An interview with Engelina Tal

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By Dmitry Komarov. Source in Russian:

It's hard to remain silent when my husband's biography gets perverted so often". Engelina Tal is indignant. "They even said that Misha's own father wasn't his own! I can't imagine that someone would say or publish such things while Misha was still alive. What do they know about that? Yes, uncle Robert did live in the Tal family. But he was just a close relative, not Mikhail Tal's father. When his father, Dr. Nehemiah Tal, died, Misha's legs have gone numb, and we had to bring him to the tournament hall by hands. How can you say that Nehemiah Tal wasn't his real father after that?!

There was another legend: the future world champion's pregnant mother was allegedly frightened by a big rat. As a result, the little Misha was born with only three fingers on his right hand...

This is also untrue. In Dr. Tal's absence, Ida Grigorievna injected the potassium chloride intramuscularly rather than intravenously, and this caused complications during the pregnancy. But Misha didn't mind his disability at all. He, for instance, was a good piano player.

But is that true that the great chess player's mother had a decisive influence over his private life?

Ida Grigorievna did actually search for potential brides. She noticed me during Misha's simultaneous display. I remember that so many people tried to give me an advice that my position was lost after just three moves. But my future husband graciously offered a draw. After the simul, we went to play table tennis, but Misha had no chance there: I had the first sporting grade, and he was an amateur. We had a long talk after that, and only years later Misha confessed that when his mother asked, "Do you like that girl?", he answered: "Mama, I don't defile children!" Our age difference wasn't too great - just eight years, but then I was a very upright girl, group's senior student...

But still, your friendship grew into love.

"I worked in the Riga Shakhmaty magazine, edited the correspondence play section. Tal would occasionally visit the editorial office, and when I couldn't evaluate a position or answer a reader's question, I would ask, "Mikhail Nehemievich, couldn't you..." And, of course, Misha couldn't refuse when a pretty girl asked.

Love came in 1970. The USSR Championship was held in Riga that year. Misha wasn't invited (in revenge for refusal to move to Moscow), and so he worked as a journalist - he wrote reports about each round for the central newspapers. He dictated his materials to a typist (he didn't like the technical work, besides, his handwriting was too small), but she didn't know a thing about chess and made a lot of mistakes. I could type and knew something about chess, so I was asked to help. And it gradually became something more than just dictating and typing...

How Mikhail Nehemievich courted you? Did he bring you flowers?

There was winter, so it was impossible to buy flowers in Riga. Misha never came late to our dates, he was a very punctual man. We would often go to restaurants in the neighbouring Yurmala. It was very difficult to get into a good restaurant back then, and Misha was a bit ashamed of his popularity. His brother Yakov, the head doctor of Yurmala's sanitary inspection, would help us. I didn't want to marry Misha. He'd already had two unhappy marriages, and there always were many women around him. I said, "Misha, we shouldn't rush." But when we came to tournaments, we couldn't rent a hotel room together because we weren't married, so we ultimately registered our marriage.

Then we had a great honeymoon. Misha was on tour with lectures and simultaneous displays, and we visited almost the whole country: Central Asia, Siberia, Kuril Islands...

Did you go to the tournaments with your husband?

Of course, we always went with our whole family (I didn't work then). Zhanna is a "tournament kid". She was just three months old when she came to Yerevan with her father. And that continued until Zhanna turned seven and went to school. In 1978, we were allowed to go abroad, to Bulgaria, and that was a big event for us.

Did you visit the capitalistic countries?

The competent organs [KGB] were quite straightforward when they told my husband: Mikhail Nehemievich, to prevent your possible defection, someone from your family should always remain in USSR, like a "hostage". In 1979, by some miracle, I was allowed to go to Canada with Misha. Zhanna remained home as a "hostage".

It's known that the Montreal tournament was one of the most successful in Mikhail Tal's career, both in terms of sporting results (he shared first place with Anatoly Karpov) and prize money. How did you spend the earned money?

Almost all money were taken away when we came back to Moscow. We retained only three thousand dollars out of 30. I did think that we shouldn't give the prize money away, but the Sports Committee people told Misha that in that case, they won't ever let him play abroad again. But tournaments were his life! "Gelia", he said, "let's give them those goddamn money!

