Learn from Tal - Attack, Initiative, Calculation
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Mikhail Nehem'evich Tal, the eighth world champion, is a unique figure in the great players' panoply. His endless love for chess, despite his frequent health problems, his beautiful and daring combinations and persistence in proving his chess beliefs right, should be an inspiration and a model for players of any generation. I have explained my thoughts on Tal's style, strengths and weaknesses in the introduction to the section "Tal's philosophy" below. This turned out to be so inspiring for me that it became larger than my previous work on Kortschnoj, and I had to contain myself to keep it from growing twice this size.
When talking about Tal's phenomenal tactical skills, we cannot fail to notice a small paradox. Tal had the ability to "see" things that nobody else could even think existed. He could sit for a long time and, with his cigarette burning in his malformed right hand, calculate an incredible amount of variations, which are not easy to find even when allowed to move the pieces around in analysis mode. The experienced grandmaster Yuri Yakovich told me that there was a belief that Tal could calculate several variations at the same time, parallelly. But these unusual powers also bore the roots of Tal's main weakness. Tal once said "in any long analysis there is a mistake", and this many times applied to Tal's elaborated attacks, too. Flaws in his calculation were not unusual and this partly explains his poor score against, for instance, Kortschnoj, who used to be a calculating machine, backed up by a deep positional understanding (kindly refer to my previous work on Kortschnoj for Modern Chess). But even though Tal loved to attack and deliver unexpected combinations, his global approach was entirely correct. For him, a combination could work only after having accumulated a series of positional plusses. In other words, he was aware of the fact that tactics and strategy should act in tight connection. This idea offered him orientation in positions where even for him it was impossible to calculate everything before sacrificing. His philosophy in such cases was to avoid trying "to embrace the unembraceable", to use his own words. Instead, he would just play the move he thought necessary, no matter how risky it could be. Now is the right moment to make a subjective classification of Tal's combinations and forced manoeuvres. I would like to identify the following three situations:
1) Winning attacks
2) Sound attacks in roughly equal positions, changing the character of the fight but not the evaluation in case of correct play from both sides.
3) Unsound attacks which are very difficult to refute over the board, as they correspond to what Lasker would call "common sense". I am not inclined to think that Tal was bluffing when delivering an incorrect combination. I believe that in such cases he either let his objectivity be affected by his attraction to chess beauty or simply miscalculated, as a consequence of not searching for his opponent's resources diligently enough. The first game below presents Tal's approach as described above at its best, while the following one gives a warning about the necessity of staying objective.
For Tal the speed in development was essential. This did not only refer to the opening but, in a wider sense, to the middlegame as well. Only that instead of "development" we could say mobilization, regrouping or carrying out the main plan. The experienced trainer Mircea Pavlov (my first trainer at the age of 10-11) told me about an interesting episode when he analyzed with Tal. Apparently, Pavlov was defending a lost cause and at some point, Tal asked him: "Why do you still analyse this, don't you see that you are a few stages behind?" The word "stages" can be understood as elementary steps, almost equivalent to tempi. Steinitz claimed that the advance in development is volatile but Tal was a specialist in proving that this form of advantage can have the tendency of increasing until it explodes in a decisive way. In the selection below I have highlighted some typical aspects related to this theme.
King in the Centre
The enemy king's delay in the centre is a possible consequence of our advance in development. Tal considered this as the clearest red flag inviting him to attack. As a general rule, such situations arise if the opponent does not understand the right priorities, letting himself decoyed by pawn grabbing, ambitious strategic plans, or rapid but premature counterplay. And no matter how frequently Tal punished such displays of carelessness, his opponents would fall into this trap again and again.
Getting castled does by no means ensure a king's safety for the rest of the game. It cannot be a surprise that most of Tal's victims managed to castle before falling under his attacks. In fact, this section could be very large, but I have only included a few standard though beautiful attacks here. In the next sections, we will find out more about how he managed to reach such favourable positions before launching his attacks.
Tal had a refined feel for coordination, derived from his way of prioritising effective development and mobilisation. His fierce attacks when he was fully mobilized were hard to stand, and he rarely missed an opponent's temporary lack of coordination that would allow him to deliver his beloved fireworks.
As an example, you can try to solve the following test position.
White has a space advantage and his pieces are more harmoniously placed. Tal found an elegant way to prove a clear advantage.
Hosting the Opponent
In his comments to the 23rd move of the game with Oscar Panno below, Tal revealed one of his trademark themes: "I love playing positions in which the opponent's pieces prolong their visit in my territory". He was referring to pieces which, decoyed by material grabbing or other ideas, land on squares situated far away from their own king, allowing Tal to start a strong attack even when material down. The remote pieces would simply not count in the short term. This is easy to understand, but the most interesting phase is that during which Tal provokes such unfavourable piece placements. Sometimes, this is the result of a logical play, at other times the opponents fall into well-masked traps.
Domination is supposed to be the speciality of great positional champions such as Karpov or Botvinnik. But it can also often be found in Tal's games, mostly as a result of imaginative and concrete play.
The Swan's Song
Barcelona 1992 (a round-robin tournament with many young and promising players) was Tal's last official classical tournament. Just months later, the wizard passed away. Tal started with a brilliant win over Lautier. As impossible as this may seem, his young opponent underestimated the veteran's attacking skills in at least two moments of the game. But as the tournament was advancing, Tal started experiencing severe health problems. The organizers offered him to retire from the tournament, but he replied that after having been paid he would fulfil his part of the contract until the end. The organizers switched to plan B and asked Tal's remaining opponents to offer him draws. Many of them agreed, but his last round opponent decided to play, as he had chances to win the tournament. Tal's last game in the tournament (and in his life) ended with the symbolic move Ke1, causing his opponent's resignation.