Mikhail Tal in 1982
Latvian: Mihails Tāls
Russian: Михаил Нехемьевич Таль
9 November 1936
28 June 1992 (aged 55)
|Peak rating||2705 (January 1980)|
Mikhail Tal (Latvian: Mihails Tāls; Russian: Михаил Нехемьевич Таль, Mikhail Nekhem'evich Tal, pronounced ; sometimes transliterated Mihails Tals or Mihail Tal; 9 November 1936 – 28 June 1992) was a Latvian Soviet chess Grandmaster and the eighth World Chess Champion (from 1960 to 1961).
Widely regarded as a creative genius and the best attacking player of all time, he played in a daring, combinatorial style. His play was known above all for improvisation and unpredictability. Every game, he once said, was as inimitable and invaluable as a poem. He was often called "Misha", a diminutive for Mikhail, and "The magician from Riga". Both The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games and Modern Chess Brilliancies include more games by Tal than any other player. Tal was also a highly regarded chess writer. He also holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history.
The Mikhail Tal Memorial has been held in Moscow annually since 2006 to honour Tal's memory.
- Early years 1
- Personality 2
- Soviet champion 3
- World champion 4
- Later achievements 5
- Team competitions 6
Tournament and match wins (or equal first) 7
- 1950–66 7.1
- 1967–79 7.2
- 1981–91 7.3
- Score with some major grandmasters 8
- Health problems 9
- Playing style 10
- Notable games 11
- Writings 12
- References 13
- Further reading 14
- External links 15
Tal was born in Riga, Latvia, into a Jewish family. According to his friend Gennadi Sosonko, his true father was a family friend identified only as "Uncle Robert"; however, this was vehemently denied by Tal's third wife Angelina. From the very beginning of his life, he suffered from ill health. Tal learned to read at the age of three, and was allowed to start university studies while only fifteen. At the age of eight, Tal learned to play chess while watching his father, a doctor and medical researcher. After Mikhail Botvinnik became the world chess champion, in 1948, while in Riga after the tournament, Tal, then eleven years old, visited, hoping to play a game against the new champion. Tal met Botvinnik's wife, who said the champion was asleep, and that she had made him take a rest from chess. Shortly thereafter he joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. His play was not exceptional at first, but he worked hard to improve. Alexander Koblents began tutoring Tal in 1949, after which Tal's game rapidly improved, and by 1951 he had qualified for the Latvian Championship. In the 1952 Latvian Championship Tal finished ahead of his trainer. Tal won his first Latvian title in 1953, and was awarded the title of Candidate Master. He became a Soviet Master in 1954 by defeating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. That same year he also scored his first win over a Grandmaster when Yuri Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position. Tal graduated in Literature from the University of Riga, writing a thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov, and taught school in Riga for a time in his early twenties. He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society, and represented Latvia in internal Soviet team competitions.
He married 19-year-old Russian actress Salli Landau in 1959, divorcing in 1970. (In 2003, Landau published a biography in Russia of her late ex-husband.)
His first wife, Salli Landau, described Mikhail's personality:
Misha was so ill-equipped for living... When he travelled to a tournament, he couldn't even pack his own suitcase... He didn't even know how to turn on the gas for cooking. If I had a headache, and there happened to be no one home but him, he would fall into a panic: "How do I make a hot-water bottle?" And when I got behind the wheel of a car, he would look at me as though I were a visitor from another planet. Of course, if he had made some effort, he could have learned all of this. But it was all boring to him. He just didn't need to. A lot of people have said that if Tal had looked after his health, if he hadn't led such a dissolute life... and so forth. But with people like Tal, the idea of "if only" is just absurd. He wouldn't have been Tal then.
Tal first qualified for the USSR Chess Championship final in 1956, finishing joint fifth, and became the youngest player to win it the following year, at the age of 20. He had not played in enough international tournaments to qualify for the title of Grandmaster, but FIDE decided at its 1957 Congress to waive the normal restrictions and award him the title because of his achievement in winning the Soviet Championship. At that time, the Soviet Union was dominant in world chess, and Tal had beaten several of the world's top players to win the tournament.
