Remembering Misha

Mikhail Tal, the Chess Player Ahead of Chess

By Lev Khariton

I remember well the last day of June in 1992. Exactly ten years ago! I had a habit of dropping in, almost every week, at “Damier de l’Opera”, the wonderful chess shop in the center of Paris. I loved to see the new books, to have a cup of coffee, to chat with friendly salesmen about chess and chess players. On that day, however, they met me with the tragic news of Mikhail Tal’s death in a Moscow hospital on June 28.

This news came as a bombshell. It seemed that Misha could not die, that he was not an ordinary mortal, that chess would always salvage him from the cold grip of Eternity. Tal was an unusual man, an unusual personality; even the now popular word ‘charisma’ can not embrace all his character and integrity. In this world there are many people who are totally dedicated to their art and calling, but only very few enjoy the rare joy of requited love. Tal knew this happiness: chess saved him more than once from diseases and disappointments.

Yes, Misha Tal made chess happy! He, as no one else, turned chess into an art, and he did it in our cruel age, when chess was treated as a science (according to Botvinnik) or a sport (according to Karpov).

Tal became an idol of young chess players of the late 50s. This was the time of the confrontation of Botvinnik and Smyslov, the two giants of positional play. Bronstein and Keres, the two brilliant talents, were still in their prime. Petrosian, the chess player with an incredible positional intuition, was scaling chess Olympus too.

Tal’s leap to glory was as speedy as unexpected. In 1956 the young master from Riga, played for the first time in the Soviet Championship tying with Polugayevsky for the 5th place, but in the two subsequent USSR Championships – in 1957 and 1958 – he wins the title of the Champion of the greatest chess super-power. In 1960 he crowns his unbreakable string of triumphs with his victory over Mikhail Botvinnik in the World Title match.

This match played in Moscow in the spring of 1960 is for ever engraved in my memory. Hundreds of chess fans who had failed to buy an entrance ticket stayed outside the Pushkin Theater watching on a big demonstration board the games of the match. I will never forget the famous 6th game in which Tal right after the opening moves sacrificed a knight. It was a challenge to Botvinnik, to all his followers who were trying to put the game into the Procrustean Bed of cold logic and algorithms. As if nothing had happened, Tal was pacing to and fro on the stage, and his famous opponent , who had scored victories over such legends as Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine, confronted with a surprise sacrifice was taking all possible pains to refute Tal’s daring decision. All in vain! Botvinnik had already few minutes left on his clock when Stahlberg and Golombek, the arbiters of the match, transferred the game backstage. The spectators were so excited that the atmosphere in the playing hall was more reminiscent of a football match! Tal won this game, and in spite of Botvinnik’s stubborn resistance, he won the whole match.

At that time Botvinnik, as practically all grandmasters, could not understand the secret of Tal’s triumphs. It was far easier for him to play, let us say, against Smyslov with whom he had swapped match victories in 1957 and 1958. That was the chess he knew, the chess that obeyed the ready-made laws. In Tal’s play, however, there was an ease reminding of Mozart’s music.

Tal’s over-the-board improvisations, the irrationality of his sacrifices coupled with all his outward appearance, his deep-set (demonic, or if you want, Paganini-like) eyes made his opponents falter. Some people were even sure that Tal possessed hypnotic powers.

Well, the language of literature or cinema is easier to understand that the language of chess, but I would risk to say that in the silent movements of Tal’s pawns and pieces there was some rebellious spirit, a strong wish to take in or even swallow some spiritual oxygen which was characteristic of the early 60s. It is highly symptomatic that as soon as the oxygen valves had been shut off, other chess players came in Tal’s place, and chess was, to a large extent, robotized.

Tal was (oh, how I hate the past tense!) a bully for his opponents only at the chess world. In every day life he was as charming and pleasant as no one else! He had a special charm, a special sense of humor. I remember his frequent appearances before the chess-loving public in Moscow soon after he had won the World Crown in Moscow in 1960. People used “to go to Tal”, just the way they went to the concerts of popular actors. For many years Tal came to Moscow in summer to play in the open blitz championship in the Sokolniki Park. I cannot even describe the pandemonium in this Moscow’s oldest park around Tal’s chess table. The younger chess fans climbed up the trees to watch Tal’s games from above! “The magician from Riga”, as Tal was called by chess journalists, was adored everywhere. For example, Svetozar Gligoric recalled that when he was playing a candidates’ match with Tal in Belgrade in 1968, many of his compatriots were rooting for Tal!

It seemed that Lady Luck was giving all her smiles to Tal. But it often happens that this capricious Dame suddenly turns her back on you and there is nothing to be done! Tal’s health was failing him. He could not boast of good health even in his younger years. His loss of the return match against Botvinnik in 1961, although Tal’s preparation was not adequate, could be accounted for by a serious kidney disorder. It is of interest to note here that although Tal was World Champion, he nevertheless agreed to play in Moscow, Botvinnik’s home town. Tal did not insist on postponing the match on account of ill health. This is so much unlike today’s champions who are ready to play even on the Moon in their hunt for the most lucrative prize fund!

After the return match between Tal and Botvinnik, Tal’s mother sent the following telegram to Botvinnik: “I wish my small Misha could follow in the footsteps of big Misha!” At the time I liked these words. Now I think otherwise. It is good that Tal was so much different from Botvinnik. He was always democratic: he could come to a chess club and play blitz with any patzer! He had a nice word for every chess player regardless of his qualification. Tal, to use the now popular expression, loved chess in himself, but not himself in chess.

Not only diseases and hospitals befell Tal. He knew the “iron heel” of chess administrators in the Soviet Union. How many times before important tournaments abroad he was summoned to the offices of high-ranking bureaucrats and he had to sign papers promising that he would take the first place! It is difficult to imagine the humiliation of the great chess player when the Soviet Chess Federation refused him to play in the USSR Championship in his hometown Riga in 1970!

I often asked myself why Tal had not emigrated, like many Soviets, to Israel or the USA? He would have played chess much more and, probably, he would have taken better care of his health. His wife Gelya, who knew him better than all his friends, once told me: “No, Misha would never quit his Riga – all his friends and all his life are there. Besides, he hopes that one-day Latvia would be free. So, we will be abroad, not in the USSR!”

Geniuses are special people. They are always ahead of their time. Tal, I think, was ahead of chess – he made risk and intuition the principal driving forces on the chessboard, and the world’s best chess players today are in debt to Tal. Tal’s chess heritage is part of human culture. In the ever changing kaleidoscope of daily life his legacy has remained almost unexplored and it is waiting for a profound, in-depth and systematic research.

When we speak about someone who has lived a short and bright life, we say: such a short and long life! Thinking about Mikhail Tal, I would say: great and simple life! One of the Biblical wisdoms states that a real man can be judged by the way he behaves when he is angry, by the number of his friends and by his attitude to money. No one ever saw Tal angry. His friends are more than numerous. And he never had any craving for money. All this added to his creative inspiration makes him transparent before God Almighty, and that makes up, without doubt, the philosophical and moral essence of his life.

The whole world will always remember and miss Misha Tal!

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