Chess Greats - Mikhail Tal (1936-1992)

8th World Champion - 1960-61

by Bill Marshall

The story of Mikhail Tal is a one that would hardly be believed if it were written as a fictional tale. Too fanciful, couldn't happen in real life; and yet in some ways it is a sad tale for those who love the game of chess, for, having been granted the impossible, ill-health denied him the natural development of his style that, even more than he achieved, would have delighted the fans and admirers who watched for his every game.

Chess players the world over will always argue about who was the greatest player who ever lived, who the finest attacker, who the best all rounder, who the most imaginative, with each putting forward his own favourite. Books have been and will be written, comparing Alekhine and Kasparov, Capablanca and Fischer. Whatever the answer, there will always be a place in the hearts of anyone who loves the game for this Latvian genius who blazed across the chess world in the late 50's, sweeping aside the solid, safe, "correct" players of the time and captured the highest prize itself at the age of 23: until Kasparov, the youngest ever world champion.

His rise to the top

While he was a promising youth he was by no means a prodigy, but by 1954 he had played a match for the title of Soviet Master which he won against Saigin. From there he developed quickly but was still unknown outside of the Soviet Union until he qualified for the 1956 USSR championship. Here he did very well, finishing in 5th-7th place and beating respected grandmasters such as Tolush and Simagin.

However it was the next year that would see spectacular results. But it almost didn't happen - in the semi finals of the USSR championships he couldn't win a game for the first half of the tournament, but suddenly sparked into life and just qualified. Once there everything changed; playing a dynamic style that entranced the fans he swept to a sensational victory beating such players as Bronstein, Keres, Petrosian and Taimanov. He was Soviet Champion and suddenly an internationally known figure despite not even being an International Master. Later that year he was awarded the title of International Grandmaster.

1958 would prove even more sensational. First there was the USSR title to defend. No-one seriously expected him to win it again and this time it was also a zonal tournament with the top players qualifying for the Interzonal later in the year, so there was another very strong field including Petrosian, Bronstein, Spassky, Averbakh, Polugaevsky, Geller and Korchnoi. It was closer, and Tall lost three games, but his will to win saw him win many more and when the final round arrived he was playing Spassky needing a win to pip the unbeaten Petrosian. For much of the game he was under pressure but in a complex Q+R ending Spassky went wrong and Tal snatched victory. Two in a row was almost unheard of and now it was clear that here was a contender for the highest honours.

In August there was the Interzonal in Portoroz and once again Tal was unstoppable, finishing ahead of Gligoric, Petrosian Benko, Olafsson Fischer and Bronstein. He returned to Riga to a hero's welcome.

He naturally had to be chosen for the Soviet team in the Munich Olympiad (he and Petrosian were 1st and 2nd reserves which caused much amusement) and it proved a happy hunting ground as he cut a swathe through the opposition to score 13½/15 for the Absolute Best Score.

1959 started as usual with the Soviet championships, and the speculation was whether Tal could make it three in a row. That would have been asking an awful lot but he was very close, finishing 2nd= with Spassky behind Petrosian.

In the summer the Zurich Chess Club organised a strong tournament to celebrate their 150th anniversary. Tal lost in the first round to one of the Swiss players but once again won a high percentage of his games to finish 1st ahead of Gligoric, the fast improving Fischer, Keres and Larsen.

Critics wondered at these occasional losses to lesser plaers and wondered what would happen when faced with four rounds of intense play against Smyslov in the Candidates. They were soon to find out!

Played in Bled, Zagreb and Belgrade, the Candidates would be his sternest test. He actually had his appendix removed less than two weeks before the tournament started, and Averbakh, his second, described him as "pale, and noticeably haggard", something that his opponents also noticed. However the delightful town of Bled with its lake and mountain air seemed to revive him. Although he lost to both Keres and Smyslov in the first cycle of matches, he won all his other games and shared the lead with Keres and Petrosian. At the start of the second cycle he produced one of his finest ever games - a sacrificial attack which crushed Smyslov in 26 moves and which was talked about and analysed for years. Smyslov never really rcovered from that blow and it was Keres who edged into a slender lead with his second win against Tal.

