I owe my best tournament performance to-date to Mikhail Tal. At the 2010 U.S. Open, I returned to serious competitive play after years of hiatus to score 7 points out of 9, achieve an over 2450 performance rating, and nearly seal the title of National Master with a 75 point rating jump.
Before the tournament, I was engrossed in the book, Tal-Botvinnik (1960), Tal’s first-hand account of his World Championship victory against Mikhail Botvinnik. In a very approachable writing style, Tal takes the reader into the experience of the match, sharing his personal feelings, game preparation, successes, and disappointments.
What stuck with me the most was the incredible energy that Tal brought to the chessboard. He saw opportunities for activity and the initiative in positions where others, even top grandmasters, saw just pieces chaotically scattered across the board.
As I followed Tal through the match, for the first time in my chess career, I found myself learning to recognize the critical moments in the game when piece activity and momentum are far more valuable than the material count. Tal’s magnificent games inspire me to this day.
With this kind of literary legacy, how does one write a new book about the 8th World Champion?
In Tal Move by Move, the author, Cyrus Lakdawala, has a very unique challenge because his greatest competition in writing about Mikhail Tal is—Tal himself.
Lakdawala answers the challenge with vigor. His words breathe new life into the story and playing style of perhaps the most fascinating World Champion in history:
“The nature of miracles is they contradict our understanding of what we consider ‘truth’. Perhaps the miracle itself is a truth which our minds are too limited to comprehend. Mikhail Nekhemevich Tal was just such a miracle worker of the chess board. His games make us believe that anything, however unlikely, is possible, if we are to back it up with imagination, daring, and computer-like calculation/intuition.”
Lakdawala’s introduction of Tal reminds us that chess is more than computer-generated absolute correct moves, a strict adherence to positional principles, and 30-move deep ‘mapped out to a draw’ variations in the opening. Tal brought a sense of magic to the game.
When Opposites Clash:
Tal vs. Botvinnik (1960 World Championship)
Lakdawala describes the match between Tal and Botvinnik as a monumental battle that changed chess as we know it. He sets the stage with Tal as the incredible risk-taker that used his daring sacrifices and gambles to reach the very pinnacle of chess, grappling the World Championship from his polar opposite, Mikhail Botvinnik, “the Iron Strategist”:
“By the Botvinnik/Smyslov era, top players had somehow settled into a false belief that chess had to be played only one way: correctly, from a strategy base. Tal radically altered the Botvinnik/Smyslov ‘correct play’ paradigm, by successfully violating this deeply held belief, and in doing so, rekindled our sense of wonder of the game.”
The verve with which Lakdawala writes about the match immerses the reader into the landscape of top-level chess at that time and Tal’s road to the top.
An Effective Tool to Study Positional and Tactical Chess
Did you know that Tal has several positional masterpieces?
In fact, his deep positional understanding combined with his signature tactical play were both integral to his World Championship victory over Botvinnik.
Lakdawala provides excellent instructive material by closely examining how Tal’s strategy and tactics worked together in the 1960 match.
In “Chapter Two: World Champion and 1960-1970”, Lakdawala starts with a preview of Game 1 from the match, showing a position where Tal’s strategy has left Botvinnik’s position “in ruins”:
Tal vs. Botvinnik (Game 1)
He explains that, in this position, Black (Botvinnik) is already strategically lost, mainly because of his “punctured dark squares”. On the next page, the full game begins.
The preview of the central winning theme before the game allows for a better understanding of Tal’s strategy from start to finish. As readers play through the game, they can watch how Tal gradually weakens Black’s dark squares and which moves contribute directly to this plan.
Lakdawala also aims to answer a variety of positional questions in each game. Here is a question addressed to the reader from the same game:
Tal vs. Botvinnik (Game 1)
“Question: After 8. exf6 Nxf6 who is favoured? White has an open position, while Black leads in development.”
Principle: A development lead tends to outweigh bishop-pair in open positions.
White scores just under 40% with this line and Black already stands better.”
What makes this writing style a great tool for studying positional chess?
- It focuses on principles that you can apply to similar positions.
- It answers questions not often addressed, such as which positional advantage is more important in an open position, the bishop-pair or a lead in development?
- It supports the principle with statistics from the opening, making it more convincing.
Many of Tal’s dazzling tactics are presented as puzzles for the reader to try to solve:
Tal vs. Botvinnik (Game 6)
“Exercise (combination alert): White is hopelessly tied down to the defence of c3. Tal had envisioned this position and saw a multi-tiered combination. Try and find it.”
The solutions are highly instructive, simplifying the thought process behind Tal’s tactical ability.
In this example, Lakdawala translates a complex and lengthy tactic in a World Championship-level game to something understandable to any reader by:
- Providing a clear breakdown of each step of Tal’s more complicated tactical play
- Allowing the reader to solve the puzzle with a hint (the tactical theme) on the first line under the question
When reading the book, I recommend that readers stop at each exercise, cover the answer with a sheet of paper, and study the position, considering their own ideas before looking at the hint and then the solution. This makes the studying process more interactive and engaging. It also allows readers to compare their thoughts to Tal’s moves and Lakdawala’s principles.
A Surprisingly Useful Tool for Studying the Opening
Lakdawala also uses Tal’s games to delve into current openings with an emphasis on ideas, not variations:
Many authors would stop there, assuming that the reader understands how the addition of 7…f5 makes the variation inferior. Lakdawala explains exactly why in detail:
“Question: What is the difference between this way and the modern main line?”
“Answer: Two differences, both favour White:
- In this inferior version, f5 is blocked with a pawn, rather than open for a black piece.
- Having played …f5, Black is unable to implement a future …f6 prying mechanism.”
Again, Lakdawala clearly explains the positional repercussions of the moves 7…f5 and 8…Ne7 as well as offers insight into two variations of the French Defense.
Valuable Historical Insights
In Tal: Move by Move, Lakdawala answers historically significant questions such as these:
- What is most jarring move ever played in a World Championship match?
- What does chess reveal about Botvinnik’s inner nature?
In Game 1 of the Tal-Botvinnik 1960 World Championship Match, Lakdawala examines the psychological reason for a questionable, aggressive move by Botvinnik:
- What was “probably one of the most painful losses in Boris Spassky’s glorious career”?
“This game – a masterpiece – is probably one of the most painful losses of Spassky’s glorious career, since he had Tal on the ropes and failed to find the knockout punches at the key moments.”
Overall, Lakdawala’s clear explanations of strategic ideas combined with Tal’s brilliant, sacrifice-laden games make Tal Move by Move an exceptional learning tool.