Mikhail Tal's last ever interview

Jan 19, 2011, 11:05 AM |

Ogonyok, #34-35, 1992

Vitaly Melik-Karamov

"Against medicine, Tal played only Black"


That's the last interview of Mikhail Tal.

He suffered from a serious illness for a long time and looked horribly for many years. Tal was the second of eight post-war world champions to die. The first was Tigran Petrosian who once said, "The most healthy of us is Misha Tal. Anyone other wouldn't live even a year with his maladies."

Tal was ill when I approached him, but the sense of humour never left him. I asked to meet him and told that I started to make a movie called "13 Champions" - the history of all world chess champions. He listened to me, and then asked: "Did you reach an agreement with Steinitz yet?"

Mikhail Tal wrote columns for Ogonyok for many years. In those years the only things of interest were crossword puzzles and his articles. In the dullest years he retained his bright personality. I can imagine how angry were the people on two famous neighbouring Moscow squares because of his "escapades", but I think that even they loved him.

It was impossible not to love Tal.

He had no enemies. He couldn't have had any, because nothing earthly interested him.

Tal belonged to the generation of the so-called 60ers. And, while Tal never criticized political system, the party, special services, district and executive committees, he managed to remained free even in the meanest times.

Mikhail Nekhemievich, for the whole history of chess only thirteen people held the World Champion title. Only three of them lived with their fathers in childhood years. Max Euwe, Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov and you. But you and Smyslov both were World Champions just for a year. Maybe it's not an accident? Maybe, you lacked the strength that only the destitute have?

A well-known sports writer Viktor Vasilyev wrote the books Zagadka Talya ("Tal's Mystery") and Vtoroe "ya" Petrosiana ("Petrosian's second "I"). He expressed the same idea there. I'm the boy from a problem-free family that lived a relatively
quiet life, not taking into account the global turmoil that affected everybody - the World War II, so I've got one playing style. Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian's life was harder, more difficult - and this affected his playing style as well. Such theory is worth considering, but I think it's only a hypothesis.

Judging by your memories, your father was a great man who profoundly influenced you?

In our family, all men were medics. My grandfather was a pharmaceutist, my father was a doctor, my elder brother was a doctor, my son is also a doctor. The only man who played Black with medicine was me, and medicine probably took revenge on me because of that.

And my father was a real doctor, like those doctors of old times. The entire city called him "Dr. Tal". Endless calls, endless home visits by the patients.

What do you think now about your matches against Botvinnik? They brought both the greatest glory and perhaps the greatest disappointment into your sporting life?

To be honest, I was very engaged in the playing process, so I didn't have any nerve flashes after the win or depression after the defeat. After the last game of the return match, we immediately visited a basketball game: the American professionals came to Moscow. They played against our amateur team. I was in a good mood. I wanted to play Botvinnik some more. But I couldn't. What could I do?

They wrote that before the return match against Botvinnik, you relaxed and didn't work on your playing. What could happen if you did work?

It's wrong. Botvinnik didn't play worse than me in the first match. But he needed time to get used to my playing style. It's not an accident that Botvinnik's most stellar performance was in his return matches. He got used to his partner, thoroughly studied his games. And my first World Championship game against Mikhail Moiseevich in the Pushkin Theater hall was actually our first ever game. I've had much more information about Botvinnik that he had about me. And in the second match, his playing was brilliant. Though I think that in the second half of the match, I also played good. And I did all I could to prolong the match. I played the last games in an upbeat mood, perhaps even pathologically upbeat.

Mikhail Nekhemievich, one of the most mysterious World Champions is Robert Fischer. We don't get much information about him, and when we get some information, it's very contradictory. How do you remember him? Some people say that now he looks more like a "local idiot".

It's hard to call any famous chess player a perfectly rational man with impeccable logic. There are many different people among us. But concerning Fischer, I can't agree that I've been always provoking Fischer, and he always resented me for that. When I fell ill at Curacao, he visited me in the hospital. We did chaff each other, of course. He's a very interesting man. But there was one thing that made Fischer very difficult to understand - his peculiar sense of humour.

At the Varna Olympics in 1962 after some round we went out of the tournament hall together. At the time, they said that Fischer asks money for every autograph, let alone interview. "A chess journal editor from Riga called me", I told Fischer, "and asked me to interview you." It wasn't a complete lie - this editor was me. Bobby gladly agreed to talk, and we strolled along the seafront. My first question was, "Who do you think is the strongest chess player?" He stared at me, puzzled. I immediately corrected myself: "Except for yourself, of course." He again stared at me and said, "Well, you're also a good player." I immediately understood that such an interview won't ever be published. But still asked questions, just for myself. I learned that he never tasted champagne, neither French nor Soviet, but for some reason prefers French. I asked him various questions, and when we came to the hotel, I asked the last question: "You turn nineteen soon, have you thought of marriage?" He looked at me gullibly and said, "I'm thinking over this problem, I don't know what to do. Should I get a used car, or should I marry?"

