Mikhail Tal - The Magician from Riga

Mikhail Tal (November 9, 1936 - June 28, 1992) was a Latvian Grandmaster and the 8th World Champion. Along with Vasily Smyslov, he was the second of the two Winter Kings. He will be forever remembered by many people as the most exciting attacking player to ever play chess. He emerged at a time when chess was dominated by positional power-houses. They played the position with ruthless logic.

Tal had a completely different approach. He continually sought to confuse the issue. He had an incredible ability to judge a complicated tactical thrust without necessarily working out the precise variation in advance. He trusted his instincts on the outworking of a sacrifice. If he liked his chances or if the possibility held intrigue, he invariably went for it.

His opponents, the strongest of grandmasters themselves, would time and time again, succumb to his tactical storms. No one liked getting in a tactical dual with Tal. So when he initiated one, his opponent would immediately be psychologically on the ropes.

Young Mikhail

Mikhail Tal was the Magician of Riga.

Young Mikhail

Mikhail Tal was born on November 9, 1936 in Riga, Latvia. He was a very bright child but never enjoyed good health. He had persistent health issues as a youngster, indeed all through his life.

Tal did not allow this to hold him back. He learned to read aged three and by fifteen was studying for university. Chess came to his attention when he saw his father, a doctor, playing a game in his clinic.

Tal was greatly taken with the game and not long after joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers. His chess was unremarkable at first and he had to work hard on it. Four time Latvian Champion and IM Alexander Koblents tutored Tal from the age of 13 and his game rapidly improved.

Quick Success

Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand

Tal qualified for the 1951 Latvian Championship at the age of 15. He finished ahead of Koblents the following year and won it on his third attempt in 1953. This victory saw him awarded the title Candidate Master.

Tal won a qualifying match against Vladimir Saigin in Riga in 1954. He gained the title of Soviet Master with this win. When he beat GM Yuri Averbakh later that year it was confirmation that he had the ability to go far.

His studies were also going well and he graduated from university and began to teach in Riga. This would provide him with a living as he pushed on with his quest for glory in chess.

Soviet Champion

Mikhail Tal won his first Soviet Championship at 20 and World Championship at 23.

Mikhail Tal won his first Soviet Championship at 20 and World Championship at 23

Tal's first appearance in the USSR Championship came in 1956. He finished joint fifth. His big breakthrough came in 1957. He won the USSR Championship at the second attempt becoming the youngest player ever to do so.

He was still only 20 years old. He had not competed in many international tournaments. This would usually have meant that he could not be considered for the title of Grandmaster. But since the Soviet Championship was the strongest tournament in the world FIDE made an exception. Tal was made a GM.

He justified the decision by retaining his title the following year. The USSR Championship would become one of the great highlights of Tal's career. He would go on to win it six times in all, a record shared only by Botvinnik.

Interzonal and Candidate Triumphs

Mikhail Tal won the Interzonal and Candidate Tournaments in 58 and 59.

Mikhail Tal successfully negotiated his way through the Interzonal and Candidate Tournaments in 58 and 59

Tal was beginning to turn his attention to the ultimate prize. Botvinnik and Smyslov had been slugging it out the past few years for the position as chess king. The magician from Riga was on his way however.

His USSR title gave him automatic inclusion in the 1958 Interzonal Tournament at Portoroz, Slovenia. He won the tournament to qualify for the final stepping stone towards Botvinnik. He prepared for this with victory over a strong field in Zurich, Switzerland early in 1959.

Tal was in good form heading into the 1959 Candidate's Tournament held in Bled, Zagreb and Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. He made it count by winning it ahead of Keres, Petrosian and Smyslov. Gligoric, Fischer, Olafsson and Benko were out of contention by some way. Interestingly, Tal lost his personal dual with Keres 3-1 but great results against the weaker players (including a 4-0 demolition of a young Bobby Fischer) saw him prevail.

Botvinnik vs Tal

Mikhail Tal won the World Championship in 1960.

