Botvinnik – Tal World Championship Match 1960

While Botvinnik and Smyslov battled in the 1957 match and in the 1958 return match, the remainder of the chess world was struck by a flash of genius like never before. In 1957, a bright young star from Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Tal, won the USSR Championship and qualified for the Interzonal tournament in 1958, at the age of only 20.

Tal's style of play immediately won hearts of chess fans worldwide. Tal evoked the memories of the long forgotten romantic school with his dazzling sacrifices and mind-boggling complications, which threw his opponents completely off their balance. In contrast to the strict positional teachings of the Soviet school of chess, Tal's philosophy was completely different – pose as many problems as possible to your opponents. Even when his sacrifices weren't fully correct (which was often the case), his opponents weren't able to punish them and to navigate their way through the forest of the possible variations.

Although Tal was severely criticized for this manner of play and often compared to a gambler (Vassily Smyslov called Tal's play „nothing but tricks“), in the late 1950s it worked perfectly. A year later in Portoroz, Tal scored yet another victory and, together with the 5 players who finished behind him, qualified for the Candidates tournament. Portoroz tournament, incidentally, was the first in which the number of the players from the same country allowed in the Candidates was restricted. Also, another future World Champion made its appearance in the International Arena – the 15-year-old (!!) Robert James Fischer qualified for the Candidates as well.

The six players – Tal, Gligoric, Petrosian, Benko, Olafsson and Fischer, together with Smyslov and Keres, formed the line-up of the 1959 Candidates tournament. The tournament was played in three cities in Yugoslavia and the players met each other four times. Before the tournament, Smyslov  and Keres were regarded as the main favourites, although Petrosian did mention that: „the length of such tournament may give some advance to a young competitor.”

The course of the tournament confirmed both predictions to an extent. The tournament developed into a fierce race between Tal and Keres. Smyslov, the winner of the two previous Candidates tournaments, was playing below his usual level and was even „tricked“ in spectacular fashion by Mikhail Nekhmenevich in their round 8 encounter.

In the end, the crucial role was played by the young Fischer. He had lost all four games against Tal, while he drew his mini-match against Keres (+2-2=0). Beating Tal in their individual encounter (+3-1=0) didn't help Keres; in the end, he finished one and a half point behind Tal and won the second place in the Candidates for the third time in the row.

Therefore, Tal managed to qualify for the title match and the stage was set for the Tal-Botvinnik 1960 match. In his book on the match, Mikhail Tal himself wrote extensively about his match preparations and difficulties he encountered. His insight is very intriguing:

„ Nevertheless, there exists a huge difference between tournament and match play. First of all, to express it coarsely, there is the bookkeeping. While in a tournament a  participant is not bound by his point showing – at least in the first part of the tournament – and can venture the luxury of „staying up late“ at the start, each match game is equally important. You see, in a match, there are no other competitors, no outsiders and a chessplayer cannot plan in advance from whom he will win without fail, with whom a draw will be sufficient and (as often happens!) to whom it will not be shameful to lose. The cost of each point in a match in comparison with a tournament grows twofold: if one chessplayer wins, then his rival automatically loses, and therefore match games always evoke a greater feeling of responsibility.

Matches have their own psychological character. If in the Candidates tournament, I became weary meeting one and the same opponent four times (and this was after an interval of seven rounds!), then what is to be said about a match, where I would meet the same chessplayer day in and day out? This is even more taxing.

Finally, the problem of preparing for a match is also significantly more difficult. I have not yet mentioned that my opponent was an unsurpassed master of home preparation. If I often employed risky variations, it may have worked out in a tournament; if I put my hopes on some risky opening adventure in a match, my bluff was certain to be called. „

Tal also states the main problem before was Botvinnik's relative inactivity – there wasn't a great number of games for him and his second Koblents to analyze before the match. He also mentioned Botvinnik's main weakness:

„[…] in those cases when he was caught in a combinational „storm“, he was less sure of himself […]“

The initial course of the match confirmed the validity of this assessment. In the very first game, Tal beat Botvinnik's Winawer French in a very energetic, irrational struggle. Then, after a series of draws, Tal won again in the sixth game with the help of the famous and thunderous knight sacrifice on f4. He immediately built upon his success in the 7th game and it seemed like the match is virtually decided.

However, in the 8th game, Tal once again completely outplayed the Botvinnik only to commit a series of blunders and even lose in the end. This clearly heartened Botvinnik; the 9th game was his best creative achievement in the match. Tal had sacrificed a piece for two pawns and Botvinnik sacrificed another pawn just to activate his pieces and diffuse the opponent's onslaught. Suddenly, the gap was reduced to only one point and everybody thought the match was starting anew. By Tal's own admission, the games 10-12 were the most intense and most hard-fought in the match.

From this point onward, it would appear that Tal altered his approach slightly – in the second part of the match, he played much more restrained and positional chess, without wild sacrifices. Such an approach proved to be successful as well – Tal won the 11th game in a great positional manner and after it also the 17th and 19th games and became the eight world chess champion ahead of schedule, after only 21 games, with the convincing 12.5-8.5 result.


Chessgames: Tal – Botvinnik, 1960

Chessgames: Portoroz Interzonal 1958

Chessgames: Bled – Zagreb – Belgrade Candidates 1959

Chesspedia: Tal - Botvinnik, 1960

Garry Kasparov: On My Great Predecessors, Part Two

Mikhail Tal: Tal – Botvinnik, 1960

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