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The Immovable Object

Mikhail Tal was, at his peak, an irresistible force. World champions past, present and future—including Smyslov, Botvinnik, Petrosian, Spassky and Fischer—fell to the wizardry of combinations which may sometimes have been unsound but were extremely difficult to refute at the chessboard. David Bronstein once quipped, Tal develops all his pieces in the centre and then sacrifices them somewhere.

Tal put it another way: You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5 and the path leading out is only wide enough for one. And in that deep dark forest Tal was almost without peer.

Yet, as irresistible as he was, there was one man who proved himself an immovable object, an anti-Tal. His name is Viktor Korchnoi. Victor Vasiliev (quoted in Kasparov's My Great Predecessors V) summed up their play this way:

Korchnoi's style is Tal's style, as though turned inside out. Tal always strives to seize the initiative, whereas Korchnoi is ready to concede it without regret. Tal likes to attack, Korchnoi to defend. Tal plays especially confidently with White, Korchnoi with Black...

Even at the peak of his ability, as he carved his way through all opposition en route to his victory over Botvinnik, Tal found Korchnoi his toughest opponent. Of their first thirteen encounters the score was Korchnoi 11, Tal 2, with 15 draws. Their later games favoured Tal more often but the final score between them, as far as I can ascertain, was Korchnoi 13, Tal 6 with 29 draws. After winning the world championship in 1960 Tal was asked about his record against Korchnoi. He joked that their score was 5-5—five wins to Korchnoi and five draws.

Since the Tal Memorial tournament is being played in Moscow this week it seemed appropriate to look at a few of their games.

The first is from the 25th USSR Championship in 1958 when both were quite young. Tal was 18, Korchnoi 23, and the tournament was played in Tal's home city, Riga. In time trouble, Tal thought he saw a queening combination and played 33.h6+ Rxh6, 34.Qxh6 Kxh6, 35.g7. But the combination was flawed. Korchnoi made a sacrifice of his own, captured the pawn, and was left with an easy end game.

 

It was one of those situations where the battle may be lost but the war won. Tal won the tournament and became champion of the USSR. He scored 12½/18 (W10/L3/D5) ahead of Petrosian, Bronstein, and Averbakh. Korchnoi finished with 9½ and a share of 9-11 places.

The second game was played at the Candidates Tournament at Curacao in 1962. Tal's exchange sacrifice on move 18 broke open Black's castle and the bishop sac the followed next move wins -- but only if Korchnoi accepts it: 19...fxg5 20.Qxg5+ Kh8 21.Qf6+ Kg8 22.Nf5 threatening mate.

 

As an admirer of Tal's for the past forty years I couldn't show three of his losses in a row so I'll finish with a classy win in a Blitz Tournament at Herceg Novi in 1970. With total control of the open lines and the white squares, Tal was able to offer a knight sac on move 18 that Korchnoi couldn't afford to accept. On the other hand, if he hadn't taken it his prospects were no better.

 

So there you have it: Caissa's Irresistable Force versus her Immovable Object and, of the two, immobility triumphed. But this has been Korchnoi's story and I'll finish with a quote from a man who was at the forefront of world chess while it was all happening—Svetozar Gligoric.

It is a striking coincidence that a chess player with such an unparalleled eagerness to win should bear the first name, Viktor. No matter who is on the other side of the table, Korchnoi wants to win—with White, with Black, and as Najdorf would laughingly say, even with green pieces.

Comments


  • 4 years ago

    vincent_pang

    Hehehe, thank you very much for the answer. Korchnoi huh?

  • 4 years ago

    chessbibliophile

    Dear Dozy,

    You have revived interest in Tal and Korchnoi.That matters most.Yes, it is the picture of young Korchnoi.Let no one have no doubts about it.Cheers!

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    Lousanne  I so enjoyed a good read here and learning a bit about Tal, the above games are very interesting indeed.  I will endeavour to read up more about him now.

    Tal was one of Caissa's all-time greats who would have undoubtedly been even greater had he been blessed with normal health.

    He was the first of the chess magicians I discovered when I learnt to play and -- for his personality as well as his amazing combinations -- he remains my favourite.

