Mikhail Tal. "When Pieces Come Alive", part 4

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4. Match of the Century


The history of Soviet chess remembers two outstanding team matches. One took place in autumn 1945, the other a quarter of century later, in 1970. These are the dates of the famous USSR – USA radio match and the match against the best players of the world.

Of course, there were other interesting team battles. For instance, our team played against the U.S. team three more times in 1940s and 1950s. And there were so many Olympic matches! But the sensational radio match and the famous “Match of the Century” have surpassed all the others.

I was only learning chess when the Soviet team played against the chess world’s favourites, the U.S. team that won many Olympiads. But I remember very well the enthusiasm and interest of chess players (and even those who didn’t know a thing about chess) towards any messages about the match.

Match predictions were a big topic of discussion. In our country, everyone believed in victory, thinking that we would win at least by a point, but the entire world press thought that our chess players would inevitably lose. You bet! The American team had such celebrated players as R. Fine – one of the winners of the pre-war AVRO tournament, a world championship candidate. Another candidate, S. Reshevsky, was considered the brightest star of the Western chess world. There were also I. Kashdan, I. Horowitz, H. Steiner.

And of the Soviet team, only M. Botvinnik and S. Flohr were well-known abroad. They were strong, everyone admitted that, but two players don’t make a team…

“Where can Russians get ten top players?” the foreign reporters would ask. “Yes, we heard chess was a mass sport there, we saw the movie Chess Fever. But in a ten-board match, it’s the strength of top ten players that’s important, not the number of chess players in the country… We will score points, and Russians can console themselves with their chess-playing masses”, the Western press wrote ironically.

But the irony ended as soon as the first moves were aired. And when the results were announced on the radio, many people thought that the announcer had made a mistake. The elite of Western chess, the U.S. team, managed to get only 4.5 points in 20 games! An incredible rout!

“That was like a lightning bolt that showed the true balance of power in the chess world. It was clear to everyone that the center of chess life moved to the Soviet Union; in USSR, chess had become a truly public game, and the Soviet masters surpassed the masters of any other country both in numbers and in their quality of play”, wrote Botvinnik, the leader of the Soviet team.

I’ll allow myself to tell you one more quote. It belongs to the late French grandmaster and writer Savielly Tartakower. Evaluating the results of the radio match, he said, “The score 15.5-4.5 is fantastic, but it’s quite real. I think that the Soviet chess players can rival a team comprised of the world’s strongest grandmasters. It’s clear to me that the era of Soviet chess had begun.”

Significant words!

25 years later, it was wonder to no-one that the USSR team decided to actually play against the rest of the world. And even computers didn’t doubt what the result would be.

All countries, even those where chess weren’t too popular, eagerly waited for this outstanding contest. It was immediately dubbed “The Match of the Century”, and our opponents’ captain, ex-World Champion Max Euwe, even gave some “scientific” grounds to that name. “Until the end of 20th century”, he said, “nothing will upset the balance of chess power between the West and USSR. So, this match will reflect the state of affairs for the entire century.”

I watched the U.S. match through newspapers and radio reports, but I was a rightful team member in the “Match of the Century”. Veterans Mikhail Botvinnik and Vasily Smyslov also joined the team. In 1945, they performed brilliantly against the Americans, taking 4 points of 4. And now, twenty-five years later, they were still going strong!

Long before the match’s beginning, there were a lot of questions in the chess press that nobody could answer clearly. For instance, what would the line-ups be, how to staff the teams to satisfy everyone involved? And, finally, would the organizers be able to satisfy 80 (!) demands of Robert Fischer? Would he play in the match, at all?

At the March 1 (a month before the match) Moscow and Belgrade simultaneously sent telegrams to each other, and both teams learned the line-ups of their opponents. We were at the training session at Ozery, a small town in the Moscow region, and we immediately looked at the top line. Fischer’s name was there. The opponents have mustered their best line-up. Fischer didn’t play in any tournaments for two years. After a nervous breakdown at the Sousse Interzonal (he argued with the arbiters) Fischer quit the World Championship cycle. It wasn’t clear whether he would take part in the new cycle that had already begun. But Fischer decided to play in the match!

I described the top line to the reader in great detail. But I was more interested in the ninth line. Who was at board nine of the world team?