Tal made three appearances for the USSR at Student Olympiads in 1956–58, winning three team gold medals and three board gold medals. He won nineteen games, drew eight, and lost none, for 85.2 percent.
He retained the Soviet Championship title in 1958 at Riga, and competed in the World Chess Championship for the first time. He won the 1958 Interzonal tournament at Portorož, then helped the Soviet Union win their fourth consecutive Chess Olympiad at Munich.
Tal won a very strong tournament at Zürich, 1959. Following the Interzonal, the top players carried on to the Candidates' Tournament, Yugoslavia 1959. Tal showed superior form by winning with 20/28 points, ahead of Paul Keres with 18½, followed by Tigran Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov, Bobby Fischer, Svetozar Gligorić, Friðrik Ólafsson, and Pal Benko. Tal's victory was attributed to his dominance over the lower half of the field; whilst scoring only one win and three losses versus Keres, he won all four individual games against Fischer, and took 3½ points out of 4 from each of Gligorić, Olafsson, and Benko.
In 1960, at the age of 23, Tal thoroughly defeated the relatively staid and strategic Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match, held in Moscow, by 12½–8½ (six wins, two losses, and thirteen draws), making him the youngest-ever world champion (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov, who earned the title at 22). Botvinnik, who had never faced Tal before the title match began, won the return match against Tal in 1961, also held in Moscow, by 13–8 (ten wins to five, with six draws). In the period between the matches Botvinnik had thoroughly analyzed Tal's style, and turned most of the return match's games into slow wars of maneuver or endgames, rather than the complicated tactical melees which were Tal's happy hunting ground. Tal's chronic kidney problems contributed to his defeat, and his doctors in Riga advised that he should postpone the match for health reasons. Yuri Averbakh claimed that Botvinnik would agree to a postponement only if Tal was certified unfit by Moscow doctors, and that Tal then decided to play. His short reign atop the chess world made him one of the two so-called "winter kings" who interrupted Botvinnik's long reign from 1948 to 1963 (the other was Smyslov, world champion 1957–58).
Soon after losing the rematch with Botvinnik, Tal won the 1961 Bled supertournament by one point over Fischer, despite losing their individual game, scoring 14½ from nineteen games (+11 −1 =7) with the world-class players Tigran Petrosian, Keres, Gligorić, Efim Geller, and Miguel Najdorf among the other participants.
Tal played in a total of six Candidates' Tournaments and match cycles, though he never again earned the right to play for the world title. In 1962 at Curaçao, he had serious health problems, having undergone a major operation shortly before the tournament, and had to withdraw three-quarters of the way through, scoring just seven points (+3 −10 =8) from 21 games. He tied for first place at the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal to advance to matches. Then in 1965, he lost the final match against Boris Spassky, after defeating Lajos Portisch and Bent Larsen in matches. Exempt from the 1967 Interzonal, he lost a 1968 semifinal match against Viktor Korchnoi, after defeating Gligoric.
Poor health caused a slump in his play from late 1968 to late 1969, but he recovered his form after having a kidney removed. He won the 1979 Riga Interzonal with an undefeated score of 14/17, but the next year lost a quarter-final match to Lev Polugaevsky, one of the players to hold a positive score against him. He also played in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates' Tournament, a round-robin of 16 qualifiers, finishing in a tie for fourth and fifth places, and narrowly missing further advancement after drawing a playoff match with Jan Timman, who held the tiebreak advantage from the tournament proper.
From July 1972 to April 1973, Tal played a record 86 consecutive games without a loss (47 wins and 39 draws). Between 23 October 1973 and 16 October 1974, he played 95 consecutive games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws), shattering his previous record. These are the two longest unbeaten streaks in modern chess history.
Tal remained a formidable opponent as he got older. He played Anatoly Karpov 22 times, 12 of them during the latter's reign as World Champion, with a record of +0-1=19 in classical games and +1−2=19 overall.
