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Original Issue


Sports Illustrated's correspondent in Moscow reports on the new world chess champion Mikhail Tal—and on the new chess era that opened with a smile

The average Russian has long since become accustomed to hearing that a world crisis is at hand and that capitalist spies are everywhere. Consequently, last week's political alarms failed to supplant two sporting events—one just past, one scheduled and then canceled—as Topic A in Moscow. Soccer fans were bubbling over the Moscow debut of Europe's No. 1 team, Real Madrid. This week anticipation turned to disappointment as Spain called the team home, because of the summit collapse. But the major subject was the crowning of a new world champion of chess.

When Mikhail Botvinnik surrendered the title to Mikhail Tal in Moscow's Pushkin Theater the other day, it was an occasion that—for Russia's millions of chess buffs—promises to outlive the memory of many a dramatic international crisis. There have only been 10 world champions in 110 years. In addition, the world championship has come to be an exclusively Russian affair: no other nation has a major contender. And, finally, the turning over of the championship to 23-year-old Mikhail Tal really opened a new era in the history of the game.

The character of the new era was foreshadowed by the way Botvinnik's reign ended. There were no chess theatrics, none of the intellectual grandstanding usually found in these events. The end came in the 21st game of the scheduled 24-game, two-month match. Tal, with six wins and 12 drawn games (Botvinnik won only two), needed only half a point to secure the world championship.

At the 18th move, a weary Botvinnik looked up from the chessboard and said in tired tones, "Let's call it a draw, Mischa."

A draw would give Tal half a point, making his score 12½ of a possible 24. With a ghost of a smile nickering around his mouth, Tal nodded assent. That nod, glimpsed by only a few of the spectators who filled the Pushkin to capacity, had as much impact on chess as Johansson's right hand had on boxing. It made Tal world champion. But for a moment no one knew what had happened. The first man on his feet was Gideon Stahlberg, the veteran Swedish chess master who was serving as judge. Instead of cautioning the crowd to be silent, he advanced to congratulate Tal.

Botvinnik edged quietly out the door, almost unnoticed. Tal, flushed and smiling, scanned the crowd for his wife. They are expecting a child this fall, and she was having trouble trying to push her way through the throng around him. Then she was recognized and the well-wishers cheering the new world champion gave way for her, and she made her way to the stage to give her husband a victory kiss. Tal married this young and pretty dancer from a Riga theater last year. They still behave like newlyweds, and, judging from the enthusiasm for them shown at Tal's victory, Moscow has a new pair of popular favorites.

That in itself is part of the era in chess that is now beginning to emerge. Chess champions traditionally are remote and austere figures. Whatever Tal's future is to be as a champion, he is outside the ancient stereotype of the chess master. He comes from a family of physicians: "My father, grandfather, my elder brother—all doctors," he told me when I interviewed him after his victory. "My mother once worked in the theater for a while." When the Germans invaded Latvia, where Tal was born, the family was sent to the Urals, and there Tal's father taught him to play chess in 1943, when the boy was 7 years old. Tal did not much like the game at first. He was stung into making a serious study of it after the war, when the family had returned to Riga. With characteristic self-assurance—and also with some foreshadowing of the bold and unexpected moves characteristic of his mature chess game—at the age of 11 he thought that he would like to play a game with the world champion. This was in 1948, after Botvinnik had won in an international tournament the title vacated by the strange death of Alexander Alekhine (see box). Botvinnik was resting in seclusion at a resort near Riga. Tucking a chessboard under his arm, Tal threaded his way through pine trees to the beach to ask Botvinnik to play a game with him. He was met by Botvinnik's wife, the ballerina Gayane, who told him smilingly that the champion was taking a nap, and that, in addition, she had made him promise to give up chess during their vacation.

Something of the new era in Russian chess is also suggested by the difference between Botvinnik's avoidance of people and Tal's sociability. Tal is young, approachable, likes to play chess and enjoys talking about it. He dislikes the highbrow reputation of the game. "Chess can be very relaxing, if you play it that way," he says. Strangers accost him on the street and start discussing games. Soon someone produces a chessboard, and Tal is expounding the reasons for his moves. The aloof Botvinnik acting in this fashion is unthinkable—it is difficult, in fact, to recall any previous world champion doing it. Tal, in fundamental ways, runs counter to a tradition of personality traits among chess champions. Those who preceded him were brainy, proud, possessive, egocentric and many other things: he is good-natured and natural. Adolf Anderssen, the first, was a long-jawed German mathematical genius much admired for his honesty, but the only human thing recorded of him is that he could not keep his eyes off pretty girls. Paul Morphy, who won the title from Anderssen at the age of 21, developed an aversion to chess, and lived in seclusion in a New Orleans mansion filled with secret passages, where he always kept his clothes packed for instant flight. William Steinitz and Emanuel Lasker, who between them held the title from 1866 to 1921, were less eccentric, but both men, like the elegant José Capablanca and the arrogant Alexander Alekhine who followed them, regarded their chess achievements as setting them above the common run of mankind.

