Reviews | January 19, 2013 16:35

Review: The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal

Review: The Magic Tactic of Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal would have been 76 years old if the 8th World Champion hadn't passed away, way too young, on June 28th, 1992. It's more than justified that one of the strongest annual tournaments is held in his name – it is this name that still sounds magical after all those years. A new book about him was recently published: The Magic Tactic of Mikhail Tal, which we're reviewing here.

"Yet another book about Tal" might be the first thought that comes up when one learns about New in Chess's latest publication about the "Magician from Riga". The authors, grandmaster Karsten Müller and journalist Raymund Stolze, are the first to admit that, well, they were not the first.

In their introduction the authors write that they want to invite the readers "to an exciting journey through time".

This occasionally painful retrospective of the 'good old days' with adjourned games, but in return without computers (!), will certainly awake in many readers the nostalgic desire for the return of these conditions along with Tal's immortal masterpieces. But, as we are all aware, these will remain in the past. Som we also hope that our plan for the content will work, namely moving back and forth wih a time machine in order to honour Tal's creative achievements, which with his cool flashes of insight cast light on the fossiled world of chess of his day.

So the project has a two-fold goal: present highlights from Tal's career and simultaneously paint a picture of the world of chess that was but will be again.

(By the way, this introduction is dated August 2010, and the book appears to be a translation of Zaubern wie Schachweltmeister Michail Tal, Edition Olms, 2010 but strangely this book is not mentioned at the start nor in the biography.)

It immediately becomes clear that chess fans of different generations will look at this book differently. If you're, say, above fifty, you have experienced this time, you might have even seen Tal playing. You're probably a Tal fan of the first hour and so you'll have an almost natural interest in this book. You just hope it will include enough original material for it to be a worthy addition to your collection.

If you're between thirty and fifty you have experienced the transition of the pre-computer, 'romantic' chess era into the modern chess era. Around the time that you started playing yourself, Tal passed away, but you've read much about him and seen many of his games. You might regret that you weren't born a decade earlier so that you could have enjoyed the old times a bit more. Also in your case, you're interested in what new material the authors bring to the table.

A big part of the chess fans, however, will be below thirty. They only hear older club mates speak nostalgically about the past, like grandparents to their grandchildren, when "everything was better". They don't know chess without computers and don't know too much about Tal either, except perhaps that he was "good at tactics". That's a slight exaggeration perhaps, but surely exponents from this group will wonder whether Müller and Stolze's book is a good way to start learning more about Tal.

The best way to learn about someone is from primary texts, and so also in this review Tal's own, magnificent autobiography The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal shouldn't go unmentioned. But it's nice to see that, after the introduction, The Magic Tactics of Mikhail Tal starts and ends with a text by the 8th World Champion himself. The first, titled 'Knowledge? Intuition? Risk?' covers two pages and was published before in 1991 in a German chess magazine. The book ends with a one page epilogue by Tal titled 'An unbroken love for chess', which was taken from the article 'The puzzle that is Tal', published in 2007 in Kaissiber. Both texts mark Tal's personal love and view of the game clearly.

From the Contents page it seems like the 'next speaker' is Mikhail Botvinnik, who lost his crown to the main character of the book in 1960 (and won it back in 1961). However, it quickly becomes clear that the text 'Reflections on Mikhail T.' must have been written by Müller &Stolze themselves (though it starts with a Botvinnik quote). The article gives an overview of Tal's career up to his World Championship title in 1960, and pays attention to the role Alexander Koblents played.

After reading the article the reader might still be a bit puzzled about what kind of book he his holding in his hands. Well, it is basically a combination of a biography and a tactics manual, and this makes it quite interesting indeed. A biography might quickly become a bit dry for chess fans who like to see games or nice fragments every now and then. On the other hand, a tactics manual often lacks background information about the situation in which the game was played. Müller & Stolze seem to have created a subgenre that might be tried more often in the future!

The basic structure is a combination of articles and tactics sections. Chapter I is called 'Warm-Up' (with 40 exercises), Chapter 2 continues 'Correct Sacrifices' (with 22 exercises), Chapter 3 'Speculative Sacrifices' (with 10 exercises) and Chapter IV is called 'The Correct Way to Defend against the Magician' (with 28 exercises). Each tactic has a small text about Tal's opponent and the tournament situation and together these texts give a good insight in the chess world of the 60s, 70s and 80s. An example:

Tal - Nikola Padevsky
Moscow 1963

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Mikhail Tal must have had quite different memories of Bulgarian chess players. For example, on the 16th October 1974 in the grandmaster tournament in Novi Sad a certain Nino Kirov put an end to his fantastic series of 95 games without a defeat, which had to be an absolute world record! He won a nice little masterpiece against Georgy Tringov at the 1964 interzonal tournament (see Exercise 14 of this chapter). And there is no doubt that another game which belongs in this category is his encounter with Nikola Padevsky at the Vth International Chess Tournament of the Central Chess Club one year previously in Moscow. When preparing for this opponent, the ex-World Champion knew that he frequently played the French Defence and that he did not like closed positions. In addition, the four times Bulgarian Champion had a poorly developed sense of looming danger. And the magician from Riga now mercilessly took advantage with that as White.
What will be his greatest trump card in this position? Please work it out.

Then, 25 pages later in the solutions section:

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In between the tacical sections there are many articles, called "intermezzo's", which provide lots of nice stories and anecdotes about the 8th World Champion. Many of these articles are based on conversations with the well known German chess journalist Dagobert Kohlmeyer.

