Attack and Defense from Mikhail Tal

Attack and Defense from Mikhail Tal‎

GM BryanSmith
33 | Middlegame

We all know that chess games can follow an almost infinite number of paths. Some become tactical battles from the very beginning, while in others the game might be heavy maneuvering the whole way through. In the game I will show you, after the opening both players spent five or six moves peacefully setting up the “artillery” before things got out of control – suddenly both players began trading captures, with both kings under threat. In the end, after incredible complications, the eighth world champion Mikhail Tal emerged on top. In an unbalanced endgame, where the players formally had equal material, Tal had seen that his position would be better. It is hard to imagine that he could have foreseen everything, and most likely both players were groping in the dark; but Tal’s intuition led the way.

There are few chess players who are not familiar with the name Mikhail Tal. Born in Riga, Latvia, he only held the world championship for one year, but nevertheless is named by many as their favorite player. He was famous for making sacrifices which straddled the boundary between the sound and the unsound – nevertheless, they created huge problems for his opponents, who inevitably made the final mistake.

This game was played in 1959, while Tal was on his unstoppable rise to the world championship. At this point he was a very formidable opponent – nevertheless, his lesser-known opponent, Alexander Nikitin, traded blows with him for a long time, also showing great imagination.

The remarkable thing about this game is that the series of moves between twenty-one and thirty, while not totally obvious, are completely forced. Tal’s 21…Nxe4!! set off this series of fireworks. Presumably he had to both anticipate Nikitin’s resource 25.Ba4 and see his answer 25…Rg1+ before playing his twenty-first move; if it were not for 25…Rg1+ he would be completely lost. Did he see the whole variation to move thirty and correctly evaluate the exchange-down endgame? Or did he operate partially by intuition, trusting that his positionally-superior game could not betray him in the tactics? What do you think?

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