Was This the Greatest Tournament?

People who have no interest in chess commonly ask: who was the greatest player of all time. Genuine students, however, ask: what was the greatest tournament of all time?

Dominic Lawson

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.

This psychological ascendancy paid dividends in their final game, in the penultimate round of the event. As early as the 22nd move, Fischer had achieved what appeared to be a winning position. Then, as Tal relates in an autobiographical sketch, Fischer did not immediately play the killing move, (which would have been 22.Rae1) but wrote it down on his scoresheet, and not in his usual English descriptive notation. Instead, he wrote it in international algebraic, which was the method used by Tal. 

Tal realised that Fischer was trying a slightly childish psychological trick on him, by seeking to discover his reaction to the indicated move, without actually playing it. Tal just got up and wandered across to another player, and, as he records, “made some joke to him”. Tal went on: “Fischer, who was essentially still a large child, sat with a confused expression on his face, looking first at the front row of the spectators, where his second was sitting, and then at me.”

Then Fischer played a different move, which threw away all his initiative. He eventually lost, giving tournament victory and the right to a world championship match to Tal. In his memoir of the event, Tal says of this episode: “When I later asked Fischer why he hadn’t played 22.Rae1, he replied ‘Well, you laughed when I wrote it down!'”

Yet the most dramatic moment of the great 1959 tournament came at the beginning of the second leg, in Zagreb, when Tal played Smyslov. The ex-world champion had given an interview to the Zagreb Evening News a few days earlier, in which he indicated how lucky he thought Tal had been in the first two legs of the tournament, and that he regarded it as his duty as a grandmaster to punish the young Latvian’s tricks when they next met. This is what happened, with Smyslov playing White: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.0-0 d5 8.Nd2 Nf6 9.Qe2 Be7 10.Re1 0-0 11.b3 a5 12.Bb2 a4 13.a3 axb3 14.cxb3 Qb6 15.exd5 cxd5 16.b4 Nd7 17.Nb3 e5 18.Bf5 e4 19.Rec1 Qd6 20.Nd4 Bf6 21.Rc6 Qe7 22.Rac1 h6 23.Rc7 Be5 24.Nc6 Qg5 25.h4 Qxh4 26.Nxe5 Nxe5 27.Rxc8 Nf3+ 28.gxf3 Qg5+ 29.Kf1 Qxf5 30.Rxf8+ Rxf8 31.fxe4 dxe4 32.Qe3 Rd8 33.Qg3 g5 34.Rc5 Rd1+ 35.Kg2 Qe6 36.b5 Kh7 37.Rc6 Qd5 38. Qe5?? Rg1+! 39. Kh2 Rh1+! 40. Kg2 Rg1+. Draw!

Smyslov, of course, had been completely winning, until his 38th move. Tal had also been very short of time, which must have contributed to Smyslov’s hubris: he missed Tal’s diabolical perpetual check swindle (for example, if Smyslov had captured with 39.Kxg1 then Qd1+ 40.Kh2 Qh5+ 41.Kg2 Qf3+).

Tal later recorded the dramatic conclusion of this game with thinly-disguised glee: “Smyslov ran into almost the only swindle I had been able to think up. Smyslov is normally imperturbable at the board, but after my 39th move Rh1+, his face changed, and after thinking for some three minutes, he made his reply and slammed his clock with furious force. Some of my pieces fell over, but I gave check with my Rook on g1, pressed my clock, and only then began to restore order on the board.”

What a man, what a game, and what a tournament! 

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