The Latvian legacy

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The Latvian legacy

Mikhail Tal

At the real risk of being dismissed as a Laudator Temporis Acti, aka a grumpy old man, or disgruntled of Clapham, I am finding the games of leading contemporary grandmasters increasingly featureless. Typically, after a more or less symmetrical Giuoco Piano opening, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 ….one side or the other then commits a virtually imperceptible infelicity, only to be ground down in a lengthy battle of attrition.

Such games, and there are plenty of them, make me yearn for the buccaneering exploits of that mighty tactician, Mikhail Tal, or the mysterious Eleusinian manoeuvres of the profound strategic genius, Aron Nimzowitsch. Both, coincidentally, sons of Latvia, the New Frontier, perhaps, of the proximate, perilous, Putinian provocation. 

In previous columns I have expressed my admiration for the games and writings of Aron Nimzowitsch, a corpus of  material which, along with the military campaigns of the Duke of Wellington, exerted a significant influence over my early personal development as a chess player. Nimzowitsch excelled at chessboard strategy, long term planning deriving from the particular openings which he developed, including 3. e5 against the French Defence, 1. Nf3 d5 2. b3 and of course the Nimzo-Indian Defence. 

Nimzo’s supreme achievement was his stunning victory at the tournament of Karlsbad 1929, ahead of past and future world champions, Capablanca and Euwe. 

Somewhat paradoxically, given the opposite nature of their styles, another major influence was Nimzowitsch’s fellow Latvian, and citizen of Riga, Mikhail Tal. In contrast to Nimzowitsch, Tal was primarily a tactician. I first became aware of Tal’s extraordinary power and energy from his victory in the 1959 Candidates Tournament, which decided the challenger to the throne of world champion and Red Czar of the Soviet Chess Imperium, Mikhail Botvinnik. 

The book which introduced me to the Wizard of Riga, as Tal came to known, was a publication written by Grandmaster Emeritus Harry Golombek OBE. It was about that self-same Candidates Tournament, where Golombek himself acted as Chief Arbiter, a most signal international honour for the distinguished British expert. The book was, in fact, published by the  British Chess Magazine  in a primitive offset format, which looked as if it had been produced in the then editor’s back room on a duplicating machine, which it probably had.  

The somewhat impoverished design of the book belied the depth, elegance and insights of Golombek’s contents, writing which had already earned Golombek numerous accolades for his books on Reti, Capablanca, and the world championships of 1948, 1954 and 1957. Not to mention his appointment as chess correspondent of  The Times

Golombek enjoyed a superlative gift for conveying the drama of battles on the chessboard, elevating chess commentary to the literary level of the Icelandic epic sagas which Golombek had studied for his Doctorate.

Tal’s performance must be rated as one of the most outstanding tournament performances of all time.

Against the leading grandmasters of his day, excluding of course, Botvinnik, waiting in Moscow to discover the identity of his challenger, Tal notched up a huge plus score, including 13 wins and just three draws out of 16 encounters , with Bobby Fischer, Svetozar Gligoric, Fridrik Olafsson and Pal Benko. Against Fischer, Tal scored 100%. Indeed, Tal could also easily have defeated Benko in the one draw permitted him, had he not agreed in the final round to split the point in an overwhelming position, where Benko could have safely resigned. 

Tal once said that there are two types of sacrifice : sound ones and mine . Oddly enough, Tal triumphed in 1959 largely through sound attacks, creating a tsunami of energy and dynamism which simply blew away the opposition. When he did sacrifice unsoundly, for example, against Keres, he was duly punished. The only real exception was one of Tal’s wins against Smyslov, where an unsound Tal sacrifice was somewhat unjustly crowned by success. In fact, even if Tal had lost this game, it would not have altered his eventual tournament laurels, so great was the general magnitude of his superiority. 

Profoundly impressed with Golombek’s book 4th Candidates Tournament 1959 , as chess consultant to the Hardinge Simpole publishing house, I arranged for it to be reissued, with editing by Dr David Regis, and it now remains in print in a much improved edition, both visually and in terms of design. Hardinge Simpole have also reissued Peter Clarke’s anthology of Tal’s Best Games, which takes the Rigan Wizard’s meteoric career up to and including the world championship match victory against Botvinnik, which crowned Tal, albeit briefly, as world champion. I found Clarke’s book just as inspiring and instructive as Golombek’s account of the 1959 Candidates. In fact, it was the book which taught me to play Tal’s signature defence, the Modern Benoni, which rewarded me with fifteen straight wins from my first fifteen games with it. 

Thank you Harry Golombek, thank you Peter Clarke, but above all, thank you Mikhail Tal, the Wizard of Riga .

