Mikhail Tal. "When Pieces Come Alive", part 3
3. Stellar hour
A chess player’s life is like running up the stairs. He’s constantly going up the qualification steps. He wins a Zonal tournament, and then there’s Interzonal. Then you make the top three and become a Candidate. And then you have to win “just” three qualifying matches to play for World Championship.
That’s the current rules, but in the distant 1959, they were a bit different. After the Portoroz International, eight strongest grandmasters (top six players from Portoroz were joined by Smyslov and Keres) played for the right to challenge the World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Suddenly even for myself, I came very close to the chess throne…
A long quadruple round robin waited ahead, with each player a candidate for the World Championship! I’ve never played in such a strong company, so I accepted the invitation from the Zurich Chess Club, the oldest one in Europe. The lineup was very strong: four more candidates played – Keres, Fischer, Gligoric and Olafsson, and so I wanted to test my strength.
After the round ten, I managed to overtake my opponents and emerge clear first. Grandmaster Salo Flohr who looked after me told me, “You have to play quiet and get the first place.”
But it wasn’t so simple to “get” the first place. Fischer gave me a real chase. It was very important for him to defeat Larsen. But there was a dead draw on the board. Each side had two minor pieces and three pawns. Fischer made almost a hundred moves. He was in good physical form and endured that pretty easily, but Larsen seemed to lose half his weight.
Salo Flohr, watching this futile game ironically, remarked, “The young American seems to think that there are people able to lose such a position in the good old Europe.”
So, the strength test was successful, and I went to the Yugoslavian town Bled full of hope. The beginning was very tumultuous and unpromising. In the first round three grandmasters lost, and I was one of them. That didn’t surprise me at all, because it was my sixth tournament in row when I lost in the first round… But in Zurich, I lost to a little-known master Edwin Bhend, and it annoyed me big time, but this time, I lost to Vasily Smyslov himself.
In those years, he was a really formidable opponent! I never played him before this Candidates’ Tournament. When I played in the USSR Championship, Smyslov played his World Championship matches against Botvinnik. He drew one match, won the title in the second and then gave it back to Mikhail Botvinnik in the third. It happened just a year ago, so Vasily Vasilyevich probably thought that their fight didn’t end there and wanted to get another “audience” from the world champion.
Anyway, Smyslov was considered an experienced warrior of the Candidates’. He brilliantly won two previous tournaments, and I felt his desire to make a “hat trick” in each of his moves… I’ll dare to imagine what the ex-champion must have felt when he sat at the board against a young “combinator” and lucky “attacker” who could get away with violation of all chess dogma and obvious risk. “I can’t allow this to happen!” Vasily Vasilyevich might have thought.
There’s a well-known chess proverb: “Defeat the youth in the endgame!” Acting by this principle, Smyslov implacably pushed me into a boring ending without any tactical opportunities. In those times, just to achieve draw against Vasily Vasilyevich, you had to find forty first-class moves. He found such moves easily! And if a partner made even a single “below-par” move, an inexorable death awaited him. I made a single superficial move, and Smyslov’s grip tightened immediately…
“No, I can’t play like that against Smyslov,” I thought after the game. “I can’t sink this battleship in a skirmish. I have to board it!” And I prepared this boarding until our second leg game…
Before the tournament’s beginning, all players, seconds and journalists were asked to fill a questionnaire and predict the outcome. I humbly placed myself fifth, secretly hoping that my colleagues would correct that error. But I was amazed that nobody (except my second Yuri Averbakh) placed me at the top!
Then I understood that there were at least two reasons. First – everyone has had enough of my wins. Wasn’t it too much? Two USSR Championships, Munich Olympiad, Portoroz, Zurich tournament… Mark Taimanov, for instance, threatened to quit chess if I become a USSR champion three times in a row. Second – everyone knew that nine days before Bled, I had an operation. The opinion was unanimous: Tal was unfit to fight for the first place! And then he lost to Smyslov and, a couple of rounds later, to Keres.
