The Satirist and the Engineer

Mikhail Tal, the Magician from Riga, goes up against the humourless Mikhail Botvinnik

Dominic Lawson

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. 

Tal would joke: “There are two sorts of sacrifice — sound ones…and mine!” While he played to win, he was more concerned to create something of artistry, and — he was an unashamed showman in this respect — to give the audiences, his fans, something astonishing to see. Tal more than fulfilled that ambition in the 1960 match, as he continued to play the cavalier chess — sans peur et sans reproche — which, like an intellectual jousting lance, he had used to run through all Botvinnik’s other would-be challengers. Indeed, in the sixth game of the match against Botvinnik, when Tal came up with a piece sacrifice which almost defied belief, the cheers and shouts from the audience were so tumultuous that the match arbiters had to move the players to a small room backstage, so that they were able to think.

In fact the fireworks began with the very first game of the match. In a manner rather similar to that later adopted by Muhammad Ali, Tal had publicly declared: “In the first game of my match with Botvinnik I will play 1.e4 and win.” This is exactly what happened, (Tal playing White):1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qc7 7.Qg4 f5 8.Qg3 Ne7 9.Qxg7 Rg8 10.Qxh7 cxd4 11.Kd1 Bd7 12.Qh5+ Ng6 13.Ne2 d3 14.cxd3 Ba4+ 15.Ke1 Qxe5 16.Bg5 Nc6 17.d4 Qc7 18.h4 e5 19.Rh3 Qf7 20.dxe5 Ncxe5 21.Re3 Kd7 22.Rb1 b6 23.Nf4 Rae8 24.Rb4 Bc6 25.Qd1 Nxf4 26.Rxf4 Ng6 27.Rd4 Rxe3+ 28.fxe3 Kc7 29.c4 dxc4 30.Bxc4 Qg7 31.Bxg8 Qxg8 32.h5 and Botvinnik resigned. This was chess as only Tal would dare to play it at the highest level, leaving his King in the centre and flinging his Rooks into the attack from all sorts of unlikely angles. By the seventh game, Botvinnik was already 3-0 behind and there was no way back from that.

Yet in the return match a year later, Botvinnik beat Tal even more convincingly than he himself had lost the first match. This was a revenge of which few thought the much older player capable — but there were a number of good reasons for this debacle on Tal’s part. With a characteristic absence of self-pity, he admitted afterwards: “I lost to him…because he beat me. He was very well prepared for the second match. Botvinnik knew my play better than I knew his.”

What Tal wouldn’t say was that he had been suffering from a serious kidney disorder. To what extent this problem was self-inflicted is hard to know. Tal was not just a 100-cigarette-a-day man, he also drank spirits in stupendous quantities. His standard starting bid at any bar was five measures of Cognac — and then he really got going. The many painful surgical procedures he endured in Soviet hospitals, as the surgeons tried to rescue his kidneys and various other vital organs, had the additional consequence of turning him into a morphine addict. His friend Gennadi Sosonko records: “The veins on his arms were black and blue as if covered in ant bites…The nurses would try in vain to find a place that had not yet been touched.”

Despite these depredations, there were periods when Tal’s genius would surmount his physical disintegration. In 1988, he won the world blitz chess championship: rapid chess events were not so draining physically for Tal, and with a limit of five minutes for all moves, his uniquely quick “sight” of the board was especially devastating. 

In 1992, at the age of 55, but looking 30 years older, he left his hospital bed to play in a Moscow blitz tournament attended by all the leading Russians. Kasparov recalls: “He looked horrible. It was a month before he died. But Tal was still Tal. The only game I lost was to him…until the very end he still had his unique vision.”

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