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Original Issue


Mikhail Tal's brilliant and bewildering victories in world championship chess stunned the Russians—and they may also have mirrored a national trend

Chess fans waited in the snow and ice outside the ancient Pushkin Theater in Moscow and some 1,200 enraptured spectators inside periodically violated all chess protocol with roars of applause. And on giant boards in the streets and on the walls of chess clubs all over Russia, a good part of the population watched the unfolding of one of the keenest dramas in the history of the game. The set at the Pushkin was a simple one: a table in the center of the stage, two chess clocks that timed the players' moves and, on the backdrop, a sign in square Russian letters: MATCH FOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP.

The sign was probably unnecessary: everybody in Russia knew that Mikhail Tal, 23, was challenging Mikhail Botvinnik, 48, holder of the world championship for 10 years, to a 24-game series. And the setting would hardly be mistaken for a musical comedy. The cast consisted only of the two chess masters, plus their 32 chessmen. But the curtain rose on a controversy as to the nature of chess: the question of whether chess is an art or a science, a game, a sport or a branch of mathematics.

The proceedings started when Botvinnik climbed laboriously onto the stage and plunked his stocky torso down on his chair before the black men. He hunched over the board, his head cradled in his hands, a picture of concentration, intellect, self-possession and calm. A very eminent electronics engineer, methodical and deliberate in his chess playing, as well as in his speech and movements, Botvinnik communicated an impression of awesome intellectual resources. Mikhail Tal settled himself before the white men, respectfully addressing Botvinnik by the more formal Russian usage, saying Mikhail Moiseyevitch, in deference to his age and his mastery. Botvinnik nodded to Tal, calling him Mischa, the Russian equivalent of Mike. Tal played pawn to king four. Botvinnik replied with pawn to king three, the opening move of the French defense, a very beautiful and balanced game in the hands of a master. The first 10 to 14 moves of the French defense, as of all openings, have been worked out through all possible variations. Botvinnik chose one known as the Winawer variation and, in fact, played almost exactly the same game he had played against the American champion Samuel Reshevsky in the 1948 tournament in which Botvinnik won the world title for the first time. Since the first standard moves are routine, Tal did not deliberate over them, while Botvinnik pondered slowly over each. Too impatient to go through these conventional chess theatrics, Tal jumped up and began to stride around the stage.

Occasionally, as though in response to a brain wave, Tal stopped in his tracks, hovered over the board like a hawk and then resumed his pacing. The most audacious and unorthodox chess master since Paul Morphy, the exact opposite of Botvinnik in manner, appearance, temperament and style of play, Tal gave the impression of being guided by momentary inspiration alone. Before the match started, the Times of London had said of Tal: "He rejoices in skating over thinner ice than that over which any living master would dare to travel...." Soviet chess experts, who have grown up in an era dominated by Botvinnik's methodical electronic-brain type of chess, felt that Botvinnik would win again.

It quickly became evident that Tal was skating on such thin ice that ponderous Botvinnik could not follow him. Tal moved his queen out early, opening a feint on the king side which allowed Botvinnik to advance his queen pawn to the seventh row without opposition, while Tal placed a bishop which, in one of the sudden deceptive moves of which he is a master, was revealed to be bearing on Botvinnik's king and on the rook behind the king. So Botvinnik would lose his rook when he moved out of check. There was a thunderous roar from the crowd. The electric sign, SILENCE, PLEASE, flashed over and over without effect. Botvinnik resigned.

Outside Russia that outcome was not considered surprising. But it struck the Soviet chess world like a bolt from the blue. The shock deepened when Botvinnik was hard-pressed to draw the next four games. In the sixth game Tal sacrificed a knight, literally giving it away. Botvinnik took it, and found his men drawn into the kind of position where his own plodding and systematic attack could not function. He had wasted precious moments early in the game—each player has to make a minimum of 40 moves in 2½ hours, but any part of the time can be spent on any move—so he was now pressed for time. The five hours passed with the game unfinished, and it was adjourned. But Botvinnik resigned without resuming play.

