Misha and Sally

The statisticians may argue about the question who is the greatest world champion in history, but I know who was the most loved one. That was Mikhail Tal (1936-1992), even though he was only champion for one year.

 For chessplayers, it was because of his adventurous style and his all-consuming love of chess which always pushed his other passions, such as the theater, literature and music, into the background. But even those who could not distinguish a knight from a bishop felt that in Tal, they had met a genius, someone with enormous erudition, brilliant conversation and, in his glory years, an almost demonic energy, even though he was always kindness itself.

 Recently, the book Checkmate! by Sally Landau was published by Elk and Ruby, a publishing company that opens up many Russian treasures for us. The book was first published in Russian in 1998.

 Sally Landau was a successful singer, dancer and pianist when she met Tal, when she was 19 years old. She was married to him from 1959 to 1970, but in a way she always remained his wife. They hurt each other during their marriage, with infidelity on both sides. For Tal this was quite common, he could not do without female admirers.

 When she was introduced to the apartment of the Tal family in Riga, she found that it was “anti-Soviet.” Unconventional, with people not made from a Soviet mold. On the wall there was a portrait of the revered deceased Doctor Tal, Misha Tal’s official father. But his biological father was a kind and energetic businessman, a lover of Misha’s mother who had also come to live in the apartment and was sometimes called Uncle Robert, though he wasn’t an uncle at all.


There is one chapter in the book that is not written by Sally Landau, but by Gera Tal, the son she had with Misha. He writes that in later years, he shared a room in the apartment with his mother, while in another room, his father lived with another lady. Quite unconventional. Not surprisingly a divorce was not far off.

 Early in their relation Sally noticed that Misha swallowed huge amounts of pills. He drank heavily and he needed a lighter only for his first cigarette, while the next would be lit with the stub of the previous one. He took a variety of opioids to battle the pain that had always been with him from childhood. I think that his almost compulsory tendency to make jokes in every sentence he spoke may also have been a defense against the pain.

 His son Gera writes that in 1989, when his father was in intensive care, he was to donate his blood and thought: “What would my father really like right now?” He ran into the toilet and drank a large amount of brandy. “They extracted my blood and inserted it into my father almost straight away. Suddenly I see his skin turn just slightly pink, like in the folk tale The Scarlet Flower. After about five minutes, he opens his eyes, looks around and says, struggling to move his tongue, “Goose [a nickname of Gera], I feel that I have just drunk brandy.”

 Misha Tal was unworldly. He did not know how to turn on the gas when his parents were not at home. Sally Landau writes that he once complained of a strange pain in a foot, and then she saw that he had been wearing two right shoes all day.

 They loved each other to the end. Tal kept calling, wherever he was; he often asked her to come and often she did. Tal called other women too, sometimes a few moments later, with the same request.

 When Sally married another man after her emigration from the Soviet Union, it was someone who said that his greatest wish was to meet and play chess with Tal, a wish that was to be fulfilled. This man was Joe Kramarz, a rich businessman who was born in Antwerp and descended from Polish Jews. He was 27 years older than Sally. It is not in the book, but I am told that once, maybe at the Olympiad in Lucerne in 1982, Sally embraced Misha Tal and Genna Sosonko and said: “You must realize boys, that in bed he is still like a horse.”

 Kramarz and Tal became good friends, just as Sally became friends with Tal's later wife Gelia. When he died they stayed behind together at the funeral in Riga as if they were both orphaned.

 Sally Landau's book does not really change the picture we have of Tal, but it enriches it greatly. I found it very moving.

 Which games to choose from the many hundreds of jewels that the Magician of Riga produced? Garry Kasparov, in My great Predecessors Part II calls Tal’s win against Velimirovic in 1979, from the match between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, one of his most brilliant games, but also notes that his attack could only succeed against a number of mistakes by Velimirovic. “If in his place it had been Korchnoi...”

 It brings to mind two of Tal’s famous dictums: “There are two kind of sacrifices: correct ones and mine.” I think that was one of his jokes, as his sacrifices were much more often correct than legend has it.

 And another famous quote from Tal: “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.” I think this was not a joke, but a serious comment on his chess.

 The second game in our viewer, though alas it is only a fragment, was played in a strong blitz tournament in Moscow, a month before Tal’s death, when he was already terminally ill. Tal finished third after Kasparov and Bareev, but inflicted the only defeat on Kasparov, then the world champion.

 In his book, Kasparov gives the opening moves from memory. I haven’t been able to find the complete game. In 1992 sensor boards had been around for quite some time, but regrettably they may not have been good enough yet to record a blitz game.

 Click here to view Tal-Velimirovic and Tal-Kasparov