I played against the Estonian grandmaster before. Our first game occurred in a simultaneous display at Riga that was held not long after the 1948 World Championship tournament, when the Baltic chess lovers’ hearts divided: one group supported Botvinnik, others pledged their loyalty to Keres. As a long-time Botvinnik fan, I decided to emphasize my position and chose Botvinnik System for this simul. And I naively thought that I could hurt the grandmaster with that… Ten years later, in Zurich, I reminded Paul Petrovich about that simul, Botvinnik System and my devious plan. Keres laughed heartily, he didn’t remember me (“yes, I think I lost to some boy…”), and he assured me that this opening variant didn’t hurt him at all.
Our second encounter was on equal rights, in 1954 at the Estonia – Latvia team match. Keres was rightfully considered one of the strongest chess players in the world, and I was just a master candidate. But the Latvian team’s leader, Alexander Koblencs, couldn’t go to Tallinn, so I was put on Keres’ mercy. By the way, we’d always lost to Estonian women at boards 9 and 10, so now we had three “hopeless boards”.
I remember how we got off the train: there was a snowstorm; we didn’t know where to go. And suddenly, Keres appeared at the platform. We were amazed: Keres himself came to the train station to meet some boys! But he had a few good words for everyone, got acquainted with us all and drove us to the hotel in his car.
I couldn’t help but notice how all players respected – almost admired! – Keres. Correct and benevolent towards his opponents, Keres was very principled and strict when it came down to chess. And people would often come to Keres, rather than the arbiters, to resolve some conflict. And he for almost three decades fought a dramatic battle against the stubborn fortune. Keres was always just a step away from the chess throne, but couldn’t make that step…
Losing to Keres at Bled in round 3, I fell to the bottom of the table. But it made little sense to give up. The fights around were so vicious that the audience was stunned. Of the first eight grandmaster games, there was only one draw. Nothing even remotely similar ever happened in a Candidates’ Tournament! Such turn of events could inspire even the most peaceful player, and I just liked it. Three wins over Olafsson, Fischer and Benko got me back in action.
One Yugoslavian newspaper wrote ironically, “Ten years ago, the girl chess players played in this same hall. They played so badly that they couldn’t draw each other…” Nevertheless, the spectators were delighted. The Casino hall in Bled was packed. By the way, long before the aforementioned girls, the best chess players of the thirties met in this same hall. Alexander Alekhine set a historical record there, finishing five and a half points ahead of the second place. The chess erudites have already pointed out that there were no boring tournaments in this town!
Constant noise in the hall, applause on every possible and impossible occasion – we could adjust to that. But the cinema people were the most annoying, their lights often blinded us. They were shooting a film that should have bested (as the director promised) the famous Chess Fever, filmed at the 1925 Moscow International tournament. In search for good stories, the operators would catch the grandmasters in the hotel, in the dining hall, at the streets. They found Paul Keres when he went to the lake with a fishing rod. And they found Petrosian at the channel. Tigran Vartanovich wore a funny Italian cap and looked very much like a gondolier, and there was a solidly built, respectable-looking man in the boat… Near the tournament’s end, there was a screening of the movie for players, and they immediately recognized the “rich tourist” as grandmaster Isaak Boleslavsky, then Petrosian’s coach.
The second leg started; Petrosian, Keres and I had a score of 4.5/7. Nobody managed to avoid painful defeats, and several leaders were rather a sign that there was no real leader yet. There was more than enough time for one to emerge: eight players covered only a quarter of the marathon distance of twenty-eight games! But that was a time to think critically about what was already done.
First of all, I asked myself, what do I want? Make the top three? That’s a success, of course. But the most enticing goal was to play a World Championship match. The proverb “if you pledge, don’t hedge” gave a clear answer to all the questions. But then, I’d have to overtake the ex-World Champion Smyslov, Keres who was a candidate for many years, and the nigh-invincible Petrosian who’d become a USSR Champion that year!
I also didn’t exclude Svetozar Gligoric from the equation, who took first place at board one at the Munich Olympics, ahead of Botvinnik (and that wasn’t simple at all in those years!)