One of Tal's greatest achievements during his later career was an equal first place with Karpov (whom he seconded in a number of tournaments and world championships) in the 1979 Montreal "Tournament of Stars", with an unbeaten score of (+6 −0 =12), the only undefeated player in the field, which also included Spassky, Portisch, Vlastimil Hort, Robert Hübner, Ljubomir Ljubojević, Lubomir Kavalek, Jan Timman and Larsen.
Tal played in 21 Soviet Championships, winning it six times (1957, 1958, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978). He was also a five-time winner of the International Chess Tournament in Tallinn, Estonia, with victories in 1971, 1973, 1977, 1981, and 1983.
Tal also had successes in blitz chess; in 1970, he took second place to Fischer, who scored 19/22, in a blitz tournament at Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, ahead of Korchnoi, Petrosian and Smyslov. In 1988, at the age of 51, he won the second official World Blitz Championship (the first was won by Kasparov the previous year in Brussels) at Saint John, ahead of such players as Kasparov, the reigning world champion, and ex-champion Anatoly Karpov. In the final, he defeated Rafael Vaganian by 3½–½.
On 28 May 1992, at the Moscow blitz tournament (which he left hospital to play), he defeated Kasparov. He died one month later.
In Olympiad play, Mikhail Tal was a member of eight Soviet teams, each of which won team gold medals (1958, 1960, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1980, and 1982), won 65 games, drew 34, and lost only two games (81.2 percent). This percentage makes him the player with the best score among those participating in at least four Olympiads. Individually, Tal won seven Olympiad board medals, including five gold (1958, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974), and two silver (1960, 1982).
Tal also represented the Soviet Union at six European Team Championships (1957, 1961, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1980), winning team gold medals each time, and three board gold medals (1957, 1970, and 1977). He scored 14 wins, 20 draws, and three losses, for 64.9 percent. Tal played board nine for the USSR in the first match against the Rest of the World team at Belgrade 1970, scoring 2 out of 4. He was on board seven for the USSR in the second match against the Rest of the World team at London 1984, scoring 2 out of 3. The USSR won both team matches. He was an Honoured Master of Sport.
From 1950 (when he won the Latvian junior championship) to 1991, Tal won or tied for first in 68 tournaments (see table below). During his 41-year career he played about 2,700 tournament or match games, winning over 65% of them.
Tournament and match wins (or equal first)
|Year||Tournament / Championship||Match / Team competition|
|1950||Riga – Latvia Junior championship, 1st|
|1953||Riga – 10th Latvian championship, 1st (14½/19)|
|1955||Riga – 23rd Soviet Championship Semifinal, 1st (12½/18)|
|1956||Uppsala – World students team championship, board 3 (6/7)|
|1957||Moscow – 24th URS-ch, 1st (14/21)||
Reykjavík – Wch-team students, board 1 (8½/10)
Baden/Vienna – European Team Championship, board 4, 1st–2nd (3/5)
Riga – 25th URS-ch, 1st (12/19)
Portorož Interzonal, 1st (13½/20)
Varna- Wch-team students, board 1 (8½/10)
Munich 1958 Olympiad, board 5 (13½/15)
Riga – Latvian Olympiad, 1st (7/7)
Zürich tournament, 1st (11½/15)
Bled–Zagreb–Belgrade – Candidates tournament, 1st (20/28)
Hamburg – Match FR Germany vs USSR, 1st (7½/8)
Moscow – Match for the World title with Mikhail Botvinnik: (+6 −2 =13)
|1960/61||Stockholm tournament, 1st (9½/11)|
|1961||Bled tournament, 1st (14½/19)|
|1962||Varna 1962 Olympiad, board 6 (10/13)|
|1963||Miskolc tournament, 1st (12½/15)|
|1963/64||Hastings Premier tournament, 1st (7/9)|
Reykjavík tournament, 1st (12½/13)
Amsterdam Interzonal, 1st–4th (17/23)
Kislovodsk tournament, 1st (7½/10)
