From the 64 newspaper, 24th July 1968
My impressions about Grandmaster Mikhail Tal were always clear enough, but only after our match I have finally witnessed his true chess make-up. First and foremost (it may even sound paradoxical for those with little knowledge of the game), Tal is a very patterned player. His strategic plans aren't too new or original. But, combining his patterns with enormous tactical talent, inexhaustible optimism and outstanding sportsman's qualities, Tal had much success in tournaments. In tournaments, but not in matches. Because in matches between two equal players, the arsenal of original strategic ideas provides decisive advantage.
This doesn't mean that it's easy to defeat Tal in a match. The Riga player's style is so dynamic and active, his determination is so strong, that his partners constantly remain under very high nervous pressure. In other words, Tal spares neither himself nor his opponent.
I knew that our match is going to be tough and exhausting, but I couldn't imagine exactly how much. I had to work very hard to win. I even think that it's easier to play a dozen matches with other grandmasters than to play one match with Tal.
The tactical pattern of our match was dictated by Tal. And I just had to adapt to his sudden maneuvers. There were three stages in our match:
Stage one: Tal holds his zone
It quickly became obvious that Tal wasn't feeling too confident in the first games. He avoided any skirmishes, played "coldly", as though inviting me to start complications. He chose openings that didn't allow him to get his trademark "Tal-ish" positions.
This tactic was almost successful. I thought that the "new Tal" that aimed only for a small opening advantage wasn't dangerous. Technical mistakes that I made in the games 1 and 3 could cost me dearly. But Tal seemingly didn't even think about winning at that moment. I think that's why he couldn't convert his advantage into victories.
In the game 4, Tal had finally understood that it's impossible to beat me with just positional play. He lost the fight in the opening, not getting any tactical opportunities in return. But this game showed my disadvantages as well: the old disease, pawn-eating, reared its head once again.
White's advantage is obvious. The simple 21. Nf4 with subsequent 22. Rad1 or 22. Rfd1 (depending on circumstances) didn't leave any hope for Black. But I couldn't resist the temptation to capture a pawn, and after 21. Bxa5? Rg6 22. Ng3 d4! 23. Qxg5 Rxg5 24. Bb6 Ra1 25. Rxa1 Tal could probably draw after 25... d3!, because White can't play 26. Ra8 due to 26... d2, and 26. Rd1 Rb5 27. Bd4 Nxd4 28. exd4 Rxb2 gave Black good counterplay.
Tal, nevertheless, didn't use this "gift" and played 25... dxe3?, which led to a hopeless position for Black after 26. Ra8 Ne7 27. fxe3 Rd5 28. b4.
So, after 4 games, I took the lead, and Tal hadn't showed his trademark playing style yet. He did it in the game 5.
Stage two: Tal's confidence grows
The defeat in game 4 made Tal change his strategy. In the game 5, he played 1. e2-e4 for the first time in our match. He was clearly playing to win, and it showed clearly in the next position:
No doubt that any chess player would play 27. Bxf7 Qxf7 28. Qxc3 with a small advantage for White. Of course, Tal saw that too. But he was against simplifications, he wanted to create tactical complications, whatever the price, and so he played 27. Rec1.
His plan was along these lines: if Black replies with 27... Rc8, then the position after 28. Bxf7 Qxf7 29. Rxc3 Rxc3 30. Qxc3 is much better for him, because after the exchange of one Rook pair, it's easier for his pieces to invade the Black's camp.
And what if Black replied 27... b4? Tal prepared a devious trap: 28. a3 a5 29. axb4 axb4 30. Ra7 Ne2+ 31. Kh2 Qxc1 32. Qxe2 Qf4+ 33. g3 Rd2 (this seems to be the end for White, but...) 34. gxf4 Rxe2 35. Bxf7!, and White wins one of the two black Rooks.
Of course, not all Black's moves in this variant were forced. But other continuations also gave Tal the game he wanted.