Mikhail Tal vs. Vasily Smyslov

Candidates Final, Bled, Zagreb & Belgrade, 1959, rd. 22


1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 6. Be2 a6 7.O-O Nbd7 8. f4 b5 9. Bf3 Bb7 10. a3 

Black has the better game after 10. e5 Bxf3 11. Nxf3 dxe5 12. fxe5 b4 8. exf6 bxc3 14. fxg7 Bxg7.

10… Qc7 11. Qe1 Be7 12. Kh1 

Again e5 would be bad, this time on account of 12. e5 dxe5 13. Bxb7 Qxb7 14. fxe5 Bc5.

12… Rb8 

By further protecting his bishop Black again puts a stop to White’s e5.

13. b3 O-O 14. Bb2 Rfe8 15. Qg3 

White is playing in curiously (for Tal) restrained fashion; otherwise he would have ventured on 15. g4 Nc5 16. g5 Nfd7 17. Qg3, with good attacking chances.

15… Bf8 16. Rae1 

Preparing to play e5; but Black strikes first.

16… e5 17. Nf5 Kh8 18. Qh4 exf4 19. Qxf4 Ne5 20. Re3 g6 21. Nh6 Bg7 22. Nd5 Nxd5 23. exd5 f6 

And not 23… Qxc2 24. Nxf7+ Nxf7 25. Qxf7.


24. Be4?

An unsound sacrifice since White gets insufficient attack in return for his piece. Instead, he must play 24. Qh4, though Black still has a fine game after 24… Nxf3 25. Rexf3 f5.

24… g5 25. Qf5 Bxh6 26. Qxf6+ Bg7 27. Qf5 

If 27. Qxg5 Ng6 28. Bxg6 Rxe3.

27… Ng6 28. Rh3 Bxb2 29. Qxg6 Re7 30. Rh6 Rg8 

And not 30… Rbe8 on account of 31. Rxh7+ Rxh7 32. Qxe8+.

31. Qf5 Bc8 32. Qf3 g4 

If 32… Qc3 33. Bxh7 Qxf3 34. Be4+ Kg7 35. Rh7+, and Black is now two pawns down in return for the piece whilst White still has an attack.

33. Qd3 Be5 34. c4 bxc4 35. bxc4 Reg7 36. c5 dxc5 

Stronger was 36… Qe7. 

37. d6 Qa7 

Again he misses the best move:- correct was 37… Qd8, and if 38. Bxh7, then …Qg5.

38. Bd5 Rd8 39. Qe4 Bd4 

And not 39… Re8 40. Qxe5

40. Qf4 Rgd7?

Black’s last move before the time control throws away the game. He can still win by 40… Rdg8 41. Bxg8 Rxg8 42. Qf7 Qxf7 43. Rxf7 Bg7 44. Rh5 Rd8 and now if 45 Rxc5 Be6; or if 45. Rg5 Rxd6.  

41. Rf6  Black resigns 1-0  

There is no saving move; if 41… Bxf6 42. Qxf6+ Rg7 43. Qxd8+; or if 41… Rg8 42. Bxg8 Kxg8 43. Rf8+; and finally, if 41… Rg7 42. Rf8+.

“The spectators had their money’s worth in excitement, at any rate, in the 22nd round. The focus for this was the Tal-Smyslov game in which Tal sacrificed a piece for an attack that certainly should not have been sufficient. All seemed over and I had left the scene to type out my report giving the result as Smyslov 1 Tal 0, when the assistant director of the tournament came over to me and said that Smyslov had resigned. In fact Smyslov’s last move was a complete blunder throwing away the game. I had to rewrite my report whilst the Russian journalist who had already informed Moscow that Tal had lost had to contact Moscow again by telephone and eat his words.”

Harry Golombek in,  4th Candidates’ Tournament, 1959 Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade September 7th – October 29th , Hardinge Simpole, 2009.  

Aron Nimzowitsch vs. Savielly Tartakower

Karlsbad, 1929, rd. 21

The 21st and last round of Karlsbad 1929 saw Nimzowitsch and Spielmann leading with 14 points followed by Capablanca on 13½. The final pairings were: Capablanca-Maróczy, won by White with great ease; Mattison-Spielmann, which ended in a draw, and Nimzowitsch as above. In order to emerge sole victor Nimzowitsch had to defeat Tartakower, who had lost but two games in the previous twenty rounds.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3!?

An unusual move played specifically to avoid the Grunfeld defence (3. Nc3 d5), but 3… d5 is still playable, e.g. 3… d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nb6 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. Be3 O-O 8. Qd2 e5 9. d5 c6 10. h4 h5,  Kramnik-Shirov , Cazorle 1998.

