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.