Tal's Sacrifices Explained

  • GM DanielNaroditsky
  • | Jun 6, 2014

"When I asked Fischer why he had not played a certain move in our game, he replied: 'Well, you laughed when I wrote it down.'" -Mikhail Tal (1936-1992) 

Neither Mikhail Tal's life, nor his personality, nor his playing style, nor his ailments can be described in one sentence. I have not met a single player of any level who does not consider Tal one of his or her (chess) heroes. Nevertheless, an irksome misconception - partly driven by Tal's own self-deprecating remarks - has surrounded his chess career ever since he rose to excellence in the 1960s. As you might guess, this fallacy concerns Tal's purported ability to turn entirely unsound sacrifices into stunning tactical victories through his peerless calculational ability and fearsome attacking skills. To be sure, Tal himself famously admitted that "there are two types of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine," but one must keep in mind that Tal's sense of humor and humility are almost as legendary as his skill! 

Mikhail Tal | Image from the Dutch National Archives & Spaarnestad Photo / Wikipedia

In this article, I would like to approach Tal's games from a slightly different angle and shed some light on the true nature of his sacrifices. Were they as speculative and intuitive as Tal himself made them out to be? As usual, I have tried to select games that are relatively unfamiliar, but even if you have seen them, I hope that my analysis will illuminate a fresh aspect of the Rigan's manifold genius. 

We will start out with a Tal sacrifice of the garden variety (an oxymoron, I know). It certainly does not appear objectively sound, but - and I will tell you this in advance - looks can be deceiving! 

Feeding Tal's sacrifices into the computer is usually a thankless operation which results in disappointment rather than enlightenment, but I was amazed to find that Houdini finds ...Nxd5 - wait for it - the best move. Tal might have sacrificed the queen on an intuitive whim, but Black's two minor pieces, passed pawn, and fearsome initiative promised him excellent long-lasting compensation. 

Of course, not all of Tal's sacrifices were so cut-and-dried. In the following game, Misha also tears his opponent to threads, but does so with an outwardly suicidal knight sacrifice. Take a close look: 

Miroslav Filip was a very strong Czech GM who was one of the world's top players in his heyday. The position looks typical enough - White's pieces are very active, but Black's position is very solid and he has no apparent way of continuing the attack. A normal person would have claimed a small but steady advantage with 19.Bxg6 hxg6 20.Qf3 or 19.a4, but Tal - well, you know exactly what he did, despite the seemingly obvious refutation! 

It is indisputable that 19.Nxf7 was, objectively speaking, an error. Black had more than one way to coordinate his forces and force White to fight for equality. However, one cannot call the sacrifice a bluff - Tal was a lot of things, but he was far from naive and certainly not a masochist. If his combinations were all so clearly unsound, why would his world-class opponents fail to refute them time and time again? True, many of them were objectively suspect, but they were all based on a keen practical assessment of the position. What were the chances that his opponent, often in acute time pressure, would suddenly channel his inner Petrosian and defend like a machine for seven or eight moves in a row? 

 In the following game, his opponent comes very close to doing just that, but Misha's aforementioned calculational wizardry and sheer audacity eventually seal the deal. Note: The tactics in this game are exceedingly complex, so the analysis is rather lengthy. Nevertheless, the variations are all tremendously entertaining, so I would encourage you to follow along! 

Notice that all of Tal's opponents so far were very strong grandmasters, with modern ELO equivalents of at least 2600. Hopefully, I have succeeded in arguing - at least to an extent - that Tal's sacrifices were typically far more than fortunate bluffs! I will leave you with one of my favorite Tal combinations - relatively straightforward, but impeccably calculated and aesthetically beautiful. Enjoy!  

Mikhail Tal at rest | Image Wikipedia



  • 20 months ago


    Garry's stare..!! deadly intimidating..

  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago


    Indisputable is the cascading influence of the magician's complexity in terms of admiration of beauty (nay, a cult of hero-worshippers) though not evident in the actual play of modern masters, as an over-reliance upon computers has effectively trained modern brains toward constantly finding the "correct" move, and away from the intuitive risk-taking needed to produce a masterpiece and the will and fight needed inside a soul to dare such gambles.  Chess engines have wussified chessers to the point where folks miss the obvious similarities between Tal to Lasker; all friggin' fight; right. 

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article. Thanks for the insight and analysis into Tal's sacrifices.

  • 2 years ago


    Try telling a magician his "act" is neither sound nor logic. He would pull the next trick on your girlfriend!

    I guess nowadays you have to be really MAD to outplay a computer... Great article.

  • 2 years ago


    mikhial tal had a special stare that he would often give to his opponents. one grandmaster even wore sunglasses to a chess match against tal to ward of the "stare". i couldn't find a picture of his stare but it was something like this: 

    imagine this guy staring at you like this for the usual 5 hour game

  • 2 years ago


    Tal was such a masterpiece genius of tactical sacrifices... I like and studied most of his games to an extent that his philosophy of "the knight never retrieves (backwards)" sometimes influences my style of play too - of course with terrible effects against myself at times (hahah). Thank you for paying tribute to one of the chess giants of all times, Tal.

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    Why don't you delete your own comment instead? 

    Especially the part where you are attacking me? You obviously can't take any valid argument and rather retreat to counter attacking people to make yourself look better, right?

    GM? Maybe. 

    Certainly no class nor knowledge..

  • 2 years ago


    Nice great

  • 2 years ago


    Thank you for a new Tal piece.  They are always my favorites!

  • 2 years ago


    Excellent article, thanks!

  • 2 years ago

    IM DanielRensch

    Thanks again for another fantastic article Danya!

    And yes, World Champions deserve our respect! 

  • 2 years ago


    Thanks for this great information and commentatry.  The way in which you detailed the positional quandaries allowed me to learn a great deal that i would never had understood on my own.  Thank you again.  I have very much enjoyed your lively writing.

  • 2 years ago

    GM DanielNaroditsky

    Thank you all for the awesome feedback! Those who pointed out that Filip was Czech, not Yugoslav - great catch. I stand corrected. @ Mattisks - I would greatly appreciate it if you point out errors (and treat World Champions) with a little more respect.  

  • 2 years ago


    Miroslav Filip was a very strong Yugoslav GM// you made me laugh more than anyone else today..

  • 2 years ago


    good games

  • 2 years ago


    31. Rf1!!A positional sacrifice to lure Black's bishop to a bad square! 31... Bxf1Oh, wait, I'm a bishop and rook down. Ok, 0-1 :) )

  • 2 years ago


    Mellow Yaz Seirwawan v. Tal (4-0-1).

  • 2 years ago


    Since you mentioned reviewing Tal's moves on an engine...
    Bobotsov, Milko vs. Tal, Mikhail 
    World Junior Team Championship |
    Varna | Round 2 | 1958 |
    ECO: E81 | 0-1

    1. d4Nf62. c4g63. Nc3Bg74. e4d65. f3O-O6. Nge2c57. Be3Nbd7 8. Qd2 a6 9. 0-0-0 Qa5 10. Kb1 b5?! 11. Nxd5 Nxd5!?

    Interestingly, Stockfish does not dislike 11...Nxd5!? nearly as much as 10...b5? The engine is quite unimpressed with the threat of a kingside attack with h4 and Bh6 which supposedly motivated 10...b5?

    For example, 10... Re8 (one of at least a half-dozen candidates preferred to ...b5?) 11. h4 b5 12. h5 Nxh5 13. g4 Nhf6 14. Bh6 Bxh6 15. Qxh6 Bb7 16. g5 Nh5

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