Mikhail Tal 1987 TV interview, part one

Dec 10, 2008, 7:42 AM |

From Mikhail Tal and Yakov Damsky book "For Kaissa's altar".

What do you think of chess as a cultural phenomena?

Well, there's no exact definition of chess yet. Furthermore, the supporters of all views constantly find new arguments that prove them.

Is chess a leisure? Indeed it is.

Is chess a science? Yes.

I remember how a team of Soviet chess players prepared for Chess Olympics. An exceptional line-up: Botvinnik, Smyslov, Keres, Petrosian etc. etc. GM Yuri Averbakh was the delegation head. He just finished his endgame encyclopedia.

We traveled by train, so there was a lot of free time, and Yuri Lvovich would entertain himself by giving the simplest positions to supergrandmasters: White has king, knight and pawn - 3 pieces, Black has king and bishop - 2 pieces.

"What do you think, is there a win or a draw?" he would ask. We would look at each other: a win, probably. "Well, try to beat me then." The game would begin. We'd try this and that, no win. So was it a draw?

"Well, try to make a draw then!" He'd flip the board, and the position turned out to be lost.

This would repeat two or three times, until we were finally presented with a solution.

To remember all that, one needs very much time, very much energy, very much knowledge.

Yes, chess is science, in many aspects it is, and it's not coincidence that Botvinnik for many years was a leader of both Soviet and world chess.

It's not coincidence that cybernetic scientists also liked chess, and it's not coincidence that here, in this TV studio, I was invited to a computer festival at Ulan-Ude.

Chess is also sport, it's perfectly clear. Championships, wins, losses, medals, prizes - anything you wish.

But is it only sport?

Ask anyone who knows chess good enough what was the result of an international tournament that took place in Netherlands in 1938; maybe they would recall that the young grandmasters Paul Keres and Reuben Fine tied for first.

And who came third? How many points did the winners score? Very few would answer that...

But if you'd ask anyone, "What the 1938 AVRO Tournament is best known for?", many will answer, "The Botvinnik - Capablanca game."

And it's not because a young Soviet grandmaster defeated a great ex-world champion.

And not because any Capablanca's loss was a sensation. Just because the entire game was so great, so logical and spectacular in the same time, that it will remain in our memories for a very long time.

That's why there are still names like "Immortal game", "Evergreen game". That's why chess is so popular among our cultural workers and artists.

Many people compare chess and mathematics. They think that a chess player should also be a mathematician, even though a mathematician may not be a chess player.

I thought that something's wrong in there in school, where everyone called me "the chess player", while the math teacher thought differently.

I personally would compare chess with music. Of course, there are debates about which music is needed, which chess is needed. This question is quite hot now. But I see a perfect analogy between those two art forms.

In any case, studying Botvinnik's games, I feel Bach's fundamentality, not a single note can be added or taken away without ruining the whole.

I feel the smoothness and depth of Tchaikovsky and Smyslov. Elegancy of Keres and Chopin. Virtuosity of Petrosian and Liszt. It's associations, you know, I can't do anything about it.

And, of course, chess should have a vital role in cultural education.

No, no, I'm totally against compulsory chess courses in kindergartens and exams on Queen's gambit. Nobody needs that. But it's important for the chess-loving kids not to study the boring opposition rules but to understand the beauty, the beauty of chess logic and chess paradoxes.

It's possible to live without chess. Especially today, in a rich world with lots of electronics, with foreign languages living, dead and yet unborn, with figure skating.

But believe me, without chess humans will feel that they're lacking something important.

You said that you prefer to compare chess with music. But there's much more sport in classical chess than in the correspondence chess. If you prefer the aesthetic values, why don't you play correspondence chess?

Yes, chess as a form of art is very close to me, but perhaps the feeling of a partner across the board is even more important. And when you write, you don't get that feeling.

Aside of that, my handwriting is awful...

To say seriously, the chess player during the game is in a unique state.

He's an author: his scenario and libretto; he's a performer, he's a critic - a trinity. That's why I don't like to play in an empty hall, I need spectators. When I'm in a good form, I like the crowd noise. When I'm not in a good form, I feel it by my reaction: if spectators become a nuisance, then I have to be careful, and if I like the noise, something can come out of that.

The future of chess?

I don't think that chess is in any danger, though, of course, the abundance of information: "Informators", "Encyclopaedias", bulletins, games, all this can cloud one's mind. That's a pity that the young chess players pay a great deal of attention to this, um, factological side of things. Variations, variations and more variations...

But I still believe in fantasy. Yes, the epicenter now often moves from the 7th move, as it was before, towards the 12th, 15th, even 20th move, but there's still struggle. I'm totally sure that even in the 21st century, it'll be like Ostap Bender's famous quote: if a blond plays good and a brunet plays bad, you can say anything...

What do you think about the "quick chess", are they worth all the discussions they cause? Maybe we should just leave them alone and think of them as a matter of fact?

Yes, the question is more rhetorical, I think. And it makes me remember Nikolay Nikolaevich Ozerov's commentary from Canada - USSR hockey matches. He would occasionally say, "No, we don't need such hockey."

What can I say about chess? It's a competition, not too demanding. One needs a partner, a board and a set of figures. And maybe a chess clock. The "quick chess" is played by overwhelming majority of people.

On park benches, at home, in libraries, even in theatres during the entre-acte. Onegin plays "quick chess" against Lensky. They can't afford any other kind of chess because the entre-acte would become too long.

And, of course, such game is spectacular. You see the entire game, from beginning to the end. Nobody, of course, would object against that game. We all played it.

But do we need any new classification? Do we need a "quick chess" world championship?

Why should we analogize chess and boxing?

A "featherweight chess world championship" - 20 minutes for game. A "bantamweight chess world championship" - 30 minutes for game. How many more "weights" would we need?

Do we need it? I think not. Do we need new chess masters? New grandmasters? I think not. And if we do award any titles to them, we'll have to have a clear distinction, for everyone to understand that it's a different kind of chess.

Yes, there's a correspondence chess world champion. But they have another federation. A blitz world champion? I'm sorry, but I'm thinking of this title with much irony.

It's important to understand that it's not too serious. I think, here lies the main danger: all this shouldn't be taken too seriously. Then such tournaments will be very interesting and very possible. And, of course, grandmasters will also play the "quick chess" to take a rest from the serious chess and... to prepare better for them.

You have become a blitz world champion, even though this title is unofficial. Even Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, the main rivals in the "normal" world championship, couldn't achieve that. What helped you to win? Calculation, evaluation, quickness?

My Canada success doesn't allow me to declare any "principles of blitz". There are chess players who play blitz better than me, who play blitz quicker than me, but the sporting fortune smiled to me this time. I probably managed to win because I thought of this tournament as a blitz, a game, a good leisure, and many of my colleagues came there to become world champions, or to get $50,000, or whatever.