The Man Who Beat Mikhail Tal
Riga, Latvia.

The Man Who Beat Mikhail Tal‎

GM Gserper
77 | Tactics

If you have seen the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, you may remember one of the Washington Square Park hustlers who held a sign offering a photograph or a game with the man who beat Mikhail Tal

Just like most of the movie's chess characters, this guy really existed. His name was Josif Israel Zilber

Vasek Simek as Israel Zilber in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer.
Vasek Simek as Josif Israel Zilber in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer.

Here is what the movie's Wikipedia page says about him:

The Russian player in the park (played by Vasek Simek) [...] was based on the real life of Israel Zilber. Zilber, Latvian Chess Champion in 1958, defeated the teenage Mikhail Tal in 1952, and during most of the 1980s was homeless and regarded as one of the top players in Washington Square Park.

After reading this short paragraph, you might get the impression that Zilber was bragging about beating Mikhail Tal once, maybe when "The Magician" was just 16 years old. The reality was different.

mikhail tal chess

Mikhail Tal via Wikipedia.

The first time these two players met was in 1949, when Tal was just 13 years old and Zilber (born June 25, 1933) was 16 years old. This game, played in Riga's Pioneer Palace Championship, shows that the future world champion was making the same mistakes that most kids his age do. He also demonstrated the side of his chess that made him world champion 11 years later.

This is a very remarkable game. For two moves in a row, Tal missed a simple variation that would have won a queen! Instead he played a "cheapo," 12. Bf6??, which cost him a bishop. Then he managed to complicate the game using the vulnerable position of the opponent's king, something that later became his trademark.

Finally, Black's move 16...fxg5? shows that at that time, Zilber didn't know Tal's attacking secret. Nevertheless, three years later he managed to beat Tal with his own weapon: White's king was under attack right from the opening.

Next year, Zilber built a winning position again, but Tal outsmarted his opponent and checkmated his king:

The following year, the same young men produced another thriller. First Zilber played a dubious opening and got a very bad position. Then he managed to out-calculate Tal and equalized.  When the worst was over, Zilber probably relaxed for a moment and committed a big blunder that was missed by Tal.

At the end, Zilber had a winning position, just like in most of their games, but blundered a checkmate in two moves! Enjoy this roller coaster.

Around that time Tal started winning tournament after tournament, so he and Zilber were chess players of different leagues. Yet the old opponents played one more time.

Tal was already an elite player who had won the Soviet championship two times. Just like in most of their games, Zilber got a winning advantage and Tal tried to attack his king. This time, White played very precisely and the Magician couldn't save the game:

As you can see, despite the final score of 3-2 in Tal's favor, we cannot say that Tal dominated in their games. Moreover, had the stars aligned a different way, the outcome of this "match" could have been totally different.

There is no doubt that Zilber was a great talent, so it is a shame that we don't know much about his life. According to Wikipedia, "details of Zilber's life in the end are controversial—an unconfirmed story states that during one hard winter he froze to death."

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