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    Entries in Mikhail Tal (16)

    Friday
    Jul192019

    Some Thoughts on *Checkmate! The Love Story of Mikhail Tal and Sally Landau*, by Sally Landau

    Sally Landau, Checkmate! The Love Story of Mikhail Tal and Sally Landau. Elk & Ruby, 2019. 223 pp.

    A distinction I've been thinking about recently distinguishes the substantive and the procedural. Once you're aware of the distinction, you'll see it everywhere. For example: when we teach, we think about content - particular facts (the substantive) - and about teaching students how to think - the best procedure for them to pursue truth on their own (the procedural). In government, we might try to promote certain outcomes by passing particular laws (the substantive approach), or we might focus primarily on setting things up in a certain way and (as much as possible) let people make their own decisions in life (the procedural approach). We could pursue equality of outcomes (substantive) or equality of opportunity (procedural). In the New Testament (Ephesians 4:15), we're admonished to speak the truth (substantive) in love (procedural).

    In fact, we find that same duality when we analyze what it is to love someone. We can define it in a roughly procedural way (do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or to treat others as they want to be treated), but if we void it of any substantive content it seems that our attempts to love others will fail. Sometimes people don't want what's in their best interest, and at least some of the time we would gravely wrong the beloved if we were to treat them as they want to be treated. Giving a suicidal person a gun or a drug addict their substance of choice would not be loving. This is not to deny a "procedural" component to love or ethical decision-making, but it is a denial of the claim that those ideas an be defined by purely procedural means. There is such a thing as human nature, and while we don't know everything there is to know about it, and there is some room for person-relativity here, it seems reasonably clear that there are, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases, some things that lead to objective human flourishing and other things that destroy or at least very strongly undermine such flourishing. One can intend to love someone and have loving feelings towards that other person, and yet fail very badly to do what is objectively loving; that is, to do what is in the other's best interest for the sake of their best interest.

    It is this distinction that comes to mind when I read Sally Landau's memoir of her life with (and then without) Mikhail Tal. It is clear that she loved, and continues to love, Mikhal Tal very passionately; and to some degree this was reciprocated. But all too often, Tal's love in particular was either overwhelmed by his selfishness or self-centeredness - his desire to put chess first and to engage in constant affairs - or, if we want to be as generous as possible, by a failure to recognize that his actions harmed his beloved and would destroy their relationship. Landau eventually created some "counterplay" of her own, and even that didn't work. Tal finally arranged for a divorce so he could marry one of his paramours, and that second marriage was unsuccessful. Landau moved on and eventually enjoyed a successful second marriage and a friendship with Tal that lasted the rest of his life, while Tal enjoyed relative success with wife #3. Some of their ongoing relationship was based on their son together (and he contributes a short chapter in this book), though the focus is mostly on their relationship with each other, not as mediated through their shared concern for their son.

    The memoir will take one on an emotional roller coaster. Both protagonists are bright, charming, talented, and headstrong - and young. Too young, really; both are still sowing their wild oats. They were bright, shiny objects to each other, and while Mrs. Tal was more committed - both by choice and through the psychological pressure put on her by Tal and his parents - neither (especially Tal) had the maturity at that stage of their lives to make the relationship work. Their relationship worked better after their divorce, and both were very willing to make sacrifices for the other and for the sake of their son. Their mutual tenderness was obvious, and both felt a clear, at times almost heartbreaking sense of loss about the other's absence. Still, it is hard to believe that even if it had been possible for them to remarry late in Tal's life that things would have been any different the second time around. The feelings and attraction were there, but was the older Tal any more responsible and other-centered than his younger self?

    So I find the book a little depressing, or at least melancholy. Both protagonists are likeable and interesting, and you're rooting for them, but at the same time it's clear almost right away that there's no way it's going to work. Many of us have had friends who get into relationships that we as outsiders know won't work, can't work, and that are bad for them - and sometimes our friends are aware of it too but can't (or don't) help themselves.

