Mikhail Tal
by Bill Wall

Mikhail Tal
November 10, 2023

Mikhail "Misha" Nekhemyevich Tal (born Mihails Tals) was born on November 9, 1936 in Riga, Latvia (annexed by the USSR in 1940 and part of the Soviet Union from 1944 until 1992). He was born into a Jewish family. His father was Nekhemia (Nehemija) Tal (1896-1957), an excellent medical doctor. Years later, Sally Landau, Tal's first wife, revealed that Mikhail's biological parent was Robert Tal. Mikhail grew up thinking Robert was his distant uncle. Sally Landau's claim concerning Mikhail's paternity first appeared in her reminiscences in 1998. However, this claim was denied by Tal's third wife, Angelina. (source: Havanuz, ChessBase Chess News, Feb 2, 2020)

Tal (Tahl) is a Hebrew name meaning dew.

Mikhail's mother, Ida Grigoryevna (1900-1979), was the eldest of four sisters. She was an actress at the Riga Youth Theatre. She and Mikhail's father were cousins. Nekhemia and Ida had an older son, Jacob (Yakov), born in 1926. He was also a chess player and became a medical doctor.

Mikhail was born with a deformity. He was born with Ectrodactuly, a congenital disease that left him with only three fingers on his right hand. Despite his deformity, Tal was a good piano player and was a fan of classical music.

Mikhail learned to read at age 3. By the age of 5, he could do mental multiplication of 3-digit numbers. His memory was close to photographic.

From his early days, Mikhail Tal had brilliant mathematical ability, an exceptional memory, and perfect musical ear.

In 1942, at the age of 6, Mikhail said he learned chess from his father. Mikhail became interested in chess when he saw it being played in his father's waiting room. Mikhail played chess with his father's patients in the waiting room.

In 1943, Mikhail played his first serious game with his cousin, losing to the scholar's mate (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6 4.Qxf7#).

In 1948, Mikhail joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. He really wanted to join the drama club, but noticed a sign on one of the doors that said 'Chess Section.' Mikhail's' first chess teacher was Yanis Kruzkops (1912-1960). He gave Tal chess lessons for several months. Kruzkops was the chess coach of the Riga Pioneers Palace.

In 1949, he played in the Championship of the Riga Palace of Pioneers.

In 1949, Mikhail played against his first master in a simultaneous exhibition given by master Ratmir Kholmov (1925-2006) in Riga. He won the game in 21 moves.

In 1949, chess master Alexander Koblents (1916-1993) began tutoring Mikhail. Koblents was one of Riga's top masters. Koblents won the Latvian Championship in 1941, 1945, 1946, and 1949. He was Tal's coach until 1962.

In 1949, on learning that world champion Mikhail Botvinnik was on holiday in Jurmala, Tal, with a chessboard under his arm, managed to sneak past a security guard and knocked on Botvinnik's door. But a relative of Botvinnik refused to let the boy in, saying that Botvinnik was taking an afternoon nap. In late 1949, Tal played in his first serious tournament, the Riga Youth Championship. He started out well with three wins, but then had to go to the hospital for scarlet fever and did not finish the tournament. Tal was ill for most of his life.

Tal's first chess prize was a book, Aleksei Tolstoy's Peter the First. It was a prize for the most interesting game at a Pioneers' chess tournament.

In 1950, Tal played in the quarter-final of the Riga championship. He scored 12 1/2 out of 13 and reached the first category norm.

In February 1951, Tal took 10th place in the 7th Riga chess championship

In 1951, Mikhail qualified for the Latvian Chess Championship. In April 1951, Tal took 11th-14th place in the Latvian championship. He scored 9 out of 19.

In 1951, Tal beat GM Paul Keres when Keres came to Riga to give a simultaneous exhibition.

In 1952, Tal played in the Riga Championship.

In March 1952, Tal took 7th place in the Latvian Championship. He won 7, lost 4, and drew 6.

In May 1952, Tal finished high school at the age of 15 and a half years. He applied to the Law Faculty at Riga University, but was accepted at the Philological Faculty because he loved literature more than law, and the sciences would interfere with chess more than the liberal arts.