Miguel Najdorf! That’s who was to become my opponent in the match. Veteran with a student’s heart! The man with the longest chess biography… In our team, only Boris Spassky was younger than me, and the Argentinean grandmaster was the oldest player of both teams. I immediately remembered the Leipzig Olympiad. Then, before the match against Argentina, I met Najdorf. It happened in the café, I was having breakfast together with Smyslov. Then Najdorf stormed in. He couldn’t walk quietly. This man, whose hair long ago became grey, was immensely energetic. “How many points will you give us?” he asked Smyslov. Without even waiting for an answer, Miguel then attacked me: “You must know, young man, that I defeated Capablanca and Alekhine, and I’ll willingly accept any of your sacrifices. That’s the best way to defeat you!”

He said it with a big smile and with such excitement that we’d instantly almost became friends. Two hours later, I sacrificed an exchange – Najdorf accepted it. But when I also put my Bishop en prise, the Argentinean made a helpless gesture: “I’m sorry, but I can’t keep my promise – if I take this piece, I’ll get checkmated.” Though he stopped the clock five moves later.

Everyone surely had his own memories. There were funny remarks and reserved phrases when we read the list. “Is anyone unhappy?” Spassky asked. “I can offer you Bobby Fischer instead of your partner…” The world champion joked, of course: he had nowhere to go from the first board.

“An old acquaintance”, said Vasily Smyslov when he learned he was going to play Samuel Reshevsky. “We played each other in the radio match 25 years ago.”

Petrosian was to play Bent Larsen. He said, “A unique partner! To make just a single draw, I had to play nine decisive games against him!” Petrosian’s score against Larsen was perhaps one of the most “fighting” in his career: 6 wins, 3 losses and only one draw. He took a voluminous folder “Larsen” from the coaches and went studying the Danish grandmaster’s favourite positions… If only Tigran Vartanovich knew what surprise awaited him a month later, he’d surely study very different positions! But let’s talk about that later…

Two hours of flight, and we arrived to Belgrade. There were so many people wanting to meet us that the plane barely managed to land. We entered the Trade Union House that held so many good memories for me. Ahead, at the stairs, I saw the tall figure of Paul Keres. He stopped, seemingly thinking of something. Eleven years ago, we had a dramatic race for the first place in this hall.

It was so long ago! From there, I went to my match against Botvinnik. But for Keres, that tournament brought only disappointment. He finished second – third time in a row.

We were met by organizers, opponents, reporters. A great number of journalists assigned to the “Match of the Century” suggested the interest this match stirred in the whole world: there were 300 reporters from 75 countries! When our plane landed, there were a bit tired from predictions and waited for a new sensation, however small it might be.

And they had their sensation! Bent Larsen refused to play at board two, citing his numerous victories in international tournaments. And Fischer didn’t play anywhere for two years… The World team captain Max Euwe made a futile attempt to prove to Larsen that Fischer had a better Elo rating, and so…

“I don’t know much about mathematics”, the grandmaster answered, “I’m a humanitarian. I’d better quit the team altogether and remain here as a Danish newspaper correspondent.”

Everyone waited for a day for Larsen (always so compliant) to yield, but he persisted. “Either I play Spassky or I don’t play at all!” The vexed Petrosian already asked the coaches to give him a dossier on the World team reserve player, Fridrik Olafsson, locked himself in his room and started to prepare. There was just one day before the match. But late in the evening, Bondarevsky came to him and silently put the third (!) folder on the table. It bore the name of Fischer…

“What? Did he agree to play below Larsen?” Tigran Vartanovich couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Yes, something almost incredible happened”, said Igor Zakharovich. “Fischer agreed to play on board two. He was probably just tired from the trip and said “OK” to get rid of Euwe, but it could be a tactical manoeuvre…

Anyway, the reshuffle of the first two boards ruined the entire pre-match preparation for Spassky and Petrosian. And it had a strong psychological effect too. Even if we assume that this change was equally surprising for Fischer and Larsen, it still didn’t ruin their preparations. They have surely studied the recent Petrosian – Spassky match, and so they knew the games of both grandmasters.

