Mikhail Nekhemyevich Tal (Riga, 9 November 1936 – Moscow, 28 June 1992) was a chess player with a unique style of play that at the time was revolutionary, completely changing how people looked at the game. In this article Paraguayan Grandmaster Zenón Franco looks back on his career, and in particular on the last classical game Tal played, in Barcelona in 1992.
by Zenón Franco
The World Chess Champions are exceptional, highly intelligent people, who we admire for their success at the chessboard. A chosen few, however, provoke not only admiration, but great sympathy; in this regard, Tal is unsurpassed. Curiously, the main reason for that is a chess one: he revolutionised chess, giving it a beauty that could be appreciated by almost all fans.
Tal had no fear of danger, neither in chess nor in life. The sympathy he provoked meant he received favourable treatment and immediate affection. Botvinnik commented, “He was loved, is that not where happiness lies? At the chessboard Tal was implacable, but in life, it seemed, he was a benign person, though at the same time he was intelligent and ironic... Chess was his passion, or to be precise, not chess in general, but the game of chess.”
Tal himself fostered that sympathy. When he was commentating on games in his book The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, “benevolence prevailed, respect for the opponent and self-irony, all things that you encounter rarely nowadays”, Genna Sosonko wrote in New in Chess. Sosonko records that for Tal power, titles or money meant nothing: in many places he forgot money, passports and so on.
He had a bright and always good-natured humour, with a contagious laugh and instant responses in conversation – full of wit – and a trademark: he used to say, “Waiter! Please change the dinner companion!”
The 20th century brought a better understanding of the laws that govern the game and an improvement in defensive technique. Then at the end of the 50s the “Magician from Riga” appeared, someone who, in defiance of the established order, introduced a form of play that seemed to defy all logic and frequently led to a triumph of the spirit over matter.
He was only World Champion for one year and six days, but according to Kasparov, “his star burned more brightly than anyone’s in the whole history of chess”.
His health was poor. His hospital visits were frequent before, after and even during tournaments. He underwent 12 surgical interventions, so that it was no surprise that he died young, at only 55 years of age.
In his book Timman’s Titans: My World Chess Champions, Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman notes that as well as chess Tal had three other passions: alcohol, tobacco and women. “Tal had an enormous urge to live as freely as was practically possible. His fascination for women was amazing”, wrote Timman, who was once told by a close friend of Tal’s that after winning a game he would phone three different women, and say the same to all of them: “Thinking of you, I was able to win the game”. Timman saw it as further proof that Tal didn’t take life too seriously and always found the fun aspect of any situation.
Tal himself acknowledged his passions with his characteristic sense of humour: “I smoke, I drink, I’m a gambler, I chase women, but in my defence, I must say that correspondence chess is not one of my vices”. Tal lived fast and intensely, but he was at peace with himself; his friend Sosonko commented, “While burning his life he knew that there was no other, but he didn’t want to and was unable to live any other way”.
His last tournament was in Spain, in April/May 1992, in Barcelona. Previously he’d played the Seville Open in January. I played in that tournament and it was sad to see him so worn down. I remember the organiser had taken all of the alcohol from Tal’s minibar, trying to do him some good, but of course that didn’t stop Tal buying it in the supermarkets.
In that regard, Frederic Friedel commented on ChessBase: “The most time I spent with Misha Tal was in 1988, when he played in the World Blitz Championship in [Saint John], 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?”
Let’s recall his last tournament in Barcelona. Ivan Sokolov notes in his book Ivan’s Chess Journey: Games and Stories, that Tal began with a fine win against France’s Joel Lautier, but it was evident that his health was deteriorating by the day: he played several games with a fever and in the second half of the tournament he had to come to play in a wheelchair.
Tal never lost his sense of humour, though, nor his capacity to joke about everything. Sokolov was satisfied with his play while analysing one of his wins; Tal watched, and Sokolov recalls: “I proudly showed what (it seemed to me) was a complicated line… He applauded, laughed and said: “Bravo! You saw it all, genius! Bravo!” and he laughed again… I wanted to disappear from the face of the Earth”.
Sokolov was to play Black against Tal in the second half of the tournament. While he was preparing, two hours before the game, the phone rang; it was Tal, who after apologising for phoning late said that he wasn’t feeling very well, and asked him, “Are you feeling ambitious?” Sokolov said no, and the game ended in a draw in 13 moves.
According to Sosonko and Sokolov, there was a similar conversation between Tal and Vladimir Akopian, but apparently Akopian “didn’t understand” that admitting to not being ambitious meant agreeing to a quick draw, because when Tal offered a draw in the opening (already on move 3, according to some), Akopian didn’t accept. Only when his position was bad was Akopian the one to offer a draw, but Tal rejected it.
That was Tal’s last official game.
That account of the game Tal vs. Akopian, repeated in various places, was corrected by Akopian himself in an article on Chess-News. At the end of Round 9 Akopian was sharing first place in the tournament with Dorfman and Sokolov, with 5.5/9. In the last two rounds the Armenian had to play against Korchnoi with White and Tal with Black; he was playing both players for the first time. Akopian was the World Junior Champion and was aspiring to win a tournament featuring such outstanding figures.
