Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Magician of Riga

Mikhail Tal, 1936-1992
“Later, I began to succeed in decisive games. Perhaps because I realized
 a very simple truth: not only was I worried, but also my opponent”
Alexander Kotov:
"There is no other grandmaster who can so entrance the spectators or inspire them to understand the hidden secrets of the game. Tal's own unbounded love for chess induces a similar feeling towards himself on the part of those who hold the game in high esteem."

John Nunn:
"Whatever the result, I always enjoyed playing Mikhail Tal. During the post-mortem he would enthusiastically demonstrate variation after fantastic variation, proving time and again that he had a wonderfully inventive chess mind and an amazingly quick tactical vision. Not all of the lines were sound, as he himself was well aware, but he was fascinated by the beauty and depth of chess... I am proud to have known Misha and to have played against him."

Gary Kasparov:
"He was the only one I knew who didn't calculate the variants, he saw them.

Interviewer: Can you elaborate?

GK: We calculate: he does this then I do that. And Tal, through all the thick layers of variants, saw that around the 8th move, it will be so and so. Some people can see the mathematical formulae, they can imagine the whole picture instantly. An ordinary man has to calculate, to think this through, but they just see it all. It occurs in great musicians, great scientists. Tal was absolutely unique. His playing style was of course unrepeatable. I calculated the variants quickly enough, but these Tal insights were unique. He was a man in whose presence others sensed their mediocrity.

He led a very unusual life. He didn't think of anything. He lived here and now, and this enormous energy was always around him. The positive energy. Tal was one of the few completely positive people I knew, he wasn't contentious. Chess is very contentious game by its nature, and he wasn't."

See photos below

It seems to me a lot of chess players first get in to chess because of Bobby Fischer, then they forget about him and move on to players like Mikhail Tal. We'd all love to believe in the myth of the lone American taking the Russians apart with beautiful inventions thought up at the board, but Fischer by his own admissions relied far more on knowledge than imagination. Invention was definitely the domain of Mikhail Tal, and he lived in the perfect age for it. It's often said that if Tal lived in the computer age he would just be a normal GM, that "play is now much more accurate" than in 1960 when Tal won the world title from Botvinnik, up to 1992 (the year Tal's death aged 52). This has some truth to it but is also nonsense- a quick look at Vishy Anand's awful loss to Hikaru Nakamura in the London Classic last month will show that even the world champion can crumble to an unorthodox attack. At club level though, if you have the stomach to try and emulate him, Tal is the perfect player to study. We all play inaccurately at times; Tal's attacks teach us what to look for in a badly coordinated defense, and how to exploit it.

After e5 white has open access to f7 and an open d-file to attack down 
as is common in the Sicilian. Black's knight is effectively pinned to d7 due to white's
coordination against d8. Other ideas are (1) sacrificing a piece on b5 to gain an
even bigger development advantage, (2) if black plays f6 to break this attack on d8, e6 is critically weakened, (3) eventually playing Nd6+, Bxd6, Qxd6 is an idea.

After Ne4 white has monster knights. If he can clear the d-file with a sacrifice on e6 or b5 then Ne4-d6+ becomes a real threat because black is forced to swap his dark squared Bishop which is obviously crucial for defending the dark squares around the king. Without the f8 bishop to defend, black may be forced to play f6, weakening e6 (Black's Queen is easily pushed away from defending the dark squares.

White's rook has a few good squares to go to!

Holy crap! That surely wins just by the shock it delivers. With this sac, white clears the d-file and all his pieces are coordinated. By getting his d4 knight out of the way he is now threatening Nd6+, removing black's dark squared bishop and threatening mate on the dark squares. Once the dark squares are weakened, f6 is met by Nc7+, king moves, Nxe6!

Personally I think I can get much closer to understanding Tal than Karpov, and what's more I have more fun along the way. Tal himself said he loved the gather of people and the shocked gasps around him when he threw out his sacrifices. To try to play like him requires bravery, and it's certainly the most exhilarating feel you'll get from chess in my view. Remember: 

"He who is afraid to sacrifice is afraid of chess"

And learn to sac.
A few more quotes to finish:

Alexi Shirov: 
"I was too weak to understand his chess ideas at that time but I remember getting covered with cigarette smoke"

Vladimir Kramnik:
"We are all, in a sense, Tal's children; I grew up on his games and in my childhood I played in such a style."

Bent Larsen:
"Tal was a fearless fighter. Nobody could successfully accomplish so many incorrect manoeuvres! He simply smashed his opponents.

"Mother, I have just become Ex-World Champion" (on returning home after losing the '61 rematch to Botvinnik

"If you wait for luck to turn up, life becomes very boring."

"My head is full of sunshine. – Mikhail Tal"

"The man who has proved that you can reach the top and remain human." (on who his chess hero was)

Mikhail Botvinnik:
I couldn’t make myself dislike him.

Edmar Mednis:
"In chess, at least, the brave inherit the earth." (commenting on Tal)

Grant Szuveges:
"I used to study his games a lot, that's where I got the dynamic attacking streak in my otherwise boring play"

I will not hide the fact that I love to hear the spectators react after a sacrifice of a piece or pawn. – Mikhail Tal

First, how to sac my queen, then rook, then bishop, then knight, then pawns. – Mikhail Tal (on what he thinks about after his opponent moves)

It's funny, but many people don't understand why I draw so many games nowadays. They think my style must have changed but this is not the case at all. The answer to this drawing disease is that my favorite squares are e6, f7, g7 and h7 and everyone now knows this. They protect these squares not once but four times! – Mikhail Tal


  1. Am I inspired by Tal? Well, I have one goal left in chess; a double rook sacrifice as I sacrificed most every other material combination in my time, and to make Tal proud, not all of those were 'correct'!

    1. Don't give up on Tal-chess Carl. I am hearing this "As we get older a change of style is wise" line too often: BELIEVE IN YOUR DOUBLE ROOK SAC AND WE WILL CELEBRATE WILDLY WHEN IT COMES!

  2. No worries Paul, I will stick to my natural style which tends to be a bit mad. I just want to add a bit of solidity in with it every once in a while. To prove that I've started looking at Marshall's Gambit in the Semi Slav, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6 4.e4. Great fun!!