In March 1953, Mikhail won his first Latvian chess championship, held in Riga. He scored 14.5 out of 19 (12 wins, 2 losses, 5 draws). He won the title of Candidate Master and was nicknamed the "Magician from Riga." The only other time that Tal won the Latvian championship was in 1965.

In 1953, Tal played in the USSR Team Championship, held in Kharkov.

In 1953, Tal took 1st—2nd in the USSR Club Team Championship on board 2.

In 1954, Tal was a student at Riga University. He studied Russian and literature.

In March 1954, Tal took 2nd-3rd in the Latvian championship. He scored 14 out of 19.

In 1954, he won a match against Moscow chess champion and Byelorussian master Vladimir Saigin.

(1919-1968) and won the title of Soviet chess master. It was Tal's first chess match. Tal won 8 out of 14.

In 1954, Tal defeated his first grandmaster in a team tournament, USSR champion Yuri Averbakh (1922- 2022), when Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position.

In February 1955, Tal took 2nd in the 21st Latvian championship.

In June 1955, Tal took 3rd—4th in the quarter-finals of the 23rd USSR championship, held in Vilnius. It was also called the Baltic Zonal tournament. He won 7, lost 2, and drew 8.

In December 1955, he took 1st place in the semi-finals of the 23rd USSR championship, held in Riga. He scored 10 wins, 3 losses, and 5 draws.

In February 1956, Tal took 5th-7th place in the 23rd USSR championship, held in Leningrad. He won 6, lost 2, and drew 9.

In 1956, Tal played board 3 for the USSR at the students' championship in Uppsala, Sweden, scoring 6 out of 7.

In 1956, Tal was a soccer goalkeeper at the University of Riga.

In December 1956, Tal took 5th-6th in the semi-finals of the 24th USSR championship, held in Tbilisi.

In February 1957, Tal took 1st place in the 24th USSR championship, held in Moscow. He was the youngest player to win the USSR Championship at the age of 20. He scored 9 wins, 10 draws, and 2 losses, ahead of Paul Keres and David Bronstein.

In 1957, he was awarded the title of Grandmaster without ever being an International Master first. In March 1957, Tal's father died. It took Tal several months to pull himself together. He cancelled his finals at Riga University.

In the spring of 1957, Tal graduated with a Bachelor's Degree from the History and Philology Department of Riga University. He wrote his thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov.

In July 1957, Tal played board 1 for the USSR in the 4th Student Olympiad, held in Reykjavik. Spassky played board 2. Tal won 7, drew 3 and had no losses.

In 1957, Tal taught school in Riga. He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society.

In February 1958, Tal won the 25th USSR championship, held in Riga. He had 8 wins, 11 draws, and 2 losses. This was 2 1/2 points ahead of the rest of the field.

In May 1958, Tal took 3rd in the Latvia championship. He won 15, lost 2, and drew 1.

Tal played for the USSR at Student Olympiads in 1956, 1957, and 1958. He won 6 gold medals — 3f or top team and 3 board gold medals. He won 19 games, drew 8, with no losses.

In 1958, he won the Interzonal tournament at Portoroz, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). He won 8, lost 1, and drew 11.

In 1958, at the 13th Munich Chess Olympiad, Tal had the best individual score. He was the gold medalist with 13 1/2 out of 15, scoring 90 percent and no losses.

In 1959, he married 19-year-old Sally Landau (1938- ), an actress with the Riga Youth Theatre. They were divorced in 1970. Tal's second marriage did not last long. She was from Tbilisi. His third wife was Angelina (Engelina) Petukhov, who worked in the Riga Shakhmaty magazine building, editing the correspondence play section.

In February 1959, Tal took 2nd-3rd with Boris Spassky in the 26th USSR championship, held in Tbilisi. Tal won 9, lost 3, and drew 7. Tigran Petrosian won the event in his hometown.

In 1959, Tal won the Latvian Chess Olympiad, scoring 7 out of 7.