    If you can get hold of a copy of his book, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, you'll learn a great deal about him. It sparkles with his personality and his sense of humour. There are lots of fascinating games and a wealth of anecdotal material.

    Tal held the world title only briefly but his star in the chess firmament shines much more brightly than that.

  • 4 years ago

    Lousanne

    I so enjoyed a good read here and learning a bit about Tal, the above games are very interesting indeed.  I will endeavour to read up more about him now. 

    Thanks Dozy - you got me started.

    Lousanne

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    Chessplayer_7  The man on the first pic isnt tal...

    True, Cp7, its the young Viktor Korchnoi . At least, I hope it's Korchnoi!  I'm beginning to lose confidence.

    batgirl:  For that matter it isn't Bronstein either.

    Smile

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    Sheesh! I'm getting out of my depth here. Maybe for my next topic I'll indulge in a little anthropomorphism. I can hardly get into trouble if I bring the pieces to life and let them talk to each other. Frown

    I'll leave the post in its original form but confess to at least one inaccuracy. (I hope there are no others.)

    The source I was quoting about Fischer's visit to Tal was Kasparov. He mentioned the incident in his Great Predecessors V. Since he invariably acknowledges various quotes he would certainly have attributed this one to Brady, but I'm sorry to say I can't immediately locate it to clarify what he said. (It's a big book...)

    The quotes I gave from Vasiliev and Gligoric were also taken verbatim from K's book.

    So thanks for your input, Prof. It's helpful (if a little embarrassing). I've no doubt my future posts will benefit from the experience.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    "The man on the first pic isnt tal..."

    For that matter it isn't Bronstein either.

  • 4 years ago

    Chessplayer_7

    The man on the first pic isnt tal...

  • 4 years ago

    chessbibliophile

    Dear Dozy,

     

    I should know that Kingpin/chessville review as I happened to write the same.

    http://www.chessville.com/reviews/Curacao1962.htm

    Incidentally, this story that Fischer alone visited Tal in the hospital is not true, coming as it does from the fertile imagination of Frank Brady, Fischer’s biographer. There is no such mention either in Tal’s autobiography, The Life and Games of Tal or Timman’s Curacao 1962, the book that I reviewed on this occasion.

    On the contrary in the book, Russians versus Fischer Yuri Averbakh gives a detailed account of Tal’s hospitalization. His colleagues were concerned about him, especially, Paul Keres who loved him from his boyhood days.

    When I wrote the review, I was aware of Brady’s  dubious claim about Fischer’s visit. I decided to omit it in the absence of any proof and only included the famous photograph.

     

     

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    chessbibliophile  At the end of a banquet in Reykjavik he simply fell asleep... and to the dumbfounded hotel porter it was explained that this chess player had thought for a long time, and he was tired.

    Tal probably laughed about that when he heard the story. He'd have enjoyed it.

    Bad health is not to be wished on anybody, but in a player so talented it was a tragedy. Who knows what he may have accomplished otherwise?

    It's significant that at the Candidates Tournament at Curacao in 1962 when he was taken to hospital only Bobby Fischer went to visit him.

    Mig Greengard, in his ChessNinja Blog, had this to say:

    • Tal moved the pieces with his right hand, which was missing the fingers, and smoked with his left (at the same time back then). So you can see the priorities he had! His right hand rarely appears in photos. One where it's fairly clear was taken when Fischer visited Tal in the hospital in Curacao 1962. It's reprinted in Timman's book on that event. A Chessville review of that book, reprinted from Kingpin, has it online:

  • 4 years ago

    chessbibliophile

    Here is some more for Tal and Korchnoi fans:

    In 1988 Tal was 52. He was ailing and did not have many years to live. At the end of a banquet in Reykjavik he simply fell asleep.

    (Sadly,this used to happen quite often in those last years.) 

    Korchnoi 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 tired.

     From Russian Silhouettes by Genna Sosonko

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    gxtmf1:    Great article. I like Korchnoi, and I personally hold him in close to, if not the same, regard as the World Champions.

    Thanks, gxt. He came so very close and was sometimes disadvantaged in his matches with Karpov. But in one respect he's almost unique, and that's his resilience. He just keeps on playing ... and winning.

