"A Non-Inside Look" by Mikhail Tal

Jan 20, 2011, 4:28 AM |

64, #18, 1988

In his closing speech after the 55th USSR Championship, Mikhail Moiseevich Botvinnik (the arbiter, and that's quite fascinating in itself!) said that we didn't have such a strong tournament since 1973. We can agree with him. But also we can disagree. Because fifteen years ago, a World Champion wasn't invited to our championship... But, speaking seriously, the Moscow tournament was much discussed long before its beginning.

For years, all kinds of chess writers attacked the "non-playing" grandmasters who boycotted the USSR championships. We can understand those critics. In the years when I was a spectator, and then an active player, all the best players gathered at the championships. For instance, the 19th and 20th championships, or the 1957 championship that I still remember so fondly... Then, by various reasons (but those reasons were always objective) the country's leading chess players - everyone or not - stepped aside. It's hard to remember, for instance, when a World Champion last played in the USSR championship. In his years as a World Champion, Anatoly Karpov only twice joined the race for the gold medal. Though he was successful both times! Thereupon, I remember one of the meetings of our federation where this year's high league was discussed. As far as I remember, they decided to close the Sheremetievo-2 airport for our leading grandmasters for duration of the championship. Another historical resolution was passed, though I thought quite skeptically of it: for the players older than 50, playing in the championship was optional.

And considering the last two years... Before the 1986 championship, I called one of the Chess Federation official, O. Stetsko.

He asked me about my plans. "I'd like to play in the high league", I answered. And by the tone of his voice, I could tell that my words astonished him.

"Misha, are you seriously?" Stetsko asked. (Knowing of my reputation, even I myself started to doubt it.) "You know, of those with personal invitations, only Beliavsky plays, but, you know..."

(There was a pause where I could think anything.)

"You know, he always plays!" said the voice in my phone. And then I understood: it was almost inappropriate for me to play in the championship. So I had to refuse voluntarily.

The next year, the USSR championship was also a FIDE Zonal tournament. I'm sure that was the last time. It's ridiculous: a large group of Soviet players has personal invitation to the Interzonals and even to the Candidates' matches. And if we all played, then we'd become, willingly or not, some kind of "traffic directors": it would be up to us to decide whom to let into the Interzonal and whom not to let.

And this time, everyone in the chess department finally understood: for people to be creative, they need good conditions for that! (In the first day, it pleased me as a player, and after that - as a tournament's guest.) Perhaps the best hotel in Moscow, a very good tournament hall. Firstly, it was feared that the people won't buy 5-rouble tickets. For comparison, tickets for the World Championship cost twice less. But we quickly learned that this couldn't stop the Soviet chess fans. The seventh and last rounds proved that: large crowds literally stormed the International Trade Center at the Krasnopresnenskaya embankment. I think that we don't need to hold such championships every year. It was just a good coincidence that there were no "compulsory" international tournaments in August. But once in, say, three years, that would be a good norm that both doesn't lead to chess overfeeding and satisfies the chess hunger of our country's chess fans. I must say that even if formally, there are many international tournaments held in USSR, but, in economical terms, it's just gross output. The competitions in, say, Yurmala, Protvino or Sochi are just "events". We can't get the really strong Western grandmasters to play there.

Why is there a chess boom in England or Iceland? The young Chandler, Short, Speelman gladly played in Soviet tournaments without any financial conditions. They came here, and I'm not afraid to say that, to learn while they weren't stars yet. And when I invited Short to a Leningrad tournament last year, he asked for certain financial terms. It's good that the Icelanders, like us, have nothing to do with their currency. So now we have to do everything we can to fill the chess vacuum, and not only with championships. Here's another story of old times: in 1967, before one of strongest international tournaments held in USSR, we suddenly received a telegram from USA: Fischer would like to play in the tournament, without any financial conditions. And so, the leading Soviet grandmasters - Petrosian, Smyslov, Spassky, Tal were summoned to the Sports Committee and asked, what shall we do? We unanimously said that we should invite him. The second question was, "Can you make sure he doesn't get the first place?" Nobody could guarantee that, so they sent an answer to America, something along these lines: "We're sorry, but we play on Fridays and Saturdays..."

Yes, the material compensation was good this time. (Now the press is finally free to discuss such themes.) The veterans just weren't accustomed to such prizes in the Soviet tournaments, and the young players didn't have a chance to get used to that. And it came out that a carrot works as good as a stick to get everyone invited to show up at the tournament. I think that if the tournament was held not in the "Sovincenter" and with smaller prizes, someone could decline to play, citing some "objective" reasons. And now, it seemed inappropriate: the conditions were so good... I (and many other players) am unhappy with only one thing about this championship.

The regulations. Karpov spoke about it at the tournament's closing, and he was absolutely right. I can't remember such a strict timetable in any previous championships. This time, the regulations were largely copied from various international tournaments. But there's a small difference: they play with 6-hours control there! And if the game does get adjourned after 60 moves, there are no sleepless nights for analysis. Maybe that's why the "veterans society" didn't field their whole lineup. Let me discuss this question that's quite uncomfortable for me. I didn't feel too well even before the start. Me and Smyslov had a formal right not to play. My friends and relatives told me not to play, but upon learning that Vasily Vasilyevich was going to play, I understood that I have no right not to. Besides, I did want to play. The doctors allowed me to play, and so I came to the first round. All was well, I played against Vaganian... Though they told me I didn't look very well. But before the second round, something happened to me that already happened before, for example, near the finish of the Brussels tournament - a bout of podagra (a trivial disease that's considered aristocratic for some reason). I did manage to walk to my hotel room (thanks again to the organizers - I didn't have to walk too far). But I just couldn't walk to the second round.

I think that I'm obliged to stand up for Artur Yussupov... I told the doctor that my position was quite static and asked Yussupov through the arbiters that he play me in my hotel room. I think that if it was only one game, Yussupov would have agreed. But as far as I know, my friends who cared about my health persuaded Artur to decline. I didn't discuss that with Yussupov - it's quite obvious. If the regulations were normal, I could easily miss another day, because (now I know it by experience) such illness lasts for two or three days. But with the existing regulations, I couldn't miss another game. Then (if I would quit later) there couldn't be 18 players in the tournament. And if there was an odd number of players, half of them would get an extra game with white pieces. But the main thing was that I didn't want to get Kasparov into an awkward situation: instead of playing Tal last round (I thought that this game might have been decisive), he'd have to watch how his opponents catch up or overtake him. Maybe it's my years spoke up, maybe it was wisdom, but I missed the game against Artur, and everything was decided the next day...

My impression about the tournament was ambiguous. I did see the entire first round, but I know about the second and third rounds only by reports of people who came to the hotel's 13th floor and told me what's going on in the hall. Then I went home and got back only a couple of rounds until the end. So a shrewd reader might see that I evaluate some games knowingly, and some other games by materials that I received later.

To be continued...

Tal's only game played at that championship.