I doubted my English knowledge and asked him again, and he confirmed his words. He's going to marry, but not an American woman (they spend all their time at hairdresser's shop, he said). Girls from Taiwan or Hong Kong attracted him more, he liked exotic things. A used car costed $700 or so then, and the costs to bring a girl from Taiwan to USA were almost the same, and if anything happens, it's easy to send her back home. How could I publish something like that? And many newspapers did publish such materials. So I understand Fischer's bitterness towards press. He has all the reasons for it.

Were there any women in his life at all?

Well, I can't swear that's true, but I heard that there were.

Is he completely lost for chess?

As far as I know, Fischer met Spassky recently and showed him some moves in the Gruenfeld Defence that was the most-used opening in the matches between Kasparov and Karpov. And, as Borya said, Fischer had many interesting ideas. So he still works on chess.

A couple of years ago I've been to Argentina, and one local grandmaster told me that he recently played blitz with Fischer, and "can you imagine, Misha, he won all the games!" Then I learned that you don't have to be Fischer to do that. But we can tell that Fischer still plays for win.

There are also facts for the contrary. Stage fright, the fear of playing a younger opponent. I think that was the main reason of Fischer's refusal to play Karpov. Nevertheless, the whole chess world, all chess players are deeply grateful to Fischer. Because of him, chess stopped being an internal problem of Soviet trade unions and became the means of international communication.

Maybe, Fischer feared other things? Like clandestine influence on his brain during games? It wasn't Korchnoi who first started to accuse KGB in that. This topic was discussed since the first World Championship matches. Did you ever feel any outside signals in your brain?

Well, I can't say if Lasker was ever hypnotized because I never saw him play... but I've got a great story about that. In 1969 or so I, together with Viktor Lvovich Korchnoi, played in Wijk an Zee tournament. Viktor Lvovich had a good start, and I contracted some illness at the start, as usual... So it was quite clear who gets the first place. Several rounds before the finish, a very handsome man approached me and said, "Dutch chess master and psychologist Barenbrecht." And he offered, "Grandmaster, would you like to play blitz with me?" "Why not?" "But I'll be hypnotizing you during the game. I need additional time for that, and I'm sure I can defeat you." I wasn't a bad blitz player then, so I agreed. The chess clock ticked, and Barnbrecht suggested to me that my head got heavier, my hands were numb and cold, and so on... Maybe I know English language too bad and didn't understand much of what he said, but I won the game. Then he asked me if Korchnoi would agree to play him under the same circumstances. When i asked Viktor Lvovich about that, he was astonished: "Did you agree?" "Yes, what's wrong with that?" "You can't imagine", Korchnoi told me, "what consequences you may face several years later..." And when Korchnoi's matches against Karpov began, when scandals around the psychologist Zukhar began, I remembered that story...

I'm absolutely convinced that no things described by Korchnoi ever took place. But a hypochondriac will surely be influenced by suspicions that some demonic forces or psychic radiation act against him. The presence of some parapsychologist, hypnotist, magician, wizard in the hall influenced Korchnoi's form and mood. That match could hardly be called a "chess match". And a war is a war.

Still, Korchnoi wasn't completely wrong. In our country, there were some invisible forces, though, of course, of a different nature. How did you get along with them?

Well, you know, if a man works for certain organization, it doesn't automatically make him better or worse than he really is. There were many good people who readily helped me. So I don't want to say that all Riga KGB workers were alike. I don't want to say that there were only bad people. No. There were different people. For some years I wasn't allowed to go abroad. Someone didn't like my tongue, someone else didn't like my speeches.

I don't want to bother to remember that sad, but thankfully safe past.

The people played Black for so long that now that they finally got White, some hot heads are trying too hard to exploit their first move right and often force the events when there's no need to.

OK. So let's discuss the third secret force that threatens chess as a gentlemens' game. It's probably the most dangerous now. Don't you think that if Kasparov holds his title for ten more years, then the next World Champion will be a machine, not a man? Garry himself once said that if a machine defeats a human player, it will mark the decline of human civilization.

Until recently, I was very skeptical towards computers, though first talks about that started around 1960. Botvinnik predicted that "soon the robot will play as good as the best grandmasters, but", I don't know why, but he turned to me when he said that, "it won't care what the journalists write about it or how many spectators are there in the hall."

I could only answer with, "Of course, who would buy a ticket to watch the game of two refrigerators, let alone waste newspaper space on it?" But Mikhail Moiseevich was right, as always. Now there are some real threats. We already agreed that a car is faster than any sprinter, that a hoisting jack is stronger than any weightlifter. But we'll never want to admit that a machine is more clever than us. We'll never want. Garik, of course, did good for homo sapiens when he defeated the machine. But I don't know for how long or how consistently will he be defeating it.

You know, there are some people that look like they're from the past, and other people are late to be born. Maybe you'd want... (Tal foresaw the question and shook his head)

If I were born later, our relationship with Kasparov would have probably be different. I think we'd be long time rivals.

In November, there was a USSR Championship in Moscow. Open championship, perhaps the last one - I don't know. On 9th November, I played there and made my draw, and Alexei Shirov from Riga won brilliantly, came to me and said, "I'm glad that it was today, 9th November (Tal's birthday), that I played so good. I dedicate this game to you." Very moving.

Thanks, Mikhail Nekhemievich, that's all.

Yes, that's all from me too.