Mikhail Tal, "When Pieces Come Alive"

Jan 29, 2011, 10:23 AM |

The Ogonyok Library, #9, 1983.

1. Is it easy to play chess? 

I often ask myself a sad question: for how long I'll still be able to play in tournaments? They say that chess can be played at any age. But alas, this is only a half-truth... Yes, you can play with a friend over a coffee at any age.But I mean another thing - grandmaster-level competition. How much time do I have?..

The question is really sharp, we can't just shrug it off. Eventually, any chess player who has tournament experience must face it. The point is, you can retain your artistic chess perception for your whole life, but the sporting side becomes increasingly difficult to bear with every year. Such is this game - it looks suspiciosly like marathon running or even a long fencing duel...

Isn't it time to sign my last tournament form? Before answering, I'm looking back at my life's journey. All bright memories are concerned with match and tournament struggle, where I had to chase someone or shake off the chase, prove something, qualify to somewhere, defend and lose what was gained... Thirty years of this struggle is almost a whole life, and it's hard to imagine that the usual atmosphere of chess battles might go away, leaving me with a comfortable place among the spectators.

Mikhail Botvinnik, who was always very concerned with his physical form, once said that one of the criterions of preparedness for a tournament was... haemoblogin index. This method is, without a doubt, objective, but it's not for me. I would join tournaments and matches (even candidates' cycles) straight from the hospital bed so often that I'd have lost most of my fun from chess if I'd played by Botvinnik's method. It's too hard for me to quit playing. So I'll continue to play without knowing when I'll finally quit. I admit that it's hard to me to find a good moment for that... If I were a stable player, then a slump in my playing would be a signal to quit. But even in my youth, good performances have always alternated with bad! And it's harder for me to predict if after a bad tournament I'd play very good in the next one...

There's one alerting symptom: I started to reminisce. And we know too well that when someone writes his memoirs, he's most probably going to quit doing what he was doing. But, in the other hand, I've already achieved the right to play in the next Interzonal. It was achieved in a hard struggle, and I'm not going to forfeit it.

Frankly speaking, I don't think I'd be able to pass all the qualifying levels again. I'm not hoping to play a World Championship match again. But I'll still play. Because the chess struggle isn't just a battle for higher rank, it's also a very fascinating game. But not an easy one...

I think that no-one would argue that it's much easier to play chess when you're young, strong and healthy. Even on the highest level. Alas, every chess player has his own age barrier, beyond which his tournament results start to decline. And there's a paradox: his playing level stays the same, but the results get worse.

Each chess player feels the approach of a playing crisis. He gets tired in the fifth hour of the game, it becomes harder to calculate long forced variants... And there's the fateful question: should I quit playing in tournaments? But my understanding of chess is the same, I still love chess. And in the last tournament, I just got a prize for the best game. How can I quit?

And then, the veteran begins to change his style. It happens gradually and sometimes ambiguously. Often, only the self-preservation instinct works. If a  younger chess player would prefer a dazzling attack to a better endgame, now he often wouldn't even calculate any variants and quickly get to the endgame. There, he's armed with knowledge that a younger player lacks. He doesn't need to calclate as much, but has to know more. Experience would tell him how to place his pieces and what position to get to...

Saying that, I instantly remember a game from my first match against Mikhail Botvinnik. Then, in 1960, the world champion had every right to be considered a veteran, and I was one of the youth. Together with my coach Alexander Koblencs, we prepared a piece sacrifice in Caro-Kann. We saw its consequences as very optimistic. Yes, the Black King would be stuck in the center, and White's attack seemed irresistible. Long story short, we hoped to "overcalculate" Botvinnik...

I must admit that a lot of variants was calculated at home, and many more - over the board. But Botvinnik found a clear defensive plan, gradually stabilized the position, and I became very disappointed with that, made a grave mistake and resigned. And then I started to show that lot of variants after the ill-fated Knight sacrifice... there was really a lot of them. Mikhail Moiseevich first listened to me tactfully, and then he lifted his head from the board and said, "This sacrifice seemed dangerous to me too, but then I understood that Black has to exchange Rooks and keep Queens."

