Tal was born in Riga, Latvia, to a Jewish family. At the age of eight, Tal learned to play chess while watching his father, a doctor. Shortly thereafter he joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. His play was not exceptional at first but he worked hard to improve. Alexander Koblencs began tutoring Tal in 1949. Tal's game improved rapidly thereafter, and by 1951 he had qualified for the Latvian Championship. In the 1952 Latvian Championship Tal finished ahead of his trainer. Tal won his first Latvian title in 1953, and was awarded the title of candidate master. He became a Soviet master in 1954 by defeating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. That same year he also scored his first win over a grandmaster when Yuri Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position. Tal graduated in Literature from the University of Riga, writing a thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov, and taught school in Riga for a time in his early 20s. He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society, and represented Latvia in internal Soviet team competitions.
Tal qualified for the USSR Chess Championship final in 1956, finishing joint fifth, and became the youngest player to win it the following year, at the age of 20. He had not played in enough international tournaments to qualify for the title of Grandmaster, but FIDE decided to waive the normal restrictions and award him the title anyway because of his achievement in winning the Soviet Championship.
Tal made three appearances for the USSR at Student Olympiads, from 1956-1958, winning three team gold medals and three board gold medals. He won 19 games, drew 8, and lost none, for 85.2 per cent.
He retained the Soviet Championship title the following year, and competed in the World Chess Championship for the first time. He won the 1958 Interzonal tournament at PortoroÅ¾, then helped the Soviet Union retain the Chess Olympiad.
Tal won a very strong tournament at Zurich, 1959. Following the Interzonal, the top players carried on to the Candidates' Tournament, Yugoslavia 1959. Tal showed superior form by winning with 20/28 points, ahead of Paul Keres with 18.5, followed by Tigran Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov, Bobby Fischer, Svetozar GligoriÄï¿½, Friðrik Ólafsson, and Pal Benko. Tal's victory was attributed to his dominance over the lower half of the field; whilst scoring only +1 -3 vs Keres, he won all four individual games against Fischer, and took 3½/4 from each of GligoriÄï¿½, Olafsson, and Benko.
In 1960, at the age of 23, Tal thoroughly defeated the relatively staid and strategic Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match, held in Moscow, by 12.5–8.5 (six wins, two losses, and thirteen draws), making him the youngest-ever world champion (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov, who earned the title at 22). Botvinnik won the return match against Tal in 1961, also held in Moscow, 13-8 (ten wins to five with six draws). In the period between the matches Botvinnik had thoroughly analyzed Tal's style, and turned most of the return match's games into slow wars of maneuver or endgames, rather than the complicated tactical melees which were Tal's happy hunting ground. Tal's chronic kidney problems contributed to his defeat, and his doctors in Riga advised that he should postpone the match for health reasons. Yuri Averbakh claimed that Botvinnik would agree to a postponement only if Tal was certified unfit by Moscow doctors, and that Tal then decided to play. His short reign atop the chess world made him one of the two so-called "winter kings" who interrupted Botvinnik's long reign from 1948 to 1963 (the other was Smyslov, world champion 1957-1958).
Immediately after he lost his title back to Botvinnik, Tal won the 1961 Bled supertournament, ahead of a star-studded field which included Fischer, Petrosian, Keres, GligoriÄï¿½, Efim Geller, and Miguel Najdorf.
Subsequently Tal played in several Candidates' Tournaments. In 1962 at Curacao, he had serious health problems, having undergone a major operation shortly before the tournament, and had to withdraw three-quarters of the way through, scoring just 7 out of 21. In 1965, he lost the final match against Boris Spassky, after defeating Lajos Portisch and Bent Larsen. He lost a 1968 semi-final match against Viktor Korchnoi, after defeating Gligoric. Health worries caused a slump in his play from late 1968 to late 1969, but he recovered his form after having a kidney removed. He won the 1979 Riga Interzonal with a dominant score of 14/17, but the next year he lost a quarter-final match against Lev Polugaevsky, one of the very few players to hold a positive score against him. He also played in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates' Tournament, a round-robin of 16 qualifiers, finishing in a tie for fourth and fifth places, and narrowly missing further advancement after drawing a playoff match with Jan Timman. He later defeated Timman in a 1988 exhibition match.
Tal played in 21 Soviet Championships, winning it six times (1957, 1958, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978), a number that is only equalled by Botvinnik. He was also a five-time winner of the International Chess Tournament in Tallinn, Estonia, with victories in 1971, 1973, 1977, 1981, and 1983.