What could I put up against the more distinguished and experienced opponents? I couldn’t count on any strategic advantage over them. And it was clearly ridiculous to count on technique. I should have learned all that from my colleagues… To say shortly, the campaign’s plan and its outcome were covered by thick fog. My coach and second advised me, “Misha, just play your own game while you can…” And my kind Koblencs even added, “Don’t pity me, the old man, I have a supply of heart pills.”
And what “my own game” meant? I got used to the situation when a couple of days after the game, some strict analyst would show me pages filled with variants. He’d say, your sacrifice was unsound, and if your partner played such and such moves, he’d win rather than lose…
My opponents forgot one thing. A tournament game doesn’t look like a correspondence game or a thorough analysis in a quiet room. Of course, you need to think over the board, but it’s often just a struggle of nerves. If you’re constantly trying to lead your partner from well-known lines into a maze of difficult intuitive calculation, and then sacrifice something when he’s in time trouble… I assure you, anyone can crumble under such pressure! Of course, the sacrificing partner also can lose. But if one likes to risk, and the other doesn’t, who’s going to be more comfortable in a risky situation?
And the conclusion is obvious: you have to risk, get partners into situations where general considerations can’t help, put them on the verge of mistake. The duelists of the last century called that “shooting through a shawl”!
As I already decided, I chose a “boarding” tactic against Smyslov in our second game. And the next day, I read a newspaper report titled “Kaissa favours the young”. The subtext was clear: well, Tal just got lucky… By the way, after my third game against Smyslov, the newspapers called me “The Luckiest of Lucky”. What happened in those games? In the second one, after a short hand-to-hand fight in the opening, I left a Bishop en prise. Smyslov pondered a bit, then confidently captured the piece. Perhaps he was right, White didn’t threat with anything decisive. Though my pieces got closer and closer to the Black King with each move, this wasn’t going to earn me points by itself. Smyslov defended very precisely for some time, then he made a very small mistake, and… the tanks broke through!
The game received the brilliancy prize, but for many days, the Yugoslav master Vladimir Vukovic, who got a nickname “Skeptic of the century” among the chess players, would bring variants that refuted the sacrifice. To allow me to play chess without further worry, grandmaster Vyacheslav Ragozin, the head of Soviet delegation, deflected the attack on himself. With the same patience, he’d prove to Vukovic that the sacrifice was sound. I think they’d finally agreed that White “did have something” for a sacrificed piece. And I didn’t argue.
I didn’t search for excuses even when my “pirate-style” tactics failed. For instance, Paul Keres accepted the Knight sacrifice, repelled the attack and won. I didn’t draw any serious conclusions, and tried to play the next game against Paul Petrovich in the same vein… Carried away by my ideas (I thought I was creating a masterpiece), I missed a very simple refutation and had to resign.
I was also on the edge during my third game with Smyslov. I played sloppily in the opening and immediately felt his iron fist at my throat. He was methodically and confidently strengthening the positions of his pieces. In all ex-champion’s actions, I could see a desire to get even with me for the rout in the previous game. Vasily Vasilyevich’s partners have long ago noticed his manner of piece placing – he would almost screw them into the board. This time, he was screwing them in very pointedly.
My position became worse and worse. I’ve already lost a piece, the flag on my clock was about to fall. But Smyslov was also tired. He’s irritated by my resistance, by tactical traps that I placed on his clear way to win. And the fatigued Smyslov (he was also under time pressure by that time) overlooked a Rook sacrifice that led to a draw. Even the imperturbable and correct Smyslov couldn’t handle himself after that. As he made his move, he slammed the clock button with such strength that several pieces fell on the board… The ex-champion immediately regained his composure, apologized and, in his calligraphic handwriting, wrote “draw” on his game sheet. And in the evening, in the hotel’s comfortable lobby, we heard his rich baritone – Smyslov superbly sang the prologue from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. In those minutes, both he and his listeners forgot about painful losses and sad mistakes…
He wasn’t alone in his bad luck that day. Keres made a tragic mistake, losing a Rook to Fischer. That was an undeserved and bitter loss. The brilliantly-playing veteran who deservedly led the tournament suddenly stumbled. I caught up with him, but only momentarily. In the next two games, I defeated Gligoric and Keres and emerged at first place.