In June 1959, Tal won an international tournament in Zurich, ahead of Gligoric, Fischer, and Keres. He had 10 wins, 3 draws, and 2 losses.

In July 1959, Tal had his first bout of kidney trouble.

In August 1959, Tal was operated on and had his appendix removed. His diseased kidney was not dealt with.

In October 1959, Tal won the FIDE Candidates' tournament, held in Bled, Zagreb, and Belgrade. He beat Bobby Fischer in all 4 games that they played against each other. Tal scored 16 wins, 8 draws, and 4 losses. He now earned the right to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik for the world championship.

In 1959, just after winning the Candidates tournament in Yugoslavia, his first words were "My head is filled with sunshine."

In 1959, Tal took 4th in the Riga International tournament. He scored 7 wins, 2 losses, and 4 draws, From 1960 to 1970, Tal edited the Latvian chess magazine, SAHS (Chess).

Mikhail Tal's first son was Gera, who became a dentist and moved to Beer-Sheva, Israel.

In the 1960s, Tal said there wouldn't be a grandmaster computer chess program for 100 years. He got that wrong.

In May 1960, Tal, at the age of 23, defeated Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) for the world championship, held in Moscow. Tal won 6, lost 2, and had 13 draws.

In May 1960, on winning the world chess championship, Tal was given a "Volga" car. But he never learned to drive in his whole life and gave the car to his brother, Yakov.

The world championship match with Botvinnik in 1960 was only Tal's second match he ever played up to that time. His first match was in 1954 to qualify for the master title.

In August 1960, Tal scored 7.5 out of 8 in a USSR — West Germany match. It was this event that Tal became a smoker and was addicted to smoking from then on. He smoked 2 packs of Kent a day.

In 1960, Tal played board 1 for the USSR in the Leipzig Chess Olympiad. He won 8, lost 1, and drew 6. In January 1961, Tal won at Stockholm. He won 8, drew 3 and had no losses.

Two weeks before the Tal-Botvinnik return match, Tal suffered a mild heart attack. The Soviet Chess Federation tried to persuade Tal to delay the match, but Tal refused.

In 1961, Botvinnik beat Tal in a return match for the world championship, played in Moscow. Tal scored 5 wins, 6 draws, and 10 losses. Tal was world chess champion for 1 year and 5 days, the briefest reign of any world chess champion.

In 1961, Tal won the Bled super tournament, one point over Bobby Fischer. Tal had 11 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss.

In 1961, he took 4th-5th at the 29th USSR Championship, held in Baku. He won 7, lost 3, and drew 10.

In 1962 at the Candidates tournament in Curacao, he had to withdraw three-quarters of the way through due to serious health problems (kidney troubles). Of all the players in the event, only Bobby Fischer visited him while he was in the hospital. Tal won 3, lost 10, and drew 8.

In 1962, Tal played board 6 for the USSR at the Varna Chess Olympiad. He won 7, drew 6, and had no losses.

In 1962, he took 2nd-3rd in the 30th USSR Championship, held in Erevan. He won 11, lost 3, and drew 5. The event was won by Viktor Korchnoi.

In 1963, he won at Miskolc, Hungary. He won 10, drew 5, and had no losses.

In 1963, Tal took 2nd-4th at the Capablanca Memorial Tournament in Havana. He won 14, lost 3, and drew 4.

In January 1964, Tal took 1st place at the 39th Hastings International Tournament. He won 5, drew 4, and had no losses.

In late January 1964, Tal took 1st place at Reykjavik. He won 12, drew 1, and had no losses.

In 1964, Tal had a mistress who was an actress. Tal was still married to Sally Landau. In early 1964, Tal was summoned to the Central Committee and was told that he had to choose between his wife and his mistress. Tal told the committee that this was none of their business, and that he would do what he pleased. The authorities threatened him that they would not allow him to play in the Amsterdam Interzonal. Sally told the Committee that she was divorcing Mikhail. The authorities then allowed Tal to play in the Interzonal. After the Interzonal. Sally withdrew her divorce papers. (source: Havanur, "Sally and Misha: Parting of ways," ChessBase Chess News, Dec 21, 2019).