Mikhail Tal won the World Championship in 1960

The World Championship of 1960 was a clash of two completely opposite chess cultures. It was reminiscent of the very first World Championship between the Positional pioneer Steinitz and the Romantic diehard Zukertort. Now 74 years later, the champion Botvinnik was playing in the scientific, positional camp. Mikhail Tal, the young upstart from Riga, was blazing a new trail for chess. He was laying waste to all of the strongest GMs around. His style was a throwback to the glory days of Anderssen, Zukertort and the great artists of that period. He was playing audacious sacrifices and winning in breath taking style. Even the strongest masters could not solve his riddles over the board.

Mikhail Tal had quickly become a hero for most chess fans. Crowds thronged both inside and outside the Pushkin Theater in Moscow for this hotly anticipated contest. Some said that Tal's tricks would not work against the mighty Botvinnik. Others said that his march to the title was unstoppable. As it turned out Botvinnik couldn't deal with the tactical battles that Tal pulled him into. The Magician from Riga stormed to victory on a score of 6-2 with 15 draws. Aged just 23, Mikhail Tal was the youngest ever World Champion.

Return Leg

Mikhail Botvinnik won the rematch against Mikhail Tal.

Mikhail Botvinnik won the rematch against Mikhail Tal

Botvinnik must have been shocked not just by the defeat but the manner in which it was delivered. He had been absolutely put to the sword by Tal's all-out attacking style.

Botvinnik even said, much later, that if Tal would train, program himself, and put himself on a strict regimen, "He would be impossible to play against." Botvinnik analyzed the games meticulously and found that he had lost because he had allowed Tal to engage him in tactical duals.

Botvinnik trained hard and activated his rematch clause to play Tal in 1961. He made sure that the games had a more positional feel this time. It worked because Botvinnik regained the World Championship winning 10-5 with 6 draws.

Later Years

Mikhail Tal still enjoyed success after the World Championship.

Mikhail Tal still enjoyed success after the World Championship

Tal had been in worse health than usual in the run up to the match. His doctors had said he was unfit to play but when Botvinnik said he wanted Moscow doctors to examine him, Tal said he would play the match. He underwent a major operation not long after the match. He would play in more Candidate's Tournaments over the years. His bad health compromised his chances to earn another shot at the World Championship.

Boris Spassky edged him out in 1965 on the way to his challenge to Tigran Petrosian who had since toppled Botvinnik. He went on two of the longest unbeaten runs in modern chess history. July 1972 to April 1973: 86 consecutive games unbeaten; 47 wins and 39 draws. October 1973 to October 1974: 95 consecutive games unbeaten; 46 wins and 49 draws. He became World Blitz Champion in 1988. His final act of note was winning a game against Garry Kasparov just a month before he died in 1992.

Tal Legacy

Mikhail Tal controlled the pieces as if by magic.

Mikhail Tal controlled the pieces as if by magic

Mikhail Tal put the joy back into chess for so many people. The exciting way he played taking on the stiff, mechanical, systematic approach that had dominated chess before his arrival was the shot in the arm that the game needed.

Many of the positional giants that he was tormenting in his pomp disapproved of Tal's 'wrong' way of playing. He was not like those who played in the 'right' way. He was compared to Lasker who also played objectively inferior moves in the hope of provoking mistakes from his opponents. As Botvinnik said: he (Tal) was not interested in the objectivity of the position, whether it's better or worse, he only needed room for his pieces.

Tal said himself of the comparisons to Lasker, maybe half in jest: They compare me with Lasker, which is an exaggerated honor. Lasker made mistakes in every game and I only in every second one! His creativity comes across in his most famous games.

Moving On

Mikhail Tal tormented the great and the good of chess for nearly 40 years with his devilish tricks. He must have been a terrible opponent to be confronted with when at the height of his powers.

If he could have had the iron will and durability of Botvinnik or Karpov along with remarkable trickery, he might well have been the first name to trip off the tongues of the uninitiated when asked about chess. He could have been a household name beyond the game he described as an art. But then, as many who knew him have said, he wouldn't be Tal.

As it was he was one of the two Winter Kings of the Botvinnik era. He would not be the one to bring that era to an end. That would be Tigran Petrosian.

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