Mikhail Tal. "Knowledge? Intuition? Risk?", part 1

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Mikhail Tal's article in 64, issues 34-36, 1969.

"All happy families are alike,

all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way."

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

The components of success

When I'm in form, I'm happy. I can do anything. That's why this epigraph exactly fits my ideas about components of success. Of course, nobody has got ideal proportions of all those components. It seems that only one aspect prevails in any given player, regardless of their professional level. Both external circumstances (atmosphere during tournament, physical form) and internal factors - character, mindset and (I think that's most important) outlook on chess, can play a major role.

For a master (I don't mean the sporting title here) whose approach to chess is strict and scientific, the main aspect of practical play is knowledge: "I think, therefore I am."

Let me emphasize this: the knowledge, not a sum of available information. I speak of something more grand: about the feeling, "I know!"

However, chess aren't monopolized by people with analytical mindset. There are many "lyrists" among the world's greatest grandmasters. For instance, they are glad that... Alekhine hated mathematics. The main thing in chess for them is inspiration and improvisation. The most-valued attribute for them is fantasy. One of their favourite proverbs is "Even if it's not true, it's very cleverly made up."

Long story short, here we meet people who consider chess a form of art, with a very rich spectrum of emotions. This approach is often visible in the games, even though sometimes we can't hear the voice of reason when we choose our next move. It's hard to admit even to oneself, but very often, the main argument for making a move is "It's good. I feel it."

When such decisions are made often, we can assume that this is an intuitive-style player.

I must say now that this mysterious intuition can be manifested in different ways. One player has a very strong sense of initiative, another can't always find the best and quickest way to attack, but he can, amazingly, predict and prevent even the smallest symptoms of impending danger; yet another player just knows where to place his pieces and pawns best.

And, finally, there's risk. It's not simple for me to discuss the role of risk in chess, let alone risk as one of the components of success - according to press, Grandmaster Tal is one of the greatest proponents of risk for the last 10 years.

What is risk in chess? Does a player risk willingly? If "knowledge" can be identified with scientific approach, and intuition gets identified with art, then we can continue the analogy and identify risk with sport. We can even cite the proverb, "One who doesn't risk, doesn't win." Also I want to add that I think that a chess player really takes a risk only when he knows what he risks.

A hockey team that leaves its goal empty in the last minute; a gymnast who decides, in a crucial moment of competition, to try a difficult element that he can't always execute perfectly; a boxer who wants to knock out his opponent in the last round and "forgets" about defence - it's all risk. Deliberate risk, probably even dangerous, but it's dictated with one single desire: to win. Win at all costs!

A chess player sacrificed a piece for attack, even though he could choose a different plan. Does he risk? Of course, because the attack can be repelled, and opponent's extra piece will unleash its negative (for the risk-taker, of course) power.

Good, let's get going. A chess player accepts the sacrifice (even though he could decline), hoping he can repel that attack. Does he risk? Of course, because the attack can be irresistible.

Whose risk is more risky? There's no device that can measure that clearly.

I can't help but quote myself. In the book about my match against Botvinnik, I wrote that in modern chess, when everyone knows everything, a chess player must sometimes prove that 2 plus 2 equals 5. I still haven't changed my point of view. But since we speak about risk, we need a more clear differentiation. If you're trying to prove to your partner that 2+2=5, while knowing perfectly that 2+2=4, this is the real risk, which is often absolutely necessary in some circumstances.

A chess player deliberately plays "wrong" moves much more often than it's thought. Still, he honestly thinks that the inventors of the multiplication table just made a mistake, here and now. Risk with the motto "I believe" is tied with intuition very closely.

Of course, this classification isn't definite. It's impossible to imagine a chess player, even the most knowledgeable one, who never doubts anything during a game. And no master of intuitive style will ever achieve anything if he can't calculate a certain variant, or if his intuition suppresses his erudition entirely. With risk of reinventing the wheel, I'll try to voice the thought that the main thing is to play good, in other words, to be in good form. Then, everything is all right: the knowledge gets fully used, the intuition doesn't fail, the risk pays off.

I'm sure that my well-performing colleagues of various styles can illustrate this. The author himself also hopes to do so. But now, judging by this year's results, I've got a different, not very noble mission - to prove this ex adverso. I've got more than enough materials for that.

When knowledge fails

Tal - Larsen

Match, 1969, 6th game

This game, as well as all others in this article, are already known to the readers. But I hope they would be lenient with me, because I prefer to use my own games to illustrate some points (it's easier to recollect the thought process), and this year, I played in only two competitions.

I think there's no need to repeat that my performance in the match against Larsen was awful. Games 4 and 6 seem to be the best proof of that. I fear that you'd say that I'm insincere, but still I daresay that I used to perform best with white pieces against the Sicilian defence. But in 1969, this opening occurred in four of my games, and... I scored just half a point despite getting positions that I liked.


This game shows how risky "the knowledge" can be. If to judge objectively, Larsen's variant shouldn't have won the game for Black, but White retained their well-being after the opening for a price too high - wasted time and energy. Though Larsen, in the other hand, can cite this game as the proof of "the knowledge's" usefulness.