When you first learn how to play chess, you pick up a few opening setups that suit your taste, you absorb classic bits of advice like “always capture towards the center”, “center pawns are more valuable than pawns on the wings”, “knights are best in closed positions”, “don’t drink and push a pawn at the same time”, “castle as quickly as possible” and many other commandments that may or may not be true on any given day.
Though these things will give you a small base to stand on, they seem devoid of energy and bore beginners who crave action over philosophy. And then, magic strikes! They play a game against a more experienced player and a small, confusing “explosion” occurs on the board – lo and behold, they’ve been mated! What happened? Confusion mixes with wonder, more explosions occur in other games (leading to massive material losses or their king running for its life across an inhospitable board), and though they still don’t fully understand what kind of witchcraft is being tossed at them, they do know that they want to do this stuff too!
After this painful but oh-so-exciting introduction to tactics, they begin to study tactical ABCs like pins, forks, X-rays, back rank mates, smothered mates, et cetera. They throw out their dusty opening setups for thrilling gambits. And, like a small child who finds true joy by swimming in a sea of lollipops or a youngster who gets the latest version of Xbox, the intrepid chess beginner screams in delight every time he’s able to drag down an opponent by making use of these tactical weapons himself.
Amateur chess is tremendous fun since one’s opponents will often walk into these tactical punches, and gambits that are often laughed at by grandmasters are deadly weapons in non-master climes. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these basic tactical devices don’t appear in games of the highest level too. They come up all the time. But usually they are a fluid part of a greater assault which drowns all before it in an overwhelming tactical tsunami.
Here, using the games of the great Mikhail Tal, we’ll look at one vicious assault after another where willpower, deep tactical vision, and courage rips one opponent after another into blood flecked shreds.
Mikhail Tal (1936 - 1992)
ROLLING THE DICE BY EMBRACING CHAOS
At times a grandmaster is in a must win situation. A quiet positional approach is possible, simply hoping to wear the opponent down. But at times a more drastic approach is needed. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice and risk it all, hoping that a dynamic wave of tactics and brute force aggression will leave your overwhelmed opponent face down in the gutter.
In our first example White (the weaker player) has pressure against d5. Things aren’t so bad for Black, but after “normal” moves like 17…Ba7 18.Qb3 Nxe4! (Not 18…dxe4?? 19.Qxb7) 19.fxe4 (19.Bxd8 Nf2+ 20.Kg1 Nxd1+ would have appealed to Tal) 19…d4 (19…Qxg5 20.exd5 is very good for White) 20.Qxe6! Qxg5 (20…Nxe6 21.Bxd8 favors White) 21.Qf5 Qxf5 22.exf5 dxc3 23.Nxc3 and Black has zero chance of winning this position. The problem here is that the variations after 17…Ba7 18.Qb3 Nxe4 are fairly forced and would have easily been within White’s range.
Seeking maximum chaos, Tal uncorked 17…Ng4!? (blowing White’s mind!) when the game continued 18.fxg4 (18.Bxd8 Nf2+ 19.Kg1 Nxd1+ 20.Kh1 Nf2+ 21.Kg1 Rexd8 – Black’s compensation for the sacrificed Queen is a Rook, Bishop, and an extremely active army.”) 18…Qxg5 19.exd5 Bxg4 20.d6 Bxe2 21.Nxe2 Bxd6 22.Rxd6 Nb5 23.Qd2 Qg4
So far White has reacted beautifully to Tal’s aggression. However, there was undoubtedly a toll: The clock starts to get low, the energy expended fending off Black’s attack is exhausting, one’s confidence begins to ebb, and a sub-par move by White becomes a certainty rather than a possibility.
White’s first misstep. Instead 24.Rd7!! turns the tables and leaves Black in a bad state: 24…Rxe2 (24…Qxe2 25.Qxe2 Rxe2 26.Bxb7 [a bit more accurate than 26.a4] 26…Rce8 27.Ba6 Rxb2 28.Rb7 and the knight is gone) 25.Qd5! Qe6 26.Rf1 h5! 27.Qxb7 (27.Qxb5?? Rxg2 28.Kxg2 Qe4+ 29.Kh3 Qg4+, =) 27…Rc1! (Black’s fighting for his life!) 28.Rdxf7 (28.Rxc1?? Re1+) 28…Rxf1+ 29.Rxf1 Nd6 30.Qa8+ Kh7 31.Qxa5 and things are grim for Black. Note that 31…Rxg2 fails to 32.Qxh5+ followed by eating on g2. The position after 24.Rd7 is filled with fascinating possibilities and one could spend days analyzing it. And what this means is that the complications that occur after 24.Rd7 are beyond Mititelu’s (and just about everyone else’s) ability to work it all out in the confines of a clocked game.
