Review: The Magic Tactics 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
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:
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:
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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