  • 4 years ago

    gxtmf1

    Great article. I like Korchnoi, and I personally hold him in close to, if not the same, regard as the World Champions.

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    batgirl  You are right from your side. I am right from mine. We're both one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind  - Bob Dylan

    My sense of humour sometimes gets me into trouble. That's the problem with humour: it can offend as many people as it amuses. It's one of those "you say tom-ah-to, I say tom-ay-to" areas.  Obviously this was one of those times.

    Thanks for your support, batgirl. Its always appreciated.

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    chessbibliophile:     I would still love to see two separate cartoons of Tal and Korchnoi replacing the present one. Unfortunately, the old lovely cartoons that used to grace Russian chess magazines have not made it to the net.

    It's impossibly to say no to such a persistent -- and graciously worded -- request.  Cerberus has returned to the lower levels where he can guard the doors of my subconscious and, instead, I've replaced him with a pic of the young Korchnoi.

    I'd have loved to have seen those old cartoons.  Perhaps one day.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    You are right from your side. I am right from mine. We're both one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind  - Bob Dylan

     

    I greatly enjoyed Dozy's creative article and agree totally with his subjective (or relative) and literary (poetic license is a wonderful tool, as are these parentheses) appraisal of both Misha and Viktor.  I was also delighted to read Prof. Havanur's response, which strangely enough, though contrary, seems also correct from an absolute perspective.  I'm also grateful for the opportunity (though the links) to read his articles on both Korchnoi and Tal, all of which were enlightening and well presented. 

    So, in conclusion, thanks to both of you.

  • 4 years ago

    chessbibliophile

    Dear Dozy,

    It was a pleasant surprise to see your reply.We can always agree to disagree. What matters is the decency with which you have treated my comment.I would still love to see two separate cartoons of Tal and Korchnoi replacing the present one. Unfortunately, the old lovely cartoons that used to grace Russian chess magazines have not made it to the net.Any way,I appreciate your zest for chess.

    Yours sincerely,

    chessbibliophile

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    chessbibliophile: this comment will be a bit long...

    Yes it is, and welcome at any length.

    1) 9th November was Tal’s birth anniversary, and Korchnoi is still happily among us. The picture in the article is in very bad taste.

    Thanks for the reminder. Tal's birthday, of course, coincides with the date for the Tal Memorial tournament currently being played; and, yes, Korchnoi is not only alive and well but is still playing at a very high level. They remain two of the greatest players of the past fifty-or-so years.

    I'm sorry the pic wasn't to your taste but I won't apologise for it. It's in keeping with the sort of thing I do in the Inferno.

    2) It was Petrosian who was often called the immovable object on account of his deceptively quiet play. Not Korchnoi.

    I won't argue about that, but I wasn't confused and I wasn't quoting. “Immovable object” was my own comment. In comparing Tal's extraordinary progress as he carved his way through the world's best players it seemed appropriate to think of him as an irresistable force. And since, from the point of view of this blog, that force needed an immovable object, no one was better qualified for the position than Korchnoi. Sorry, cb, but the definition can stand—if only in Dozy's Inferno.

    3)There is a context to Vasiliev’s description of Korchnoi’s play . . .

    Thanks for the elaboration. That's useful and interesting information

    4)Korchnoi played great attacking games against Tal like the ones in USSR Championship 1962 and Wijk –aan –Zee 1968 . . . In general we have to be wary of stereotyped descriptions of Korchnoi and Tal.

    Once again, good points chessbibliophile, and thank you for taking the trouble to write.

    Your Chessville reviews are impressive and I'll certainly read them, but I haven't done so yet as I wanted to respond to your post here as quickly as possible.

  • 4 years ago

    Dozy

    AnthonyCG: On an unrelated note, Korchnoi looks a bit like Tom Hanks up there.

    Hi ACG: I'm more used to seeing pics of the older Korchnoi. I thought it'd be interesting to get one from his younger days. But Tom Hanks? Well, maybe...

  • 4 years ago

    SilentWalker

    @chessbibliophile - thank you for your extensive research and corrections to this blog post. 

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