Portrait of a World Champion

Mihail Tal (9 November 1936 - 28 June 1992)

Mihail Tal

World Champion between 1960 and 1961. Arguably the greatest attacking genius of modern chess, Tal was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1936. Although his early achievements were not quite prodigious, he was noticed as one of the strongest juniors in the Soviet Union early on. At seventeen, Tal defeated Saigin in a match by the score of 8-6. This gained him the title of Soviet master.

In 1956, Tal made his debut in the Soviet Championship and he shared fifth place. His style was extremely sharp and complex, full of sacrifices and risky play. His games were very much admired. Many critics, however, thought that Tal lacked the solidity to progress much further. It was not long before he proved how wrong they were!

In January 1957 Tal became the youngest-ever Soviet champion by winning the 24th USSR Championship ahead of eight grandmasters. Round about this time, there was very little that could stop his progress. The same year, Tal was awared the Grandmaster Title. In 1958, he retained the USSR Championship thus qualifying for the Portoroz Interzonal to be held later in the year. Tal convincingly won this tournament and this made him one of the favourites for the ensuing Candidates Tournament. Despite a slow Candidates start, he finally won to challenge Botvinnik for the World Title. Tal became the then-youngest World Champion by defeating Botvinnik in 1960, by the score of 12.5-8.5.

The following year, Tal was plagued by ill-health, and he lost the return match by the score of 8-13.

Between 1961 and 1972, Tal's tournament achievements were not impressive. However, in 1972, he started a long run of tournament victories, including first places at Sukhumi 1972 and Wijk aan Zee 1973. These were followed by wins in the Soviet Championship, a board prize in the Olympiad and altogether a streak of over eighty games without defeat. This run was terminated with poor results in the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal and the 1973 Soviet Championship. After these disappointments Tal resumed his convincing play at Sochi 1973 and remained one of the most feared attackers until his death in 1992.

Tal was also a formidable blitz player. In 1970, he came second behind Fischer, who scored 19/22, in a blitz tournament at Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia, ahead of Korchnoi, Petrosian and Smyslov. Aged 51 in 1988, he won the second official World Blitz Championship at Saint John, ahead of Kasparov, Karpov and several other super grandmasters. In the final, he defeated Rafael Vaganian by 3.5–0.5.

On 28 May 1992, at the Moscow blitz tournament (which he left hospital to play), he defeated Kasparov. He died one month later.

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