In June 1964, he tied for 1st-4th place at the Amsterdam Interzonal. He won 11, drew 12, and had no losses.

In July 1964, he took 1st place at Kislovodsk, USSR. He won 6, lost 1, and drew 3.

In January 1965, Tal took 3rd at the 32nd USSR championship, held in Kiev. He won 9, lost 3, and drew 7.

In March 1965, Tal took 1st at the Latvian championship in Riga. He won 8, drew 6, and lost none.

In 1965, he lost to Boris Spassky in a finals Candidates match, scoring 4 and Spassky scoring 7. He had previously defeated Lajos Portisch (5.5 — 2.5) and Bent Larsen (5.5 — 4.5) in matches.

In April 1966, he tied for 1st—2nd at Sarajevo. He won 9, lost 2, and drew 4.

In 1966, Tal was hit in the head with a bottle in a bar in Havana. He was taken to the hospital to have several stitches and missed the first 5 rounds of chess Havana Chess Olympiad because of his injuries.

He played board 3 for the USSR. He won 11, drew 2, and had no losses. It was the best score in the Olympiad.

In December 1966, he won at Palma de Mallorca. He won 9, drew 6, with no losses.

In 1967, Tal tied with Lev Polugaevsky in the 35th USSR championship at Kharkov.

In 1968, he lost a semifinal match against Viktor Korchnoi, after defeating Gligoric.

In 1968, Tal gave a simultaneous blindfold exhibition at the Kiev Film Studio. He played 10 players blindfolded, winning 7 and drawing 3.

In November 1968, he took 1st at Gori, USSR. He won 6, lost 1, and drew 3. In 1969, Tal became addicted to opium.

In February 1969, Tal took 6th-10th place at the 36th USSR championship in Alma Ata, scoring 6 wins, 4 losses, and 9 draws. He did win the blitz tournament.

In October 1969, Tal took 15th place at the 37th USSR championship, held in Moscow. He won 6, lost 7, and drew 9.

In 1969, Tal had one of his kidneys removed. The doctors reported that Tal talked chess until the anesthesia mask was strapped on. During his convalescence, he would sneak out of the hospital to play at the local chess club.

In January 1970, he took 1st — 2nd at Tbilisi. He won 7, lost 1, and drew 7.

In 1970, the Yugoslav press reported Tal's death during a recent operation he had.

In 1970, he won the Georgian Open, held in Poti. He won 9, lost 1, and drew 4.

In 1970, he played board 9 in the USSR v. Rest of the World match in Belgrade. He won 1, lost 1, and drew 2.

In the early 1970s, Tal was addicted to morphine. During a lecture, some asked him if he was a morphinist. Tal responded that he was a Chigorinist.

In April 1970, he took 2nd place, behind Fischer at the Blitz International Tournament in Herceg Novi, Yugoslavia.

In 1970, Tal divorced Sally Landau.

In 1971, he tied for 1st with Paul Keres at Tallinn. He won 9, lost 1, and drew 5.

Just before the Candidates match with Fischer in 1971, Mark Taimanov played a training match with Tal. Tal won all 5 games.

In 1971, he took 2nd-3rd in the 39th USSR Championship, held in Leningrad.

In 1971, he took 6th 7th at the Alekhine Memorial tournament in Moscow. He won 4, lost 2, and drew 11.

From July 1972 to April 1973, Tal played a record 86 consecutive games without a loss (47 wins and 39 draws). Between October 23, 1973 and October 16, 1974, he played 95 consecutive games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws), shattering his previous record. These were the two longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess for more than four decades, until future world champion Ding Liren broke the record in 2018 with 100 games, although with far fewer wins than either of Tal's streaks (29 wins, 71 draws).

In 1972, he won at Sukhumi. He won 7, drew 8, and lost none.

In 1972, he played board 4 at the Olympiad in Skopje. He won 12 drew 4, and had no losses. He had the best score at the Olympiad.

In 1972, he won the 40th USSR championship, held in Baku. He won 9 and drew 12, with no losses.