However in the third cycle Tal really started to motor, conceding only two draws in the eight games, and beating Keres in their game. He was 1½ points ahead by the start of the final cycle. He continued to deal decisively with the players in the lower half of the table; his final score v Fischer was 4-0 and scoring 3½ against Gligoric, Olafsson and Benko. Although he lost to Keres again and won a lost game against Smyslov he was able to take a quick perpetual again Benko in the last round to win by a clear 1½ points from Keres, with Petrosian in 3rd a further 3 points back. It was an astonishing victory by a man almost unknown three years earlier.

Botvinnik and the World Championship

Astonishingly the two men who would now contest the champioship had never played each other before. Botvinnik's dominance of the Soviet chess system was almost absolute and his grip on the title since his victory in 1948 almost as strong. Although Bronstein had drawn a match with him in 1951, as did Smyslov in 1954, he had retained his title until Smyslov beat him in 1957. However he had claimed the champions right of a return match and won the crown back in 1958. He was regarded as an iron logician and a master of strategy. Surely here at last the mercurial Tal would meet his match. But in the first game, a French Winawer, it was Tal who was more comfortable and came out the winner. Four draws ensued and Botvinnik seemed to be easing his way into the match - then came game 6. Frm an English it moved to a Kings Indian in which Tal pursued his usual active approach until at move 21 he produced a knight sacrifice (which he had started considering some 7 moves earlier!). Within a few moves it gave him a pawn on e2 and a superb pair of bishops, at which point the crowd watching the match became so excited that the arbiters had to move play to a back room. Immediately after Tal understandably missed a tactic which would have won immediately but the strength of his position allowed him to regain the piece and transpose to a won ending.

In the next game he won again, and although Botvinnik immediately won back two games he was always playing catch-up and Tal soon regained a 2 point lead and eventually ran out the winner by 12½-8½. He was the youngest ever world champion at 23. It seemed there was nothing he couldn't do.

Sadly it wasn't to be. Botvinnik again claimed the right of rematch in 1961 and prepared assiduously, whereas Tal, his health already starting to show signs of failure, either couldn't or wouldn't. He should have sought a postponment due to his kidney problems (there was even a suggestion that he had a minor heart attack), but when Botvinnik's camp demanded proof Tal felt he just wanted to get on and play. It was a grave mistake, and Botvinnik was able to stear the games into positions where he felt more at home than Tal, winning 13-8 to recapture the title.

Tal came back to form later in the year, winning the very strong Bled tournament despite losing for the first time to Fischer. He was a clear point ahead of Fischer and two ahead of Petrosian, Keres and Gligoric.

However disaster was to strike the following year. Although he was favourite to win the Candidate's tournament in Curaco he started badly and it was soon clear that something was wrong. He had to be hospitalised with the kidney trouble that was to dog him for the rest of his life and eventually withdrew, Petrosian won the right to play Botvinnik and defeated him, and with the right to a rematch revoked he held the title until Spassky defeated him in their second match in 1969. Tal would never play a match for the championship again.

Another result of that Curaco tournament may also have worked against him for the future. The tropical conditions took a heavy toll on all the players and there were a great many short draws. There were also accusations of collusion amongst the other Soviet players to agree short draws and thus keep strength for playing the non-Soviets. Whatever the truth of that, FIDE decided to abandon the four-round all-play-all tournament format and switch to a series of knockout match-play events. Since in the tournament format Tal usually scored more heavily than his main rivals against the weaker players this switch may have been a disadvantage to him. Though he did play well in later Candidates matches he only once reached the final and it could be argued that matches were less suited to his style of play.

His later career

Perhaps not everyone will be so conversant with his later career when although continually dogged by ill-health he remained a fearsome opponent and a challenger for the top honours until late in his life. Many otherwise excellent books on the history of the modern game, speak as if his career finished after the 1962 Candidates tournament. Yet he was only beaten by Spassky for the right to challenge Petrosian in 1966, losing the final of the Candidates to his life long friend and opponent in a match that his doctors had tried to persuade him to play in a sanatorium. Later he lost in the semi-finals to Korchnoi in '68 or we might have seen a return final with Spassky & who knows... a Tal-Fischer match in Reykjavik in '72?!
Fantasy you say, and yet how much of his life already seems fantastic. It is surely only a small "what if" to wonder what such a match would have been like. They were after all good friends, and there are few who can say that they were friends with that enigmatic American genius - and even fewer who had such a positive score against him.

