A rare case of twin games
The hippo in the swamp that inspired Mikhail Tal

A rare case of twin games

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In a previous blog post we were looking at knight sacrifices on g7. The most famous of such sacrifices occurred in one of Mikhail Tal's games and there is a famous "hippo story" that is connected with it.

The story is so famous that it even made it to the Wikipedia article about Mikhail Tal, quoted from his own book "The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal":

I will never forget my game with GM Vasiukov in USSR Championship. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not obvious; there was a large number of possible variations; but when I began to study hard and work through them, I found to my horror that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the infamous "tree of variations", from which the chess trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity.

And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Chukovsky: "Oh, what a difficult job it was. To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus".

I do not know from what associations the hippopotamus got into the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how WOULD you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder.

After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully to myself: "Well, just let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went right off the chessboard just as he had come on ... of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.

And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately calculated piece sacrifice.

Here is the game that inspired this wonderful story:

The "hippo story" is very entertaining, but there must have been many other thoughts on Mikhail Tal's mind when he was calculating 19.Nxg7. Five years earlier he already tried a similar sacrifice in a game vs Keres, but without success:

Less known is the fact that Tal-Vasiukov game had a predecessor that was so similar that it looks like its twin brother!

The "other game" took place almost 20 years earlier, in 1945 USSR Championship, and saw another tactical genius on the attacking side. His name was Alexander Tolush (1910-1969), famous for his rallying cry: "Forward, Kazimirych!" (his parental name).

I wonder whether Tal was trying to recall this game when he was thinking about that famous hippo?!

Previous articles in the series: