Clash of Champions: Tal vs. Botvinnik
Mikhail Botvinnik had regained the world championship in 1958, but soon after the chess world's attention was captured by the rapid ascent of a young player with an unusually sharp and creative style: the Latvian Mikhail Tal.
Frequently making surprising intuitive sacrifices, and armed with a previously rarely-seen opening -- the Modern Benoni -- it was not surprising that Tal quickly gained fans all over the world.
Coming practically out of nowhere, Tal first won the USSR championship in 1957, then he did it again in 1958, followed by winning the Portoroz Interzonal, and -- in 1959 -- qualifying to battle Botvinnik by winning the Candidates tournament in Bled, Yugoslavia.
In between these major successes, he added some other great results, such as a gold medal in the Olympiad and a win in the 1959 Zurich international tournament. All in all, it was a stunning run.
Despite this, the opinion of many experts was that Tal's play was incorrect and based on "tricks". It was believed that he did not have a great chance against Botvinnik.
Nevertheless, Tal came out swinging and won the first game, defeating over the board Botvinnik's prepared idea.
As you might know, this is specifically an endgame column, and therefore the subject is endgames. Fortunately, the nicest game of the match, and Tal's most famous win, involved an endgame. One in which the winner was down a minor piece...
Following the (above) win by Tal in the first game of the match, there were four draws. However, in none of these draws was the course of play favorable for Tal.
In particular, Tal only managed to survive the third game due to some extreme scrappiness. While Botvinnik hadn't yet managed to notch a win, clearly if the trend continued, that would happen.
The sixth game thus became very important. Tal managed to wrench the initiative away with the black pieces. An early piece sacrifice took the game into unclear paths, and the audience in Moscow became so excited that the game had to be moved to a back room, due to the noise level.
Battles of players with opposite styles and differing philosophies or personalities have made for the most captivating matches in chess history.
Next week we will see the rematch, in which Botvinnik fought to regain his title a year later.
RELATED STUDY MATERIAL
- Read the previous article in this series, Clash of Champions: Botvinnik vs. Smyslov (1958 Rematch).
- Watch GM Roman Dzindzichashvili's Greatest Chess Minds video on Tal.
- Read GM Serper's article series on Tal, the Chess Terminator.
- Play as Tal against Boris Spassky in the Chess Mentor.
- Practice your world-championship-level combinations in the Tactics Trainer.
- Looking for articles with deeper analysis? Try our magazine: The Master's Bulletin.