Curiously, 3. f3!? is now known as ‘Alekhine’s anti-Grünfeld’method, since Alekhine adopted the move in his first title match versus Bogoljubow, which took place in 1929, after Karlsbad.  

3… Bg7 

Instead of seeking counterplay on Grünfeld lines as discussed above, Tartakower adheres strictly to a classical King’s Indian set-up with …d7-d6 and …e7-e5.

4. e4 d6 5. Nc3 O-O 6. Be3 

Transposing into what is now known as the Sämisch Variation which often witnesses long castling by White intending a kingside pawn storm.

6… Nbd7 

A rather passive move which allows an interesting reply for White. Nowadays attention centres on more lively lines such as 6… e5 7. d5 c6 or. 7… Nh5. Even 6… Nc6 (which had been played at the London International Tournament by Yates against Vidmar) has turned out to be playable.

7. Nh3!?  

  Intending to play this piece around to d3 to challenge the possible enemy establishment of an knight on the blockading square c5. This is quite a bright idea on Nimzowitsch’s part but on move 17 he abandons the plan in favour of an even more effective deployment of the knight’s energies.

However, there is a slight defect to 7. Nh3 (see note to move 9) and the conventional 7. Nge2 was an objectively stronger choice.

7… e5 8. d5 a5 

Safeguarding the square c5. Over the next few moves Black becomes obsessed with the fortification of this square and overlooks a useful tactical possibility that might have freed his game.

9. Nf2 b6?

9… Nh5! was recommended by Nimzowitsch.

  10. Qd2 Nc5?!

Once again, Nimzowitsch suggested 10… Nh5!, e.g. 11. g4? Nf4! 12. Bxf4 exf4 13. Qxf4 Ne5 with the tremendous compensation for the pawn in terms of dark-square control and active piece play. After 10… Nh5 I feel White’s best course would be 11. Nd3 f5 12. O-O-O removing his king from the danger zone with utmost speed. The unimaginative text allows Nimzowitsch to create just the kind of position he must have been longing for in this crucial last round, I mean a blockade position where White alone has winning chances (in view of Black’s lack of pawn breaks) and Black has no active counterplay at all.

11. Bg5!

The first link in a chain of moves designed to restrain …f7-f5 for ever. This pinning motif (in slightly different circumstances) has become on e of the most popular modern methods of combating the King’s Indian Defence.

11… Bd7?

After this third error White obtains a winning grip on the position. It was better to unpin (11… Qd7).

12. g4 Qc8 13. h4 Kh8 14. h5 gxh5 15. Bxf6?! 

White wants to keep the h-file open so 15. gxh5 would naturally be a mistake. However, it was possible to do this and retain the useful dark-squared bishop by means of 15. O-O-O! Ng8 ( 15… hxg4? 16. Bxf6 Bxf6 17. Qh6 winning ) 16. Rxh5 f6 17. Be3.

15… Bxf6 16. Rxh5 

Leaving Black with an exposed h-pawn and gaping wounds on f5 and h5 which both constitute inviting blockading squares for White’s knights. It is out of the question that Black will be able to force through…f7-f5, so the absence of White’s queen’s bishop is not so important. Lasker pointed out another possibility for White , which would have led by force to the exchange of queens and light-squared bishops, thus granting White an excellent ending: 16. Qh6 Bg7 17. Qxh5 h6 18. g5 f5 19. gxf6 Rxf6 20. Bh3! Be8 21. Bxc8 Bxh5 22. Rxh5 Rxc8 23. Ke2. Nimzowitsch’s continuation is more ambitious. He is not satisfied with a minute positional advantage, but intends to reduce the entire black army to a state of paralysis.  

16… Bg7 17. Nh1 

The change of plan. The knight heads for h5 or f5. Compare also  Nimzowitsch-Rubinstein , Dresden 1926 – 18. Nh1; and  Schlechter-Nimzowitsch , Carlsbad 1907 – 17… Nh8; or  Mannheimer-Nimzowitsch , Frankfurt 1930 – 16… Qh8. All instructive decentralisations of the first water.

17… f6 18. Qh2 h6 19. Ng3 Kh7 20. Be2 Rg8 21. Kf2 

‘And not queenside castling since White also plans an eventual advance on the queen’s wing by means of a2-a3 and b2-b4. In order to achieve victory White has to combine simultaneous attacks on both wings; the black kingside alone would not present a sufficient object of attack’ (Nimzowitsch).

21… Rh8 22. Rh4 

Making way for the knight, which is the most efficacious blockading piece.