As late as 1979 Tal took 1st= with Karpov in Montreal in what was then reckoned to be one of the strongest tournaments ever staged, then went on to win the Riga Interzonal by a clear 2½ points. In the 80's he surprised many by playing quite sucessfully in the Grand Prix tournaments after a period which had seen rumours of his death. He was 3rd in the 1985 Interzonal thus qualifying for the Candidates at the age of 49. By now however the strength-sapping grind of match play was perhaps too much for him against the very best, but tournament play was a different matter and even when he wasn't coming in first he could still enliven a tournament with sparkling sacrifices to demolish a Candidate or a fancied youngster. Indeed in 1988 he astonished everyone by not only coming third in the Reykjavik World Cup but also winning the World Blitz Championship. He remained in the top-10 ELO rankings until near the end of his life.

He was still playing right to the end. His last tournament game was a fine win against GM Akopyan in Barcelona. A few weeks later he left hospital to compete in a quickplay event in Moscow and defeated a certain Garry Kasparov in their game. To universal regret he died a few days later at only 56.

Brilliant style and brilliant record

The list of famous Tal victories and brilliancies is a long one. When in good health he seemed to be able to win any tournament he entered. In 1972 he went 86 games without loss. Unfortunately this finished just before the Interzonal, largely due to the after effects of another operation. Near the end of 1973 he embarked on another run which was even longer.

His record in Olympiads is incredible. Out of 8 tournaments he scored Best Board on 5 occasions and 3 times recorded the absolute best score! His record in the USSR championship, which in those days was usually the strongest tournament in the world every year, is just as remarkable: 6 times champion of the strongest nation in chess history - a feat matched only by Botvinnik.

The games of course are the stuff of fairytales. Tal was variously described as a Sorcerer, a Calculating Machine (which was in fact completely wrong), the Magician of Riga. He could conjure up fantastic combinations in the most placid of positions, find a sacrifice where none seemed possible, produce activity in the most threadbare collection of pieces. Give him a complex position, the initiative, and the attack would seemingly flow of its own accord, the pieces apparently endowed with extra capabilities. His imagination (he himself used the word fantasy) was unparalleled, even in an era that had marvelled at David Bronstein. Kasparov said that Tal was unique in that he didn't calculate variations the way most people do - he "saw" the positions that resulted from his ideas, usually many moves deep.

In the 1950s and 60s the diehards criticised his play as too risky and said his sacrifices were unsound (having usually taken 3 months of analysis worldwide to prove them so!). Yet especially in the early years, no-one could withstand his ferocious assaults. (Tal himself, being an excellent psychologist, was happy to encourage the idea that most of his sacrifices were unsound, knowing that opponents would spend longer looking for the "refutation" and often end up in time-trouble!)

His play matured in later years and became more rounded, and he no longer tried for complications in every game. But when they appeared he was always ready to explode into action and never lost his vision or his ability to see many more possibilities than his fellow grandmasters.

Selecting some typical games

Playing over Tal's games is one of the most truely pleasurable experiences in chess - especially if you're a tactician - but it requires a certain ability to stand back and admire the beauty and to delay the temptation to immediately dive into the myriad complications. Then you'll be swept away by the audacity, the imagination, the striving always for the initiative, but you'll see the glorious interlocking patterns of the combinations that flowed from his mind.

I well remember, at the age of about 13, the first time I read Peter Clarke's excellent book of Tal's best games up to 1960. I'd read about the great romantic period, seen games of Anderssen and Morphy, a few of Alekhine and Frank Marshall. But that was in the past - you couldn't do that now. By the time I got past the first few games I was already mesmerised, and then I came upon the 1959 Candidates game with Smyslov. Vassily Smyslov - a name to strike fear and respect into any chess player. He had been involved in three World Title matches with Botvinnik: drawing in 1954, winning in 1957, and losing the return in 1958. The pair had dominated chess during that period. He was the very epitome of logic, secure in defence, stylish in technique, a giant of the game. I remember reading Clarkes introduction to the game;

"It was scarcely credible; here was the mighty, impassive Smyslov, ex-Champion of the World, torn to pieces in just 26 moves".

