We take a walk down memory lane today, as 7th September is the 60th anniversary start-date of the 1959 Candidates Tournament that was split between three Yugoslavian cities, and witnessed the remarkable performance of Mikhail Tal, who stormed the field for a milestone victory that earned him the right to challenge reigning champion Mikhail Botvinnik in chess’ grandest prize: The World Chess Championship.
The young Soviet tactician had a meteoric rise and subsequent fall in the years 1957 to 1962 when he won and lost the world championship. But in that astonishing rollercoaster ride, his greatest achievement came in the epic eight-player, quadruple round candidates’, with the first 14 rounds played in Bled, rounds 15-21 in Zagreb, and rounds 22-28 in Belgrade. And amidst a stellar line-up in the gruelling two-month tournament (that ran until 27th October), Tal recovered from a bad start to dominate ahead of Paul Keres, Tigran Petrosian, Vasily Smyslov, Bobby Fischer, Svetozar Gligorić, Fridrik Ólafsson, and the recently deceased Pal Benkö.
Playing a swashbuckling brand of chess that instantly made him a big fan-favourite, Tal won the event with great élan, winning 16-games(!) – and many of them in dazzling style – to finish 1½-points clear of frontrunner Keres. And the result is all the more remarkable, as just a week before the start of the tournament, Tal was rushed to the hospital and had his appendix removed – and this goes a long way to explain his early-round losses in Bled to ex-world champion Smyslov and a new universal-style Keres.
The tournament also saw the debut of a remarkable 16-year-old American rising star named Robert James “Bobby” Fischer on the elite international stage, who had a true baptism of fire with Tal defeating him in all four games, despite Fischer outplaying his Russian opponent in each game! Also, the fourth game between the two was one of just three loses (the other two being to Boris Spassky and Efim Geller) that Fischer included in his timeless tome, My 60 Memorable Games – a clear indication of the importance of the defeat to him.
But the quadruple of wins over Fischer proved to be the difference between Tal and Keres – especially the penultimate round 27 win below. The rest, as they say, is history: Tal would go on to beat Soviet chess school patriarch Botvinnik the following year to take the crown, only to lose it the following year in a rematch. The loss was attributed to the chronic ill-health that plagued Tal for the rest of his life, and sadly he would never reach the summit again.
Video: Rare film footage of the second Fischer-Tal encounter from the 1959 Candidates Tournament.
GM Bobby Fischer – GM Mikhail Tal
Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates, 1959
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bc4 The Fischer favourite of the Sicilian Sozin. 6…e6 7.Bb3 b5 8.f4 b4 9.Na4 Nxe4?!? This looks very risky against Fischer, as the game bursts into life early doors. Apparently, the story goes that Tal was looking at this line in preparing for Fischer with Tigran Petrosian, and ‘Iron Tigran’ immediately wanted to take the pawn – Tal wasn’t so sure, but he finally made up his mind to press the gamble button only when sitting across the board from the young American prodigy. 10.0-0 g6 11.f5!? This position is a red rag to a bull, and Fischer doesn’t hesitate by cutting straight to the chase. 11…gxf5 12.Nxf5! Fischer playing Tal – and he plays in the style of Tal! 12…Rg8 Black can’t recapture on f5, as 12…exf5 13.Qd5! Ra7 14.Qd4! will pick-off one of the rooks. 13.Bd5! The energetic way in which the young Fischer plays this sharp opening joust is breathtaking. 13…Ra7 The bishop is taboo, as 13…exd5 14.Qxd5 Bxf5 15.Rxf5 Ra7 16.Qxe4+ Re7 17.Qxb4 and the Black defences are in a mess. But now we see the spectacular sight of Tal having to defend with great care facing a dangerous young opponent, who is set on inflicting on him a Tal-like sacrificial kill. 14.Bxe4 The engines believe this move to be best, but Fischer went as far as giving it an “?” in M60MG. Instead, Fischer felt that he should have gone for 14.Be3! Nc5 15.Qh5! Rg6 16.Rae1 with all his pieces bearing down on Tal’s king. It certainly looks impressive to see it on the board, but the unbeating heart of the engine shows no nerves whatsoever and finds hidden resources for Black with 16…Rc7 17.Nxc5 (Better than 17.Bxc5 dxc5 18.Nb6 c4 19.Nxc8 Bc5+ 20.Kh1 Qxd5 21.Ng7+ Kd8 22.Rd1 Bd4! 