And that's all! It was like a cold shower on my hot head... Such an abstract position evaluation amazed me, it even seemed at first that Botvinnik just mocked me and wanted to shrug off my pretty variants. But later, I became convinced that Botvinnik was absolutely right - with Queens, Black's position was better, otherwise a strong pawn chain supported by Bishop ensures White's advantage. And it's not necessary to calculate many moves ahead.

Young chess players, to put it mildly, aren't always able to think in such abstract categories. They do a lot of calculating work over the board. Often this work is excessive. They think like that: he moves here, I move there, he attacks, I get the piece away... there's a lot of variants, and the calculating tree becomes too branched. Even an electronic machine can't count everything. And so the chess player's thought jumps over chessboard squares like a hare in March. And what would a more experienced player do? He'd immediately start to prune unnecessary branches... His trained memory would show him a similar position that already occurred somewhere, and he'd choose a range of variants accordingly.

Young chess players don't conserve their strength. I remember how amazed I was with then very young Sasha Beliavsky at 1972 Sukhumi International... After winning an adjourned Rook ending against Taimanov, he confided to me that he spent 21 hours on the analysis. Only youth can allow itself such a luxury! But even youth can't do everything...

At the 1980 USSR Championship in Vilnius, a young grandmaster Artur Yussupov, pupil of a well-known coach Mark Dvoretsky, led the tournament before the last round. It seemed that his dream was very close, considering that his last game was against G. Kuzmin, who played very unstably. Even a draw guaranteed him the gold medal. He had two days to prepare for the game and rest. But... Yussupov had 5 (!) adjourned games. I don't know how much time he spent on analyzing them, but I'm sure that he had virtually no sleep at all. Mark Dvoretsky's pale face and sunken eyes only corroborated this thought. And here's the result. In the decisive game against Kuzmin, Artur played very inertly and passively. "I can't recognize Gregory Gryaznoy" (a quote from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Tsar's Bride", which means approximately "he's not himself" when used idiomatically. - Sp.), someone said from the last row of audience. Artur's disappointed supporter was absolutely right. Artur, tired from many hours of play-off, couldn't play at full strength. He slowly, but steadily led the game to defeat. At the end, he overlooked a simple tactical strike and lost his Queen. And so, two players overtook the leader.

It's not always possible to tell a chess player's age by his playing style... The reader shouldn't think that a mature chess player always plays rationally and academically, and a young player always tries combinations. For instance, I liked a game that was played at 1972 USSR Chess Olympiad. White cleanly and quietly realized his positional advantage, and Black tried to change the situation with tactical strikes... I remembered that game because Karpov (who was 20) played White, and Smyslov (who was over 50) played Black...

We also can remember a game from Monte-Carlo 1968. In one of his last tournament performances, Mikhail Botvinnik performed a stunning Morphy-like sacrifice of both rooks... His partner Lajos Portisch had a serious advantage by being 25 years younger.

Many articles were written about the change of generations and the influence of age on chess playing. Sometimes, those articles were quite inappropriate. I always wondered why some people are trying to substitute game analysis with their thoughts about age.

Sometimes, a commentator writes an article about some tournament with the heading, "Youth won!" It's hard to argue, especially if a young player was among the winners. But what if an older player wins? This same author would probably write, "Experience won!"

And the veterans fight. They fight gracefully, despite their graying hair. The "old guard" is still able to win strong tournaments and perform well in the Candidates' cycle...

No-one is guaranteed from bad performances in chess. For example, in 1980 [the 54 years old] Efim Geller won the USSR Championship, but in 1981, he played badly. And then I read a report, "it's hard to watch Geller play, his age tells." The age, again! But the author could remember another thing. Just a few weeks before the championship, the veteran Geller played brilliantly at the Malta Olympics for the USSR national team, won some great games and lost none. He was a shining example for his younger team-mates.

Two such tournaments in a short time are too much for anyone. Of the six players from the Olympic team, only Efim Petrovich (the oldest one) decided to play in the Championship. I think he deserves admiration! And he fought with a youthful passion. I remember his very intensive game against Vitaly Tseshkovsky. Geller made sharp moves, sacrificed, and even though he made a mistake under time pressure and lost, he still deserves his share of applause.

