"When I asked Fischer why he had not played a certain move in our game, he replied: 'Well, you laughed when I wrote it down.'" -Mikhail Tal (1936-1992)
Neither Mikhail Tal's life, nor his personality, nor his playing style, nor his ailments can be described in one sentence. I have not met a single player of any level who does not consider Tal one of his or her (chess) heroes. Nevertheless, an irksome misconception - partly driven by Tal's own self-deprecating remarks - has surrounded his chess career ever since he rose to excellence in the 1960s. As you might guess, this fallacy concerns Tal's purported ability to turn entirely unsound sacrifices into stunning tactical victories through his peerless calculational ability and fearsome attacking skills. To be sure, Tal himself famously admitted that "there are two types of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine," but one must keep in mind that Tal's sense of humor and humility are almost as legendary as his skill!
In this article, I would like to approach Tal's games from a slightly different angle and shed some light on the true nature of his sacrifices. Were they as speculative and intuitive as Tal himself made them out to be? As usual, I have tried to select games that are relatively unfamiliar, but even if you have seen them, I hope that my analysis will illuminate a fresh aspect of the Rigan's manifold genius.
We will start out with a Tal sacrifice of the garden variety (an oxymoron, I know). It certainly does not appear objectively sound, but - and I will tell you this in advance - looks can be deceiving!
Feeding Tal's sacrifices into the computer is usually a thankless operation which results in disappointment rather than enlightenment, but I was amazed to find that Houdini finds ...Nxd5 - wait for it - the best move. Tal might have sacrificed the queen on an intuitive whim, but Black's two minor pieces, passed pawn, and fearsome initiative promised him excellent long-lasting compensation.
Of course, not all of Tal's sacrifices were so cut-and-dried. In the following game, Misha also tears his opponent to threads, but does so with an outwardly suicidal knight sacrifice. Take a close look:
Miroslav Filip was a very strong Czech GM who was one of the world's top players in his heyday. The position looks typical enough - White's pieces are very active, but Black's position is very solid and he has no apparent way of continuing the attack. A normal person would have claimed a small but steady advantage with 19.Bxg6 hxg6 20.Qf3 or 19.a4, but Tal - well, you know exactly what he did, despite the seemingly obvious refutation!
It is indisputable that 19.Nxf7 was, objectively speaking, an error. Black had more than one way to coordinate his forces and force White to fight for equality. However, one cannot call the sacrifice a bluff - Tal was a lot of things, but he was far from naive and certainly not a masochist. If his combinations were all so clearly unsound, why would his world-class opponents fail to refute them time and time again? True, many of them were objectively suspect, but they were all based on a keen practical assessment of the position. What were the chances that his opponent, often in acute time pressure, would suddenly channel his inner Petrosian and defend like a machine for seven or eight moves in a row?
In the following game, his opponent comes very close to doing just that, but Misha's aforementioned calculational wizardry and sheer audacity eventually seal the deal. Note: The tactics in this game are exceedingly complex, so the analysis is rather lengthy. Nevertheless, the variations are all tremendously entertaining, so I would encourage you to follow along!
Notice that all of Tal's opponents so far were very strong grandmasters, with modern ELO equivalents of at least 2600. Hopefully, I have succeeded in arguing - at least to an extent - that Tal's sacrifices were typically far more than fortunate bluffs! I will leave you with one of my favorite Tal combinations - relatively straightforward, but impeccably calculated and aesthetically beautiful. Enjoy!