22… Qe8 23. Rg1 Bf8 24. Kg2 Nb7 25. Nh5 Qg6 26. f4 Nd8 27. Bf3 Nf7

Hoping to play …e5xf4 at a favourable opportunity, followed by the establishment of the knight at e5 or g5.

  28. Ne2 

Heading for the other blockading square – f5.

28… Be7 29. Kh1 Kg8 30. Neg3 Kf8 31. Nf5 Rg8 

Unfortunately 31… exf4 is impossible: 32. Nxf4 Qg4 33. Ne6+ Bxe6 34. dxe6 Ne5 35. Rxh6 and wins.

32. Qd2 

Opinions differ as to this position: ‘As so often happens when the principles of the blockade are applied, White has succeeded in reducing Black’s dynamic chances to nil, but at the same time has not greatly increased his own’ (R. N. Coles,  Dynamic Chess ).

‘A fine regrouping in accordance with White’s strategy of extending his operations to the other flank’ (Nimzowitsch).  

32… Rc8 33. Rh2 Ke8 

The king flees but a warm reception also awaits him on the queenside.

34. b3 Kd8 35. a3 Ra8 36. Qc1 

36… Bf8?

Loses at once.

‘By continuing a non-committal defence , Black could force White either to try to develop an alternative attack elsewhere or admit that he cannot break through. Instead, in an effort to continue the flight of his king to the queenside which began on the 29th move, he blunders away the exchange. If it did nothing else, the blockade theory strongly applied often made the task of the defence so wearying that accuracy failed’ (Coles).

‘A blunder in a strategically  lost position’ (Nimzowitsch).

The real effect of Tartakower’s blunder on move 36 was to diminish Nimzowitsch’s blockading and manoeuvring achievement (which is a model of how such advantages in terrain should be exploited) in the eyes of subsequent observers. Nimzowitsch was robbed of the possibility of winning properly over the board (or of proving that he could force the win at all) precisely because his preliminary psychological tactics were so successful.

Let us take a look at this position to see if Black could hold out. In essence White’s winning plan must be to organise a breakthrough based on b4 and , if possible, c5 under the maximally favourable conditions: a)  36… Qh7 (suggested by Tartakower, who wanted to follow-up with …Qh8 and …Bf8)

37. Qc3 Bxf5 38. exf5 exf4 39. Nxf4 Ne5 40. Ne6+ Kd7 41. Be2 Kc8 42. Rgg2 Kb7 43. Rg3 Bf8; (+1.9 x43) and

b) 36… Ra7 37. b4 Re8 38. Nhg7 exf4 39. Nxe8 Kxe8 40. b5 Bf8 41. Qxf4 Qg5 42. Qc1 Ne5 43. Be2 Kf7 (+2.0 x43).

The verdict of + 1.9 x43 translated from computer speak, indicates an advantage equivalent to 1.9 extra pawns, analysed to a depth of 43 ply. In other words, a winning preponderance for Nimzowitsch. 

The way in which the control of terrain plus superior mobility translate themselves into a decisive attack in these variations , lends concrete testimony to the accuracy of Nimzowitsch’s strategical vision.

The game concluded:

37. Nh4 Qh7 38. Nxf6 Qh8 39. Nxg8 Qxg8 40. g5 exf4 41. gxh6 Qh7 42. Qxf4 Bxh6 43. Qf6+ Kc8 44. Nf5 Bxf5 45. exf5 Kb7 46. Qg6 Rh8 47. Qxh7 Rxh7 48. Rg6 Kc8 49. f6 Rh8 50. Bg4+ Kd8 51. Be6 Ke8 52. Bxf7+ Kxf7 53. Rhxh6  Black resigns 1-0

Thus did Nimzowitsch achieve the greatest tournament success of his chess career.

“I watched the final stages of his last game at Carlsbad last year. when Dr Tartakower had plainly got out of his depth, and as I walked away with Senor Capablanca, who had also been watching the game that meant much to himself, Senor Capablanca said: “One man knows what he is up to in playing that crazy sort of stuff, and the other man does not.” – TheTimes , August 18, 1930. Capa’s interest in this last round game was fuelled by the fact that , had Tartakower held on for a draw, then Capa would have tied for first prize with Nimzowitsch and Spielmann. As it was, Nimzo won, which propelled him to undivided laurels and the supreme triumph of his distinguished career.

During the Carlsbad, 1929 tournament the world champion, Alexander Alekhine, wrote reports for the  New York Times . The given extract below is about this game:

“Nimzowitsch noticed that grandmaster Tartakower was so fatigued that could only muster short term ideas, but could not stand through a game for hours. Therefore, Nimzowitsch started a lengthy attack against Black’s castled king, and Tartakower actually collapsed in the sixth hour of play, after a splendid defence at the beginning.”