Sieghart Dittmann, one of the hopes of East German chess in the 1950s, describes how he experienced his game with Tal at the 4th Students Championship  in 1957 in Reykjavik. A nice insight, of which the book has countless examples, is the following:

One genuine problem, however, was that for financial reasons we went to these championships as a team of four, without a reserve. Almost all the other teams had more personnel. So we had to play in all 13 rounds, there was no rest day for any of us.

These days chess players in their 20s would think twice before entering tournament with 13 games in a row!

Former top GM Wolfgang Uhlmann gives an in-depth description of what went through his mind before, during and after his game with Tal at the Alekhine Memorial in 1971 in Moscow. Also in the case of Hans-Joachim Hecht, another strong German player in the 60s and 70s, it is quite nice to read about a famous Tal game (Tal-Hecht, Varna Olympiad 1962, included in Kasparov's My Great Predecessors 2) from the other side of the board.

In the book more contributions can be read by well known chess figures: Gennady Nesis, Evgeny Vasiukov, Andrzej Filipowicz, Boris Spassky, Alexander Bakh, Robert Hübner, Zurab Azmaiparashvili, Helmut Pfleger, Artur Jussupow, Vladimir Kramnik and Engelina Tal, Mikhail Tal's last wife.

The highlights of these intermezzo's are the ones by Jussupow and Kramnik. Especially Jussupow gives a description of Tal's playing still which goes a bit further than the cliché that he was "a strong tactician" who "liked to sacrifice, correct or not".

(...) if an opponent set him a trap, Tal would see it, but he went up a level and looked more deeply into the position. So he would spot the refutation of the trap. He pretended to fall into the trap, but in reality he was the one who was outsmarting his opponent. That was his speciality.

Jussupow gives the following example:

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The Magic Tactic of Mikhail Tal is a very special book in terms of structure and content. It has been written with love, for the game and for the player. And it should be both very enjoyable and instructive for all generations of chess players!


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Peter Doggers's picture
Author: Peter Doggers

Founder and editor-in-chief of, Peter is responsible for most of the chess news and tournament reports. Often visiting top events, he also provides photos and videos for the site. He's a 1.e4 player himself, likes Thai food and the Stones.


Creemer's picture

" A big part of the chess fans, however, will be below thirty ... surely exponents from this group will wonder whether Müller and Stolze's book is a good way to start learning more about Tal."

I wish this was true. However, experience taught me most people below thirty have little interest, if not slight contempt for books and the pre-computer era.

Really a shame, because computer analysis has clouded our sight of the board more than it has sharpened it. Maybe not theoretically, but practically.

It is common among (not only) youger people to look down upon the theoretically unsound sacrifice or opening. But most chess players (99% approximately) do not have a sufficient level of skill to be able to refute, for example, 1.f4 and maybe even fewer than them know that a refutation (in the case of 1.f4) means little more than getting an equal game as black.

Point: great book, but I am afraid the ones who would benefit most, won't read it, but will study openings by clicking through games in a hacked version of CB12 with Houdini 3 running in the background, claiming truth comes to those who bow to the God of Computation.

Like all Gods, this one, too, will die.

anon's picture

Tal was overrated.

Today's players are much better at defense and calculations.

Tal's tricks won't work in 2013.

Carlsen would have no problem in beating Tal.

Note: Computer analyses show again and again that Tal's "genius attacks" were a fluke as there are ways to defend it and win.

noyb's picture

Purile. You obviously fall in the "under 30" group. Carlsen would poop his diapers if confronted with Tal's complexity.

Zagreb 1959's picture

Overrated? You have the same problem a lot of beginners have that is the crazyness about engines and thinking that engines are gods. You cannot compare players of diferent decades because chess is a game of information and Carlsen grew by studying the classics and the games of Tal! If you want to compare and be fair, you need to bring Tal with a time machine to present and give him a database of all the games until today and some books for study and then only after a year you can judge him related to other players of today. You say - "Tal tricks won´t work in 2013" First of all, you do not understand Tal play because it is not small tricks the way you put it and second: Do you think that if Tal lives today he will be stupid not to learn from the games played today and the engines? Computer shows that attacks by Tal were fluke and so what? Can you understand that machines play diferently then humans and in a very diferent style? Do you think that Carlsen do not make huge mistakes also? So what? "Today´s players are much better at defense and calculations"? So what? If they weren´t it was because they were dummies or chess was frozen in time without any evolution? Are the modern players better at endings with the short time today? I saw Carlsen and others make big mistakes in endings and so what? The truth is that Tal was a genius and chess is a human sport and art. Lots of beginners today are blinded by engines and cannot see the trees from the forest.

Lee's picture

"Tal was overrated"

Can someone please show me where the filter button for 'stupid' is?

Tan's picture

" Tal was overrated. Today's players are much better at defense and calculations."-Anon

The biggest weakness you under 30 players all have in common is your arrogance and lack of humility sometimes it`s a bit much.

hop's picture


Raj's picture

Instructive comments from mature chess veterans for the most of the impatient "younger than 30". One can only respect the brilliance of chess "artists" of years gone by who played without modern technology.

Henk de Jager's picture

The (unnamed?!) author could at least get the title right no? (A new book about him was recently published: The Magic Tactic of Mikhail Tal, which we're reviewing here.)

zander's picture

you cant beat a legend in chess tactical positions the attacking master tal

wael 's picture

for the guy who said tal is overratted
i want to tell you that there was certain sacrfice that tal made and when they asked fritz firtz said that tal made mistake ...but when the asked him again to make deep analysis he then find the winning line and found the advantage ...tals immense imagination have bridged the brute computer calculations ..even in the unsound sacs the complications they made are just impossible to solve by his human opponent.....what about fischer who played nearly as computer tals beats him several times and .....tal is magic no need for further sayings

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