'My head is filled with sunshine' - these were the first words of the 23 -year-old Misha Tal in an overcrowded hall in Moscow, immediately after his brilliant victory in the candidates tournament in Yugoslavia in 1959. It was there, too, that he said: 'In the first game of the match with Botvinnik I will play e2 -e4 and beat him! '
In the mid-50s a young man, practically a boy, with fiery black eyes and a manner of playing that surprised everyone, burst into the world of strictly positional chess. His manner of playing amazed some and shocked others. A Dutch newspaper made an observation that was typical of the general reaction of the entire chess world: 'For a player of world class, Tal's play is amazingly reckless, not to say foolhardy and irresponsible. For the moment he is successful , because even the most experienced and tested defenders are unable to withstand this terror on the chess board. He aims first and foremost for attack, and in his games one commonly sees sacrifices of one or even several pieces. Opinions are sharply divided about this foolhardy way of playing. Some see him as nothing more than a gambler, who has luck on his side, while others think that he is a genius who is opening up unknown fields in chess.'
Although he was already the challenger, Tal had met the world champion only once, during the Olympiad in Munich in 19 58, where they played together on the Soviet team. The story that the little Misha, with a chessboard under his arm, was not admitted by Botvinnik, when the latter was spending a holiday by the seaside near Riga in 1948 , is of course a fabrication by journalists. Strolling between the tables, while his opponent was considering his move, the world champion asked the young candidate:'Why did you sacrifice that pawn?' And he received a 'hooliganish', asMisha himself expressed it, reply: 'That pawn was simply in my way.' He loved this word 'hooligan', and often, when analysing, if he suggested some unclear sacrifice, he would add: 'Let's have a bit of hooliganism.'
I got to know Misha in the Autumn of 1967. He had come from Riga to Leningrad for a few days, and in the small room of a mutual acquaintance we played an enormous number of blitz games, of which I managed to win one and draw a few. After a few more visits we became friends , and it did not come as a surprise when he invited me to Riga, to his city, to work together. He was preparing for a match with Gligoric. Of course, for me this was a flattering invitation. During this and subsequent visits to Riga, I must have spent something like half a year with him.
I would arrive at about eleven at his big flat in the centre of Riga, and within half an hour we would be sitting at the chess hoard. Now, a quarter of a century later , I realise that variations were not especially necessary for him. The most important thing for him - and here I completely agree with Spassky - was to create a situation on the board, where his pieces came alive, and for him, as for no one else, they did indeed become alive. His credo was to create tension and to seize the initiative , to create a position
such that the spiritual factor - that of giving mate - would prevail over and even laugh at material values.
We spent a mass of time on variations such as l.d4 dS 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 cS , and the pawn sacrifice d4-d5 in the Queen's Indian Defence which he employed in a little-known training game with Kholmov. But we also looked at the Nimzo, and the Spanish, which turned out to be the main openings in his match with Gligoric.
Quite often Misha's permanent trainer Alexander Koblenz, 'Maestro' to his friends, would arrive. This is also what Misha invariably called him. Behind their distinctive jokingly-ironic manner of conversing lay a sincere attachment that went back many years. 'That's enough for today' Misha wouldsay, 'Blitz, blitz.' Sacrificing pieces against each of us in turn, for the mostpart , incorrectly, he would repeat: 'Never mind, now I'll make his flag fall .'Or in very sharp situations, when he himself had only a few seconds left, his
favourite: 'Calmness is my sweetheart. ' I do not recall an occasion when he played blitz without any evident pleasure. Whether it was a game from the championships of Moscow or Leningrad, most of which were won by him, the world championship in Saint John in 1988, or simply a five-minute game with an amateur who had cornered him in a hotel foyer.
The computer age was a long way off, Gligoric's games were scattered about in various bulletins , and in searching for them Misha would often get sidetracked in one of the magazines that had been sent to him from various countries of the world, and, glancing at a diagram, would suggest : 'How about , instead, looking at the games from the last championship of Columbia?'
'Perhaps you should take a break?' would suggest Misha's mother, Ida Grigoryevna, a tall , imposing woman. She was the oldest sister of a bourgeois Jewish family from Riga, which fate had scattered throughout the world. Her sister Riva lived in The Hague from the late 30s, and Misha nearly always used to see her during his frequent visits to Holland. As a young girl she had gone for six months to Paris, to improve her French, but fate had turned out dif ferently. The first time that Aunt Riva saw her famous nephew was in 1959 in Zurich, when she learned about the coming chess tournament there. 'He was all full of energy, so bright,' she said,'and that tall thin American, still just a boy, he used literally to hang on every word of Misha.'