It was then that Tal offered the draw to Akopian, and not directly, but through a woman called Tania, who was working as an interpreter during the tournament (she was a Russian translator and the wife of the later President of the Spanish Chess Federation, Javier Ochoa). Akopian responded that he couldn’t reply at that point but would be able to after the game against Korchnoi.
That game ended in a draw, and going into the final round there were only two leaders, Dorfman and Akopian, since Sokolov lost to Rivas.
Akopian had to take a decision and finally decided to play. The only direct contact with Tal was before the round: Tal asked him what mood he was in and Akopian said he wanted to play; Tal had no issue with that. Let’s take a look at Mikhail Tal’s final official game (you can replay it with computer analysis here).
7... b5 8. ♗c2 e5 9. h3 is possible. 9... ♗e7 (The wild 9... g5 10. d4 g4 was once employed successfully by Atalik.) 10. d4 ♕c7 This could lead to a typical position for the Ruy Lopez, but with Black a tempo up (Bd7). In that position Black saves two tempi by not playing Na5 and Nc6, and White saves one by playing Bc2 immediately instead of Bb3 followed by Bc2.
8. d4 It’s now thought that Black has difficulties after 8.Bc2 followed by b3, but back then it’s wasn’t know, says Akopian.
12. ♘bd2 was suggested by Akopian in Informant 54.
14... ♔h8! Highlighting one of the compensations of the weakened structure – the g-file. Akopian said that White was somewhat better, but that he was satisfied with his position and believed in the power of his bishops.
17... ♖c8 18. f4 An objectively weak move, which while gaining space weakens the kingside and allows Black to keep his bishop pair. Sokolov considered that this might have been an emotional response to Akopian’s rejection of the draw offer.
21. ♕a7 An attempt to change the negative course the game is taking, looking to complicate matters at all costs.
21. e5 was suggested by Akopian, but the engines don’t approve of that either.
21... ♗c7 Black had various attractive options:
22. ♕xa6 bxc4 23. b4 Akopian gave this an exclamation mark, no doubt considering the practical aspect that Black is better, but he has to prove that concretely or else White will have two connected passed pawns in future.
b) 24. ♔h1
23... ♕g7 Once again it was difficult to choose between the various attractive options.
23... f5 !
24. ♖e2 was a better defence, objectively speaking.
24... d5 25. exd5 ♗xf4 26. ♔f2 ! f5? Akopian points out that he can’t imagine how he came up with a move like this which violates all the rules, leaves the f4-bishop in the air and weakens the dark squares. It was better not to give up material and open lines by playing
27. gxf4 The explanation for the previous mistake: Akopian believed this capture was a losing move.
27... ♕xc3 Looking for a more complicated position, but after...
28. ♕d6 ! ...the queen returns to the centre of the battle and White’s position is strengthened, as Akopian noted.
29. ♖d4 The best option.
29... ♖g7? A time-trouble mistake. Here it was Akopian who offered a draw.
29... ♕b2+ 30. ♖d2 and 30... ♕g7 (30... ♕f6 with the idea of c3, c2 31. ♕e5 ) 31. ♖g1 ♕f6 32. ♖xg8+ ♔xg8 33. ♕a6 ♗d7 where White has somewhat the better chances, but it’s possible to fight with moves such as 34. a4
30. dxe6 ! “Now I want to play” replied Tal. Opening the long diagonal and leaving his king exposed, but the tactics work for White.
31. ♘g5! A fine move!
31... ♖xg5 Exercise: How did Tal land the final blow?
32. ♕e5+! Winning more material than in the variation give after 30...fxe6. Of course not
After the game, in a relaxed atmosphere, Akopian and Tal started to analyse the sixth game of the first match against Botvinnik – the King’s Indian in which Tal played 21…Nf4!
Akopian said that he’d always admired that brilliant move. “Well, if it works!” replied Tal.
Akopian said that he was genuinely pleased to have played against Tal and not to have made a draw without a fight. “The only thing I regret is to have played him only once”, he ends.
On returning to Moscow, Tal had to be hospitalised. Sosonko recounts that before going to the hospital (Timman says he was already in the hospital and briefly “escaped”) he played a blitz tournament, where he beat Kasparov. Ultimately, the magician from Riga finished third behind Kasparov and Bareev, but ahead of Smyslov, Dolmatov, Vyzhmanavin and Beliavsky.
He died shortly afterwards, on 28th June 1992, in Moscow. His body had to be moved from Moscow to Riga, though Timman writes that, “times were turbulent in the new Russia, and there were no standard procedures for such a transport.” However, Anatoly Karpov took on the task: the Russian used all his influence to ensure that Tal was buried in the old cemetery in Riga.
For more on Mikhail Tal, including Peter Svidler's analysis of Tal's final game, check out:
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