|1965||Riga, Latvian championship, 1st (10/13)||
Match with Lajos Portisch: (+4 −1 =3)
Match with Bent Larsen: (+3 −2 =5)
Sarajevo tournament, 1st–2nd (11/15)
Palma de Mallorca tournament, 1st (12/15)
|Havana 1966 Olympiad, board 3 (12/13)|
|Year||Tournament / Championship||Match / Team competition|
|1967||Kharkov 35th URS-ch, = 1st (12/15)|
|1968||Gori tournament, 1st (7½/10)||Belgrade, Match with Svetozar Gligorić: (+3 −1 =5)|
|1969/70||Tbilisi, Goglidze memorial tournament, 1st–2nd (10½/15)|
Poti – Georgian Open championship (hors concours), 1st (11/14)
Sochi – Grandmasters vs Young Masters, 1st (10½/14)
|Kapfenberg, European Team Championship, board 6 (5/6)|
|1971||Tallinn tournament, 1st–2nd (11½/15)|
Sukhumi tournament, 1st (11/15)
Baku 40th URS-ch, 1st (15/21)
|Skopje 1972 Olympiad, board 4 (14/16)|
Wijk aan Zee tournament, 1st (10½/15)
Tallinn tournament, 1st (12/15)
Sochi – Mikhail Chigorin memorial, 1st (11/15)
Dubna tournament, 1st–2nd (10/15)
|1973/74||Hastings tournament, 1st–4th (10/15)|
Lublin tournament, 1st (12½/15)
Halle tournament, 1st (11½/15)
Novi Sad tournament, 1st (11½/15)
Leningrad 42nd URS-ch, = 1st (9½/15)
Nice 1974 Olympiad, board 5 (11½/15)
Moscow, USSR Club Team Championship, board 1, 1st (6½/9)
Tallinn – Keres memorial, 1st (11½/17)
Leningrad 60th October Rev., 1st–2nd (11½/17)
Sochi – Chigorin memorial, 1st (11/15)
|1978||Tbilisi 46th URS-ch, 1st (11/17)|
Montreal tournament, 1st–2nd (12/18)
Riga Interzonal, 1st (14/17)
Tallinn – Keres memorial, 1st
Málaga tournament, 1st
Riga tournament, 1st (11/15)
Porz tournament, 1st
Lviv tournament, 1st–2nd
Moscow – Alekhine memorial, 1st (9/13)
Erevan tournament, 1st (10/15)
Sochi – Chigorin memorial, 1st (10/15)
Pforzheim tournament, 1st (9/11)
|1983||Tallinn – Keres memorial, 1st (10/15)|
|1984||Albena tournament, 1st–2nd (7/11)|
|1985||Jūrmala tournament, 1st (9/13)|
West Berlin open, 1st–2nd (7½/9)
Tbilisi – Goglidze memorial, 1st–2nd (9/13)
Termas de Río Hondo (Argentina), 1st (8/11)
Jūrmala tournament, 1st–4th (7½/13)
Chicago open, 1st–6th (5½/6)
2nd World blitz Championship at Saint John: 1st
|1991||Buenos Aires – Najdorf memorial, 1st–3rd (8½/13)|
Score with some major grandmasters
Only official tournament or match games have been taken into account. '+' corresponds to Tal's wins, '−' to his losses and '=' to draws.
Naturally artistic, witty and impulsive, Tal led a bohemian life of chess playing, heavy drinking and chain smoking, which on more than one occasion created an embarrassment for the Soviet authorities. His already fragile health suffered as a result, and he spent much time in hospital, including an operation to remove a kidney in 1969. He was also briefly addicted to  Tal had the congenital deformity of ectrodactyly in his right hand (visible in some photographs). Despite this, he was a skilled piano player.
Tal loved the game in itself and considered that "chess, first of all, is art." He was known to play numerous blitz games against unknown or relatively weak players purely for the joy of playing.
Known as "The Magician from Riga", Tal was the archetype of the attacking player, developing an extremely powerful and imaginative style of play. His approach over the board was very pragmatic—in that respect, he is one of the heirs of ex-World Champion Emanuel Lasker. He often sacrificed material in search of the initiative, which is defined by the ability to make threats to which the opponent must respond. With such intuitive sacrifices, he created vast complications, and many masters found it impossible to solve all the problems he created over the board, though deeper post-game analysis found flaws in some of his conceptions. The famous sixth game of his first world championship match with Botvinnik is typical in that regard: Tal sacrificed a knight with little compensation but prevailed when the unsettled Botvinnik failed to find the correct response.
