From the New York Times crossword puzzle, August 8, 2015
59 Down Chess champion of the early 1960's
When he was named world chess champion, Mikhail Tal, used the quote in the title to describe his elation at his new status. The journalist who was interviewing him was delighted at the phrase, thinking it was original. However the quote was from Yves Montand. The realization did nothing to dim Tal’s enthusiasm. In answer to the clue for today’s post, he was the world chess champion from 1960 to 1961.
Born in Riga, Latvia in 1936, he learned to read at the age of three and actually started university at the age of fifteen. Reportedly, he learned chess by watching his father. He was fascinated by Mikhail Botvinnik and actually went to a tournament with the hope of playing a match with the master. While he did not have the chance to play him at that time, from that point on, he began to study chess in earnest. After being tutored by Alexander Koblents, his progress soared, and he won the Latvian championship in 1952, placing ahead of Koblents.
By 1954, at the age of eighteen, he was named a Soviet master of chess. In 1956, he qualified for his first USSR Championship and won it the following year, being the youngest ever, at the age of 20. While he had not won enough games to be named Grandmaster, but because of his win of the USSR championship, the rules were waived – the USSR led the world in chess dominance at that time.
Known for his aggressive style of play and characterized by many for his creative moves – even called the Magician from Riga, he went up against his idol, Botvinnik, and defeated him in 1960 at the age of 23, making him the youngest chess champion ever at that time (Garry Kasparov would later break that record). In a rematch, Botvinnik regained his title, having analyzed Tal’s moves in the interim.
After being defeated by Botvinnik, he won a match against Bobby Fischer in the Bled Tournament in 1961. He never did qualify to play for the world title again. In part, his poor health played a role in his sporadic playing. Having suffered from various ailments since childhood, his chain smoking (up to five packs of cigarettes in one match!), heavy drinking and bohemian lifestyle did nothing to help matters. He died in 1982 at the young age of 55.
While his bombastic style of chess playing was dismissed by many in the beginning, it is notable that he beat almost every known grandmaster with this same style. His final game with Botvinnik which gave Tal the championship was one in which he sacrificed his knight. This move so unnerved Botvinnik that he was unable to figure out his strategy and lost the game. Not surprisingly, many other Latvians have emulated his playing style, giving rise to a Latvian School of Chess image for some.