Sometimes people ask, "Until what age is it possible to play chess? And when it's better to begin?" Those questions are simple only at the first sight...

So, where to begin? Obviously, when you get inclined to play. Each parent thinks that their child is very talented... But if you start to torture a pre-school boy with opening variants, he might as well hate chess for the rest of his life.

We know that 5 years old J. R. Capablanca was a tough partner for his father and guests. Another world champion, A. Alekhine, also learned chess at an early age, and Anatoly Karpov fulfilled the norm for 3rd grade being seven years old.

Coming back to the age limit question, we can say that chess has a large advantage over other sports. We all know that even the Olympic champions have to retire at a very young age. In chess, the "age cap" can be tentatively placed at 50 years. But that is not the limit! The second world champion, Emanuel Lasker, took the 3rd place at a very strong 1935 Moscow International. He won some brilliant games and finished only half a point behind the winners, M. Botvinnik and S. Flohr. He was 66 years old at the time. And looking deeper into history, we can remember Philidor's chess teacher, a Paris chess champion Legall de Kermeur. Being 85 years old (probably a mistake on Tal's part - Sp.), he won a game against St Brie that found its way into many chess books: 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 d6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. Nc3 Bg4 5. Nxe5 Bxd1 6. Bxf7+ Ke7 7. Nd5#. Any chess players knows Legall's mate.

A reader would say, "But that was so long ago, and it's unique cases". Good. Let's search for newer examples. In 1973, I played in an International tournament at Holland with Yury Balashov and Evgeny Vasyukov. There was a strong company of grandmasters. The tournament wasn't qualifying, so everyone played without thinking about result. The hall was always full. And that's what was wonderful: the oldest player, Miguel Najdorf, had become the center of attention. His popularity was due to his bright, uncompromising playing and his wits. He was so energetic that many young, but boring players could envy him...

What do those examples of sporting longevity illustrate? They tell us that there's no sense to discuss the topic of "fathers and children" in chess. Yes, the current world champion represents the younger generation, but we don't see many young stars among the candidates, so we can consider this dispute adjourned in an equal position.

There are many similarities between actor's and chess player's playing. There's stage, audience... And even though it's quiet on stage, the dialogue with the audience is very expressive and emotional. Chess gave me many things: friends, joy of creativity, an opportunity to visit almost the whole world. But the best thing they gave me was an opportunity to interact with the vast audience of this game. A chess player, even on stage, very sharply feels everything that happens even in the back row. He feels sympathy or hostility, and sometimes he makes a move that's actually not the best, but very appealing to the audience...

The desire to seek the audience's approval with an interesting move (even if dubious!) shows the good two-sided contact between chess masters and their supporters. And such contact is necessary...

For instance, I disagree with those who want to place chess players into some kind of greenhouse, isolating them from audience. At an international tournament in Tilburg (Holland) the organizers created seemingly ideal conditions. Even the picky Robert Fischer probably wouldn't see any defects. But I disliked one thing: the audience was located in a separate hall. And they had to watch the grandmasters play on a TV screen.

I don't know if they liked this innovation, but I felt like an actor who read his soliloquy in an empty hall. Bent Larsen also complained to me that without spectators, the mood was different.

Do you remember how the third game between Spassky and Fischer was played? The American grandmaster demanded that the players be isolated from audience. And Spassky didn't like that "arrest" - he was accustomed to constant contact with the hall. An artist of the chess stage felt lonely...

For the sake of such contact, we can even endure noise and applause for our opponents. Sometimes funny situations occur. In one foreign city that hosted Candidates' Tournament, the hall was packed with spectators from many neighbouring villages. Their chess skills left much to be desired, but they were very vocal. The audience reacted to anything that happened on stage, screams and handclaps would begin very suddenly. I remember my game against Smyslov: he began a simple piece exchange. He took my Knight, I wanted to capture the piece back, and suddenly, there was a loud applause. I had goosebumps: did I just lose a piece? In confusion, I looked at the board, at Smyslov, at the audience. Then I took the Knight with my trembling hand, and the position became equal. And the audience applauded again. I undestood it all and immediately calmed down.