Since this moment, the most dramatic stage of this tournament began. Smyslov and Petrosian fell behind, and the question about the first place became very laconic: Tal or Keres?
The Estonian grandmaster deserved the chess world’s sympathy a long time ago. I was only making my first steps as a toddler when Keres finished ahead of Alekhine in Margate and became a real world championship contender. The war ruined Keres’ hopes. And in 1946, Alekhine died, and the “Botvinnik era” began.
Keres played in five Candidates’ Tournaments (nobody could repeat that feat). But the chess fortune was especially cruel to him. No matter how valiantly he fought, somebody would finish ahead of him – somebody who was at his career peak at that time.
1950 – the rise of David Bronstein, who was just half a point away from becoming a world champion! Three years later, Vasily Smyslov finished ahead of Keres, and he repeated that feat in 1956. Smyslov was the strongest player then, and Keres finished second twice…
Here, in Yugoslavia, Paul Petrovich was 43 years old, and he fought against the younger partners, the stubborn fortune and his age. After he lost the lead, many thought that Keres would let down. But he found the strength and courage to make the last desperate effort. After the tragic mistake against Fischer and loss against me, Keres took four and half points in five games! In any normal tournament, that would have been more than enough to secure the first place. But, unfortunately for Keres, I took the same amount of points from my partners…
The last quarter of the chess marathon was held in Belgrade, in the huge hall of Trade Unions’ House. When we moved there from Zagreb, a smiling Yuri Averbakh gave me some newspapers. The chess report had a very catchy title: “Seven Grandmasters Approach Belgrade, Tal Approaches Botvinnik!” Very witty! But it was too early to dot the last I. There was a whole leg ahead. And Keres trailed behind, but he still didn’t lose hope… Two rounds before the finish, I was a point ahead. Before the game, Petrosian approached me: “You play The Sheriff today? Be very careful.”
I must explain something here. The Yugoslavian press invented a nickname for each grandmaster that played in the tournament. Keres was called “Chopin in Chess”; my name was “The Baltic Pirate”. Petrosian had a nickname “The Caucasian Eagle”, and Bobby Fischer was “The Sheriff from Brooklyn”. And so on. But why did Tigran advise me to play carefully? Because “The Sheriff” had a catastrophic score against me in this tournament: 0-3. And the day before, he solemnly promised to defeat Tal.
To be honest, Fischer almost fulfilled his promise. I played the opening very superficially: well, I was the leader and I feared no-one! And the talented Bobby Fischer who dreamed of revenge played very forcefully and determinedly.
In the year that passed after the Portoroz Interzonal, Robert Fischer grew up appreciably and became even more awkward and harsh in his opinions. His play was much stronger, and his style more solid. In the summer of ’58, Fischer visited Moscow. Do you think he asked how to get to the Tretyakov Gallery? No, chess captivated him fully, and he was going straight towards his goal… Flohr told me how Robert would come to the club at Gogolevsky boulevard in the early morning, when it was empty, except for the janitor. And when the first Central Chess Club worker would come, he’d force him to play. First, he defeated everyone – from the director to methodists, then master Vladimir Alatortsev came and also suffered defeat… When the club’s chess honour was at stake, they started to call for stronger players. Flohr added that he was still in bed when he got a call from the club: get up, Salomon Mikhailovich, your Motherland needs you!
It already wasn’t easy to play against Fischer in the Zurich tournament. The desire for victory and honed skills made him dangerous for any player. Fischer didn’t like easy draws and fought until the full exhaustion of material. In the game against the oldest Hungarian master Gedeon Barcza he didn’t have any advantage, but, not wanting to let his opponent go in peace, played until move 103. The game was adjourned three times! They used up two full game sheets… Finally, there were bare kings on the board. Shaken by this inhuman onslaught, Barcza barely managed to get up from his chair, and then Robert said, as if nothing had happened, “Let’s look at the game from the move one, I probably could play stronger somewhere.” And then Barcza (48 years old at the time – Sp.) pleaded, “What are you doing? I have wife and children, who would feed them if I die an untimely death?”