24…Nxd6 25.Qxd6 Rcd8 26.Qc7 h5 27.Rf1 Rd7 28.Qxa5 h4 29.gxh4 Rd2 30.Bd5 Kh8 (30…Qh3?? 31.Bxf7+)
Except for missing 24.Rd7, both players have handled the game flawlessly – Black kept making threats and piling on the pressure, and White defended calmly. Unfortunately for White, fatigue (and perhaps the clock) takes its toll and White (finally!) makes a serious mistake.
31.Qc7! Rxd5 32.Nxd5 Qe4+ would have led to a draw.
Threatening both …Qxf1 mate and …Qxh2 mate.
The only defense.
Tal also falters! He could have forced a win with 32…Rxb2! destroying the c3-knight’s protection. 33.Ne4 blocks the d5-bishop’s coverage of g2 and allows 33…Qg2 mate. But what happens if White gives the knight support with 33.Rc1?
33.Qxh2?? Qxf1+ 34.Qg1 Qh3+ 35.Qh2 Re1 mate.
The final mistake. 34.Bf3 probably held a draw, but the relentless tidal wave of pressure left poor Mititelu a husk of his former self.
34…Re6 35.h5 Rf6 36.Qb8+ Rc8 37.Bg2 Rxf1+, 0-1.
Some of the tactical devices we saw in this one game are:
- Taking advantage of unprotected pieces (17…Ng4 hits the unprotected g5-bishop).
- Taking advantage of overloaded pieces (32…Rxh2+ when the overloaded queen is defending both h2 and f1).
- Knight forks (17…Ng4 works thanks to the …Nf2+ fork).
- Back rank mate (as shown in the variation to 33.Kg1).
- Vulnerable king (examples of this occur all through the game).
We saw Tal overwhelm his opponent via a non-stop tactical tidal wave, but that was against a good but inferior opponent. Does the "tidal wave concept" (the attempt to roll over the opposition with a heady mix of aggression, tactical minefields, energy, and risk) work against an equal opponent? Surely a great player, faced with a berserk tsunami, should be able to brush the “nonsense” aside and punish his dice-rolling adversary? Our next game gives us the answer: apparently not!
M. Botvinnik – M. Tal
World Championship, 1960
1.c4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.d4 d6 6.Nc3 Nbd7 7.0-0 e5 8.e4 c6 9.h3 Qb6 10.d5 cxd5 11.cxd5 Nc5 12.Ne1 Bd7 13.Nd3 Nxd3 14.Qxd3 Rfc8 15.Rb1 Nh5 16.Be3 Qb4 17.Qe2 Rc4 18.Rfc1 Rac8
Tal has placed his pieces on the most aggressive posts possible – he’s putting as much pressure as possible against b2, e4, and the c-file. He intends to increase this pressure by …f7-f5. Of course, the a7-pawn hangs in some lines, and Black’s pieces can be forced back in a number of ways if things don’t go as planned. During the game, the spectators wanted to know if the great Botvinnik would be able to shrug off Tal’s “rude” attempts.
White hunkers down a bit and Tal, as expected, lashes out.
19…f5 20.exf5 Bxf5 21.Ra1
Daring Black to deal with the threat of g3-g4, forking the f5-bishop and h5-knight. Botvinnik no doubt felt that Black would have to retreat by 21…Nf6, but Tal goes all in with…
Tal had this sacrifice in mind when he played 16…Qb4. By giving up the knight, Black’s bishop gains the a1-h8 diagonal and all of Black’s pieces achieve maximum activity.
With 23.Bd2 a clearly frazzled Botvinnik was trying to avoid further complications and, as a result, further surprises. However, in doing so he missed his big chance.
A mistake, but the refutation is far from easy to find.
Black was counting on this move, and it worked like a charm. But only because Botvinnik completely fell apart in the face of Tal’s relentless pressure.
Losing. White could have won and, who knows, even turned the match around with 25.Bxf3 Bxb1 26.Rxb1 Qc2 and now White has two ways to play the position:
27.Be4! was thought to be a dead win after 27…Rxe4 28.Nxe4 Be5+ 29.Kg2 Qxb1 30.Nxd6 Bxd6 31.Qe6+ Ke7 32.Qd7+! and the position is indeed lost for Black: 32…Kg8 33.Qxc8+ Bf8 34.Qe6+ Kg7 35.Bc3+ Kh6 36.d6 Qf5 (36…Qb6 37.Bd2+ Kg7 38.Qe5+ Kg8 39.Qd5+ Kg7 40.Bc3+ Kh6 41.Bf6 Qc6 42.Qxc6 bxc6 43.d7 +-) 37.Qxf5 gxf5 38.Be5 Kg6 39.d7 Be7 40.Bc7 winning a piece and the game.