Robert Fischer told the press next morning, “I decided to do this because I saw that the team was demoralized, so I wanted to try and cheer them up. But you all know that I’m a stronger player than Larsen…”

There were other rows in the World team. Milan Matulovic straightforwardly asked Euwe, “Why did you put me so low, on board eight?” His opponent Botvinnik made a funny joke about that:

“I understand him completely: he probably doesn’t want to play against such a weak player as me!” And in the first game, our veteran “read” Matulovic such a strong lecture on chess strategy that the game was awarded with a special prize, and Euwe started to think about substituting Matulovic.

But let’s get back to the Fischer-Larsen reshuffle. That was against the rules. It was clearly stated in the regulations that no line-up changes were allowed. So Dr. Euwe had to go to the USSR captain D. Postnikov and said, “You have all the right to refuse. But we have to save the prestige of the Match of the Century!”

The Soviet players understood that all too well. They agreed not to insist on following the rules and allowed the World team to reshuffle the line-up. This decision was dictated by higher chess interests rather than the sporting benefits. We didn’t want the World team to play without such a brilliant player as Bent Larsen.

All those pre-start emotion have immediately faded as soon as the clocks were started. The predictions were right: our team went straight ahead. After the second round, it led by three points. Newspapers praised us, they said that “it might become even worse” and predicted that we would devastate the “world’s finest”.

The virus of complacency (or should I say even harsher – self-assurance) started to gnaw at the willpower of our team. And the opponents who had nowhere to retreat looked like a very determined and willful team in the third round.

And so it began… Boris Spassky, who had a fantastic score against Larsen before the “Match of the Century” (12-1), who brilliantly won against him in the second round, suddenly lost a piece. I’ve never seen such blunders in Boris’ games before!

Keres looked rather upset. He was close to defeat Ivkov second time in a row. But he was disturbed by the situation on other boards, and so he also faltered. A couple of imprecise moves, and there’s a draw on the board. And the greatest optimist of our team, Mark Taimanov, waited for his opponent W. Uhlmann to resign (he had a completely winning position), but he played too slowly and got only half a point.

A chain reaction of errors (such things do happen in the team matches!) affected even Botvinnik. He had a material advantage in the endgame, but he overlooked Matulovic’s combination, and so he sacrificed his Queen to force stalemate. I instantly remembered how Botvinnik in the 20th game of our return match caught me in a similar stalemate trap. I waited for almost ten years that someone would avenge me. But the revenge came in the most infortunate time. And it got even worse – Smyslov lost to Reshevsky.

Among the catastrophic events, I managed to get to Najdorf’s King. But my point looked rather lonely in the row of zeroes and half-points…

The World team closed the gap and trailed by only one point. The sudden mishap of our team made the atmosphere much more intense. And then the very nervous last round began. For me, it was shorter than the three previous ones: the game against Najdorf ended relatively quickly. It was hard to play – the burden of responsibility made me play with extreme caution. There was a moment when I could sacrifice the exchange, but it could complicate things too much…

After my game with Najdorf ended in a draw, I started studying the other boards. The capricious Fortune continued to rock the boat… Polugaevsky had a great advantage, but when I approached his table again, he was quite annoyed. He overlooked the three-time repetition. Boris Spassky was ill, so Leonid Stein substituted for him in the last round, but his game wasn’t too good. Only the games of two veterans of the Soviet team still left some hope of overall success…

That’s were Keres’ coolness and composure came into play! Repelling Ivkov’s nervous attacks with great precision, he seized the only open file and executed a very impressive attack on the King. The score tied at 19.5-19.5!

And so, everyone’s attention turned to the game Smyslov – Olafsson that decided the result of the “Match of the Century”. The entire hall, the entire Marx-Engels Square watched this game. Under a torrential rain, thousands of people watched the final act of this drama on a huge board with glowing chess pieces. The voice of Mario Bertok, the chess reporter of Sportski Novosti newspaper, boomed through the loudspeakers – he was always at the demonstration boards during the game. Bertok had already told the spectators that Olafsson might as well resign, and he was searching for some illusory chances only because it was a team match…

Smyslov knew that his victory is very much needed. I watched him screwing the pieces into the board and suddenly remembered our dramatic game in Zagreb, played nine years ago. Vasily Vasilyevich also had an extra piece and a won position, but he overlooked a perpetual check. God forbid…