One of Tal's greatest achievements during his later career was an equal first place with Anatoly Karpov (whom he seconded in a number of tournaments and world championships) in the 1979 Montreal "Tournament of Stars", at the time the strongest event ever held. In 1988, at the age of 51, he became World Champion in Blitz chess at Saint John, ahead of the reigning world champion Garry Kasparov and ex-champion Anatoly Karpov.
In Olympiad play, Mikhail Tal was a member of eight gold medal winning Soviet teams (1958, 1960, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1980, and 1982), won sixty-five games, drew thirty-four, and lost only two games (81.2 percent). This percentage makes him the player with the best score among those participating in at least four Olympiads. Individually, Tal won seven Olympiad board medals, including five gold (1958, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1974), and two silver (1960, 1982).
Tal also represented the Soviet Union at six European Team Championships (1957, 1961, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1980), winning team gold medals each time, and three board gold medals (1957, 1970, and 1977). He scored 14 wins, 20 draws, and three losses, for 64.9 percent.
Tal played board nine for the USSR in the first match against the Rest of the World team at Belgrade 1970, scoring 2 out of 4. He was on board seven for the USSR in the second match against the Rest of the World team at London 1984, scoring 2 out of 3. The USSR won both team matches. He was an Honoured Master of Sport.
From 1950 (when he won the Latvian junior championship) to 1991 Tal won or was equal-first in 57 tournaments. During his 41 years-long career he played about 2,700 tournament or match games, scoring over 65 percent.
In the 1970s he had two unbeaten streaks of 93 and 86 games, all-time records that still stand.
Tal suffered from bad health, and had to be hospitalized frequently throughout his career. Tal was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker — at the Hastings tournament of 1973, which he won, he drank the hotel dry of brandy and whisky. He was also briefly addicted to morphine. On June 27, 1992, Tal died in a Moscow hospital, officially of kidney failure. But his friend and fellow Soviet grandmaster Genna Sosonko reported that "in reality, all his organs had stopped functioning."
Tal loved the game in itself and considered that "Chess, first of all, is Art." He was capable of playing numerous blitz games against unknown or relatively weak players purely for the joy of playing.
Known as "The Magician from Riga," Tal was the archetype of the attacking player, developing an extremely powerful and imaginative style of play. His approach over the board was very pragmatic—in that respect, he is one of the heirs of ex-World Champion Emanuel Lasker. He often sacrificed material in search for the initiative in chess, which is defined by the ability to make threats to which the opponent must respond. With such intuitive sacrifices, he created vast complications, and many masters found it impossible to solve all the problems he created over the board, though deeper post-game analysis found flaws in some of his conceptions. Although his playing style was scorned by ex-World Champion Vasily Smyslov as nothing more than "tricks," Tal convincingly beat virtually every notable grandmaster with his trademark aggression. Viktor Korchnoi and Paul Keres are two of the very few with a significant plus record against him. It is also notable that he adopted a more sedate and positional style in his later years; for many chess lovers, the apex of Tal's style corresponds with the period (approx. from 1971 to 1979) when he was able to integrate the solidity of classic chess with the imagination of his youth.
Of the current top-level players, the Latvian-born Spaniard Alexei Shirov has probably been most influenced or inspired by Tal's sacrificial style. In fact, he studied with Tal as a youth. Many other Latvian grandmasters and masters, for instance Alexander Shabalov and Alvis Vitolins, have played in a similar vein, causing some to speak of a "Latvian School of Chess." Tal contributed little to opening theory, despite a deep knowledge of most systems. But his aggressive use of the Modern Benoni defense, particularly in his early years, led to a complete re-evaluation of this variation at the time, though it is seldom seen in tournament play in the 21st century.
Quotes on chess
- "Some sacrifices are sound, the rest are mine."
- "To play for a draw, at any rate with White, is to some degree a crime against chess."
- "If (Black) is going for victory, he is practically forced to allow his opponent to get some kind of well-known positional advantage."
- "It is also important to remember that Bobby Fischer was a real chess gentleman during games. He was always very fair and very correct."
- "I drink, I smoke, I gamble, I chase girls—but postal chess is one vice I don't have."
- "They compare me to Lasker, which is an exaggerated honor. He made mistakes in every game and I only in every second one!"
- (referring to his piece sacrifices) "They can only take them one at a time!"