However, after 27.Be4! Rxe4 28.Nxe4 Black should try 28…Qxb1! 29.Nxd6 Rf8 3.Qe6+ Kh8 31.Nf7+ Rxf7 (and not 31…Kg8 32.Nh6+ Kh8 33.Qg8+! Rxg8 34.Nf7 mate!) 32.Qxf7 Qf5 33.Qxf5 gxf5 34.Kg3 Kg8 35.Be3 and Black appears to be in serious trouble: 35…Be5+ 36.Kh4 Bf6+ 37.Kh5 a6 and now the obvious 38.d6? seems to give Black a new lease on life (though I’m too lazy to analyze all the possibilities – in other words, my defense might just be wrong) 38…Kf7 39.Bg5 Bxg5 40.Kxg5 Ke6 41.d7 Kxd7 42.Kxf5 a5! 43.Ke5 a4 44.Kd5 a3 45.Kc4 Ke6 46.Kb3 Ke5 47.Kxa3 Kf4 48.Kb4 Kf3 49.a4 h5 50.Ka5 h4 51.Kb6 Kxf2 52.Kxb7 Kg3 53.a5 Kxh3 54.a6 kg2 55.a7 h3 56.a8Q h2 with a drawn position. That’s all nice enough, but instead of 38.d6, White should play 38.Bb6! and I don’t see a defense.
It seems to me that 27.Rc1 (the move analyzed by Tal and Botvinnik) is also extremely strong: 27.Rc1 Qb2 (Botvinnik saw 27…Qf5 28.Bg4 Qe5+ 29.Qxe5 Bxe5+ 30.f4 Rxc3 during play, but he completely missed 31.Bxc8! which Tal showed him after the game. After 30.f4 Black can also try 30…Rxf4 but after 31.Bxc8 Rf2+ 32.Kg1 Rxd2 33.Be6+ Kf8 34.Ne4 Rxa2 35.Rc8+ Ke7 36.Rc7+ Ke8 37.Ng5 wins since 37…h6 38.Bf7+ Kf8 39.Ne6 is mate.) 28.Bg4 Be5+ 29.Kg2 R8c7 and now 30.Be6+ Kh8 31.Nd1 Qd4 (31…Qxa2 32.Qf3) 32.Qf3 Kg7 33.Rxc4 Qxc4 34.Qe3 Qh4 35.f4 leaves Black in very bad shape.
I give all this analysis (and if I was serious about finding the truth, I could have added many pages more to it!) to show you the overwhelming complications that both players faced. Small wonder that Botvinnik fell into the pit that Tal dug for him!
25…fxe2 26.Rb3 Rd4 27.Be1 Be5+ 28.Kg1 Bf4 29.Nxe2 Rxc1 30.Nxd4 Rxe1+ 31.Bf1 Be4 32.Ne2 Be5 33.f4 Bf6 34.Rxb7 Bxd5 35.Rc7 Bxa2 36.Rxa7 Bc4 37.Ra8+ Kf7 38.Ra7+ Ke6 39.Ra3 d5 40.Kf2 Bh4+ 41.Kg2 Kd6 42.Ng3 Bxg3 43.Bxc4 dxc4 44.Kxg3 Kd5 45.Ra7 c3 46.Rc7 Kd4 0-1.
Of course, drowning your opponent in unfathomable complications in the hope that he will crash and burn before you do is a difficult and double-edged proposition. If you don’t have some serious kung fu tactical fists, you can easily find yourself submerged under the very waves of chaos you created.
To pull you out of your “tidal wave shock,” and to show you that you don’t have to do the tidal wave dance to crush opponents tactically, I’ll offer some fun puzzles that are more lightening strike than tactical siege.
PLAY LIKE TAL
It’s White’s move. He’s a piece for a pawn ahead, and Black’s king is in bad shape too. White can win immediately with 38.Qh2 (threatening to chop on h6) 38…e3+ 39.Kg3. However, Smyslov decided to play it safe with 38.Qe5??, which offers a trade of queens and also threatens mate on g7. Unfortunately for Smyslov, he missed something.
In the next puzzle White thought he stood pretty well, but Tal’s move gave his opponent a serious dose of reality.