In 1973, he won at Wijk aan Zee. He won 6, drew 9, with no losses. The trip to Wijk aan Zee was the first trip outside of the Soviet Union for an individual tournament in 5 years.

In 1973, he won at Tallinn. He won 9, drew 6, with no losses.

In 1973, he took 8th-10th place at the Leningrad Interzonal. He won 6, lost 6, and drew 5. Tal was suffering from kidney troubles.

In 1973, he won the Chigorin Memorial in Sochi. He won 7, drew 8, with no losses.

In 1973, Tal took 9th-12th place in the 41st USSR Championship. He won 3, lost 4, and drew 10.

In 1973, he took 1st-2nd place at Dubna. He won 7, drew 8, and had no losses.

In January 1974, he tied for 1st-4th place at Hastings. He won 5, drew 10, and lost none.

In 1974, he took 1st at Halle. He won 8, drew 7, with no losses.

In 1974, he won at Lublin, Poland, winning 10, drawing 5, and no losses. At this tournament, Tal was playing White against Adamski with both players in time trouble. Adamski's flag fell but Tal lost a piece and resigned. At that moment, Tal's wife said, "Black has not yet made 40 moves." A referee intervened and awarded the win to Tal since the flag falling happened before Tal resigned. Adamski appealed but his protest was rejected. Tal won the tournament.

In 1974, he won at Novi Sad. He scored 9 wins, 1 loss, and 5 draws.

In 1974 he tied for 1st in the 42nd USSR championship in Leningrad. He won 6, lost 2, and drew 7.

In 1974, he played board 5 for the USSR at the Nice Olympiad. He won 8, drew 7, with no losses.

In 1975, Tal's daughter from his third wife, Engelina, was born. Her name was Zhanna.

In 1975, he took 2nd-4th at Las Palmas. He won 8, lost 2, and drew 4.

In 1975, he took 2nd-5th in the 43rd USSR Championship, held in Moscow. He won 5, lost 1, and drew 9.

In 1976, he took 2nd 4th in the Biel Interzonal. He won 6, lost 1, and drew 12.

In 1977, he won at Tallinn. He scored 10 wins, 3 losses, and 2 draws.

In 1977 he won at Leningrad. He scored 7 wins, 1 loss, and 9 draws.

In 1977, he won the Chigorin Memorial, held in Sochi. He won 8, lost 1, and drew 6.

In 1977, he tied for 5th-7th in the 45th USSR championship. He won 4, lost 3, and drew 8.

In 1978, he took 1st-2nd in the 46th USSR Championship, held in Tbilisi.

In 1979, he took 1st-2nd in Montreal. He scored 6 wins, 12 draws, and no losses. Tal won $30,000, but the Soviet authorities took $27,000 when Tal returned home.

To prevent defection, Tal's wife or children were not allowed to travel outside the USSR. In 1979, Tal's wife, Engelina, was allowed to go to Canada with him, but his child, Zhanna, had to stay in the USSR as a 'hostage.'

In 1979, he won the Riga Interzonal. He won 11, drew 6, and lost none.

In May 1979, he tied for 1st with Anatoly Karpov in the Montreal "Tournament of Stars."

In 1979, Tal won at the Riga Interzonal, scoring 11 wins and 6 draws.

In 1979, he took 14th-15th place in the 47th USSR Championship, held in Minsk. He won 3, lost 5, and drew 9.

In January 1980, Tal peaked his Elo rating at 2705.

In 1980, he lost a quarter-final match to Lev Polugaevsky.

In 1980, he took 1sr at Erevan. He scored 5 wins, 2 losses, and 8 draws.

In 1980, he played board 3 for the USSR in the 24th Olympiad, held in Malta. He won 2, lost 1, and drew 3.

In 1980, Tal's first wife, Sally, left the USSR and moved to Antwerp.

In 1981, Tal won at Tallinn. He won 5, drew 10, and lost none.

In 1981, he won at Malaga. He scored 3 wins, 8 draws, and no losses.

In 1981, he took 1st-2nd at Lvov. He won 5, drew 8, and no losses.

