How To Save A Lost Position Like Tal
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How To Save A Lost Position Like Tal

| 43 | Tactics

In his famous book My Great Predecessors, Garry Kasparov titled a chapter about Mikhail Tal "Bluff as a Weapon of Victory."

Indeed, there is no other world champion who sacrificed as many pieces and took as much risk as Tal. Yet as GM Averbakh humorously noted, Tal's opponents always had a win, but for some reason only in analysis after the game! 

Tal deservedly earned a nickname "the Magician", but unlike Harry Houdini, he performed his escape tricks on the chessboard. So, how did Tal do it?

mikhail tal chess

Tal via Wikipedia.

Let's look at his encounters with GM Vasily Smyslov at the Candidates' Tournament of 1959. Here are two positions Mikhail Tal had vs. the former world champion:

It is easy to see that in both of them Tal is down a minor piece for just a pawn. So, in such a situation how many points can you realistically hope to get out of two games against Vasily Smyslov, who was the world champion just a year ago? I think even half a point would have been a miracle. Tal scored 1.5 out of two! 

Let's analyze the games and hopefully we can learn a trick or two from the Magician! Try to guess Tal's moves at the critical moments of the game.

Now look at the position that happened seven moves later. Tal finds the best practical chance in an absolutely hopeless situation.

 After first 25 moves of this game, Tal had only 2-3 minutes to reach move 40! In such horrible time trouble he missed the saving move and found himself in a lost position again. Try to find the fastest win for White:

Many of Tal's games look exactly like a classical Western: a lot of dangerous adventures, and shootouts concluded with a traditional happy ending. This game is not an exception. Smyslov probably just tried to flag Tal, so not only did he miss an instant win, but he also allowed his opponent to force a draw!

Find Tal's final combination!

The outcome of the game was a real shock for the ex-world-champion! According to Tal, "Smyslov is normally imperturbable at the board, but here, after my 39th move...Rh1+, his face changed, and after thinking for some three minutes, he made his reply and slammed his clock with furious force."

In the second game we see the same picture: Tal is down a piece with no compensation in sight. What would you play in this position?

We can see that Tal's general strategy here is similar to the one he employed in the previous game. While his position is completely hopeless, he tries to annoy his opponent with all kinds of pesky threats against Black's king! That's why he brought his rook closer to Smyslov's king.

Nevertheless, look at the following diagram. Despite of all White's attempts it looks like he simply has no more resources for an attack. Yet Tal discovers a stunning idea. Try to find it too!

In this game Smyslov again cracked under the pressure and made a horrible mistake. Find Tal's final combo!

So, what's going on here? How could the ex-world-champion Vasily Smyslov blunder away two games having an extra piece in each of them? Here is what Kasparov writes in his book:

At that time there was constant talk about Tal's "devilish luck," and of the "accidental" nature of a number of his wins.  Tal [...] forced his opponents to constantly calculate variations throughout the game, and at that time many were unaccustomed to doing this.

It looks to me like Tal's recipe for saving a lost position is very simple: make your opponent's king vulnerable and sooner or later he will give you some chances, even if you are playing an ex-world-champion! 

I hope you enjoyed Tal's miraculous escapes and wish you to have Tal's "devilish luck" in your games!

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