And finally, as animadverted above, the alluring product of the lessons I learned from the masters, and Tal in particular: 

Harry Matchett vs. Raymond Keene

Challengers Reserve, Hastings, 1965, rd. 7


1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. e4 g6 7. Bd3 Bg7 8. Nge2 O-O 9. O-O Na6 10. h3 Rb8 11. Be3 Nc7 12. a4 Re8 13. Ng3 a6 14. b3 b5 15. Rb1 Ng4! 16. Bd2 Ne5 17. Be2 Qh4?! 

Even   stronger is 17… b4! 18. Na2 h5 19. Re1 a5 20. Nc1 f5 21. exf5 h4 22. Ne4 Bxf5.

18. Qe1 

White misses a chance to exploit this last inaccuracy. Either 18. Qc1 or axb5 are sufficient.

18… f5! 19. Qc1 Nf7 20. Bd3 f4

Although this thrust results in a swift victory, White could have defended with more resourceful play. 

After 20. Bd3, my analysis engine (Pancho) prefers – by far – 20… b4! 21. Nce2 fxe4 22. Bc4 Nb5 23. axb5 axb5 24. Bxb5 Rxb5 25. Nf4 Rb7 26. Ne6 Bxe6 27. dxe6 Rxe6: -2.1 x38. In other words, a winning advantage for Black, denoted by the minus sign. 

After 20. Bd3 f4   the engine gives: 21. Bxf4!

It would now appear that Black can win a piece, but that’s not the whole story! 21… Bxc3 22. Bxd6 !! Be5 23. Bxe5 Nxe5 when White’s central pawns offer sufficient compensation for the lost piece. 

After 20. Bd3 f4  21. Nge2?? loses on the spot.

21. Nge2 

Now Black has a crushing blow… 

21… f3!! 22. Nf4 g5  White resigns 0-1

Rob Faase vs. Raymond Keene

Stevenson Memorial, Bognor Regis, 1965, rd. 4

Notes by Raymond Keene
further notes by Pancho

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. e4 g6 7. Be2

Against me in the second round A.K. May played Bd3 here, followed by Nge2 and f4, the system  Penrose beat Tal  with at Leipzig 1960 

7… Bg7 8. Nf3 O-O 9. Bg5 h6 10. Bd2 

10. Bh4 g5 11. Bg3 Nh5 12. Nd2 Nxg3 13. hxg3 f5 is usual and gives Black a good game, asm in  Pfleger vs. Hindle , Hastings, which was eventually drawn. The text confuses two systems of attack. Bd2 was played in a similar position between  Portisch and Stein  at Amsterdam 1964–brilliantly won by White–but the centre was blocked [White had pawns on e4, d5, c4, Black had pawns on e5, d6, c5]. The difference is significant!

Pancho much prefers here, 10. Bc1! and gives the following line: 10…b5 11. Bxb5 Nxe4 12. Nxe4 Qa5+ 13. Nfd2 Qxb5 14. Nxd6 Qa6 15. N2c4 when the position is about equal.

10… Re8 11. Qc2 Nxe4! 

A centre destroying combination, that has become famous from Tal’s games against Gligoric 1959, Averbakh, etc. Here it wins a pawn.

12. Nxe4 Bf5 13. Bd3 Bxe4 14. O-O-O?

Less damaging is 14. Bxe4 f5 15. Be3 Rxe4 16. O-O Nd7 17. Bd2 Qe7 18. Bc3 when White has a little counterplay for the pawn and a more secure king. But Pancho thinks Black is better.

14… Bxd3 15. Qxd3 Nd7 16. h4

“Ein Schlag ins Wasser”–Cafferty.

16… c4 17. Qc2 Nc5 18. Qxc4

There is no way to stop the check.

And if there were, this wouldn’t be it. The attempt, 18. Kb1, is well met by 18… Nd3 19. h5 g5 20. Be3 Qd7 21. Rxd3 cxd3 22. Qxd3 Qg4, Black’s exchange will prove decisive with open files for his rooks, and the h-pawn hanging precariously.

18… Ne4

Threatening 19… Nxf2 or 19… Rc8.

19. Qe2

19. Qf1 Rc8+ 20.Kb1 Qb6! 

19…Rc8+  White resigns, because if the king goes to b1, Black plays …Nc3+. 0-1


Ray’s 206th book, “  Chess in the Year of the King  ”, written in collaboration with Adam Black, and his 207th, “  Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius  ” (which discusses their relationship with chess) are available from Amazon and Blackwells. 


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