Obituary: Mikhail Tal

William Hartston
Thursday 02 July 1992 23:02

Mikhail Nekhemyevich Tal, chess-player, born Riga Latvia 9 November 1936, world chess champion 1960-61, died Moscow 28 June 1992.

MIKHAIL TAL, the Latvian who held the world chess championship from 1960 to 1961, was the most brilliant player of his era. In an age dominated by the scientific precision of Mikhail Botvinnik (who held the title on and off from 1948 to 1963), and the deep strategic play of Vassily Smyslov (champion 1957-58), good chess had acquired a ponderous quality. Tal brought back a spirit of adventure, with high-risk sacrificial attacks giving his games that swashbuckling flavour presumed lost with the great masters of the last century.

Tal's speed of calculation and imaginative vision were phenomenal. I saw him once presented with a highly unusual and, at any rate to mere mortals, very difficult position which could be won with a surprising series of moves. As soon as the final piece was placed on the board, Tal smiled, looked up and said: 'Yes, that's very beautiful.'

Yet it was not so such Tal's calculating power as his willingness to enter unfathomable complications and his ability to create turmoil that brought him success. With a single imaginative move, he could introduce wild possibilities, but the higher skill was in intensifying the difficulties until his opponents could no longer cope.

His great combinational skill was enhanced by a penetrating glare which concentrated mainly on the board but occasionally lifted to produce an unintentionally intimidating effect on some opponents. When the Hungarian grandmaster Pal Benko met Tal in the Candidates Tournament of 1959, he donned a pair of dark glasses to avert Tal's hypnotic gaze. Tal turned the incident into a joke by putting on a huge pair of sunglasses borrowed from a spectator. Unlike many other world champions, Tal unleashed all his venom through his moves. Unusually, in such a competitive environment, he maintained excellent personal relationships with even his closest rivals.

Even after Tal had won the USSR Championships of 1957 and 1958, his critics were still saying that his cavalier style would not work against the top grandmasters, but the pace of his career accelerated with first places in the 1958 Interzonal Tournament at Portoroz, Yugoslavia, and the 1959 Candidates Tournament in the same country.

These victories earned Tal the right to a world-title match against Mikhail Botvinnik in 1960, which he won by the convincing margin of 12 1/2 -8 1/2 . The following year, however, Botvinnik regained the title by the even wider margin of 13-8. The old champion played far better and more vigorously in the return match, but Tal was certainly below form. He had been suffering from kidney trouble and played the match against his doctor's advice. This was not the only time Tal ignored medical advice. He smoked and drank at a level that would have been inadvisable even for a man of robust health. Thanks to Tal's efforts, the Hastings hotel at which he celebrated the 1975 New Year was drunk dry of brandy. I remember him vying for first place with another Soviet grandmaster in a tournament in Holland. On the night before the final round they began buying each other drinks and lining up the empties on the table. When I left them at around 2am, Tal had the remains of 11 drained brandies, his rival had 11 empty rum-and-cokes. They continued for another two hours. At 8.30 in the morning, Tal trotted downstairs to start the last round looking fresh and relaxed. He won easily to take first prize, while his drinking companion was happy with a quick draw.

Tal's illness continued to interfere with his career, interrupting several tournaments and matches. Towards the end of 1969, he entered hospital and had a kidney removed. His subsequent unaccustomed bout of good health led to a string of tournament victories, achieved with the same joyful, uninhibited style of his early years. He remained one of the most feared, respected and popular figures on the international tournament circuit until his final appearances only months before his death - after more kidney problems - at the age of 55.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Tal had been looking forward to representing Latvia for the first time in the Olympiad in Manila last month. Sadly, he went into hospital a few days before the event began.

(Photograph omitted)

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