But this is not a typical example. Usually, the chess audience consists of very skilled people. Sometimes the spectators see things that a tired grandmaster can't see. Vladimir Simagin once told me how he lost an important pawn in the game against Taimanov. Expecting a severe punishment, he was very upset, and suddenly he heard applause that grew stronger and stronger. "Someone started a combination..." he thought and looked at the demonstration boards. Everything was quiet, nobody sacrificed anything. And then he heard an emotional voice crying: "Bravo, Simagin!"

"Then I looked at the board again", Vladimir Pavlovich continued, "and I was very glad to discover that he couldn't take my pawn because I gave mate in six then! And if he doesn't take the pawn, it can go all the way and get queened. Thanks to the audience - I'd almost resigned..."

The close contact between a chess master and audience also has another aspect. His title entitles him to promote the chess art.

The leading chess players - masters, grandmasters, even world champions - play in public not to assert themselves. Willingly or non-willingly, they familiarize a lot of spectators with the beauty of chess art and even teach them to play. Not by the book, but by example that a spectator sees with his own eyes. That's chess master's responsibility before his audience.

But imagine a situation that occurred quite a few times: two prominent chess players make ten or twelve theoretical moves, and then a sign with one short word, "Draw", appears at the demonstration board. The spectators who hoped to see a full-blown fight don't only lose their feeling of participation, they also get disappointed. Why would the maestros do that? And so, the reputation of chess is undermined.

No, I don't offer chess players to fight like gladiators, until the bare kings in each game! Sadly, chess isn't only art, where a master should always be on top of his skills - it's also a sport, difficult and sometimes very tiresome. An average spectator probably doesn't know that a master who plays in a tournament spends not just five hours over the board (on stage), but ten to fifteen... Preparation to the game takes a lot of time. You need to look through your next opponent's games in your database. Decide which opening or variant to choose. Even better - to predict the system that your opponent might choose. Then you can try to strengthen your play and achieve advantage.

Alas, you can't do so all the time, because almost everything is studied in our times. You can only envy your colleagues who played in Steinitz's or even Alekhine's times! Then almost each game contained a novelty, new variants and even openings were born. Now it's all harder...

And still, the real chess fighters still seek. Working through a vast amount of information, they still find some new roads among the old and well-trodden. They can't do that at fifth or tenth moves of a well-known opening, but they still find something at 15th or 20th move.

The Soviet chess school was always renowned for their great chess analysts. A huge contribution into the chess theory was made by M. Botvinnik and V. Smyslov, P. Keres and I. Boleslavsky, S. Furman and A. Ufimtsev, I. Bondarevsky and G. Veresov... this list can go on and on. Many pre-War masters also deserve a mention: N. Ryumin, V. Rauzer, S. Belavenets, A. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, V. Sozin - they all promoted scientific approach to chess.

These traditions aren't lost even now, but I intentionally name only the older generation players because I think that younger players have still got much to do until they could be considered innovators of chess theory.

The examples of brilliant theoretical search were often imitated. They showed many chess lovers a right way to self-perfection. Many players at first try to reinvent the wheel, but their love for analytical work will still do them good. You just shouldn't fear sleepless nights and possible defeats.

Tournaments, matches... the endless line of competitions puts heavy pressure on chess player's psyche. Almost any game creates new emotions. You feel very happy when you implement a beautiful idea. But then your partner makes an unexpected move, and everything is in disorder... Now you're balancing on the edge of an abyss, searching for salvation and failing to find anything. And you scold yourself: how could you overlook such a move?!