This fifteen years-old young man loved chess fanatically!
But let’s get back to our Belgrade game… At the 18th move, Fischer started very sharp complications and sacrificed a piece to me. If I declined, the game would have transposed into a boring endgame with all chances to draw. If I took the Knight, it was like walking the rope. But there, both players could make a mistake and lose. And so I chose the rope…
The 22nd move was critical. His face in his hands, Fischer was choosing between a Queen check and a Rook maneuver. The second continuation gave an almost decisive attack. He wrote down the move, moved the game sheet so that I could see it, and pondered. He was testing me: wouldn’t I frown or show any nervousness? I could make myself smile, but Bobby wasn’t a child, so he’d understand. What to do then? I wanted very much for him to change the decision. And so I calmly stood up – my years in the student theater surely counted for something! – and started to pace along the boards. I joked with somebody, looked at the demonstration boards and then got back with a satisfied look. I’m totally sure that Fischer looked at me all the time, rather than calculating variants. He stared at me again (I didn’t budge) and then… crossed out the move! He gave a check with the Queen, and I achieved decisive advantage in a few moves. My score against Fischer was now 4-0.
I wouldn’t decline to have the same score against another American grandmaster, Pal Benko. We had some scores to settle. Before the third leg game, he stated at the press conference that he knew the secret of “Tal’s mysterious victories”. I supposedly just hypnotized my partners… And he added, “I’ll play with him wearing tinted glasses – let’s see if he can win this way!” Koblencs took all that very seriously. He said, “Well, Misha, if he does defeat you in his tinted glasses, they’d declare him a prophet!”
And Benko actually came to the game in tinted glasses, causing a small sensation in the hall. But he fell victim to my home preparation: I took big sunglasses (lent from Petrosian) from my pocket and put them on, offering a double protection from my so-called hypnosis. The audience roared with laughter. Remembering Koblencs’ advice, I played very thoroughly. And Benko, whose poor performance wasn’t aided by those glasses, blundered his Queen and resigned at move 30.
And so, now I played him in the last round. I had 19.5 points, Keres was a point behind. Draw guaranteed me first place even if Keres won against Olafsson. I remember that my coach and second refused to eat breakfast in protest when I told them that I was going to play something sharp. “Misha”, Averbakh pleaded, “don’t try anything, play quietly.”
I had a big advantage at the third hour of play. I could continue the attack or force a draw immediately. But as soon as I started calculating variants, I remembered Alexander Koblencs. I looked at the hall, found my coach there, and I thought I saw him reaching for his heart pill… “Misha, don’t worry Riga,” he told me before the game, “don’t look for adventures, just once in your life!”
But I also understood clearly that it was time to dot the last I. I thought for a little while and gave a perpetual check to Benko’s King. If it’s a draw, be that as it may. That’s not a bad draw if it gives you the right to play a match against Mikhail Botvinnik…
So, Moscow awaits us! You probably can imagine the buoyant mood of me and Koblencs after Yugoslavia… The last barrier before the World Championship match was surmounted, and we could look back at our way with delight.
Just two years ago, with many other contenders, I started my journey through the qualification maze. Zonal, Interzonal, Candidates’ Tournament… Each stage gradually reduced the line-up. Many experienced fighters were optimistic until the very end, but everyone knew that only one would find the exit from this maze. The miracle happened – I became this “one”. Not long ago, this seemed only a theoretical possibility, but now it was reality. And I had to get used to that. I think that I finally believed in my success only after the last round of the Belgrade marathon, when journalists surrounded me:
“What will be your first move in the first game against Mikhail Botvinnik?”
I first heard the world champion’s name when I didn’t even know a thing about chess. Once, when I played soccer on the streets and conceded an easy goal, someone shouted at me, “Hey, goalie, why do you think so long, like Botvinnik?” Now I’m sure that this boy also didn’t know whom he was so flatteringly comparing me to. But the fact was that almost everyone knew the name of the first Soviet world champion.