26 moves! How could this be? Was it some wild gambit? Had Smyslov blundered? No, it was that most solid of openings, a Caro-Kann defence and some of Smyslov's moves had exclamation marks as well!
The game is stunning, magnificent, full of the most incredible complications and sacrifices. Grandmasters argued and analysed for months over it. It is one of the finest games I know. Yet 3 years earlier Tal was unknown outside the Soviet Union, not even an I.M. (in fact he never was - he was one of the very few people ever to be directly awarded a GM title.) He went on to win that Candidates Tournament ahead of a stellar field including Keres, Smyslov, Petrosian, Fischer, Gligoric. A year later having never met him over the board before, he had beaten Botvinnik and was World Champion. Even George Lucas would not dare produce such an outrageous story.

I've selected 20 of his games which can be viewed here:

Page 1 of Tal's Games

Page 2 of Tal's Games

There are many more I could have chosen; for instance I'm amazed to find that there are no instances of his favourite Modern Benoni, with which he won many a fine game and created a lot of the theory. If these whet your appetite then I encourage you to watch his games in ChessBase or similar databases, and read one or more of the books listed below. Commentary is essential to understanding the dazzling ideas that left opponents and audiences stunned.


Some Interesting Facts about Tal

  • Youngest World Champion until Kasparov.
  • Played in 8 Olympiads, 5 Best Board Results, 3 times Absolute Best Score.
  • 6 times USSR Champion.
  • Lost only once to Kasparov & once to Karpov.
  • A countback of ELO ratings revealed that Tal's rating during his peak around 1960 would be 7th in the all time rankings with 2700 behind Fischer, Kasparov, Capablanca, Botvinnik, Lasker, & Karpov. In fact in 1979 following his wins in Montreal & Riga he went up to 2710.
  • 3rd in 1985 Interzonal thus qualifying for the Candidates at 49
  • Only 3 men played in both USSR-Rest of the World matches - Tal, Larsen, & Polugaevsky.
  • Kasparov won the World Championship, taking Tal's place as the youngest ever, on November 9th - Tal's birthday. A fact that Tal reminded him of in a phone call the previous day, wishing him well for the final game.

Quotes about Tal

  • "If Tal had really studied Chess in the late fifties and early sixties he would have been impossible to play against" - Botvinnik
  • "How does Tal win? - He develops all his pieces in the centre and then sacrifices them somewhere" - Bronstein
  • "...until the very end, he still had this vision of games. He was the only one I knew who didn't calculate the variants, he saw them. " - Kasparov
  • "I calculated the variants quickly enough, but these Tal insights were unique. He was a man in whose presence others sensed their mediocrity." - Kasparov
  • "Whereas Botvinnik, in the first instance, tried to find the most expedient plan, the most rational arrangement of his forces, the Rigan looked instead for the most aggressive plan, leading to sharp play, rich with combinational possibilities. Whereas Botvinnik sought the rule, Tal sought the exception. " - Averbakh
  • If Tal has an open file it will be mate - an onlooker at a Tal post mortem analysis session.

Tal quotes

  • "The time you don't have is worth more than the piece you do have"
  • "If you wait for luck to turn up, life becomes very boring."
  • "There are two types of sacrifices - sound ones and mine."


Clarke, P,H, - Tal's Best Games of Chess
Bell 1960
later reissued as Tal: Master of Sacrifice

Tal, M - Life & Games of Mikhail Tal
Cadogan Books 1997
a reissue of a book originally published by RHM Press 1976. A must for every chess fans library. It regularly comes in the top two choices of the best chess book of all time.

Tal & Khenkin - Tal's Winning Chess Combinations
Routledge 1980
Out of Print

Tal, M - Montreal 1979
Pergamon 1980

Tahl: 222 Partidas
Ediciones Eseuve (Madrid) 1990
ISBN 848 7301134

Soltis - Tal the Magnificent
Chess Digest 1990
ISBN 0875681832
A fine tribute by an obvious admirer. With a diagram every 5 moves it can be read well even without a board.

Tal & Damsky - Attack with Mikail Tal
Cadogen 1995
ISBN 1857440439
A small volume but packed with superbly chosen positions and combinations. Deserves repeated study.