    It's a genre I don't really understand, either. Why would one write about these things for the general public? It's one thing for her to be interviewed and say, "I loved Misha and he loved me, and while our marriage didn't ultimately work out we remained caring and close friends till the day he died." It's another to understand why anyone would want to make everything in public. Even if she wants to share her love life with the world, why is Tal's love life anyone's business?

    Alice Roosevelt once famously said, "if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, come sit next to me!" This of course parodies the more famous adage that one should remain silent if someone doesn't have anything nice to say about someone. But what do we do when we have both good and bad things to say about someone? I'm inclined to ask, why are we interested in the person in the first place? If the bad things are relevant to our interest, it may be worth addressing those "sunspots". If not, then why bother? It's not about writing hagiographies and whitewashing the past. It is about making a distinction between the relevant and the irrelevant, and between the private and the public. Chess fans loved and continue to love players like Tal and David Bronstein because of their creativity and excellence at the chess board. We're not interested in Tal because of his philandering or Bronstein because of his bitterness. (This is not judging either man. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" is misinterpreted, but it's a good bit of practical wisdom in any case. It's saying that we don't need to hear about these less exalted aspects of their lives and personalities.)

    This has been a critical review; let me end on a higher note. I've wondered why Landau wrote the book, and I'll try to offer an answer. It is a cry of the heart, a statement of a deep love that can no longer be requited. She cannot bring her beloved back, but by sharing that love, warts and all, with the broader chess world, with those of us who knew or were acquainted with Mikhail Tal, she can relive that love and take solace in it. When it comes to that feeling of love and grief, those of us who have lived a little can identify, and wish her well.

    Friday
    Apr192019

    Tal on TV, with Subtitles

    I'm not sure if I posted this before; if I did, I wasn't able to find it. So here you go - enjoy!

    Sunday
    Dec172017

    Book Review: Kirillov's *Team Tal: An Inside Story*

    Valentin Kirillov, Team Tal: An Inside Story. (Elk & Ruby, 2017; originally published in Russian in 2016.) N.p., 157 pp.

    This book, largely but not wholly about Mikhail Tal, was published by the same house that put out Genna Sosonko's book on David Bronstein (recently reviewed here), and makes an interesting contrast with it. Both were extraordinarily strong, sharp and creative players whose countries of origin had been swalled into the Soviet Union. Both were Jewish, and both had their difficulties with the Soviet authorities at different times in their careers. Neither had an easy life, but where Bronstein - at least Sosonko's Bronstein - comes across as someone who constantly complained to anyone would was willing to be listen, Tal - whose spectacular collection of medical problems almost defies belief - was just the opposite. Where Bronstein was a psychological drain on others, Tal's energy and gusto for life has made him one of the most beloved figures in the history of chess, especially by those who knew him.

    This book was written by someone who knew him from when they were both youths. Valentin Kirillov (1938-2017) was a year or two younger than Tal (born in November of 1936), and in his own way followed in Tal's footsteps. Like Tal, he grew up in Riga and became a very decent chess player, though not in Tal's league. He was in Tal's circle of friends from their childhood, and even served as one of Tal's seconds from 1968-1976.

    Why 1976, you might wonder? After the Interzonal that year there was a three-man playoff for the last two Candidates' spots, and Tal, on the verge of qualifying, allowed the Poisoned Pawn Najdorf against Lajos Portisch, and lost. Kirillov himself had recommended against Tal's choosing that line, but the Soviet authorities decided they needed a scapegoat, and that role fell to Kirillov.

    So: that's a story about Tal, but about Kirillov too - and Kirillov features prominently in the book. He is not an invisible narrator. He is proud of his friendship with Tal, with the work he did with him, of his own chess accomplishments, and of his work as a writer: he often quotes his earlier work, and not just because of the relevance of the content but to show off his style. Nor is he the only non-Tal subject of the book: other Latvians of Tal's generation and in his ambit feature take their turns on stage: Aivars Gipslis, Janis Klovans, Janis Kruzkops, Alvins Vitolins, the very young Alexei Shirov, and - of course and especially - the Maestro: Tal's long-time trainer, friend, and father-figure Alexander Koblencs.