Then there was applause, and it drove away all worries. Olafsson signed his game sheet and extended his hand to Smyslov. Victory! Oh, it wasn’t easy for us, so maybe that’s why it seemed even more valuable to us…

Now, many years later, when I’m starting to forget small details, it’s easier to look at the historical match from a distance and evaluate it without much emotion. A hard struggle ended with the victory of Soviet team that defeated the best players of the entire world. An unprecedented success! But there was a large blot on the landscape… The results at the first four boards were disappointing, and the average age of our team was alarmingly high. Where was our youth? Why no young grandmasters from USSR played in the “Match of the Century”?

Let me be quite frank: the end of 60’s and beginning of 70’s weren’t the best time for Soviet chess. We still regularly won Olympiads and European championships, we had all the world’s chess titles, but there were alarming symptoms of stagnation and complacency.

Since the spring of 1948, when Mikhail Botvinnik had become the first Soviet world champion, nobody ever doubted the large advantage of Soviet players over all the others. Botvinnik’s success wasn’t that of a solitary genius: there was a whole generation of bright, talented masters behind him. The genius Botvinnik was just a leader of the Soviet chess school, the school of innovators and explorers.

We wouldn’t hold anything like the “Match of the Century”, say, in the fifties – the Soviet players were head and shoulders ahead. Bright stars appeared, one after another. They stormed the chess throne and created a strong barrier for the Western grandmasters. It wasn’t an accident that FIDE established a discriminating quota on the Soviet players that could progress to the Candidates’. They feared that the non-USSR players wouldn’t get past the Interzonals!

But everything changes. As soon as we stopped moving forward for a while, everyone else started to close the gap. In America, Western Europe and socialistic countries, many new title challengers appeared. Bent Larsen, Lajos Portisch, Vlastimil Hort and, of course, Robert Fischer! And in the USSR, the “old guard” was on the first line for many years. They were waiting to be replaced. But the replacements came late.

After 1958, when Boris Spassky and me last played in the students’ team championship, our student team met hard times… We needed three years to assemble a team that could mount a title challenge again. But that wasn’t the only alarming symptom.

Before the “Match of the Century”, a young master Anatoly Karpov won the youth world championship. That was great! But nobody could explain why our youth players couldn’t reach the top for fifteen years!

And we finally sighed with relief only in the beginning of 1981, when a very interesting team tournament dedicated to the 26th congress of the CPSU was held. That was a real parade of our best chess forces. Among the four grandmaster teams that played in this double round robin, the youth team headed by a very bright and promising player, 18 years old Garry Kasparov from Baku, performed very well. In autumn 1980, he played brilliantly at the Malta Olympiad. In the tournament, Kasparov made two draws with Karpov, divided the points with Romanishin (1-1) and defeated Smyslov twice. A very convincing result!

I want to get back to the “Match of the Century”. The story wouldn’t be full if we didn’t remember a very interesting blitz tournament that took place immediately after the match.

Chess players of all levels love blitz. In any chess club, you can see some very lively-looking tables… Hands flying over the board, the clock buttons click constantly – we can surely tell that someone plays a five-minute game. It’s curious to note that there are always more spectators at the blitz boards than at the “slow” tournament ones. It’s understandable. Not everyone would spend four or five hours watching one long game. A short chess battle that ends in a few minutes is always more interesting!

Grandmasters also like blitz. And as soon as the organizers announced that after the official closing of the “Match of the Century” there would be an international blitz tournament, almost a half of the players immediately forgot about their tiredness… Indeed, the lightning-fast games are the best way to decrease stress.

We played in a fine lobby of a big health resort; journalist and TV reporters were already there. A few years ago, the Yugoslav writer Dmitri Belica published a book about the “Match of the Century”. A good half of the book was dedicated to the blitz tournament, and only the second half described the match itself. Such an honour to the “easy genre” of chess! In Belica’s book, there’s a lot of very interesting photos, as though made with a hidden camera. But where did he get the texts of the games? Everyone knows that it’s impossible to write down moves during a blitz game. And then I remembered the boys with portable audio recorders that came to the tournament together with the future book author. The boys did a great work. When the games began, they didn’t waste time…

To my chagrin, in the first round I was pitted against Robert Fischer. I’m saying “to my chagrin” because, as you know, first round rarely brings me luck. At first, the omen seemingly didn’t work, and I had an overwhelming position. Any boy that came with Belica could have won that rook endgame. But I started to work wonders and finally moved a wrong passed pawn… Such a lucky start boosted Fischer’s confidence, and he never relinquished his lead. I managed to finish second.