She had another sister, Ganya - two years younger - who settled in Brooklyn, New York, and whom I remember well from when she was in Riga.
The surname of Misha's mother, who died in 19 79, was Tal , like Misha's father: she married her cousin. In an enormous flat (by my concepts at the time) there lived: Misha's mother, Misha's elder brother Yasha, who outlived her only by a short time, Misha himself with his girlf riend, who emigrated in 19 72 and who lives, as far as I know, in Germany, Misha's first wife, Sally, who left the country in 19 80 and now lives in Antwerp, and their son Gera, a charming boy with fair curly hair, now the father of three children and a dentist in Beer-Sheva, in Israel. In 19 80, in my house in Amsterdam, Misha several times met his son. The times then were not so liberal , and an open meeting between a father and an emigre son, even in the presence only of fellow-grandmasters, could have had unpleasant consequences, such as being forbidden to travel abroad for two years or more (which Misha in fact had to experience in his time).
Nearly every evening they were visited by Uncle Robert, as everyone called him, a friend of Misha' s father who was a doctor. He was a wonderful man, according to all who knew him. He died in 19 57. Uncle Robert , a taxi-driver in Paris in the 20s, who had lost al his family during the war, himself rather a weak player, could watch for hours our analysis and blitz games, looking at Misha with loving eyes. Sometimes he would reprimand Misha for something, Misha would defend himself weakly, and Ida Grigoryevna, who always took the side of Uncle Robert, would say: 'Misha, don't be rude, please; don't forget that he is after all your father.' It was a well-kept family secret that his Uncle Robert was his biological father. Now, a quarter of a century later, with all of them gone, I can picture very well Uncle Robert with his invariable cigarette in his nicotine-stained fingers , often with a glass of cognac, and Misha, especially in his later years, so similar to him in appearance, manner of speaking, and holding himself.
During these squabbles I used to avert my eyes in embarrassment, but no one paid any attention to me, since they accepted me as one of their own.
But then evening would arrive, and we would have to go somewhere to eat. A taxi was summoned, and we would drive to one of the restaurants , where, of course, Misha was always recognised. When Tal became world champion he was presented with a 'Volga' - effectively the top brand of Soviet car at that time. But he gave the car to his brother . He was totally in different to any form of technology, and it goes without saying that he never entertained any thoughts of learning to drive. Only in the last period
of his life did he acquire an electric razor , and the marks of its actionscould be seen here and there on his face. In my time the shaving procedure was entrusted to his elder brother , or more often, and always when he was away, he went to a barber's. He did not like ties , and wore one only when circumstances demanded it. Needless to say, he never learned how to fasten one. And he never wore a watch. 'What's that! You've got something tickng on your arm!' For him, time in the accepted sense did not exist. I recall many a missed train, and from the days of his youth there was the story of how he once attempted to overtake a plane by taxi by exploiting the plane's three-hour stop-over , which, according to eye-witnesses, was completely successful.
In taxis we often played a game which I first learned from him: from he four figures of the number of the car in front, one had to make 21 using each figure only once. I found it hard to follow as he triumphantly achieved this with a complicated arrangement of roots , differentials and integrals.
During dinner and frequently after it, we would drink. Misha did not like and did not drink wine, preferring something stronger: vodka, cognacor rum-cola, for example. To avoid any misunderstanding , I must say immediately that this was no slow sipping through a straw. To this day I remember the face of the barman in Wijk aan Zee, at our first meeting outside Russia in January 19 73, when he had to pour five portions of cognac into one glass . A few years ago, Misha, who by then found it hard
to take his drink, simply fell asleep at the end of a banquet in Reykjavik. This happened to him increasingly often, especially in his last years.Kortchnoi and Spassky, who were also playing there, at that time had strained relations. But it couldn't be helped, and they looked at each other : 'Carry him out?' asked one. 'Alright' , replied the other. The distance was considerable, but the opponents of his youth coped admirably with their task, and to the dumbfounded hotel porter it was explained that this chess
player had thought for a long time, and he was very tired.
I remember very well his sparkling. always gentle humour, his laughter, infectious and often leading to tears , his instant reactions in conversation, and his trademark expression, usually around midnight: 'Waiter ! Please change my table companion!' I think it was Sheridan who said that genuine humour is much closer to good nature than we think. Misha's wit was always genuine.