23.Qxd5+ exd5 24.Rxd4 Kxc8 25.Nf5 Re6! and Black has equalised.) 17…dxc5 18.Nh4 Qxd5 19.Qxd5 exd5 20.Bf4+ Re7 21.Nxg6 hxg6 22.Bxb8 Rxe1 23.Rxe1+ Be6 and yes, White has a material advantage – but there’s a lot of work still to do to covert this for a win, as it is going to be difficult trying to breakdown the queenside pawns with the anchor of the …Be6. 14…exf5 15.Bxf5 The engine at least agrees with Fischer here, that it is probably better to avoid exchanges and play 15.Bd5! 15…Re7! The reprieve allows Tal to find a protective shield for his bare king. 16.Bxc8 Qxc8 17.Bf4? Fischer and the engine concur here again that White should have played 17.c3 Qc6 18.Rf2 to answer the double attack on a4 and g2. 17…Qc6 18.Qf3 Qxa4! This came as a big surprise to Fischer, who only expected 18…Qxf3 19.Rxf3 Re2 20.Rf2 Rxf2 21.Kxf2 where he thought he had a slight edge due to Black’s disconnected pawns. 19.Bxd6 Qc6 20.Bxb8 Qb6+ 21.Kh1 Qxb8 22.Qc6+?! Fischer gets “seduced” by the check, and from here, the game only gets more and more difficult for the young American grandmaster. But that’s only half the story: He originally intended to play the much better 22.Rael!; even going as far as writting the move on his scoresheet – but after the game, Tal asked Fischer why he changed his mind and the American said, “Well, you laughed when I wrote it down!” And indeed, most players and commentators thought Fischer had indeed missed a win here with 22.Rae1!, as it is not easy to meet the dual threats of 23.Qc6+ and 23.Qxf7+. Even Tal initially thought he was dead here, but he’d missed the resource 22…Kd8! that holds everything together; with Fischer explaining in M60MG that, after studying the position for ages, he could only find a draw – and the engine also agrees with Fischer, showing 23.Qd3+! Kc8 24.Qf5+ Kd8 (It’s too dangerous to try running with the king. If 24…Kb7? 25.Rxe7+ Bxe7 26.Qe4+ wins back the piece with a won game.) 25.Qxh7 Rxe1 26.Rxe1 and Black has to tread carefully now, with 26…Rg7 27.Qh4+ Kc7 28.Qc4+ Kd7 29.Qd4+ Qd6 30.Qa7+ and the king can’t escape from the perpetual check. 22…Rd7 The main difference now is that Tal can set up a little protective box for his king with his pieces – something that wasn’t available with 22.Rae1! You live and learn. Well, you live anyway! 23.Rae1+ Be7 24.Rxf7? The speculative bolt out of the blue always looks good on the board, and it probably feels good when you play it – but this sacrifice just backfires with correct play. Fischer’s only hope was to try 24.Qf6!? Rf8 25.Qxa6 f5! and hope to hold this difficult position. 24…Kxf7 25.Qe6+ Kf8! [see diagram] Fischer had overlooked this, thinking Tal had to play 25…Kg7? 26.Qxd7 and he was winning – but now Tal is clearly winning. 26.Qxd7 It looks like there should be a mate, but there isn’t – after 26.Rf1+ Kg7 the king finds a safe haven on h8. 26…Qd6! And with one very accurate move from Tal, Fischer is in dire straits as the soon-to-be world champion unravels his pieces whilst at the same time providing shelter for his king from the checks on f7 or g7. 27.Qb7 Rg6 28.c3! A simple rule of thumb in such scenarios, as Fischer simply explains in M60MG, “Black’s extra piece means less with each Pawn that’s exchanged.” 28…a5 29.Qc8+ Kg7 30.Qc4 Bd8 Tal is looking for …Bc7 forcing g3 and then …Qc6+ trading queens – but quicker would have been 30…Qc5! 31.Qe4 bxc3! 32.bxc3 Bd6 with …Rf6 and …Qh5 to come. 31.cxb4 axb4 32.g3 Qc6+ 33.Re4 Qxc4 34.Rxc4 Rb6 The game is effectively over here, but Fischer was never one to give up timidly without a fight, regardless of the position or the opponent! Unfortunately, he has no hope of trying to save the game, as Tal’s b-pawn is safe and his king is closer to the centre of the board. 35.Kg2 Kf6 36.Kf3 Ke5 37.Ke3 Bg5+ 38.Ke2 Kd5 39.Kd3 Bf6 40.Rc2 Be5 41.Re2 Rf6 It’s just a matter of time, as Tal gets his pieces on their optimum squares to push Fischer into even more passivity. 42.Rc2 Rf3+ 43.Ke2 Rf7 44.Kd3 Bd4 45.a3 b3! 46.Rc8 Bxb2 47.Rd8+ Kc6 48.Rb8 Rf3+ 49.Kc4 Rc3+ 50.Kb4 Kc7 51.Rb5 Ba1 The b-pawn is a winner. 52.a4 b2 0-1