The Magic of Mikhail Tal

I had the idea to write about Mikhail Tal for quite some time but I never found the time. What opened the richness of Tal’s play to me was Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics and in view of the famous coach’s recent passing perhaps this is a good time to write about Tal.

Tal was never my hero. Of course, I knew his games, but I was always more drawn to Capablanca for example, being fascinated by the ease and smoothness of his play. But then came Dvoretsky’s book. What I am about to describe took place in the mid-90s, when I first got to read Dvoretsky’s book. The second part of the book, called Attack and Defence features analyses of games of such attacking greats like Alekhine and Tal. The appetizer was the game Alekhine-Junge from Prague 1942, which introduced me to the concept of “slow attack” and the difficulties the defender faces in such situations. But the real shocker were Tal’s games. In the comments below I will give my own understanding of the games at that time while I will also quote Dvoretsky.

The first game was featured under the subtitle “Science Fiction!” and it did live up to the name of the subtitle!

A true eye-opener for me! I thought for a long time trying to understand what happened in this game. My “hows” and “whys” eventually led me to realise one very important truth about chess – it is possible to play like this. Tal’s talent and skills aside, it is possible to incorporate some of these elements into one’s game. Risk, pressure, aggression, both psychological and on the board, all these can work! There is no need to feel constrained in the positional dogma and always play by the rules. Yes, balance is required as this type of play can often backfire, but for me the most important lesson was that after realising this I felt liberated, I could let my fantasy roam free while I could still curb it, if necessary, with the “positional dogma”.

The second Tal game from the book was no less impressive. It is from the same year, 1965, and from the same Candidates cycle, when Tal made it to the final where he lost to Spassky. The game was played in a moment when Larsen was leading by one point.

A similar scenario to the Portisch game and another elite player succumbs quickly after Tal applied his trademark pressure. These two games consolidated my newly-discovered truth about the possible ways to play chess and with it came the inner freedom I felt – there was no need always to play the “positional” move, sometimes it was possible to play what one wanted to play and it could work perfectly. I grasped the true impact Tal had on the understanding of chess as a whole, he showed that chess can be played in a different way and successfully too. These insights significantly broadened my horizons and even though I didn’t start sacrificing in every game I felt that I became a better player at this mysterious game called chess.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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