“Who’s stronger?” – this concise principle of sporting struggle is directly related to a chess game. The struggle of minds leads to victory of only one partner. The winner rejoices, the loser is annoyed. But there’s also a draw…

Because of this opportunity, victory is separated from defeat not by an illusory wall, but by a wide field. Sometimes you have to literally cross this field in force under fire…

And often a draw as a result that satisfies both partners is impossible. Even if the game gets actually drawn. Very often, this draw means a win for one player, and for the other…

Let’s remember the World Championship match between Botvinnik and Bronstein in 1951. In the 24th (last) game, there was a draw. The match was also drawn, 12:12. But for the incumbent world champion, this result was equal to victory (he retained his title), and for Bronstein, this peaceful result crushed all his hopes.

There’s a very heavy psychological load in the games where the result is very important for both partners. Say, one of them becomes the country’s champion, and the other fulfills a grandmaster’s norm. And when you win such a game, you can’t be completely happy. You feel that you were cruel towards your partner. But that’s the logic of the struggle: if you don’t win, you switch places with the other partner…

Chess history is full of dramatic games. We can remember R. Kholmov’s win over E. Geller in the last round of 17th USSR Championship… The game had a very big sporting meaning. Then, in now distant 1949, a young Odessa master Efim Geller burst into the constellation of grandmasters like a meteor. He fulfilled his master’s norm in semifinal, the qualification committee wasn’t too quick in those days, so Geller started his first championship as a candidate master. Nevertheless, the rookie started to crush both masters and grandmasters. He defeated Levenfish, Boleslavsky, Ragozin, Kotov. Then he added several more scalps to his collection. An unprecedented sensation ensued…

Before the last round, a young master (the committee finally completed its bureaucratic proceedings!) led the championship. His last game was against Ratmir Kholmov. A win or even draw guaranteed first place. He could become a USSR champion and grandmaster at once! I can imagine how nervously the young Efim (not Efim Petrovich yet) played that game. Kholmov won (he finished 10th), and his defeated opponent lost everything…

It also wasn’t easy for me when Boris Spassky stopped me in 1965 in the Candidates’ matches. Boris won the semifinal in great style. “It’s all right”, I consoled myself, “the chess struggle is cruel. Either I beat him, or he beats me…” And then I remembered how seven years before, Boris was hiding his tears. He lost to me in the last round of USSR championship and was out of World Championship contention for three years…

Despite our chess strife, I was always on good terms with Boris Spassky, I can even say that we were friends, but over the board, we always fought… How could we do otherwise? Many masters and grandmasters are friends with each other. What would happen if their games always ended with a draw? But, by my observations, friends always fight each other most viciously over the board. A classic writer once said, “It’s friends who usually shoot each others on duels…”

At Leningrad Interzonal in 1973, I inflicted a terrible wound on Bent Larsen, who was my friend for many years; I sympathized him both as human and chess player. I surely wanted him to be among the winners of that tournament – and if I lost to him, he’d get into the top three. I had no chance of qualifying when I played him, but a good kingside attack is always more important to me than such thoughts. And I won that game.

I’m always watching with delight the games between two friends, young grandmasters Artur Yussupov and Sergey Dolmatov. Both of them are pupils of the coach Mark Dvoretsky. They always support each other, help with analysis of adjourned games, prepare for games together. But look just how viciously they fight each other in every game! “There are no friends at the card table” – I once heard this proverb in my youth. And I remembered it again during the 1963/64 Hastings tournament, where two brothers played – Norman and John Littlewoods. I had three points in four games, Norman had the same score. His brother John fervently supported the older Littlewood. And he had but a single point, scored in a “fratricidal” game against Norman.

I think there are enough examples already. But I want to tell you about one episode in more details. It happened long ago, in the 24th USSR Championship, but I still remember it…

In those years (it was winter of 1957), all the leading grandmasters used to play in the championships, so it attracted much interest from chess fans. The spacious hall of Central Railwayman Recreation Centre bustled with activity… The cause of sensation at the start was me – 4 points out of 4. I think that the audience was intrigued that a master took the lead in the Championship, it hadn’t happened since 1949. But in the sixth round, the Leningrad-based grandmaster Tolush overtook me. Near the finish we were equal again, and Bronstein joined us. All three had a score 13/20 (the evidence of a very sharp struggle) before the last round. I was to play Tolush, and Bronstein’s opponent was Kholmov.

