MIKHAIL TAL'S FINEST HOUR

To mark the 76th birthday of the Riga Magician, Whychess is publishing Yuri Averbakh's memoirs of the 8th world champion.

 

As it happens, I became acquainted with Tal's play earlier than with Tal himself. In May 1954, I was chosen for the first time as a member of the Praesidium, and then appointed chairman of the Qualification Commission. One of the first things we had to do was look at the games of the recently-concluded match for the master title, between the experienced Byelorussian master, Vladimir Saigin, and the still unknown Tal. In those days, in order to receive the title, players had not only to fulfill the norm, but also to show thr requisite standard of play, and the games were normally given to experts to assess. Looking at the games of the match, I decided that Tal deserved the title.

I mention this because, thanks to the delicate hand of Viktor Vasiliev, author of the documentary play "The Riddle of Tal", a more romantic version of the story has done the rounds of the chess world.

It is claimed that the Qualifications Committee was not in a hurry to award him this title, because we thought his victory in the match not to be entirely convincing. There is also anotehr argument advanced – that tal himself provided the justification for giving him the tiotle, by winning a game in the national team championships in September of that year in Riga against…the President of the Commission! What can one say, this is just fiction. The fact is that by the time Tal played me, he was already a master. To convince oneself of this, one only has to look at the bulletins of this event,there is a picture of us playing, with the caption "Master M Tal".

Another story also needs correcting. This concerns the 25th Soviet Championship, which took place at the beginning of 1958 in Riga and was also a FIDE zonal tournament: its top four would go through to the Interzonal. The line-up was very strong – three future world champions and eight candidates for the title! In such situations, when the number of real contenders notably exceeds the number of qualifying places, it is not only a player's strength and level of preparation that count – sometime chance also plays a role.

Before the last round, the situation in the championship was as follows: in first place were Petrosian and Tal, with Bronstein third, and Spassky and I equal fourth-fifth. One of us would miss out! The drama was heightened by the fact that, in the last round, Petrosian would play me, and Spassky-Tal. Petrosian and I fairly quickly made a draw, as did Bronstein, but our two young rivals were involved in a fierce, uncompromising struggle. After five hours play, the game was adjourned in a difficult position for the Latvian. If he lost, then Petrosian would be champion and I would end up fifth. However, if Tal saved the game, then Spassky and I would have to contest a playoff match. However, glancing at Tal's position, it was clear to me that he was unlikely to save the game, and after the round, I went to a seaside restaurant in Riga with some friends, for dinner. I returned to the hotel late, at about 2.00am. The place was as silent as the grave, except for the next room, where Spassky was staying, from which the tap-tap of chess pieces could be heard. Boris was analysing with his trainer, Tolush, plus Kotov, and the Leningrad master Rovner, who had come especially.

At the same time, an equally hard night's analysis was taking place at Tal's home.

This dramatic night was described in detail by many authors, as if they had seen it with their own eyes. All are agreed that Tal and Koblents never left the board, but in reality, there were three people sitting there!

I had already gone to bed, when the phone rang. "Morning, grandmaster!", said a voice. "Excuse the disturbance, this is Robert, Mischa's uncle. Could you come over and help us? We will send a car"

Since my own fate depended on the outcome of this game, I agreed, and twenty minutes later, I was there with Tal and Koblents. The Latvian's position was indeed difficult, but we did not find a forced win for Spassky, although we were more concerned with finding defensive resources. As Kotov later confirmed, Spassky also failed to find a clear win, but with Tal's king constantly writhing under the attacks of the enemy heavy pieces, he summarised the position in the morning as "Tomorrow, I will mate him! But now, I am going to bed."

Our analysis ended at about five in the morning, and after getting back to the hotel, I immediately fell into a deep sleep.

The resumption was in the morning. Having woken up, I went for a walk, where I met a group of youngsters, and heard their joyful cries: "Tal is champion! Tal is champion!".

Hardly feeling my legs, I ran the rest of the way back to the hotel, and found out that this was indeed the case. In trying to mate the enemy king, Spassky had allowed it to flee to a fortress, after which his own king came under a mating attack. Faced with an unavoidable threat of mate, Boris had to resign.

This meant that the Rigan became champion (for the second year in a row!) and Spassky was the "superfluous" fifth…

It was not until two months later that an analysis by Chekhover was published in the journal Shakhmatnaya Moskva, showing that in the adjourned position, Spassky had a forced win. It was just necessary to change radically the plan of attack.But during the noctural analysis, this never entered anyone's head!

In February 1959, I flew back from Tbilisi, from the latest national championship, in the company of Tal and his trainer Koblents.