Khalifman(ed) - Mikhail Tal Games Vol 1 1949-1962
Chess Stars 1994

Khalifman(ed) - Mikhail Tal Games Vol 2 1963-1972
Chess Stars 1995
ISBN 9548782022

Khalifman(ed) - Mikhail Tal Games Vol 3 1973-1981
Chess Stars 1996
ISBN 9548782033

Tournament Record

USSR ch 5-7th +6=9-2
Student Olympiad Bd 3 1st   +6=2
USSR ch 1st +9=10-2
Student Olympiad Reykjavik Bd 1 1st +7=3
Europa Cup Bd4 1-2nd  
USSR ch 1st +9=7-3
Student Olympiad Varna Bd1 1st +7=3
Interzonal Portoroz 1st +8=11-1
Olympiad Munich 1st Res 1st +12=3 Absolute best score
1959 2nd-3rd +9=7-3
USSR ch    
Zurich 1st +10=3-2
Candidates Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade 1st +16=8-4
Riga 4th +7=4-2
Match USSR-W.Germany   +7=1
World Ch v Botvinnik   Won 12½-8½
Olympiad Leipzig Bd 1 2nd +8=6-1
USSR ch 4th-5th +7=11-3
World Ch v Botvinnik   lost 8-13
Stockholm 1st +8=3
Bled 1st +11=7-1 Ahead of Fischer, Gligoric, Keres, Petrosian, Geller
USSR ch 2nd-3rd +11=5-3
Candidates Curacao   withdrawn ill
Olympiad Varna 2nd res 1st +7=6
Miskolc 1st +10=5
Capablanca Mem Havana 2nd-4th +14=4-3
Moscow 2nd +7=7-1
Hastings 1st +5=4
Reykjavic 1st +12=1
Interzonal Amsterdam 1st-4th +11=12
Kislovodsk 1st +5=5-1
USSR ch 3rd +9=7-3
Latvian Ch 1st +7=6
Candidates Quarter-final v Portisch   won 5½-2½
Candidates Semi-final v Larsen   won 5½-4½
Candidates Final v Spassky   lost 4-7
Sarajevo 1st-2nd +9=4-2
Kislovodsk 6th-7th +4=3-4
Havana Olympiad Bd 3 1st 12/13 +11=2 Absolute best score
Palma de Mallorca 1st +9=6
USSR ch 1st-2nd +7=6
Moscow 2nd-5th +5=10-2
USSR ch 6th-10th +6=9-4
Beverwijk 2nd-4th +5=8-2
Gori 1st +6=5-1
Candidates Quarter-final v Gligoric   won 5½-3½
Candidates Semi-final v Korchnoi   lost 4½-5½
USSR ch 14th-15th +6=9-7
Candidates 3rd place playoff v Larsen   lost 2½-5½
Tbilisi 1st-2nd +7=7-1
Georgian Ch 1st +9=5-1
USSR-Rest of World bd 9   +1=2-1
Europa Cup Bd 6 1st +4=2
Sochi 1st +9=3-2
USSR Ch 2nd-3rd +9=9-3
Tallin 1st-2nd +9=5-1
Parnu 2nd-3rd +7=5-1
Alekine Memorial Moscow 6th-7th +4=11-2
USSR ch 1st +9=12
Vilyandi 2nd +7=3-1
Sukhumi 1st +7=8
Skopje Olympiad Bd 4 1st 14/16 +12=4 Absolute best score
USSR ch 9th-12th +3=10-4
Wijk aan Zee 1st +6=9
Tallin 1st +9=6
Interzonal Leningrad 8th-10th +6=5-6
Europa Cup Bd 7 2nd +2=4
Chigorin Memorial Sochi 1st +7=8
Dubna 1st-2nd +7=8
USSR ch 1st-2nd +6=7-2
Lublin 1st +10=5
Halle 1st +8=7
Novi Sad 1st +9=5-1
Hastings 1st-4th +5=10
Las Palmas 2nd-4th +8=4-2
Interzonal Biel 2nd  
Tallin 1st  
Las Palmas 4th  
Leningrad 1st  
Sochi 1st  
Bugojno 4th  
Las Palmas 2nd-4th +8=4-2
Leningrad 1st  
Sochi 1st  
Bugojno 4th  
USSR ch 1st  
Tallin 2nd  
1979 (Elo 2710)    
Montreal "Tournament of Stars" 1st-2nd (With Karpov) Category 15 +6=12-0
Riga Interzonal 1st +11=6-0 Winner by 2½ points
Riga 1st  
Moscow 1st  
Sochi 1st  
Tallin 1st  
USSR-Rest of the World   +1=2
Reykjavik World Cup 3rd  
World Blitz Ch 1st