Although his playing style at first was scorned by ex-World Champion Vasily Smyslov as nothing more than "tricks", Tal convincingly beat virtually every notable grandmaster with his trademark aggression. Prevailing against Tal's attack requires extraordinary ability which is reflected in the fact that he has an overall negative record against many of the top Soviet players of his era, Spassky, Petrosian, Polugaevsky, Korchnoi, Keres, Smyslov, and Leonid Stein (no wins against 3 losses) while his positive record against Fischer rests on his 4-0 shut out of the 16 year old Fischer at Bled 1959 with no subsequent victories. It is also notable that he adopted a more sedate and positional style in his later years; for many chess lovers, the apex of Tal's style corresponds with the period (approximately from 1971 to 1979) when he was able to integrate the solidity of classical chess with the imagination of his youth.
Of the current top-level players, the Latvian Alexei Shirov has been most often compared to Tal. In fact, he studied with Tal as a youth. Many other Latvian grandmasters and masters, for instance Alexander Shabalov and Alvis Vitolins, have played in a similar vein, causing some to speak of a "Latvian School of Chess". Tal contributed little to opening theory, despite a deep knowledge of most systems, the Sicilian and the Ruy Lopez in particular. But his aggressive use of the Modern Benoni, particularly in his early years, led to a complete re-evaluation of this variation. A variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defence bears his name.
- Mikhail Tal vs Alexander Tolush, USSR Championship, Moscow 1957, King's Indian Defence, Saemisch Variation (E81), 1–0 In a critical last-round game, Tal spares no fireworks as he scores the win which clinches his first Soviet title.
- Boris Spassky vs Mikhail Tal, USSR Championship, Riga 1958, Nimzo–Indian Defence, Saemisch Variation (E26), 0–1 Spassky plays for a win to avoid a playoff for an Interzonal berth, but Tal hangs on by his fingernails before turning the tables in a complex endgame; with the win, he captures his second straight Soviet title.
- Mikhail Tal vs Vasily Smyslov, Yugoslavia Candidates' Tournament 1959, Caro–Kann Defence (B10), 1–0 A daring piece sacrifice to win a Brilliancy Prize game.
- Robert James Fischer vs Mikhail Tal, Belgrade, Candidates' Tournament 1959, Sicilian Defence, Fischer–Sozin Variation (B87), 0–1 Their games from this time are full of interesting tactics.
- Mikhail Botvinnik vs Mikhail Tal, World Championship Match, Moscow 1960, 6th game, King's Indian Defence, Fianchetto Variation, Classical Main line (E69), 0–1 An excellent sample of Tal's style from the first Botvinnik–Tal match. Tal sacrifices a knight for the attack and Botvinnik is not able to find a good defence in the given time; his 25th move is a mistake spoiling the game for him.
- Istvan Bilek vs Mikhail Tal, Moscow 1967, King's Indian Attack, Spassky Variation (A05), 0–1 A risky counterattack is crowned with success, winning the Brilliancy Prize.
- Boris Spassky vs Mikhail Tal, Tallinn tt 1973, Nimzo–Indian Defence, Leningrad Variation (E30), 0–1 A game fuelled with tactics from its first moves. Black attacks in the centre and then starts a king chase.
- Mikhail Tal vs Tigran Petrosian, Moscow 1974, Pirc Defence (B08), 1–0 Tal destroys perhaps the greatest defensive player of all time in a miniature.
Tal was a prolific and highly respected chess writer, serving as editor of the Latvian chess magazine Šahs ("Chess") from 1960 to 1970. He also wrote four books: one on his 1960 World Championship with Botvinnik, his autobiography The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Attack with Mikhail Tal coauthored by Iakov Damsky, and Tal's Winning Chess Combinations coauthored by Viktor Khenkin. His books are renowned for the detailed narrative of his thinking during the games. American Grandmaster Andrew Soltis reviewed his book on the world championship match as "simply the best book written about a world championship match by a contestant. That shouldn't be a surprise because Tal was the finest writer to become world champion". New Zealand Grandmaster Murray Chandler wrote in the introduction to the 1997 reissued algebraic edition of The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal that the book was possibly the best chess book ever written.