Nevertheless, there are still spots on the sun! And Tal, this combinational wizard, sometimes makes tactical mistakes. After 27... b4 28. a3, he overlooked a simple refutation of his plan: 28... e4! 29. axb4 Rd3 30. Qe1 e3!, and White remained defenseless. After 31. Bc2 Rd2 32. fxe3 Ne2+ 33. Kh1 Ng3+ 34. Kg1 Re2 35. Qd1 Qb7 36. e4 R8xe4 White resigned.
Two defeats in a row could dishearten anyone but Tal. He came to the sixth game with a very concentrated and determined look.
I had a two-point advantage and, of course, could choose a more conservative tactic. But I played White, and the temptation of essentially finishing the match immediately was too great. If I won my third game, I more or less won the entire match.
I played this game very nervously and made a mistake in the following position:
White's advantage is clearly visible: not only because of the c7 pawn's weakness, but also because of Black Queen's very uncomfortable position. With 18. Rd1, I could present very serious problems to Tal. How were Black supposed to save their Queen after h2-h3, g3-g4 and Nc4-e5?
And so I gleefully decided to catch the Queen immediately: 18. h3?, giving Tal an opportunity to sacrifice an exchange 18... Rxd4! and seize the initiative.
Of course, I still shouldn't have lost after that, but I hadn't noticed the tide of psychological struggle turning.
The score was 3.5-2.5, and the match wasn't very comfortable anymore. Of course, I was still ahead, but could lose the advantage in any moment. The third, last stage of the match began.
Stage three. Tal is always Tal!
Yes, that's how the Riga grandmaster looked at the match's final stage: he was the true Tal, with all his advantages and disadvantages - brilliant, confident tactician and a hesitant "technician" who sometimes made unfathomable positional mistakes.
That's a position from game 7. Black's game is seemingly lost. Any player of Tal's class should have found a simple way to win: move the a- and b-pawns forward. Instead, Tal first exchanged his active rook: 20. Rxd7? Bxd7 21. Rd1 Be8, and then threw away his queenside advantage with 22. c5?, which destroyed any chances of success after 22... Kf8 23. f4 b6 24. cxb6 axb6.
Despite the occasional mistakes, Tal clearly had initiative at the match's finish. He played with colossal force, at his full strength, as in the years of his greatest sporting successes. I could only beat him off. During the struggle, I did have better chances at times (for instance, in games 8 and 9), but they didn't change the main battle's character.
The 10th game was the pinnacle of the match. If Tal won, it would have been impossible to predict the winner. I'm not sure if I could withstand the strain of further struggle.
Of course, I should have played for a draw in game 10. But I don't like and just can't specifically play for draw. Tal greatly exploited this disadvantage of mine. He got one of his favourite positions and devastated me utterly. 20 minutes before the time-out, my position was completely hopeless.
The simplest way for converting the advantage for Black was the maneuver Nh6-g8-f6, attacking the d5 pawn and threatening Nh5+. But this was a strategic solution, and that's why Tal, who strategizes only when he's forced to, preferred a tactical strike 32... g5? that ultimately achieved nothing. After 33. fxg5 Rg8 34. Kf2 Rxg5 35. bxc5 dxc5 36. Qxc5 White won a pawn and retained enough resources for defence. The danger of losing has passed.
I did manage to defeat Tal. But the match's games didn't give me much creative satisfaction. I'm content only with some opening improvements I've used, for instance, in games 4 and 8. But I was plagued by technical flaws during the entire match. My technique is considered very good. Yes, in the last few years, I won many "bloodless" games. But against Tal, a very inventive and resourceful practician, simple technique is not enough, you need very sophisticated technique, which I failed to deliver. My only consolation is that Tal made even more technical mistakes than me.
The match against Tal was a tough test for me. The positive balance of our previous encounters put much more pressure on me than on Tal. I won't hide the fact that precisely because of that, I felt obliged to defeat the Riga player. Now, before the match against Spassky, I don't worry much. I undestand that Spassky is stronger than Tal and probably stronger than me, but that's why I'm going to play him less nervously.