I asked Tal if his wife Sally minded his intense devotion to chess. "I don't believe so," he said. "I guess she thinks that if it weren't for chess I might be off doing worse things."

He explained that he and Sally had intended to make the Botvinnik match the occasion of a chess and theatrical honeymoon. They thought they would be able to see the plays in Moscow in the intervals between games, but it turned out that neither saw the inside of any theater except the Pushkin. After each day's match, Tal and his coach, Alexander Koblentz, sat down before the chessboard in the Tals' suite in the Hotel Moscow, analyzing every move and preparing the strategy for the coming game. Sally, who knew no chess whatsoever when she married Tal, has since become a fair analyst as a result of listening to these discussions. She cooked all the meals for Tal on a hot plate in their rooms. Tal has a weak stomach and, before his marriage, existed throughout whole tournaments on tea and rusks alone.

Tal has a gift of gab that verges on eloquence. He would have made a first-class trial lawyer. When he is playing in a tournament his intensity becomes hypnotic—an opponent once actually accused Tal of hypnotizing him during a game—but in casual chess games, or in discussing chess, Tal is obviously as happy as any young expert doing what he likes to do. He said to me, "Chess can be either an art or a sport, depending on the player's attitude. For the player constantly seeking new combinations, it's an art. For the player who enjoys it as a contest, chess is a sport. My inclinations are in the artistic field. I like to play the piano, too, when I'm at home; but only for myself, and against my neighbors."

Tal's favorite author is Mark Twain, and he wrote his dissertation, when he graduated from college, on Russian humorists. "I played soccer at the university," he went on. "I was goalkeeper. As a soccer player I was a good chess expert, and I guess my teammates were glad when I graduated." He studied philology at the University of Riga, speaks English as well as Latvian and Russian, and during a chess tournament in Yugoslavia he also learned Serb. Tal is a deputy of the Riga City Soviet, but his political duties are not arduous. "I attend meetings every two months or so," he said. "I sometimes keep office hours, when my constituents can bring me their requests and complaints. But they don't overburden me with that kind of work." Shortly before the Botvinnik match began, he was elected to the central committee of the Young Communist League of Latvia. When I asked him what assignment he was given in that capacity, he replied, "To win the world championship."

He has won it, and the Russian chess world is only slowly awakening to the magnitude of the change. "I never for a moment thought that my purpose in life was to become world champion," Tal said earnestly. "I still have a lot of time ahead of me, and nobody knows what may happen next year." He believes that the primary difference between the contemporary chess scene and that of the past is that, while formerly one or two figures towered over all others, there are now many world masters, closely matched in ability, promising constant struggle and the stimulus and inspiration of vital competition. When I asked Tal his opinion of the American champion Bobby Fischer, he said: "A very gifted chess player. Nobody else at the age of 16 has knocked at the door of the world championship. Perhaps he doesn't play as well as he thinks he does, but there is no question that he will go far.... But Bobby should read a lot more literature, and not only about chess. Right now he is the most glamorous figure in chess, because of his extreme youth, but if he doesn't watch out he will, with time, stop being a prodigy and become just an ordinary genius."



RELAXED CHAMPION Mikhail Tal, here shown with his wife Sally, startled Russian chess fans by his friendliness in a field where intellectual snobbery is common.


The extraordinary photograph at the right shows Alexander Alekhine, world champion for 17 years, as he was found dead in a Lisbon hotel room in March 1946. His death, officially listed as accidental, was never fully explained. One of the most enigmatic of all masters, Alekhine was a White Russian officer but friendly with Bolsheviks; he was a French citizen and hero but also a Nazi collaborator. Winning the title from Capablanca in 1927, Alekhine lost it to Dr. Max Euwe of The Netherlands in 1935, won it back and kept it because Euwe would not play in Nazi tournaments. It was only after Alekhine's death that an international tournament in Moscow cleared the air enough to leave the vacated title with Botvinnik.