Half a century ago this month, on 7 May 1960, a 23-year-old Latvian Jew became the youngest man ever to have won the world chess championship. Mikhail Tal's record has since been eclipsed by Garry Kasparov, who was 22 when he became champion in 1985. Yet despite the fact that Kasparov remained champion for 15 years, while Tal lost his crown after a mere 12 months, even Kasparov himself makes no claim to superiority over the player known as "The Magician from Riga".
Interviewed by a Russian radio programme about Tal, Kasparov — who knew him well — tried to explain why even he was in awe of the man: "He was the only player I ever knew who didn't calculate variations. He just saw them." Asked to elaborate, Kasparov said: "We calculate: he does this; then I do that. But Tal would just see through the thick layers of variations and that around the eighth move it will be like so...He was absolutely unique and his playing style was unrepeatable. He was a man in whom others sensed their mediocrity."
This was the freakish talent that the 48-year-old Mikhail Botvinnik confronted in Moscow's Pushkin Theatre in the spring of 1960. Botvinnik was the antithesis of Tal. The least intuitive of players, he was the dour founder of the "Soviet School of Chess". For Botvinnik, chess was not just a means of proving internationally that the Soviet system was best — though he did want to do that — but that it was in itself a demonstration of the scientific method. As Kasparov observed, in that same radio interview, "Botvinnik's style conformed to the spirit of Stalin's era: very rational, cold, scientific. He tried to divide chess into individual squares and analyse them all, one by one."
One can imagine the feelings of the humourless Botvinnik when he heard Tal explain that the secret of his preparation for their world championship match was that his trainer "would have to tell me a new joke before each game". While Botvinnik graduated as an engineer, Tal's university thesis was on "satire". He loved to demonstrate that at the board, if at all possible. Thus when a rival, the Hungarian-American Pal Benko, put on dark glasses to ward off Tal's sardonic stare at the board, he got a friend to rush out to buy the most grotesque shades he could find, which he wore during his next game against his nervous opponent.
It was not this irrepressible humorousness that endeared Tal to chess fans the world over, although it was treasured by his friends. No, what made him uniquely popular with followers of the game was his astonishingly daring and dynamic playing style. Nothing had been seen quite like it since the 19th century's glorious amateurs. Like those coffee-house gambiteers, Tal lived above all for the sheer beauty of the game and for the dream of winning with a cascade of sacrifices with checkmate at the end of it.