Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fascination With Tal

Why are chess players so fascinated with the 8th World Champion, Mikhail Nekhemievich Tal?

He was, after all, only World Champion for a year before being defeated by Mikhail Botvinnik in the rematch and has never since then managed to reached the same heights ever again.

What is it about him that makes him so affable and well-liked?

Before Tal's appearance on the world stage, chess was considered by many to be methodical. Little did the world know that the young Latvian from Riga would soon set the world alight with his daring imaginative sacrifices and unbelievable attacking combinational skills.

In modern times, if he had been in good health, he would have been the equivalent of golf's Tiger Woods. Tal didn't just make chess interesting and fun agai
n, he strapped a rocket to chess and launched it to the skies and the whole world sat up and took notice.

Never has the world seen such daring play before where material was sometimes abandoned in order to launch a crushing attack on his enemy's king. His pieces moved like magic and his play defied common chess logic.

If you do not have the book, The Life And Games Of Mikhail Tal (Cadogan Books), I strongly encourage you to go and get it. In the book, Tal desc
ribes his life experiences (up till 1975) in a manner that makes you feel as if you're having a conversation with a long-lost friend over a glass of wine after a nice dinner. It is one of the best chess literature ever written.

Tal doesn't give you long variations and sub-variations in his game notes like some authors do. He adds simple notes to explain his ideas, his plans. More importantly, he talks to you like a
friend recounting his incredible journey.

Tal's play combined not only unrestrained imagination and incredible energy on the chess board but they typically entailed an enormous amount of risk. Tal would often stand precariously on the precipice of disaster and many a time, it would be his opponent who would capitulate first.

For example, in the Candidates tournament of Yugoslavia in 1959. Tal was playing Fischer. In that game, Fischer wrote down 22. Rae1 (the strongest move) before playing his move and pushed his scoresheet towards Tal to observe his reaction. Tal thought the better of it and knew Fischer was testing him. So Tal got up, walked around the board and proceeded to share a joke with someone. When he returned to the board with a smile, Fischer (who by then was obviously monitoring the whole scene) crossed out the move and played another move instead. In the end, Fischer lost. When Tal asked why he changed the move, Fischer replied,"Well, you laughed when I wrote it down!"

Tal was unfortunately afflicted with ill health. He had a diseased kidney and underwent 12 operations. But while such an ordeal would have crushed a lesser man, Tal continued to play chess at the highest levels irrespective of his health. His passion and love for the game was truly inextinguishable.

(Tal with his daughter)

This led to Leonid Stein to once comment,"You, Mishik, are stronger in spirit than all of us."


  1. Wonderfull post. I happen to have the book you mentioned. Now if i could only find the time to read it...

  2. nice to see you still continuing. warm regards, david

  3. CMoB: Thank you! :)

    Dun worry, I'm sure you will one day. It's very hard to put the book down once you pick it up. The book is so unlike other chess books. Tal doesn't make you too dizzy from the variations but the little notes in between games are also a great read.

    transformation: hi dk! that's a very nice surprise from you - thanks for the vote of encouragement. hope all is well with you. cheers!

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  6. I think you answered your own question. Men (people) who are uncompromising and passionate about their beliefs tend to be easy to like. Also think about his book, I have heard many say that he doesn't have reams of analysis, but rather ideas written down in the notes. This also makes him likable, and more importantly accessible unlike many top GM's; it makes him seem human and actually normal.

    Fischer, despite an odd temperment is loved by many chess fans, American or otherwise, again he was very certain about the correctness of his ideas, take a look at some of his quotes.

    "e4, best by test"
    "pry open the h-file, then sac, sac mate" - this is how he said he dealt with the Dragon, certainly I've never found it quite that easy.

    Being accessible, successful and absolutely certain about how correct you are when the world is telling you that you quite mad is admirable. I would have certainly liked to have met him.

  7. Hi wang,

    I agree with you that chess champions who are can communicate well to the public tend to be well-liked. It's a very interesting take on this subject where it's a case of where genius can be understood and made accessible results in certain World Champions tending to stand above the heads of others in terms of popularity.

    There's one thing we have to give to Tal. Despite his drinking, womanising, smoking, no one ever has any bad things to say about him. Not even Fischer who accused the "Russians" of cheating in Curaco bear any illwill towards him.

    Fischer's legacy is unlike Tal in that his genius was severely tempered by his eccentricities and just as chess quickly rose in popularity under Fischer, it fell away when Fischer left and started his rants.