During the famous USSR – USA radio match we could hear about Botvinnik’s team at the streets, in school, at home. By the way, my family always liked chess (my father and brother also played), and in the days of radio match, the “chess fever” reached its critical point. It was then when I made my first moves at the board. And a couple of years later, I’ve already played the Botvinnik system, which was brilliantly used by its author against the U.S. champion A. Denker.
In 1948, Janis Kruzkops, the coach of the Riga Pioneers’ Palace, wrote “Fourth category” in my qualifying card. Mikhail Botvinnik became the World Champion that year. We were divided by a great distance. I felt it even when I met Mikhail Moiseevich in the “grandmaster room” of the USSR Central Chess Club. By tradition, we had to discuss the terms of the forthcoming match.
I remember how I sat, constrained, at the table beside the famous champion. And he quoted the regulations with great respect and occasionally asked for my opinion. But I had no opinion! I thought that it didn’t matter how to play, how to adjourn games and whether to move the board into other room if there was too much noise in the hall. To say shortly, I agreed with everything! Well, I was a rookie, and Botvinnik had such an impressive match experience… I wasn’t even born when he played a match against Flohr, who was also a championship candidate at the time.
“Don’t you understand what opponent awaits you?” Koblencs asked as soon as the meeting ended. “It’s not Fischer, it’s not even Smyslov… Botvinnik played more games than you played blitzes!”
Alexander Naftalievich was a bit annoyed that I agreed with Mikhail Botvinnik on everything. I could have disagreed, even if just for appearance’s sake…
“You’ll surely forget to write down the move on two sheets! Why did you agree for two envelopes?”
Indeed, Botvinnik offered a complicated procedure for writing down the sealed move. It was to be written down on two separate sheets, put into separate envelopes and given to two arbiters. The world champion thought that if one arbiter would suddenly lose the envelope, then the second one could be used.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Koblencs in my thoughts. “First, there should be a game to adjourn…” Concerning my evaluation of the opponent’s strength – alas, it was true. A mighty opponent waited for me! Nothing much could be said. I had to play against a man who held the chess crown for twelve years and who deserved a place among Alekhine, Lasker and Capablanca.
How did I begin the preparations? I studied the world champion’s games, of course. I knew many of them by heart. Many players knew them. Chess players of all ages and titles learned from Mikhail Botvinnik.
I must admit that I don’t like quiet rooms. Sitting for half a year and searching for holes in my opponent’s opening lines wasn’t my cup of tea. And as soon as an opportunity presented itself, I signed up for a tournament. It had a long name: “The first international tournament of Baltic countries”, but the distance was short. Spectators who came to see the “attacking Tal” left disappointed. I also felt quite awkward, but I couldn’t go to the stage front and say that I was learning to defend. I could attack (at least, newspapers wrote so), but defending came more difficult to me…
The attackers’ roles were fulfilled by Boris Spassky and the veteran of Lithuanian chess, Valdas Ionovich Mikenas, who showed very courageous and energetic play in that tournament. An old rival also came ahead of me – the Leningrad grandmaster Tolush.
“Don’t I bring luck?” Alexander Kazimirovich asked when we met. “After I lost that decisive game in the CRRC, you’ve started to grab first prizes en masse.”
I came only fourth this time, but I wasn’t disheartened. Everything went according to plan. Only one thing alerted me – I had no match experience. I did play a qualifying match against Saigin to earn my master’s title six years ago, but the match was short, and I didn’t feel anything peculiar. I couldn’t prepare for games at all. And now, a match against the unsurpassed master of home preparation awaited me.
We all know that the match strategy is very different from the tournament one. For instance, a series of draws in the tournament leads to someone overtaking you. And in a match, this can provide a breather. You don’t fall behind, though you don’t overtake your opponent. And the value of any decisive game increases twofold. You lose a point, and your opponent gains a point. If you lose in a tournament, you can hope that someone else would restore the balance, but nobody can do such thing in a match. And it’s impossible to score easy points with outsiders – there are no outsiders.