In the seventh game the excitement reached near-hysteria proportions. Tal, wrote a Russian expert, "has turned a new page in psychology and technique." At one point Tal made an unexpected knight jump to the edge of the board. "Like a gunshot at sparrows," said a commentator, disgusted with this apparent frivolity. But again Botvinnik, in trying to take advantage of a wasted move, launched his attack prematurely. "Tal's prompt reply was a double rook sacrifice," said the Soviet critic, "and Botvinnik's entire structure started to crumble like a castle of cards."

In the Pushkin Theater the crowd got out of hand. A wild supporter yelled to Tal, "Mischa, at him with your knight!" Since Tal had lost his knight that started a roar of laughter. The tumult grew. The Swedish judge, Gideon Stahlberg, warned the crowd to be silent. When the cheering continued, the curtain was lowered, and the game went on out of sight of the audience. But it was over, and Botvinnik was defeated.

The Russians, who take chess more seriously than anything except soccer, were going through agonizing reappraisals. The country was divided into Botvinnik and Tal factions. Each seemed to reflect its hero, Botvinnik supporters tending to be mature and dignified, Tal's fans younger, more boisterous, thrilled by daring and sacrifice and fed up with the pedantry of the official chess world of Russia. Botvinnik, for example, has been known to lecture for three hours to tournament officials on minor points of chess rules. Tal's great contribution has been to reintroduce inspiration and color and imagination into the game. He made innovations in the classical openings, which are supposedly exhausted. He contributed remarkable sacrifices and bold and aggressive attack. Before his series with Botvinnik was half over, it looked as if Tal's inspiration had won, that the methodical and routine style which Botvinnik had come to symbolize was bound to give way to a more romantic (and certainly more exciting) form of the world's oldest game.

Botvinnik, however, has been world champion despite other revolts in the past. He now turned Tal's weapons against him. Botvinnik won the eighth game by a reversal of the sort that makes chess endlessly fascinating. He played the sort of chess that Tal played. In the ninth game Tal pulled off one of his brilliant sacrifices, trading a knight for two pawns. But this time Botvinnik unexpectedly gave up a third pawn. Surprised and confused, Tal ran into an awkward position where his own men circumscribed his action, and he resigned. The next game was drawn, and the eleventh was won by Tal. Botvinnik, suffering from the flu, then asked for a four-day postponement. Thus at almost the midway point, with the score 6½ for Tal and 4½ for Botvinnik, Tal looked like the new world champion. But Botvinnik was also looking like a still-resourceful world master. He had shown that he could play Tal's game. The certain winners were clearly the people who enjoyed chess.

Botvinnik became world champion almost by default after the death of Alexander Alekhine. A White Russian who sided with the Nazis, a brilliant, bold and unscrupulous player, Alekhine was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Lisbon after World War II. Botvinnik then won the world tournament held in Moscow to determine Alekhine's successor. Never known as a brilliant player (he finished fifth in his first international tournament), Botvinnik triumphed in the long run by a stolid and determined game, the cold calculation of alternatives, the wearing down of opponents.

Tal was born in Riga in 1936, the son of a Jewish physician. He learned to play chess at 6, began winning the tournaments at 12, at 19 tied for fifth place in the finals for the Soviet championship and then won the title two years in a row. A graduate of the University of Riga, he is newly married to Sally Lindau, a ballet dancer, and is a deputy of the Riga soviet and a member of the Young Communist League. Generally grim in appearance during games, Tal is quick to smile offstage. He broods darkly when he is playing, clutching his left hand, which was deformed at birth. Now he has become an idol of Riga, a radio commentator and editor of a chess magazine that is sold out the moment it reaches the newsstands.

Since his match is only half over, there is still a possibility that he may not win it and that Mikhail Botvinnik will remain world champion. But if Botvinnik does so it will be because he has learned to play Mikhail Tal's kind of chess.

Either way, the game of chess is the victor. More important, the endorsement by Soviet chess fans of a new philosophy of spontaneity and brilliance tells us something about Russian social evolution.