Even now, I remember many details of that distant February day. In the morning, my coach Alexander Koblencs told me: “If you see a draw, don’t be upset – you’ll still win a prize. No-one aged 21 ever got into the top three…”

I listened absently. Points, half-points and pertinent calculation interested me less than the forthcoming game against Tolush. No, my reader, don’t think that I was above scoring points. I felt that today the winner takes it all, and I was full of ardour. Also I knew that my partner won’t hide behind a defensive wall. Alexander Kazimirovich deserved his reputation of a straightforward chess fighter! Tolush had become the Russian SFSR champion the year before I was born. And he was 46 years old at the time… “It seems that I’ve got 25 years’ odds”, I thought.

The bold, attacking playing style of the Leningrad player was sympathized by spectators and experts alike. Of course, such style invariably led to lost points in the age of sophisticated technique. But Alexander Kazimirovich feared nothing – neither losses nor opponents. He risked, he won and lost, but he was never a whipping boy in any tournament. High class and good combinational vision made him a threat for any opponent. There was no grandmaster who never resigned to Tolush… Botvinnik himself (in his prime!) couldn’t hold Tolush’s attack and got checkmated at g8… Who can remember anything like that in Botvinnik’s practice?

Someone told me a story. Once Tolush’s partner, the Leningrad-based master Chekhover, offered a draw in a sharp attacking position.

“Draw?” he said, looking at Tolush with a smile.

“Why draw?” Alexander Kazimirovich answered. “You’ve got a decisive attack!”

“But I can’t see any forced continuations,” his partner tried to excuse himself. “I’m afraid to miscalculate…”

“You’re afraid!” Tolush cried. “Then you shouldn’t play chess! Go back home! And I don’t need that draw. Do you want me to show you how to win there quickly?”

Such was this fighter who never knew fear, who came through the battle at Pulkovo and the deathly lottery of Nevsky Pyatachok during the Siege of Leningrad…

In the 24th USSR Championship I was talking about, Tolush played with great inspiration. Ten wins – more than any other player had, this should say something! Yes, he had some failures, even some disappointing ones, but he didn’t falter. At the finish, he overtook Spassky and Keres with a powerful spurt and equaled with Bronstein and me. Equaled by points. Without any coquetry, I’ll repeat what everyone was saying during that championship: Alexander Tolush was, without a doubt, the hero of the 20-round marathon. But there was also the last, 21st round, and the veteran couldn’t muster enough strength for that game…

I remember how we sat at the board. A pack of “Kazbek” cigarettes was put on the table’s edge – Alexander Kazimirovich always smoked only this brand. I made my move. Tolush adjusted his tie, slowly wrote down his move… and very calmly moved his piece. I still remember that game perfectly… In the King’s Indian defence Tolush played a bit slow (that’s the exhaustion) and got a position where he couldn’t apply his fantasy and desire to fight. Alexander Kazimirovich never liked to defend thoroughly, but in this decisive game, as ill luck would have it, he got a position where he had to defend. And my attack flowed all by itself… At some moment, I felt that my opponent knew that he was lost somewhere deep inside. No, it didn’t manifest externally. Tolush sat at the board with perfect calm. Perhaps he would open his pack of “Kazbek” a bit more often than usually. I can’t remember any occasion when he would take his eyes off the chess and look quizzically at his partner, which is still the sin of me and many other grandmasters… With the same Olympian calm, Alexander Kazimirovich stopped the clock and congratulated me with winning the championship.

That was my stellar hour: I won the tournament and fulfilled the grandmaster’s norm. Promising the correspondents to answer even a hundred thousands questions, but ten minutes later, I ran to call Riga. “Dad, mom, I won!” I told them all the details, very quickly. And then my father asked me, “And what about Tolush, was he upset?” I never even thought of that. Only an hour later, when my interview ended, I saw him briefly: Tolush slowly walked towards the exit, seemingly thinking of something. The defeat cruelly threw him back to fifth place. A titanic effort made to challenge the fate was ultimately futile. And the veteran understood that he’d never be able to repeat that again.

Isn’t it cruel – this good, kind game of chess?


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