The World Championship match was long – 24 games. In a tournament, that’s OK! Each day brings a new partner: one is a tactician, the other is a strategist, third one is a “king of draws”… Situation changes, every round brings some surprises. And now, I had to sit at the board with the same partner for more than two months, and what partner that was! Botvinnik himself! Such monotony seemed almost unbearable.
And so, we walked along the boulevard with Koblencs, from the Nikitskie Vorota square to the Pushkin Theater. We walked without hurry. I worried a lot. Alexander Naftalievich felt that and asked cautiously, “Well, why do you languish?” And I answer with a forced smile, “Maestro, can you remember the last time when I won in the first round? I lost in the last USSR Championship, lost in Zurich, lost at the Spartakiad, and in the Candidates’, Smyslov beat me like a child…”
It seemed that some curse haunted me in the first rounds. I could remember a dozen of tournaments that began from a defeat. I’d been beaten in the opening, in the middlegame, deep in the endgame. No matter how good my game was, I’d always find some way to lose it. Some of my partners in the first round even came to the game perfectly knowing that they’d score a full point.
At the theater’s entrance, we see a tall figure of the ex-champion Dr. Euwe.
“That’s a good sign”, my kind Koblencs whispered, “old masters said that meeting Euwe brings luck.”
The “psychotherapy” helped a lot – I smiled, and this smile made its way into the evening newspapers: the photographers did a good job.
I approached the chess table at the stage center and shook hands with Botvinnik. The match arbiter, Swedish grandmaster Gideon Stahlberg, turned on the clock, and I, fulfilling the promise made to the Yugoslavian journalists, made my first move with the king’s pawn. Botvinnik chose French defence. The match had begun…
Each sportsman has his own stellar hours. My stellar hour was in the spring of 1960… In the twenty-odd years that passed since, I played in a lot of tournaments and a dozen matches, had my successes and failures. But I still think that the match against Botvinnik was the main, the most memorable event of my life and sporting career. Even now, I still remember the smallest details of that chess battle.
The opening of the first game was played quite quickly: the demonstrator had a lot of work. The world champion used a novelty, and both Kings got stuck in the center, under attack. When I prepared for the match, I was going to play sharply and tactically, and that position was perfect for that. At some moment I felt that my partner was losing his confidence. He was thinking more and more over each move, and came under time pressure at the 28th move. And then I made a ramming strike on the Black King’s hideout. Botvinnik spent four precious minutes, but he couldn’t do anything but to sacrifice an exchange. Another pawn move at the other flank, and the champion stopped the clock…
This victory was worth of two… The “omen” made up by Koblencs worked, and, strangely, I didn’t lose the first game. The psychological meaning of this game was also important. Botvinnik chose a sharp variant, leaving his King in the center. He as though challenged me: “Well, I heard that you liked to fish in troubled waters, but you should know that I also play combinations a bit. Don’t you remember how I sacrificed a couple of pieces to Capablanca? Though you were less than three years old at the time…”
I hope that Mikhail Moiseevich would forgive me for this assumption. Of course, he never said such words to anybody. But chess aren’t just silent wooden pieces, they can express the player’s thought…
Anyway, Botvinnik changed his strategy from the second game on. He avoided all complication, played strictly positionally, avoiding even favourable, but risky variants. For four games, I was under pressure of methodical positional maneuvering. But all was well. I always managed to escape the grip in the last possible moment.
The fourth game began a bit nervously. My clock has already counted several minutes when I made my first move. I’m an avid fan of David Ionovich Bronstein, but his habit of thinking on the first move for half an hour still amazes me. I’m sure that it’s better to memorize the variant at home. It’s useless and even harmful to think what would happen fifteen moves later, because you waste precious time. But why did I make my move only at the fourth minute? It’s very simple: something happened at the street, and the taxi driver came under a “perpetual check” of red lights. I’ve had to apologize to the arbiters and my punctual opponent. I remembered Botvinnik’s golden rule: “You have to walk to the game by feet, using a predetermined route!” Oh, if only I’d always followed Botvinnik’s advices…
Before the sixth game, I’ve started to lose hope that I’d get a position that I like. But we played King’s Indian defence. And here’s the age-old problem with playing Black. Despite the fact that there are dozens of new, modern systems, statistics still show that the first move advantage is not strictly psychological. Arithmetic still shows that. White win much more often. Indeed, if Black don’t want to struggle for equalization, hoping only for a draw, they have to go by a very narrow road. To win, Black have to risk.