Despite a physical defect - from his birth he had only three fingers on his right hand - he played the piano, and not at all badly. His first wife, Sally remembers that on the evening when they met, Misha was playing some Chopin etudes. Besides Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were his favourite composers . A few months before his first match with Botvinnik, he asked the well-known pianist Bella Davidovich, with whom Tal was particularly friendly, whether Rachmaninov's 'Elegy' was part of her repertoire. On learning that it was not, he said: 'Promise me that after my victory over Botvinnik you will play it at the concluding concert.' In the Soviet Union at that time, after the opening or closing ceremony of a chess tournament or match, there was the custom of arranging a variety concert. On the evening after the 17th game, when the match score became I 0-7 in Tal's favour, the telephone rang in the Davidovich flat : 'You can begin practising the 'Elegy' .. .' When she plays Rachmaninov's 'Elegy' Bella Davidovich always remembers Misha Tal and that evening in the Pushkin Theatre, when she performed it for the first time.
In the summer, during my visits when he was preparing for the match with Kortchnoi , we often went to the Riga seaside, where he had been given a dacha, or, more correctly. three rooms on the second floor of a house beside the beach. When I look back now it requires some effort to picture Misha on the beach in sunny weather in an improvised goal (a T -shirt and a beach bag) recklessly, like everything that he did, parrying my attempts to score a goal. He had played goalkeeper in a university team, and he retained an attachment to football until the end of his life.
He never enjoyed good health. At that time, both in Riga and at the seaside, he suffered kidney failure, and frequently an ambulance had to be summoned. He was often in hospital, and during his life he underwent twelve surgical operations. His forehead bore the scars of a fearful blow to the head by a bottle in a Havana night bar during the Olympiad in Cuba in 19 66.There was a well-known joke by Petrosian at that time: 'Only someone with the robust health of Tal could endure such a blow. ' It was in thelate 60s, that Misha became addicted to morphine. The veins on his arms were black and blue as if covered with ant bites , and the nurses , trying in vain to find a place that had not yet been touched. I know that later too, in Moscow, ambulances were forbidden to come at the summons of Tal . Rumours about this used to spread around the city.
At one of his lectures someone asked: 'Is it true that you are a morphinist, comrade Tal?' And his lightning response : 'What do you mean? I'm a chigorinist .. .' I think that this period lasted a couple of years. How he kicked the habit, I do not know. A guess : when the drug dose threatened to exceed legal limits , his strength of spirit and will themselves put an end to it.
Why did he play like he did, and why did he win? Of course, it is easy to hide behind the words talent or genius. Tolush, after losing the game of his life in his best tournament in 19 57, said to Spassky: 'You know, Borya, today I lost to a genius .' At the Interzonal tournament in Taxco, another strong grandmaster said to me without any flattery: 'We are none of us worth Misha's little finger. ' And Petrosian himself, who was sparing in his praise, said that in chess he knew only one living genius.
But that is not the point , or, at least, not the only point. I am reluctant to follow Kortchnoi. When I asked him about the secret of Tal's play he retorted: 'Well , you know, don't you? Once in a restaurant Tal said to me: 'If you want, I'll look at that waiter, and he will come up to us. ' ' Pal Benko thought similarly when he put on dark glasses at the 19 59 candidates tournament as an inadequate defence against Tal's piercing eyes. Still , the fact that his entire appearance, especially in his younger years, radiated some
kind of aura - this is certain. Here we have approached the mystery, as I see it, of the Mikhail Tal phenomenon.
That face bent over the board, that stare of burning eyes , penetrating the board and the opponent , those moving lips , that smile which appeared on his inspired face when a combination had been found, that intense concentration of thought , pressure of thought rather - all this created something that the weak of spirit could not withstand. And when this spirit was combined with the energy of youth in the late fifties and early sixties , he was invincible. 'You, Mishik' , the late Leonid Stein said to him in Riga in 1969 'are stronger in spirit than all of us.' He was strong in spirit, like no one else. Even when his organism was destroyed, right to the end, to his last days, his spirit remained unbowed.
In 19 79, after winning a major tournament in Montreal together with Karpov, the 43 -year-old Tal , who was more balanced and understood chess much better than in his years as champion, said: 'Now I would smash that younger Tal to pieces.' I have my doubts. And not because his favourite squares e6 , dS and fS , as he himself expressed it, were now guarded more strictly. No, the point was that the erudite and all-comprehending Tal would have had to withstand the concentration of thought and pressure of
youth, which the best of the best had been unable to withstand.