"I have a proposition for you", said Koblents, with whom I had enjoyed friendly relations for a long time. "Mischa and I have decided to ask you to join our preparations for the Candidates tournament, and to be his official second at the tournament itself".

The offer to work with Tal was interesting for me, but there was one real "but" Since 1955, I had been the regular sparring-partner of Botvinnik, and regularly played training games with him, although I had never bene his official second.  Although I had no obligations to Bovinnik, I decided to advise him of the matter, just to ensure a clear conscience. He listened to me, but said nothing. I took his silence as a sign of agreement, and immediately sent a telegram to Riga, saying that I accepted the offer (How little I knew Botvinnik! He took my actions as a betrayal and never asked me to play training games with him again).

In June 1959, I went to Riga, and for a whole month, the three of us worked on chess. Tal's manner of analysing was very unique. Whereas Botvinnik, in the first instance, tried to find the most expedient plan, the most rational arrangement of his forces, the Rigan looked instead for the most aggressive plan, leading to sharp play, rich with combinational possibilities. Whereas Botvinnik sought the rule, Tal sought the exception.

Just a couple of weeks before the Candidates' tournament in Yugoslavia, the news came from Riga that Tal had appendicitus, and had undergone an operation to remove his appendix. Seeing him in Moscow,I was horrified – he was pale, and noticeably haggard. Only his eyes were the same - piercing and burning like fire.

We had to develop our tactics at the start of the tournament, to suit his state of health. I suggested that, in the first cycle (there were four in all), Tal should try to avoid adjournments – after all, there were 28 games to play! At the start, it was extremely important to conserve his strength.

Before the tournament, each of the players and their seconds were asked by the newspaper Borba to place the participants in the order they expected them to finish. As Tal wrote in his book "In the Flames of Attack", he was surprised that nobody except I put him first. However, there was a simple explanation for this – after his operation, Tal just looked so weak, and all the others noticed this. 

 

To be honest, I also had doubts about his success, but I understood that, as his second, I was simply obliged to list him in first place. As we later saw, my prognosis was correct.

The first two cycles of the event took place in the mountain resort of Bled, in the Alps, on the banks of the magical mountainside lake. The beautiful nature and fresh mountain air proved excellent medicine, and already after the first cycle, Tal was both feeling and looking much better than at the start. I and Koblents (who arrived only at the start of the second cycle, after having problems getting the necessary documents) agreed that Tal could now give it his all. Even so, after the second cycle, it was Keres who was leading, with Mischa half a point behind him. It was clear that the main battle for victory would be between these two.

In the third cycle, held in Zagreb, Tal demonstrated complete superiority over his opponents. He scored six points out of seven, leading the second-placed Keres by one and a half points! The other competitors were far behind. Everything was going for Tal, and one could only envy the ease with which he was outplaying his opponents.The only game he could have lost was against Smyslov. However, in his opponent's time-trouble, having a piece less, he sacrificed a rook to force perpetual check.

After his wonderful victory in the Interzonal tournament at Portoroz in 1958, Misha gained many fans in Yugoslavia, and his brilliant play in the Candidates tournament made him their favourite. Every day, when he left the tournament hall, he was met by a crowd of supporters, who accompanied him all the way to the hotel. I remember that once, he was taken aside for a minute by a pretty young его and when he came back, he was grinning. "What's up?", I asked him. "She said she wants to have my baby!", he replied. His popularity even once cost me my parker pen – after signing autographs left and right, Tal gave it away to one of his supporters.

The fourth and final cycle took place in Belgrade. In his game with Smyslov, Tal was again in trouble, and again had a piece less, but in time-trouble, he showed fantastic ingenuity, and in tactical complications, he even won. If someone had told me before the tournament, that in two games with the ex-world champion, and having a piece less in each, Tal would end up taking one and a half points, I would never have believed it.

There were now only four rounds to go, and Tal led Keres by two and a half points. It seemed that first place was decided. The task just consisted of not losing this advantage. But here, we committed a mistake. Mischa faced his last encounter with Keres, and he had White. It was decided that he should play quietly, maintain equality, and try most of all not to lose. This piece of advice did not suit Tal, but unfortunately, Koblents and I only realised this later.

The game Tal-Keres proceeded as a slow manoeuvering battle. Step by step, Keres gradually increased his positional advantage, and step by step, Mischa gave ground. The game was adjourned. In our analysis, we tried to get everything we could out of the position, but we could not find a draw. On resumption, Tal defended desperately, but Keres played the ending faultlessly and scored an important victory, reducing his deficit by a point…Then it became clear to me that it was pointless to ask Tal to play quietly, and to interfere with his chosen path. What will be, will be!

