The Chess Terminator

The Chess Terminator

| 27 | Tactics

This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most influential movies of all time: The Terminator! Is there any person on Earth who hasn't said "I'll be back," imitating the great Arnold? 

Even though The Terminator is just a science fiction movie, sometimes I think that we had our own Chess Terminator. I am talking about Mikhail "the Magician" Tal. Everything was unusual about him. He was born with just three fingers on his right hand and he suffered his entire life due to poor health, but those things didn't prevent him from becoming a legend. He became the world champion and a national hero, but nevertheless, he remained a nice and modest person. Some people called him "alien" to underline the fact that he was not like anyone else. So what if he was indeed a cyborg sent to the Earth from the future where chess is much more advanced?

I know, the sheer thought of comparing Tal to Schwarzenegger makes you cringe, but what if he was a friendly alien whose only goal was to show earthlings how to play chess? Anyway, as fragile as Tal was in the real world, he turned into a real Terminator on the chessboard.

Mikhail Tal: chess player, world champion, benevolent alien cyborg from the future | Image from the Dutch National Archives & Spaarnestad Photo / Wikipedia

There are literally hundreds of books about Tal, and it is difficult to find anything new about this great chess player. Today I want to look at his first major success when, as a 21-year-old lad from Riga, he won the national championship ahead of all the famous Soviet chess aces. Of course this was an outstanding result on its own, but what was even more remarkable was the way he won the tournament. Almost every single one of Tal's games, win or lose, was a gem. Tal's performance in the USSR Chess Championship 1957 deserves a Hollywood movie or at least a separate book, but since neither one exists, let's follow his games round by round.

Round 1: The Terminator arrives on Earth. "Your clothes... give them to me, now."

Even though Tal played Black, he refused to completely equalize the position on move 14, preferring to keep the tension even if it meant a worse position. His poor opponent didn't realize who he was playing until Tal's devilish move 26 that effectively locks White's Ra1 out of the game.

Round 2. The classic "I'll be back" moment. Tal moves his Queen back 18...Qc8! to avoid the trade of Queens just to jump to g4 three moves later. And then the Queen terminates a bunch of White pieces, ultimately trapping White's king in a mating net.

Round 3. "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

For a long time it looked like Black might survive, but Tal kept pressuring until Bronstein cracked.

Round 4. The Devilish Trap.

When you see that your opponent sets you a trap what do you do? Probably you make sure that you are not going to fall for it. But as I already mentioned, Tal wasn't like anyone else. His favorite pastime was actually falling into his opponents' traps. We discussed this subject in Do you Believe in Trap after Trap? 

Now look at the position from Tals' 4th round game. In his book Tal mentioned that he was very suspicious when he saw that his opponent, a very experienced master, allowed him to play 25...e3. Tal quickly discovered the trap. Here it is:

As usual, Tal decided to fall into a trap and played 25...e3. Can you guess how Tal outsmarted his opponent? 

The Terminator will be back next week!


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