One amusing anecdote frequently quoted from Tal's autobiography takes the form of a hypothetical conversation between Tal and a journalist (actually co-author Yakov Damsky). It offers a modest, self-deprecating view of his reputation for unerring calculation at the board:
- Tal, Mikhail, Iakov Damsky and Ken Neat (tr.) (1994). Attack with Mikhail Tal. Everyman Chess.
- Tal, Mikhail (1997). The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal.
- Tal, Mikhail (2001). Tal–Botvinnik, 1960. Russell Enterprises.
- Tal's gravestone has 27 June as the date of his death. All other sources consulted give 28 June, including Kasparov, Garry My Great Predecessors, part II, p. 382, and The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, p. 6.
- Zubok, V. M. (2011) Zhivago's children: the last Russian intelligentsia, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674062329
- Clarke, P. H. (1969) Tal's Best Games of Chess, Bell, ISBN 0713502045
- Salli Landau, Liubov i shakhmaty: Elegiia Mikhailu Taliu (Moscow: Russian Chess House, 2003)
- Soltis, Andrew (2002) Chess Lists Second Edition, 2nd ed., McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, pp. 43–44, ISBN 0786412968.
- Sosonko, p. 24
- " [Angelina, widow of eighth world champion Tal: "Before me, Tal didn't live with any woman for more than two years, but with me, 22 years. Probably because I'm not a bitch."]""ВДОВА ВОСЬМОГО ЧЕМПИОНА МИРА МИХАИЛА ТАЛЯ АНГЕЛИНА: "ДО МЕНЯ СО ВСЕМИ СВОИМИ ЖЕНЩИНАМИ МИША ЖИЛ НЕ БОЛЬШЕ ДВУХ ЛЕТ, А СО МНОЙ - 22 ГОДА. НАВЕРНОЕ, ПОТОМУ, ЧТО Я НЕ СТЕРВА.
- "Even Now, He Will Not Leave Me..." Interview with Salli Landau, Copyright 2003–04 by Chess Today and Grandmaster Square
- Clarke, Peter H. (1991). Mikhail Tal – Master of Sacrifice. B.T.Batsford Ltd. p. 4.
- Tal, Mikhail. olimpbase. Retrieved on 24 October 2013.
- "1959 Yugoslavia Candidates Tournament". mark-weeks.com.
- McFadden, R.D. (29 June 1992). "Mikhail Tal, a Chess Grandmaster Known for His Daring, Dies at 55". New York Times.
- Kingston, T. (2002). "Yuri Averbakh: An Interview with History – Part 2" (PDF). The Chess Cafe.
- Including the 1983 final when Tal had to withdraw after five games
- The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, revised and updated edition, by Mikhail Tal, 1997, London, Everyman Chess.
- Alexander Khalifman et al, "Mikhail Tal - 8th World Champion" (PC-CD); "Complete Games of Mikhail Tal 1936-1959," p.5
- Sosonko, p. 23
- Sosonko, p. 25
- Sosonko, p. 30
- Kramnik, V. (2005). "Kramnik Interview: From Steinitz to Kasparov".
- Watson, J. (1 August 2007). "Shabalov Enters Elite Company With Fourth U.S. Championship Title". US Chess Federation. Section "The Champion Speaks" – interview with Alexander Shabalov
- Alternative translation: Oh, what a task so harsh/ To drag a hippo from a marsh
- Sosonko, G. (2009) Russian Silhouettes, New in Chess, 3rd ed., ISBN 9056912933
- Tal, Mikhail (1997). The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal (2nd revised ed.). Everyman.
- This covers Tal's career post 1975, and can therefore be seen as a sort of sequel to Tal's own autobiography and games collection, which covers his career up to that point.
- Winter, Edward G., ed. (1981). World chess champions. Pergamon.
- Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
- Mikhail Tal player profile and games at Chessgames.com
- Kasparov interview about Tal
World Chess Champion
World Blitz Chess Champion