    The narrative focuses on the parts of Tal's career over the period where Kirillov was especially close to Tal, and particularly but not only during periods when they were in contact with each other. Those are the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book, both because of the behind-the-scenes detail and because Kirillov, despite writing the book late in life and in poor health, successfully conveys the ebullience of their youth and his youthful hero-worship of Tal. That's the heart of the book, but after the Tal adventures and his survey of some of the other notable Latvian ches personalities mentioned above, much of the last section centers on his (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to have Tal properly memorialized in Riga.

    Tal died 25 years ago, in 1992, but his memory remains strong to this day, especially for those of us who were playing chess during his lifetime. (And even more so, of course, for those who knew him and played him - as even I had the chance to back in 1988, albeit only in a simul.) This book is not an encyclopedic account of his life and career, and doesn't have a single game. (Though there are two entertaining fragments of Belgrade Gambit analysis by Tal, Kirillov and their childhood circle.) I'd always recommend starting your entry into the world of Tal with his autobiographical The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, and for more on his career and especially his games, there's Tibor Karolyi's very thorough three-part series, which includes plenty of biographical information as well. But this small volume is a worthy addition to any Tal fan's library.

    Recommended.

    Saturday
    Nov112017

    The Latest Tal Tales

    November 9 marked what would have been Mikhail Tal's 81st birthday, and I'll use the occasion to note two bits of Tal material. First, a small remembrance on ChessBase. I suspect that many of you will be familiar with the videos there, along with the Tal-Miller game and the Tal-Kasparov fragment, but the game from the 1987 simul may be new to you, as it was to me. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was a cute little game, and maybe one which could double as a handy opening trap for those who play double fianchetto lines with White.

    The second item is the third book of Tibor Karolyi's trilogy on the Tal's career. I would certainly recommend this book, especially since this period (1972-1992) is the least well-known of his career even though it includes some of his best games and some of the best years of his career. As I played a (very) small role in helping with the trilogy (and am thanked in the book's front papers), I'm not completely impartial about the book. But part of the reason why I was so happy to help is because Tal is one of my all-time favorite players, and because Karolyi always does a very thorough job in his analysis. There are some anecdotes in the book as well, so it's not just games and analysis. Highly recommended.

    Sunday
    Oct222017

    Two Interesting Books

    While browsing around on Amazon a couple of days ago, a couple of chess books popped up in the "recommended for you" list. Both are about Soviet grandmasters, and neither features any chess (or any to speak of).

    The first that showed up was Team Tal: An Inside Story, by Valentin Kirillov. It's a short book that looks like a collection of vignettes about the late great Mikhail Tal, and it looks like a nice book for his fans.

    The second book is about David Bronstein, another great player who came very close to becoming the world champion, but unlike Tal, he didn't succeed in doing so. While Bronstein was a brilliant player who lived a fascinating life, one could detect sadness and a touch of bitterness in his later works (e.g. Secret Notes). But in Genna Sosonko's The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein, it seems that the bitterness was almost all-consuming, at least from his late middle age onward. It's hard to tell from the excerpt Amazon makes available how pervasive Bronstein's negativity is in the text, so if any of you have read the book, please offer your thoughts about it in the comments. (Likewise about the Tal book, if you've read that one.)

    At any rate, both books look interesting, at least to middle-agers like me who grew up at a time when Tal and Bronstein were chess heroes to many young players.

    Friday
    Aug042017

    Mikhail Tal Simul Game

    The video is from a simul Mikhail Tal gave at Labate's Chess Center in Anaheim, California, back in 1988. I played in this simul as well, but alas: I don't appear in the video. My board was directly or almost directly across from David Lucky's (then David Glicksman), and by the time the camera panned to that side, my game had finished. (I lost.)

