Discovering Grandmasters - Who Was Mikhail Tal

by Milica Knezevic on December 30, 2021

Basics Information On Mikhail Tal

Known as: Mikhail Tal

Born: November 9, 1936

Died: 28 June 1992

Born in: Riga, Latvia

Died in: Moscow, Russia

Full given name: Mikhail Nekhemyevich Tal

Quick Intro Into Knowing The Legend

  • Mikhail Tal was a Latvian Soviet chess Grandmaster and is regarded as the best attacking player of all time.

  • He became the eighth World Chess Champion in 1960 when he won against the defending champion Mikhail Botvinnik.

  • Aged just 23 at that time, he set a new record by becoming the youngest-ever world champion (the record would later on be broken by Garry Kasparov, who earned the title at 22).

  • A creative genius, he was known for his improvisation and unpredictability because of which he won so many exciting matches and set numerous world records.

  • He was a brilliant master of chess and once he played 95 consecutive games without a loss—the longest unbeaten streak in modern chess history.

  • His unprecedented success as a chess player earned him the name "The Magician from Riga" and he was virtually unstoppable during his younger days when he was in good health.

  • Over a period of time his health deteriorated mostly because he became addicted to drinking and smoking which affected his game.

  • In addition to being a brilliant chess player, he was also a highly acclaimed chess writer who authored several books including the very popular ‘The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal’.

  • He was a much loved man and his untimely death at the age of 55 left the chess world feeling robbed of yet another brilliant man.

  • Chess Universe gives you a whole tower filled with his masterful games! 

Chess Universe Towers

Starting Points For Tal

Tal was born in Riga, Republic of Latvia, as part of a Jewish family.

According to his friend Gennadi Sosonko, his true father was a family friend identified only as "Uncle Robert", however, this was vehemently denied by Tal's third wife Angelina.

Uncle Robert had been a taxi driver in Paris in the 1920s and had lost all his family in World War II. His mother, Ida Grigoryevna, was the eldest of four sisters; Tal frequently visited the Netherlands to see his aunt, Riva and another of his aunts settled in the U.S.A. but visited Riga.

As a child, Tal joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. In 1949, he played Ratmir Kholmov, a young master who had recently competed in the prestigious Chigorin Memorial in 1947, in a simultaneous exhibition. Tal used an imaginative combination to win his game at the age of 13.

Alexander Koblents began tutoring him in 1949, after which Tal's game rapidly improved, and by 1951 he had qualified for the Latvian Championship.

In the 1952 Latvian Championship, Tal finished ahead of his trainer. Tal won his first Latvian title in 1953, and was awarded the title of Candidate Master.

He became a Soviet Master in 1954 by defeating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. That same year he also scored his first win over a grandmaster when Yuri Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position.

Tal graduated in Literature from the University of Latvia, writing a thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov, and taught school in Riga for a time in his early twenties. He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society, and represented Latvia in internal Soviet team competitions.

In 1959 he married 19-year-old Salli Landau, an actress with the Riga Youth Theatre; they divorced in 1970. In 2003, Landau published a biography in Russia of her late ex-husband.

Tal vs. Botvinnik

Botvinnik - Tal World Championship Return Match ,1961

A Suprising Friendship

In their first decisive chess battles, Mikhail Tal won all four games against Bobby Fischer in the 1959 Candidates' tournament. In their most famous game, Tal battered Fischer's King's Indian Defense as young Bobby greedily ate up Tal's pawns on the queenside. ... The game is a thrilling contrast in styles.

Mikhail Tal – the magician from Riga meets Fisher again. Fischer – Tal 1960 Olympiad Team tournament. Leipzig, East Germany was chosen as the venue of the 14th Chess Olympiad, organized by FIDE.

The 5th round of the team tournament saw Fischer having White against Tal. Fischer had read a lot about Tal’s swashbuckling style of sacrificial play and was also obviously eager to get even with him for past humiliations as well as to show him a taste of his own medicine!

The world champion Tal employed a sharp variation of the French Defense involving the sacrifice of his king side pawns and opposite side castling.

At the critical moment he created a tactical melee on the board, leading to a draw by perpetual check.

This game showed Fischer why Tal was considered a tactical genius although Tal himself said of his tactical sacrifices sarcastically – “There are two types of tactics, the sound ones and the ones I make”!

According to Tal himself, when he was interviewing Fischer at the 1962 Varna Olympics, the first question he asked Fischer was: “Whom do you consider to be the strongest player in the world?”

Fischer looked at Tal with surprise to which Tal simply made it easy by adding, “Excluding yourself, of course.”

Fischer replied tounge-in-cheek – “Well, you don’t play badly.”

By that time (1962), Bobby had defeated Tal twice. One might assume that perhaps Fischer couldn’t consciously admit that Tal was the best, but when Tal eased the question ruling out Fischer, he readily accepted to Tal’s superiority.

In Tal’s own words, Tal was Tal but Fischer was not yet Fischer. They were friends. They became friends at the 1958 Inter-zonal.

Fischer was the only player to visit Tal while he was hospitalized during the 1962 Candidates tournament.

Tal and Fischer

Fischer visits Tal while he was hospitalized during the 1962 Candidates tournament

The Final Masterpiece

"In Moscow three weeks later he played in a strong blitz tournament, where fate paired him with Garry Kasparov. Tal who was already terminally ill inflicted the only defeat on the current world champion, and in the end he finished an honorable third after Kasparov and Bareev." - Gennadi Sosonko

Tal beat Kasparov in 17 moves, months prior to his death.

There is a lot of controversies over this match due to some claiming it lasted more than 17 moves, however this was never confirmed. Kasparov himself said in an interview that Tal simply won this game by knowing what move to make, while others calculate extremely fast, Tal simply knew.

Tal vs. Kasparov

Mikhail Tal and Garry Kasparov, 1992

Find Out More!

A documentary on the unpredictable and tragic life of the genius world chess champion Mikhail Tal.

Mikhail Tal becomes the youngest world chess champion at 23. The same year, he was diagnosed with incurable kidney disease and given only one year to live.

Through sheer will and reckless abandon he managed to live another 40 years, filling them with a string of remarkable chess successes, unexplainable failures, amorous conquest and life threatening cat and mouse game with the KGB.

Explore the life of a legend and learn more on who Mikhail Tal was.

Mikhail Tal Movie
You have to check out these books on Mikhail Tal!

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