This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:
- Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
- Bobby Fischer: The American
- Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
- Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player
Chessmaster and once world champion Mikhail Tal was known for aggressive, even reckless attacking play. He’d make sacrifices so novel and absurd that, even if there was a winning counterattack, which there often was, his bewildered opponent wouldn’t be able to find it. In fact, Tal’s play produced positions so complex that neither side could fully calculate the repercussions. Tal played merely on instinct, and more often than not, it prevailed. To top it all off, he spent the whole game staring you down with his intimidating glare.
“Some sacrifices are sound; the rest are mine.” – Mikhail Tal
This is how crazy Mikhail Tal was: in 1992, he was hospitalized due to multiple organ failures. But he snuck out of the hospital to play a blitz tournament in Moscow, defeated then world champion Garry Kasparov, and then returned to the hospital to die soon after!
My recent chess game versus international master Jack Peters – if I may say so – recalls the playing style of Tal. Though I wasn’t throwing away knights and rooks, I did sacrifice three pawns, in a row! This is actually pretty huge. Assuming positional equality, grandmasters consider a two-pawn deficit to be “decisive,” meaning that the player who is down may as well resign. What was I thinking?
I figured that I wasn’t going to beat my opponent in a long positional grind, where there’s little likelihood of making a serious mistake. My only hope at victory was to throw my opponent off guard with aggressive, albeit risky, play. And it almost worked! I had a significant lead for a while, but I eventually lost it when nerves took over. I started playing more like a timid raccoon and less like a crazed old man who just escaped from the hospital.
“You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.” – Mikhail Tal
The forest was deep, and it was dark, and the path out was wide enough for only one. Unfortunately, that one was my opponent.