    Does anyone know if there's a fuller video, or can anyone get in touch with David Lucky to find out?

    Monday
    Jul032017

    Tal Tales

    The tournament in Leuven is over, but the internet being what it is, there's always another event to see. This one's in the more distant past, in 1988: the first World Blitz Championship, held in St. John, in Canada. It was a very strong event, including the two players who were clearly #1 and #2 in the world at the time: Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. Spoiler alert: neither won or even came close to winning.

    (Neither did Yasser Seirawan, who was a Grand Chess Tour-level player in that day and very strong in blitz, but almost surely not as strong as he fancied himself to be. A Seirawan quote from the video: "I don't think of myself as a boastful person, and yet I do boast about my blitz ability because I quite frankly consider myself the best in the world. Period." His first round loss to Igor Ivanov proved to be a boon to the rest of us, because he ends up doing commentary in the remaining rounds.)

    Almost all of the games shown can be found in databases, but the footage is fun both for those of us who were around when the event occurred and for you youngsters who may be surprised to see what a young Karpov, Seirawan, and Kasparov actually looked like. Some of the games are shown not just live but on a very old-style computer screen as well, accompanied by some pleasant guitar music or something more suited to the elevator. This was very helpful in the old days, before databases, but when you get to those parts of the videos you might want to dig up the games in ChessBase instead. Regardless, have a look - you may find it a nice treat from the past.

    Part 1 is here, the second part is here and the finale (which doesn't take up the full length of the video) is here. (HT: Brian Karen)

    Bonus: Want more Mikhail Tal? Here is an hour-long (plus) talk by him in that same year of 1988. It's in Russian, but with English subtitles, so if you can read this, you can read that too.

    Saturday
    Sep032016

    This Week's World Chess Column: Tal in the Olympiads

    It's an interesting fact that among players who have participated in four or more Chess Olympiads, the player with the highest scoring percentage is Mikhail Tal. There are some reasons that make it a little less surprising than it would otherwise be, but even so he's probably not the first name that would come to mind. Nevertheless, he owns that distinction, and in my column for World Chess this week I take a look at some of his finest games from various Olympiads from 1958 to 1974. There are few better ways to spend one's time as a chess fan than with Tal's games, so please have a look.

    Wednesday
    May042016

    A Mildly Sadistic Joke in Fischer-Tal From the 1959 Candidates

    Emphasis on mild. The background to the little video is this: Bobby Fischer repeatedly played the Two Knights Variation against the Caro-Kann in the 1959 Candidates Tournament, with a serious lack of success. It got so bad that people who seldom or never played the Caro-Kann did so, as his results and the positions he received with the Two Knights were harmless at best. Fischer lost with it against Tigran Petrosian in round 2, drew with Vassily Smyslov in round 7 and then lost to Paul Keres - not a Caro-Kann practitioner - in round 8 (and then again in round 22).

    So by the time of round 13, when Fischer faced Mikhail Tal with white for the first time in the tournament, this happened:

     

     

    Tal fakes the move 1...c6 before giving the pawn a shove to c5, then offers a priceless smile to Fischer, who remains impassive. Fischer's non-reaction is a pity. Could he not take a joke (very possible), or was his poker face a matter of competitive strategy? As for the joke itself, it almost wasn't one. According to Tibor Karolyi (page 413 of his excellent Mikhail Tal's Best Games 1: The Magic of Youth) Tal seriously considered playing the Caro-Kann in that game. Fortunately for everyone but Fischer, he didn't, enabling us to enjoy his joke, his infectious grin, and the very nice game he went on to win.

    (HT: Brian Karen)

    Saturday
    Dec192015

    This Week's World Chess Column, on Tiebreakers

    Continuing the theme from this post, my WorldChess.com column this week recaps some of the odd tiebreaks used or at least proposed in several Candidates' matches, and concludes with a look at a classic game by Mikhail Tal.