After two more rounds, the gap was down to one point. In the following round, the penultimate, Tal was due to play Fischer. In this tournament, Tal had already beaten the American three times. Of course, this Fischer was very different from the one of the early 1970s. There could be no doubt that Fischer would try to restore some respectability to the score, and win at least one game, especially as he was White. For the Rigan too, this game was of enormous significance. If he lost, Keres could catch him.

In the process of preparing for the game, looking at the various very sharp Sicilian lines which Fischer usually played, we decided we will not duck the fight! Nobody had any doubts that the game would be very sharp, and that Tal would have to balance on a precipice (as indeed happened). But I believed in Tal's lucky star, and that in the end, it would turn out right. However, watching the balancing act taking place was beyond me. I only came into the playing hall after three hours of play. Mischa had a completely winning position, and Koblents and Mikenas, who was Keres' second, were sitting down, holding their hearts, with sedative tablets in the mouths…

Tal's life has many peaks, but this Candidates' Tournament was his finest hour. Without any exaggeration, one can say he played like a true genius. Yes, he fell several times into difficult, even lost positions, but his ingenuity and unshakeable belief in himself enabled him to emerge unscathed. As one observer commented, "His opponents always have a win, but somehow, only in the analysis after the game!"

At the closing ceremony, Tal announced that in the world championship match, his first move would be 1.е2—е4! The thousand spectators in the hall applauded, although of course, this was a little childish. However, this quality, especially in matters of general living, was one he retained all his life…

Without doubt, he was a natural artiste – on the stage, in front of spectators, he experienced a real moral uplift, and played not just the board, but to the crowd. He needed the public, and they responded to him with real love. 

Misha loved to make personal appearances in front of chess fans, and to give interviews. He was never at a loss for words, which made him popular with journalists. He often expressed his thoughts via aphorisms, and found for them sharp, unusual words. He certainly had a talent for entertaining people, and could delight the people around him, especially at dinners, etc. I remember the morning after he had been declared world champion, when a journalist asked him how he felt:

"My head is full of sunshine!"

 

The journalist was delighted by tal's improvisation, although the actual words belonged to Yves Montane. However, when Botvinnik heard about it, he commented dryly:

"Look what chess has come to! We have a world champion who is a chatterbox!"

In everyday life, Tal was kind, good-natured, unprejudiced, and always ready to come to the aid of a friend.

When in the early 1960s, my daughter was seriously ill, I at one point despaired, because I could not get the necessary medicine for her. How great was my surprise, when, returning from a trip abroad, Tal brought it back with him…

As a chess fighter, Tal was fearless. If the position was to his liking, he bravely went in for complications, believing fanatically in himself. He had this quality not only at the chessboard. I remember once in Yugolsavia, when we went with Gligoric, to a swimming pool, which had a three-metre high springboard, and Misha was watching. Someone challenged him to dive off it himself, and he immediately took up the challenge, even though he had never been on a springboard before… And once in Havana, he suddenly entered a bull-fighting arena and barely managed to jump back over the fence in time!

"Don't think of the consequences!" – that was his whole life's philosophy. Alas, top-level chess demands self-sacrifice, a careful, even ascetic regime. Asceticism was a much a stranger to Misha as depression. He burned the candle at both ends. And died before his time…

Biographies of Tal usually forget to to point out the role played in his development by Koblents, and this was by no means limited to purely trainer's obligations. Alexander Neftalievich was his guardian, his uncle, even, if you wish, his even his nurse. Being of the same mind as Tal creatively, he did everything that was within his power, to help him in everything, both in chess and in life.

 

It was Koblents who told me about how the negotiations went with Botvinnik, for the return match. Knowning that during such negotiations, Mikhail Moiseevich tried to provoke arguments, so as to quarrel with his opponent, Misha announced beforehand: "Botvinnik won't be able to argue with me, because I am ready to concede him everything!".

Before the negotiations started, Tal loudly announced that it would be nice to have the match in Riga, in the champion's home country. However, this idea was flatly rejected by Botvinnik, who said the return match should take place where the original match had been held, namely in Moscow. The then FIDE President. Folke Rogard, did not interfere in this matter – he regarded it as an internal matter for our federation…

Another question was more serious. Not long before the return match, Tal fell ill, and his doctors in Riga strongly advised him to postpone the start of the match to a later date. In reply, Botvinnik demanded that tal come to Moscow, so that doctors there could confirm the diagnosis.Hearing about this, Tal laughed: "Never mind, I'll beat him anyway!". Alas, this was an obvious mistake.. .

 Misha was surrounded by many friends, who loved to be in his company, bring him to their homes, and regarded him as "a close friend" – and who shamelessly exploited him for their own ends. I shall never forget how he was brought to the federation praesidium, so that he could vote for "the right man", even though he could barely stand up. Tal did not have enough real friends. A terrible shame.