“Bobby plays blitz as I did ten or so years ago”, Petrosian said sorrowfully, and I understood perfectly what he wanted to say. I remembered well how the young “Iron Tigran” set up his positions in blitz games. He didn’t miss even a single pawn! And all moves were as though tied with one logical thread. Now Fischer started to play like that, and it was unexpected…

The fact is that Bobby would constantly play blitz with the Soviet grandmasters since the Portoroz Interzonal. And he wasn’t exactly successful. I think that he had a total minus score. But he didn’t lose heart and learned from those defeats. He’d always persuade someone to play a dozen or two games. After the Zurich tournament, when I was already packing his suitcase, the maid told me, “Mr. Tal, Mr. Fischer is calling you by the phone.” I picked up the phone, and he told me, “I’m off to New York in an hour, but if you agree to play some blitz, I might exchange my ticket…”

During the Havana Olympiad in 1966, I met Leonid Stein and Robert Fischer at the seafront; they were talking and gesticulating lively. Both grandmasters were busy with an important problem: they remembered the position from their blitz games they played five years ago at Stockholm! And they argued, mixing Russian and English words, who was better.

This argument continued until the next day, when the Cuban peoples’ hero, Che Guevara, joined it. He offered them to play ten blitz games immediately. “And we’ll invite Tal as the arbiter”, he added. I agreed. I knew that Leonid was in a great form then, and I was sure that he’d give Fischer a run for his money.

But suddenly, everything became much more serious.

“Why blitz?” Robert retorted. “I, as the current U.S. champion, challenge Leonid Stein, the USSR champion, for a match. Let’s play seriously, until six wins.”

Stein agreed. Fischer found the president of Cuban Chess Federation Luis Barreras and stated the idea. “Excellent”, the president said, “a great idea! But I have no authority to make such decisions. Let’s talk to the chairman of the organizing committee…”

The chairman was Fidel Castro. He heard out both grandmasters and guaranteed that the match would be held in Havana. But when?

“Right after the USSR Championship”, Stein said, “the tournament begins in a month, and I can’t miss it.”

“Well, no”, Fischer said, disappointed. “You might lose your title, and our match won’t be as interesting as it is now.”

Both champions were right in their own way. And so, the match Fischer – Stein that could have been very interesting never happened. Two years after the “Match of the Century”, Fischer played his last match in Reykjavik. And… quit chess. Nobody ever saw him at the board, neither in a tournament nor in a blitz game.

And life went on. New names appeared. In 1975, a young Soviet grandmaster Anatoly Karpov became the World Champion. By the way, our first chess games were blitz games.

A few months before the “Match of the Century”, I was in the Kuntsevo hospital, waiting for a very unpleasant operation. Time went very slowly, and I started to worry that the doctors would forbid me to play in the match…

I was very glad when I learned that Karpov would visit me in the clinic. Anatoly recently won the qualification tournament and progressed to the youth world championship in Stockholm. I don’t know how he managed to persuade the doctors, but he came to my room and, with a shy smile, put chess clock on the table… I heard much about Tolya’s blitz skills. Geller, for instance, told me that many grandmasters have a minus blitz score against the master Karpov. And I even thought, “Can an ill Tal stand against this young man?”

Yes, I thought that, but I accepted the challenge without hesitation. I’m afraid to sound immodest, but I’ll still say that I didn’t consider myself a bad blitz player. Even when I was world champion, I was very proud of my MSU blitz champion title. Our battle with Karpov was long; we played until the head doctor protested, the score was 10-10 at the time.

Even then I was struck by young master’s defensive skills. And when he had an opportunity, he’d attack with much ingenuity.

A month after the “Kuntsevo battle”, he won the youth world championship, the title that a Soviet player didn’t win since 1956.

Just a few years passed, and Karpov started his ascension to the chess throne. But we’ll talk about that later.