Mark Taimanov: 1926-2016

Mark Taimanov: 1926-2016

| 94 | Chess Event Coverage

In the night between Sunday and Monday, Mark Taimanov died in St. Petersburg at the age of 90. He was a world-class player for decades and one of the participants of the legendary Zurich 1953 Candidates' Tournament.

Besides being a top grandmaster, Taimanov was a renowned musician—and both of his talents developed at an early age. He learned to play the piano from his mother, who was a piano teacher. 

Born on February 7, 1926 in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Taimanov moved with his family to St. Petersburg six months later. In 1934, when he was eight years old, he started attending a children's music school, but he also began playing in school chess-tournaments.

He was soon allowed into the prestigious Leningrad Palace of Young Pioneers. As the classic book, "Soviet School of Chess," notes, at age 9, he played one of the main roles in the popular children's film "Beethoven Concerto."

He became a Master of Sports of Soviet Chess in 1945, an International Master in 1950, and an International Grandmaster in 1952. In the same year, he tied for first with Mikhail Botvinnik at the Soviet Championship—It was clear that he was already one of the strongest grandmasters of the world.

He was one of the participants of the famous 1953 Candidates' Tournament in Zurich—The others were Vasily Smyslov (winner), David Bronstein, Samuel Reshevsky, Paul Keres, Tigran Petrosian, Miguel Najdorf, Efim Geller, Alexander Kotov, Yuri Averbakh, Isaac Boleslavsky, Laszlo Szabo, Svetozar Gligoric, Max Euwe, and Gideon Stahlberg. Only Averbakh is still alive; he is the oldest living grandmaster.

Taimanov also competed in the 1971 Candidates' Matches, where he was paired against later world champion, Bobby Fischer. This match, held May 16 through June 2, 1971 in Vancouver, was one of the two matches that Fischer famously won 6-0. (The other opponent who suffered the same fate was Bent Larsen, who passed away in September 2010.)

In an interview with Joel Lautier from 2002, Taimanov said: "As Fischer himself admitted at the time, the final score did not reflect the true balance of strength. The terrible feeling that I was playing against a machine which never made any mistake shattered my resistance. Fischer would never concede any weakening of his position, he was an incredibly tough defender."

Games like his fifth game helped add to the mystique of "Fischer Fear." Already down 4-0, Taimanov simply hung a rook in a position that he could seemingly not lose.

His embarrassing loss would have serious consequences back home in the Soviet Union. As he stated himself, Taimanov was deprived of his civil rights, and his salary was taken away. He was prohibited from traveling abroad, and he became censored in the press.

"It was unthinkable for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an American without a political explanation," Taimanov said.

After he qualified to participate in the 1973 Interzonal tournament, the sanctions were lifted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

He had plenty of chess still inside him. Several years later he beat the sitting world champion via a nice finish.

Without a doubt, Taimanov himself was a top-class player. He won the Leningrad Championship in 1948, 1950, 1952, 1961, and 1973. He won the Soviet Championship in 1956, and he was a member of the gold-winning Soviet team at the olympiad in that year and also in 1960 and 1962.

A number of opening variations have been named after Taimanov in the Sicilian Defense (with ...e6 and ...Nc6), the Modern Benoni (with f2-f4), the Nimzo-Indian Defense (4.e3 Nc6), and in the King's Indian Defense (with Ne1).

Taimanov combined a chess career with a musical career, and he was successful in both. He was considered to be a top concert pianist in the Soviet Union, and with his first wife, Lyubov Bruk, he formed a piano duo. Some of the recordings were included in the Philips and Steinway series Great Pianists of the 20th Century.

Taimanov was married four times. His third marriage was with the daughter of Averbakh. He is survived by his fourth wife, his son from his first marriage, and a son and daughter (twins) from his last marriage—They were born when Taimanov was 78.

Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman told "Taimanov was a unique double-talent; also as a pianist, he was very famous. Probably in 1952, he was at his peak, when he won the Soviet Championship, together with Botvinnik.

"He's mostly known because of the Taimanov variation, which is curious since he wasn't a big theoretician. I only played him once, in 1981 in Wijk aan Zee—one of my best wins ever."

Genna Sosonko: "He was a special chess player and a special human being. I haven't known anyone who managed to combine two occupations, music and chess, so brilliantly. Together with his first wife, he was declared the best piano duo of the 20th century, and he was no less proud of that than of his best tournament victories."

Sosonko also recalls Botvinnik saying that he only knew two players who were so similar in being "born optimists": Taimanov and Larsen.

Pal Benko: "[We met] at the 1960 Buenos Aires Tournament. He was a strong player and he played fast. I'm sorry he passed away. I respected him a lot."

American NM Ben Johnson, studying abroad in St. Petersburg in 1998, met with Taimanov at his apartment. "He was very alive and intellectually curious. He was very giving with his time."

They talked most about the the Soviet Chess School. "He talked about playing Fischer, and he talked about playing the piano.

"The one quote I remember from him was, 'Whenever I got bored with chess, there was music, and whenever I got bored with music, there was chess.'"

Mike Klein contributed to this report.

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