“My cherished dream was to play a match with the World Champion,” wrote Latvia’s Mikhail Tal. In 1960, at 24, he wrested the crown from Soviet icon Mikhail Botvinnik, 49, a wily survivor of the Stalin era who had reigned on and off since 1948.
Tal won their first game — a French Defense — for a decisive victory in 21 games. Yet a year later, Botvinnik invoked the rematch clause and regained the title.
In 1985, Garry Kasparov defeated Anatoly Karpov, and also was compelled to play a second match. “It’s impossible to win two title matches in a row. I did it, but today I still don’t know how it was possible,” he said, then renounced the rematch clause, an edge that was designed to protect Soviet supremacy and keep outsiders like Bobby Fischer from scaling the heights.
Tal was a chain smoker and heavy drinker who had a kidney removed in the interim. But he never used ill health as an excuse.
The French Defense, a one-act play by Dimitri Raitzin about the first Tal-Botvinnik match, was performed six times to mixed reviews at the 10th annual New York International Fringe Festival in 2006. The author imagined that both players could speak freely to each other about their deepest feelings during their games.
“It’s an idea with great potential — chess can make for surprisingly suspenseful watching — only it’s staged in such a way that much of the suspense is drained,” opined one critic. “Scenes are punctuated by classical music as they make moves talking about what it takes to get to the top and stay there.”
Botvinnik claims that the player with the “colder blood” wins, not the player with the higher intellect. Yet he envies Tal’s ability to play with such abandon, describing his own approach as a Russian Jew who tried to survive.
Tal is depicted as an immature, uneducated brat who bangs the clock and claims that champions like Capablanca could be defeated by “second-rate club hackers from Odessa.” This imaginary dialogue does no justice to Tal’s legacy.
A time-worn maxim seems to be the moral: “Age and treachery will triumph over youth and inexperience.”
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– GM Susan Polgar