Analysts showed lots and lots of variants that suggested that I should have lost the sixth game. It’s possible, very possible… But that’s the difference between over-the-board play and unhurried home analysis – you have to find a response immediately! Yes, I risked when I put my Knight en prise at move 21, but it wasn’t easy to refute the sacrifice!
All my remaining pieces have obviously gained strength. Especially threatening was my King’s Indian Bishop that was cramped by its own pawns before that. The game became more interesting, I even didn’t stand up from the board. But then, very suddenly, Stahlberg stopped the clock and started to carry them away. What’s the matter? The second arbiter, Harry Golombek, immediately explained everything…
My Knight sacrifice excited the audience. The electric panel with the words, “Keep quiet!” would come to life all too often. Botvinnik’s second had already asked the arbiter to move the board into another room after the move 21. But Stahlberg was thinking. Finally he decided to do that at move 28.
Oh, what an unpleasant procedure – to leave the stage! It was all done correctly, with excuses, but… the time trouble was imminent, I started to calculate a complicated variant, and then suddenly, someone tells me, “Please come here.” I had nothing else to do (I agreed to this rule), so I had to leave the stage.
Chess players know how a smallest annoying thing can totally ruin their game. And such a change in the conditions could upset anyone. When I sat at the board again, I couldn’t remember the variant I calculated. I had to begin anew and, of course, overlooked a spectacular strike that led to the immediate victory. Fearing to miss something, I played more simply and prosaically. Thankfully, that move also won.
A good game always inspires. I played the next game in very good mood. Botvinnik overlooked a temporary sacrifice of two Rooks for two Knights. He was still upset by his loss in the sixth game… And so, I led by three points.
I think there’s no sense to discuss this match in details, it all happened so long ago. I’ll focus only on the key games. First of all, there was the game 11. I played in Botvinnik’s style, in a strictly positional manner. I accumulated small advantages and won a long Queen endgame. Such transformation of my style was an unpleasant surprise for my partner – I beat him with his own weapons. Before that game, everyone thought that I could win only tactically, and strategy was Botvinnik’s exclusive weapon, but after…
The seventeenth game decided the whole match. I chose a sharp and risky continuation again, but the sporting situation prompted Botvinnik to respond in kind. It was a very intense fight, and the audience constantly applauded, as though encouraging the tired players. In the end, Botvinnik miscalculated and came under a mating attack.
That night, my opponent’s second master Goldberg told Koblencs, “Well, meet you in the return match!”
I remember that even after his second’s promising words, Botvinnik fought to the end. I barely managed to escape in the game 18 that lasted for 76 moves! The Soviet chess veteran showed his resolute, truly sporting character. Of course, he didn’t believe in miracles… the gap was too big, with very few games remaining! Caution thrown aside, he met the danger face to face, and it wasn’t his fault that the fortune favoured his younger partner this time. The world champion didn’t even bring his famous thermos to the last game… After 17 moves, Botvinnik offered a draw and extended his hand. The match’s result: I won six games, Botvinnik won two, the final score was 12.5-8.5.
The next day, FIDE Vice President Marcel Berman attached a small golden circle to my lapel – a world champion medal. I was 23 years old in this stellar hour of my life. I must admit that I never thought it would me that short. I always was an optimist, so I couldn’t imagine for a second that I’d have to give my crown back in just a year. But Botvinnik was still Botvinnik, even after his defeat. He prepared brilliantly for our second match, neutralized all my strongest skills, made me play in positional style that he rather enjoyed and won 13-8.