In the summer of 19 68 I was Misha 's second for his match with Kortchnoi, a very uncomfortable opponent for him. Tal lost the match 4'/I-51/2 . In the last game Misha , with Black, built up a strong attack in a Dutch Defence and could have won, but he delayed and the adjourned position did not promise more than a draw. A sleepless night of analysis followed, the resumption, the closing ceremony, and a lengthy wandering around Moscow, where he had so many friends . His energy, his inexhaustible energy ... There was a wooden house in the very centre of Moscow, by the main Post Office, where the artist Igin lived, who has now long been dead. He was a friend of many chess players , who would drop in to see him at any time of day or night. Artists , poets , young actresses, bohemian Moscow of the sixties and seventies, and the picturesque host himself, who described himself succinctly as 'an old cognac-drinker'. And finally, the last flight from Moscow to Riga, no tickets, but they recognised Misha, and there we were in the pilots ' cabin flying to Riga, night, Misha's flat, and I, no longer feeling anything, fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, the room was thick with cigarette smoke, and somewhere in the background Misha was sitting on a divan looking at me with a thick book in his hands that had almost been finished. He read exceptionally quickly, and I knew, in the Western part of my life, that when I set off to some tournament I had to take with me as many as possible of the books that were then banned in the Soviet Union. At the Olympiad in Nice in 1 9 7 4 I gave him one evening a copy of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which had just been published, and the latest issue of a Russian emigre newspaper. The following morning, returning it to me after reading it all , he said: 'In the newspaper crossword I couldn't find a single word' . 'But the book, what about the book?' 'He writes very maliciously ... ' At the time , I was staggered by the reply, but a vague explanation, another aspect revealing the personality of Mikhail Tal , occurred to me. The point was that on the whole this did not interest him. He was not at all interested in material values , as if he dissociated himself from such matters .
After one of the tournaments in Tilburg I was sharing with him the procedure of shopping, which he so disliked. His pockets were full of five-guilder notes (it need hardly be said that he never had a wallet) mixed up with thousand-guilder notes that were very similar in colour, and I remember his sincere astonishment when he found another of the latter in one of his side pockets. And how many lost prizes there were, how many passports left in hotels , or simply forgotten somewhere. He looked askance at me, when in the hotel in Taxco I told him off for paying $70 for a three-minute telephone call to New York. It is doubtful whether it had got through to him that in certain countries, and especially from hotels, one should avoid telephone calls. Beliavsky told me that , when he scolded Misha for giving to the Sports Committee almost all of his prize of several thousand dollars for winning the World Blitz Championship in Saint John, Misha simply replied: 'Well , they asked me for it and I gave it to them. '
Of course, he was not interested in titles and awards. I think that even the title of world champion did not greatly interest him. And he was not interested at all in the careerism, power or benefits (or what is understood by these words) of his fellow champions of later years . And, in contrast to them, it is altogether impossible to imagine him as a member of any party at all .
Although in later times he visited Israel , I think that Jewishness only interested him to a limited extent. I recall how, before one of the Olympiads , Pravda wrote : 'The team of the Soviet Union is represented by players of various nationalities : the Armenian Petrosian, the Russian Smyslov, the Estonian Keres, and Tal from Riga. '
He showed little interest in his health or his appearance, or in what others thought of him. He was as from another planet , and there was only one thing that really excited and interested him: chess.
He belonged to that rare category of people, who, as if it were something that went without saying, rejected everything to which the majority aim, and went through life with an easy step, a chosen one of fate, an adornment of the earth. In burning out his life, he knew that this was no dress rehearsal , and that there would not be another one. But he did not want to and could not live in any other way.
In January 19 73 I played in the reserve master group in Wijk aan Zee, my first tournament after leaving Russia. Misha, who was playing in the main tournament, appeared every day in the general hall and, after studying my position, moved on to other games, and often also to games of the other groups, with an average rating of somewhere in the region of 19 00 ... We
often talked then until deep into the night and sometimes I would set off on foot from Wijk aan Zee to Beverwijk, where I was lodged just like most of the participants. The buses were no longer running , or, as it would be more correct to say, they had not yet started running. On the free day there was a big blitz tournament for all-corners, which lasted the whole day, and which Misha won. For the information of modern professionals: the first prize was one hundred guilders.
