Can You Smell Chess Moves?

Can You Smell Chess Moves?

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In the beginning of the 1990s, I established a certain routine. Whenever I set foot in Moscow (and I did it pretty frequently), I would visit the Central Chess Club and climb a narrow staircase to the third floor to meet Botvinnik in his laboratory. In a very small room, the patriarch tried to teach computers to think the way humans do.

Usually we enjoyed some tea and talked about chess.

Once we discussed the game Kramnik-Kasparov played the day before in Linares. Botvinnik was very impressed by Kramnik's play. He praised everything there: the opening setup, the exchange sac, and the efficient way White converted his advantage.

But one moment was really special.

We reached the position where Kramnik sacrificed a pawn:

Botvinnik said: "It smells like Capablanca from a mile away!"  

I noticed that even though Botvinnik was talking to me, his mind was somewhere else.

Maybe similar to the final scene of "Titanic," Botvinnik was remembering his youth. So at that moment, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine were alive again. 

I didn't want to interrupt Botvinnik, so I never asked him why it "smelled like Capablanca." To me it smelled more like Nimzowitsch, who was big on blockades, or even more it smelled like Petrosian.

After all, the opening variation of the game bears the name of Petrosian and the exchange sacrifice was always a trademark of "the iron Tigran."  Alas, I missed my chance to solve the mystery.

Years later, when I was re-reading "The Life And Games Of Mikhail Tal," I noticed an interesting comment about the following game:

Tal wrote:

"I was flattered by the assessment given to this game by Petrosian: 'Even if I don't say who made the combination, it is clear all the same: from far off it smells of Tal!'"

I immediately remembered the episode with Botvinnik and the same question popped up in my mind: "Why Tal?"

Yes, the combination is very neat, but there were many strong players who could execute a similar combo. Almost unknown to the West (but very imaginative), Anatoly Lutikov or Alexander Zaitsev were more than capable of playing like this.

In other words, this game didn't look to me like a typical Tal game. It makes me wonder, maybe the famous world champions of the past had a unique sense of chess smell that is unattainable for us, mere mortals?

So, here is a test for you. I'll give you seven sets of games featuring similar positional or tactical patterns. In each set, only one game was played by Tal. Try to "smell" it the way Botvinnik and Petrosian did and determine which game was Tal's!

You'll find the answers at the end of the article.

Set 1:

Set 2:
Set 3:
Set 4:
Set 5:
Set 6:
Set 7:
Are you ready to check how well you can "smell" Tal's games? Here are the answers:
  • Game 1:   Tal-Hecht, Varna (ol) 1962
  • Game 2:  Lilienthal-Capablanca, Hastings 1934/35
  • Game 3:  Tal-Zvirbulis, Riga 1951
  • Game 4:   Bronstein-Zamikhovsky, Leningrad 1970
  • Game 5:   Burden-Christiansen Las Vegas 1992
  • Game 6:   Pasman-Tal, Riga 1952
  • Game 7:   Tal-Lozov , Riga 1952
  • Game 8:   Carlsen-Groenn, Norway 2005
  • Game 9:   Portisch-Kasparov, Moscow 1981
  • Game 10:  Birbrager-Tal, USSR 1955
  • Game 11:  Smyslov-Tal, Soviet team championship, 1964
  • Game 12:  Alatortsev-Boleslavsky, Soviet Championship, 1950
  • Game 13:  Christiansen-Foygel, USA Championship, 2002
  • Game 14:  Tal-Portisch, Candidate Match, 1965
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