It's said that the officials also coerced Tal to help Anatoly Karpov in the match against Viktor Korchnoi. After that, your husband was accused of "selling out" to Karpov...

He had a good relationship with Tolia, and later - with the young Kasparov (we even visited Garry's training sessions in Baku). I think that Misha would have worked with Karpov on his own accord, but the Party's Central Committee gave an ultimatum to him: "You help Karpov or we forbid you to travel abroad. We'll take away everything: the 300 rubles stipend, country tours." And you say, "sell out"... Also, it's impossible to forget how Karpov helped our family after Misha's death.

Many archive documents telling about KGB's role in Soviet chess were recently declassified. What do you know about that?

Misha was always watched, but he had no secrets. And he never thought about defection - he felt very good at home! In Riga, Tal, as well as all our strongest grandmasters, had a "curator" from the organs who was to protect him from "bad influences". My husband became friends with this man. When Sally, Misha's first wife, wanted to leave USSR, she needed a permission to leave for their son Georgy. If Misha signed this permission, he would face major chess career troubles. He strongly opposed his son's emigration (later, he made many efforts to help Georgy to return to USSR - Auth.) and refused to sign. His curator agreed with him, but Sally still achieved her goal with the help from high-ranking friends.

Were you friends with other famous grandmasters' wives?

I tried, but to no avail. They would always slander someone and gossip a lot... When everyone you know gets covered with dirt, it's hard to keep talking. Misha, on the other hand, had a very close and trusting relationship with the Ukrainian grandmaster Leonid Stein, but, sadly, he died too early.

How did your husband's typical day start?

Misha would get up very early, while I was still asleep, and study chess. He looked through the world's recent interesting games, both in his mind and over the board. Very young chess players would often visit him, and he consulted them. Well-known grandmasters would also come to us. I remember Mark Taimanov's visit during his preparations for the match against Fischer. Misha asked, "Mark, how should I play you - with my full strength, or experiment a bit?" Taimanov answered, "Of course, as strongly as you can." My husband won all five games.

When Misha didn't play too well, his morale dropped. He would eat himself up - his Zodiac sign was Scorpio, anyway. Then he would put a bottle at the table. But he would never show that in public. He was a great actor. And he wasn't too kind towards his rivals - even though he was known as a very benevolent man. I've always thought that I lived with a genius...

What interests did Mikhail Tal have apart from chess?

My husband could freely speak and read English, German, Serbian and Spanish. He was a pure humanitarian, didn't know much about physics or chemistry. He liked to be in the thick of things, so he almost never turned the TV off. He would simultaneously watch TV and read - books, newspapers, big magazines. We were subscribed to every periodical available in the Soviet Union. Except, perhaps, for the Pravda newspaper, Misha didn't like it. When he came back from the tournaments, a large bag of newspapers awaited him; he would sort them chronologically and then read from cover to cover. There was a cult of reading in our family. When we dined, all of us - Misha, me, even little Zhanna - always had a book.

Weren't you irritated that your husband was always busy?

Why should I be? Nothing in Misha would ever irritate me. He would go deep into any family troubles, educate little Zhanna. We gave our daughter very good education, and perhaps it made life harder for her. She's a piano player, actress, singer - those professions aren't of much demand now. We would go to theaters and concerts together - we did everything together...

Which dish of yours was the eighth chess king's favourite?

"The food should be tasty, that's the main thing. When he returned from the tournaments, I would prepare omelettes with spinach and green onions and yellow kidney beans with dill. Misha also loved more complex dishes - stuffed fish or rabbit. And steaks.

Did he ever stand at the stove himself?

He never came to the kitchen. Even when I left the dinner on the stove and told him that he had just to heat it up, Misha would just eat bread with condensed milk. I remember how I prepared food and left for some business, and Misha remained with the five-years-old Zhanna. They suddenly wanted to prepare some macaroni. Zhanna lighted the stove, and Misha guided her. He read somewhere that he should put macaroni into a pan with boiling water. But he didn't read how to get them out of the pan! Then Misha thought out an ingenious method: he strained the macaroni through a towel. When I came home, I showed my husband a colander that lied nearby.

It's known that Tal was a chain smoker. He could smoke several packs during just one game...

