to advance to matches. Then in 1965, he lost the final match against Boris Spassky, after defeating Lajos Portisch and Bent Larsen in matches. Exempt from the 1967 Interzonal, he lost a 1968 semi-final match against Viktor Korchnoi, after defeating Gligoric.

Poor health caused a slump in his play from late 1968 to late 1969, but he recovered his form after having a kidney removed. He won the 1979 Riga Interzonal with an undefeated score of 14/17, but the next year lost a quarter-final match to Lev Polugaevsky, one of the players to hold a positive score against him. He also played in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates’ Tournament, a round-robin of 16 qualifiers, finishing in a tie for fourth and fifth places, and narrowly missing further advancement after drawing a playoff match with Jan Timman, who held the tiebreak advantage from the tournament proper.

From July 1972 to April 1973, Tal played a record 86 consecutive games without a loss (47 wins and 39 draws). Between October 23, 1973 and October 16, 1974, he played 95 consecutive games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws), shattering his previous record. These are the two longest unbeaten streaks in modern chess history. [2]

A measure of Tal’s strength also in his later years is given by his score against Anatoly Karpov, who was some 15 years younger, in tournament games: one loss (at Bugojno, 1980) and nineteen draws out of 20 games they played.

One of Tal’s greatest achievements during his later career was an equal first place with Karpov (whom he seconded in a number of tournaments and world championships) in the 1979 Montreal “Tournament of Stars”, with an unbeaten score of (+6 =12), the only undefeated player in the field, which also included Spassky, Portisch, Vlastimil Hort, Robert Hübner, Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Lubomir Kavalek, Timman and Larsen.

Tal played in 21 Soviet Championships, [10] winning it a record six times (1957, 1958, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978), a number only equalled by Botvinnik. He was also a five-time winner of the International Chess Tournament in Tallinn, Estonia, with victories in 1971, 1973, 1977, 1981, and 1983.

Tal also had successes in blitz chess; in 1970, he took second place to Fischer, who scored 19/22, in a blitz tournament at Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, ahead of Korchnoi, Petrosian and Smyslov. In 1988, aged 51, he won the second official World Blitz Championship (the first was won by Kasparov the previous year in Brussels) at Saint John, ahead of such players as Kasparov, the reigning world champion, and ex-champion Anatoly Karpov. In the final, he defeated Rafael Vaganian by 3½-½.

Team competitions

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In Olympiad play, Mikhail Tal was a member of eight Soviet teams, each of which won team gold medals ( 1958, 1960, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1980, and 1982), won sixty-five games, drew thirty-four, and lost only two games (81.2 percent). This percentage makes him the player with the best score among those participating in at least four Olympiads. Individually, Tal won seven Olympiad board medals, including five gold (1958, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974), and two silver (1960, 1982). [5]

Tal also represented the Soviet Union at six European Team Championships (1957, 1961, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1980), winning team gold medals each time, and three board gold medals (1957, 1970, and 1977). He scored 14 wins, 20 draws, and three losses, for 64.9 percent. [5] Tal played board nine for the USSR in the first match against the Rest of the World team at Belgrade 1970, scoring 2 out of 4. He was on board seven for the USSR in the second match against the Rest of the World team at London 1984, scoring 2 out of 3. The USSR won both team matches. He was an Honoured Master of Sport. [11]

From 1950 (when he won the Latvian junior championship) to 1991, Tal won or tied for first in 68 tournaments (see table below). During his 41-year career he played about 2,700 tournament or match games, scoring over 65 percent.

Score with some major Grandmasters

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Only official tournament or match games have been taken into account. ‘+’ corresponds to Tal’s wins, ‘-‘ to his losses and ‘=’ to draws.

Health problems

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Tal suffered from bad health, and had to be hospitalized frequently throughout his career, mainly for kidney problems. Eventually one of his diseased kidneys was removed. Tal was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. [12] He was also briefly addicted to morphine. [13] On June 28, 1992, [1] Tal died in a Moscow hospital, officially of kidney failure. But his friend and fellow Soviet grandmaster Genna Sosonko reported that “in reality, all his organs had stopped functioning.” [14][ not in citation given] Tal had the congenital deformity of ectrodactyly in his right hand (visible in some photographs).

Playing style

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Tal’s gravestone, showing a death date of “1992 27 VI” (June 27, 1992)

Tal loved the game in itself and considered that “Chess, first of all, is Art.” He was known to play numerous blitz games against unknown or relatively weak players purely for the joy of playing.

Known as “The Magician from Riga”, Tal was the archetype of the attacking player, developing an extremely powerful and imaginative style of play. His approach over the board was very pragmatic – in that respect, he is one of the heirs of ex-World Champion Emanuel Lasker. He often sacrificed material in search of the initiative, which is defined by the ability to make threats to which the opponent must respond. With such intuitive sacrifices, he created vast complications, and many masters found it impossible to solve all the problems he created over the board, though deeper post-game analysis found flaws in some of his conceptions. The famous sixth game of his first world championship match with Botvinnik is typical in that regard: Tal sacrificed a knight with little compensation but prevailed when the unsettled Botvinnik failed to find the correct response.

Although his playing style was scorned by ex-World Champion Vasily Smyslov as nothing more than “tricks”, Tal convincingly beat virtually every notable grandmaster with his trademark aggression. Viktor Korchnoi and Paul Keres are two of the very few with a significant plus record against him. It is also notable that he adopted a more sedate and positional style in his later years; for many chess lovers, the apex of Tal’s style corresponds with the period (approximately from 1971 to 1979) when he was able to integrate the solidity of classical chess with the imagination of his youth. [15]

Of the current top-level players, the Latvian-born Spaniard Alexei Shirov has probably been most influenced or inspired by Tal’s sacrificial style. In fact, he studied with Tal as a youth. Many other Latvian grandmasters and masters, for instance Alexander Shabalov and Alvis Vitolins, have played in a similar vein, causing some to speak of a “Latvian School of Chess.” [16] Tal contributed little to opening theory, despite a deep knowledge of most systems, the Sicilian and the Ruy Lopez in particular. But his aggressive use of the Modern Benoni Defense, particularly in his early years, led to a complete re-evaluation of this variation at the time, though it is seldom seen in top-class tournament play in the 21st century.

Quotations on chess

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  • “There are two kinds of sacrifices: sound ones, and mine.” [17]
  • “To play for a draw, at any rate with White, is to some degree a crime against chess.” [18]
  • “If Black is going for victory, he is practically forced to allow his opponent to get some kind of well-known positional advantage.”
  • “It is also important to remember that Bobby Fischer was a real chess gentleman during games. He was always very fair and very correct.”
  • “I drink, I smoke, I gamble, I chase girls – but postal chess is one vice I don’t have.” [19]
  • “They compare me to Lasker, which is an exaggerated honor. He made mistakes in every game and I only in every second one!”
  • Nevertheless, when asked about his opinion on who was the greatest player of all time, he answered: “Lasker, for he made miracles on the chessboard.”
  • Referring to his piece sacrifices: “They can only take them one at a time!”
  • “If playing chess were made illegal by law, I would become an outlaw.”
  • “You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”