One of his favourite expressions was 'tasty chess '. And that was what he played. In his commentaries to his own games there was a predominance of good nature, respect for the opponent, and self-irony, which is so rarely encountered nowadays. He did not like writing his comments, but preferred to demonstrate the games, while the text was recorded on tape. In older times he simply used to dictate. This was how he met his wife Gelya in the autumn of 19 70, when for some formal reason he was not allowed into the Championship of the Soviet Union, which was being held in his own city of Riga.
He always used to write his move in short notation, and always before executing it on the board. In rare instances, when his opponent became very curious and looked openly at his scoresheet, he would cover it with his pen. If he did not like the move, he would cross it out and write a new one. In his later years he used to say increasingly often: 'I even wrote the winning move on my scoresheet, but crossed it out at the last moment ... '
Somewhere around an hour and a half to two hours before a game he would eat something, but more for appearances' sake, then speak little and disappear into his own private world. That, for example, is what happened during his match with Kortchnoi , and I realised that at such moments it was better not to disturb him. We ate in various places - this was a long time before the matches where everything was regulated to the nearest minute and calorie. It goes without saying that he adored everything that was bad for him: spicy, salty, peppery. Misha always smoked heavily, normally 2-3 packets a day - he preferred Kent - but when he was playing a further two could be added.
The last time I saw him was in Tilburg in the autumn of 1991. Misha had travelled from Germany, where he had latterly been living with his wife and his daughter Zhanna, whom he loved very much. He looked terrible, much older than his age, but he was still the same Misha. Replying to a greeting by one of his acquaintances , he said 'Thank you. Thank you for recognising me. ' He would usually sit in the press centre with his eternal cigarette, saying little, but every remark he made on chess was always to the point. He livened up a little when in his customary manner he showed an audience at the Max Euwe Academy one of his latest games : against Panno from the tournament in Buenos Aires. The young people of the early nineties looked at him as if he were Staunton or Zukertort. It was a miracle not that he was alive, but that he did not die sooner .
He also played in the last USSR Championship, and later wrote a big article for New In Chess together with Vaganian, with whom he was especially close in his last years. In February 1992, when I was in Cannes , I was asked to phone him. 'Listen, ' said Misha, 'I am reading now about matches for the world championship, which I myself saw from close to. It wasn't like that, it was all different. Come and see me, and we'll write something together.' I promised. But for various reasons it kept getting put off and put off ...
Misha played his last tournament in Barcelona. There were some young and promising players. He used to joke in his time about those that showed promise : ·At their age I was already an ex-World Champion .. .' For half the tournament he was really ill , with a temperature. In the last game, assuming that it would be a quick draw, he played 3.Bb5 in the Sicilian, offered a draw, and received a refusal . In a lost position, already under attack, his young opponent himself offered a draw. This was the last tournament
game won by Misha.
We spoke by telephone quite of ten, and a couple of days before my departure to the Olympiad in Manila I 992 I received a letter from him.
Here it is:
Unfortunately, I have not finished the promised account of the tournament - I have been feeling
very unwell. On Monday I am flying to Moscow for another appointment with the doctors.
There will most probably be an operation. All the same, there will be plenty of free time as well
as writing materials ... In any case, I wish every success to you and all your least Russified (let's
put it that way) team.
With warmest greetings. Misha.'
This was the last greeting that I received from him. Before going into hospital he played in a blitz-tournament in Moscow, where he won against Kasparov and took third place behind Kasparov and Bareev, but ahead of Smyslov, Dolmatov, Vyzhmanavin and Beliavsky. A few days later, on 28th June 19 92, Misha Tal died in hospital in Moscow. The official cause of his death was given as a haemorrhage in the oesophagus, but effectively his entire organism had ceased to function. He was buried in Riga, the city
where he was born, in a Jewish cemetery alongside the graves of his relatives. He was 55 years old.
In his last years he looked older than his age, but I never associated him with being an old man -he always remained Misha.
Once I asked myself: 'Where do these boys from decent European Jewish families, Modigliani , Kafka, Tal , who are even similar in appearance, where do they get their all-absorbing passion for self-expression from? Where is the secret here?' This I do not know.
A few years before his death, Wilhelm Steinitz said: 'I am not a chess historian, I am a piece of chess history, which no one can ignore.' Anyone who has ever been or will be concerned with the amazing world of chess, will not ignore the illustrious name of Misha Tal .
this content was taken from the book 'Russian Silhouettes' wrintten by Genna Sosonko.