Yes, Misha would smoke two packs of Kent (he smoked long "deluxe" cigarettes) a day. He had a habit to smoke a quarter of a cigarette, then throw it away and get a new cigarette. So actually he smoked just half a pack. During the routine medical examinations, the doctors said that he had very clean lungs and an infant's liver. Hard to believe? He drank only clean drinks - vodka, whiskey, and never touched beer, wine or cognac.

Where did he get alcohol in the times of deficit?

Misha would get the best sorts of vodka, the ones that were exported - Pshenichnaya, Kristall, Stolichnaya. He would get some drinks from abroad. I remember how a friend met him in the Moscow airport, and when Misha got home, he found two cartons of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey missing. Of course, he knew who stole them, but never told. He didn't want that man to be ashamed."

There were rumors that your husband used drugs. Was that true?

When I met Misha, he felt good enough and almost got rid of his kidney pains. But after some operation the doctor sutured up the wound badly, and he had a rectal prolapse. I soothed the pain with warm baths and massage. But at a tournament in Baku (sadly, I wasn't around) Misha suddenly felt strong pain. The ambulance couldn't come, so Misha took some morphine-based painkiller and gradually became addicted. I had a long fight with my husband and finally told him, "Misha, if you want us to have a healthy child, stop taking drugs!" He never used drugs anymore, and in 1975, Zhanna was born.

Illnesses followed Mikhail Tal throughout his entire life. How did he fight the maladies?

Sadly, all men in the Tal family died young. In 1989, during another routine medical examination which Misha ardently tried to refuse, the doctors suspected a stomach cancer. My husband was hospitalized, they took some tissues for analysis and accidentally damaged a blood vessel. Thankfully, no cancer cells were found. We came back home. Two days later, I went for a walk with Zhanna. Misha stayed at home - he didn't like to walk. When we came back, he was nowhere to be found. We went to the toilet and saw Misha covered in blood and unconscious. We called for an ambulance, but the doctor was very nervous and couldn't find the vein. Our friend saved him - he ran to our place three minutes later and managed to inject the physiological saline.

Misha was again hospitalized and underwent an operation. The ruptured blood vessel was stitched up, and ten days later, he was discharged from hospital. And right after we came back, the second blood vessel was ruptured. Another operation went badly, Misha was infected. And the horrible life began.

It's said that the great chess player died from cancer...

This is also not true. His diagnosis was hepatitis C and chronic sepsis - staphylococcosis. Such diseases cannot be cured even now, and of course they couldn't be cured then. I remember that the only available medication was allochol. We had to get all other drugs from various sources - antibiotics, painkillers... And he had to play half a year later. At the tournament in Sweden Misha's body temperature was above 40 C, and many players considered him an easy prey. I brought Misha on my hands to and from the tournament hall. His body was ill, but his brain was still that of a genius. He held up for five years, and a month before his death, he defeated Kasparov. He remained with chess for his whole life...

How Mikhail Nehemievich tried to ease the pain?

With alcohol. It lowered his body temperature and allowed him to sleep. Misha was so ill that I never even tried to forbid him to drink or something. Any strain on the nerves killed him, and I did everything to make his life easy, to make him forget about his illnesses and happily live out the remainder of his life. You know, before me, Misha lived with all his women for two years at most, and with me he lived for 22 years. So he needed me. Probably because I wasn't a bitch.

In Tal's last year, your family also suffered from home troubles. How did you overcome them?

After the dissolution of USSR, our Riga flat and the whole house were given back to its former owner. We couldn't live there anymore. At that time, our family moved to Germany. The well-known chess philantrope Ernst Eimert invited Misha to play for a German club, Zhanna finished her education there.

Half a year before his death, Misha asked Ernst to take care of me and Zhanna. When Misha died, Ernst was also very ill. He had no successors, and to honour Misha's last will, Eimert offered to marry me. The month after the marriage Ernst died.

How did you live for the last 17 years?

I had to sell the house bequeathed by Ernst. A man's hands are needed to take care of such houses. I'm renting a three-room flat near Cologne, and Zhanna returned to Riga. My daughter created a "Mikhail Tal Trust" and is going to hold children's tournament on his birthday. With the help of lawyers, she, together with her half-brother, registered the trademark "Mikhail Tal". Each year, lots of books about Tal get published, compilations of his best games get reissued, and nobody even tells our family about that. Now the situation should change.