Autobiography of World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal

Book ReviewMikhail Tal
Title: The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal
Author: Mikhail Tal
Publisher: Everyman Chess (London)
Date: 1997, 2015

Mikhail Tal’s autobiography is in the form of an interview, with a “journalist” interviewer asking probing questions, followed by Tal’s answers. Some of Tal’s responses are pure narrative, while others involve detailed descriptions of chess matches. In fact, the book uses hundreds of chess diagrams of his games from 1949 to 1975. When a life is so immersed in chess, it makes sense that his autobiography would be an even mix of narrative and game diagrams. There is no other way to illustrate Tal’s life.

Tal was born in Riga, Latvia in 1936. He died in 1992, age 55. He spent much of his life ill, mostly kidney problems, which interfered with his play at times. Nevertheless, he defeated a Grandmaster for the first time at the USSR Team Championship at age 18. He became a Grandmaster in his own right at age 21. He won the World Chess Championship at age 24 (in 1960).

Tal’s personality shows itself early, at age 19, when he said “To play for a draw, at any rate with white, is to some degree a crime against chess” (28). Playing for a draw at the top levels of competition was not at all unusual.

The Hippopotamus in the Marsh
One anecdote reveals the quintessential Tal personality: the story of the Hippopotamus in the Marsh. Tal was playing Grandmaster Vasiukov in a USSR Championship. They reached a very complicated position with a difficult decision about a piece sacrifice. He was tracing thousands of moves, subtleties, and alternatives, until it became a chaotic pile of moves, known as the ‘tree of variations,’ from which you must cut off the small branches. In the middle of this struggle, suddenly, Tal remembered a poetry couplet:
Oh, what a difficult job it was
To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus

Tal became obsessed with the couplet, and forgot all about the chess board. Spectators assumed Tal was quietly studying the position. Instead, Tal was trying to formulate a workable theory on how the hippopotamus could be dragged out of a marsh. After 40 minutes working out several methods involving levers, helicopters, and rope ladders, he finally concluded to just ‘let it drown.’ Then suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared from his mind. As he ‘awoke’ from the 40-minute daydream, he became conscious of the chess board in front of him again. At the same moment, he realized the board was so complex at that point, it was impossible to follow the tree of variations. It was only possible (and advisable), to make the move most in tune with his intuition. It was that simple. The intuitive move was clear to him, and he made it. Tal recalls, “The following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately calculated piece sacrifice” (65). That move proved to be pivotal, and he won the game by giving that pivotal move almost no thought at all.

RevengeMikhail Tal and Bobby Fischer
Leading a life of intense competition inevitably leads to strong feeling in both winning and losing. Tal learned early to govern his emotions. As he explains it, “In principle, striving for revenge … is a good intention, but when it becomes an end in itself … you lose your sense of reality and of objectivity in assessing a position” (68).

Tal loved playing to a crowd, unlike one of his famous adversaries Bobby Fischer, who was hypersensitive to crowd noise. Tal felt that “When we appear on the stage, we are artistes” (166). He enjoyed the noise in the hall, particularly when the noise was a positive reaction to one of his moves on the chess board.

Gets Better with Age
Even though Tal was the World Chess Champion at age 24 in 1960, he actually reached his peak rating at age 44 in 1980. And in the 1970s he had 100-game winning streaks, playing the world’s greatest Chess Champions. Tal played them all. He had his share of wins over greats such as Fischer, Spassky, Karpov, Petrosian, Keres, and a host of others who all experienced fear and anxiety when taking their seat across from Tal.

When games go long, and must be adjourned for the night, there is feverish analysis into the wee hours to prepare for resumption the next morning. Often in Tal’s games, where “every hour a cup of coffee was consumed” (405), Tal’s opponent would resign right away the next morning, or after a very few moves. The night’s analysis would predict, the morning resumption would bear out, the implacable pattern of Tal’s advantage.

Chess in the Hospital
During Tal’s illnesses, his colleagues would visit him in the hospital, bringing of course a portable chess board, to help him pass the time in bed. In 1969 there was a false report of Tal’s death. He quickly contacted his friends and quoted Mark Twain, assuring them that “The rumors about my death are greatly exaggerated!” (393). In sickness and in health, Tal played chess and kept his sense of humor.

A Bright Light
Mikhail Tal lived a life of pain and disease. He endured physical suffering constantly as he faced the most fierce mental challenges almost every day. He played an absolute minimum of 100 games per year, many of which games lasting all day or two days. But Tal was known as an upbeat, friendly man with a great sense of humor and generally a pleasure to be around. He was a classic “absent-minded professor” personality type. He was not good with everyday practical skills. But the minute he sat in front of a chess board, he was making history. If you enjoy fascinating characters, history, and chess, this is probably the best book you could read.

Article ©copyright Robert Rose-Coutré 2017

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