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Perhaps the most common debate in chess is: who was the greatest player of all time? It tends to be the question asked about chess by anyone who has no great interest in the game, just as those with no real interest in food will often ask which is the "best restaurant in the world", as if there could be a sensible answer to such a question.

Genuine students of chess, however, are frequently captivated by a different question: which was the greatest chess tournament of all time? This avoids any invidious comparisons between great players of vastly different styles, but still allows for a delightful wallow in chess history. My own candidate for the award is an event, which was, indeed, called "The Candidates' Tournament". It took place 50 years ago, in 1959.

This was a stupendous 28-round contest, played in three Yugoslav cities, and was designed to find an official challenger for the then world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik. Eight qualifiers were to play four games against each other, a uniquely gruelling method of selection. It had the full spectrum of chess talent, from the Armenian master of mysterious strategy, Tigran Petrosian, to the classical attacking style of the Estonian, Paul Keres, who felt that this might be his last chance to challenge for the supreme title.

There was Vassily Smyslov, who had beaten Botvinnik in a match in 1954 to become world champion, only to lose the title back to the old champion in a compulsory rematch only a year later. Smyslov, though in many ways an even-tempered character, was aching to gain his revenge.

But both Keres and Smyslov were to be confronted with the importunity of youth — and of genius. Two other contestants in the "Candidates" were the 22-year-old Latvian Mikhail Tal, and an extraordinarily precocious 16-year-old American grandmaster — one Bobby Fischer.

Even then, Fischer would have been convinced that he had no equal in the tournament, that he would become the challenger. Yet he managed only to share fifth and sixth place, with a score of under 50 per cent. The principal reason for this debacle was Tal. The young Latvian achieved a straight four-nil whitewash against Fischer. The reasons for this remarkable result were not entirely to do with chess.

Tal had a truly terrifying presence at the board, and it was clearly too much for the impressionable young American. It was not only that Tal had a peculiar deformity in his right hand, which had just two abnormally large digits, opening and closing over the pieces, like a lobster's claw: the Latvian had "the evil eye" — he would attempt to fix his opponent with a mesmerising, even mocking, stare. If you go on to YouTube and search for the 1959 Candidates (Fischer Tal), you should find brief footage of Tal giving Fischer an extraordinary stare combining extreme confidence and condescending amusement, just after they shake hands at the start of one of their games. Poor Bobby just looks like an anxious schoolboy.

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