In 1981, he won at Riga. He scored 7 wins, 8 draws, and no losses.

In 1982, he won at Porz. He scored 7 wins, 4 draws, and no losses.

In 1982, he won at Erevan. He had 6 wins, 1 loss, and 8 draws.

In 1982, Tal tied for 1st at Moscow. He had 5 wins, 8 draws, no losses.

In 1982, He took 3rd-4th at the Moscow Interzonal. He scored 4 wins, 1 loss, and 8 draws.

In 1982, he played board 5 for USSR at the Lucerne Olympiad. He won 5, drew 3, and lost none.

In 1982, Tal won at Sochi. He won 5, drew 10, and lost none.

In 1983, he tied for 1st at the Keres Memorial in Tallinn. He won 6, lost 1, and drew 8.

In 1984, he tied for 1st-2nd at Albena. He won 5, lost 2, and drew 4.

In 1985 he tied for 1st at Jurmala. He won 5, drew 8, and lost none.

In 1985, he took 4th—5th in the Montpellier Candidates Tournament. He won 3, lost 1, and drew 11.

In 1986, he tied for 1st at Tbilisi. He won 6, drew 8, and lost none.

In 1987, he tied for 1st -4th at Jurmala. He won 3, lost 1, and drew 10.

In 1987, he won at Termas de Rio Hondo. He won 5, drew 6, and lost none.

In 1988, Tal won the World Blitz Championship in St. John at the age of 51.

In 1989, he took 4th-5th at Marseilles. He won 2, lost 1, and drew 5.

In 1990, he took 2nd-4th in Tel Aviv. He scored 4 wins and 7 draws, with no losses.

In 1990, he took 9th-9th in the New York Open. He won 3, lost 1, and drew 5.

In 1991, he took 3rd-6th in San Francisco. He won 2, lost 1, and drew 8. I ran his demonstration board for awhile and he gave me his tournament bulletins and other items for safe keeping. After every game, he went to the break room to smoke a cigarette and drink some alcoholic beverage (usually vodka or rum and coke). He never touched beer or wine.

In 1991, he took 39th-49th in the 58th USSR Championship.

In December 1991, Russian leaders declared the demise of the Soviet Union. After that, Tal's Riga flat and the whole house were given back to its former owner. Tal and his family then moved to Cologne, Germany.

In 1992, Tal played in his last normal tournament in Barcelona. He placed 8th 10th and scored 3 wins, 3 losses, and 5 draws. His last tournament game was against GM Vladimir Akopian. Tal won.

Tal's last tournament was a blitz tournament in Moscow, played on May 28, 1992. He beat Kasparov (Tal's last game of chess) and took 3rd place, behind Karpov and Bareev.
Tal—Kasparov, Moscow, 1992
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nd7 4.d4 Nf6 5.O-O a6 6.Bxd7+ Nxd7 7.Nc3 e6 8.Bg5 Qc7 9.Re1 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Ne5 11.f4 h6 12.Bh4 g5 13.fxe5 gxh4 14.exd6 Bxd6 15.Nd5 exd5 16.exd5+ Kf8 17.Qf3 1-0
Mikhail Tal died on June 28, 1992 in Moscow. The official cause of his death was given as a hemorrhage of the esophagus. He had over 20 operations during his lifetime. His obituary appeared in The New York Times by Robert McFadden on June 29, 1992.

Mikhail Tal (Mihails Tals) was buried in Riga in a Jewish cemetery. A chess set was placed in his coffin.

Tal was fluent in English, German, Serbian, and Spanish.

Tal's highest Elo rating was 2705 in January 1980.

Tal won the USSR championship 6 times (1957, 1958, 1967, 1972, 1974, and 1978) and played in 21 Soviet championships.

Tal played Karpov 20 times, with 19 draws and one loss (Bugojno, 1980).

Tal won or tied for 1st in 68 tournaments.

During his 41-year chess career, he played over 2,700 tournament or match games, scoring over 65%.

In 2003, Sally Landau published a biography of Mikhail Tal.

In 2006, the first Mikhail Tal Memorial chess tournament was held in Moscow.

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