Book review: Attack with Mikhail Tal

[This review first appeared in Westward Ho!]

Book review: Attack with Mikhail Tal (179pp+index) Cadogan Press: London.

  Mikhail Tal and Iakov Damsky. [[sterling]]11.99.
Mikhail Tal needs no introduction; the wizard who emerged in the late 1950s as a force to complement the science of Botvinnik. This is Mikhail Tal's last word to the chess world, some of which was transcribed from tapes made within days of his death in 1994, and which he did not live to complete. Damsky tells us the planned title was Everything about attack, and rues the omission of a planned chapter on the Queen's-side attack. The nine chapters completed are listed below.

  Each chapter contains a number of examples, for instance, the chapter on the eighth rank contains 16 examples from games - some rather familiar (like Levitsky-Marshall) - with four test positions and an example complete game with the same back rank theme. I have another book - Test your Chess IQ by Livshits - which contains 32 such examples. What extra do you get from the Tal/Damsky book?

  Livshits' positions all have a concrete short-term solution (say, White to play and win in 5 moves), whereas the examples in this book are nearly all of the sort that Spielmann calls 'real' sacrifices - being genuinely unclear or at least requiring more judgement than calculation. The first example does resolve inside 7 moves, but the second only clears up only after 17 moves. This sort of thing is real chess drama, and is great fun to watch in action. Tal and Damsky also give some chatty annotation which is mostly illuminating and engaging. Lastly, the themes are strategic more than tactical - the back rank chapter is the only one with an explicitly tactical theme. But all the common sacrificial motifs are present:

Chapter typical sacrifices
1. The Main Indicator - the King in the Centre : Ng5xf7, Ng5 or Bc4xe6
2. Breakthrough in the centre: breaks e5 and d5
3. The assault ratio (ie. development advantage): "launching" in e.g. Nf3-g5 Ng3-h5
4. Invasion trajectories (ie. lines of approach): diagonals a1-h8 and b1-h7/a2-f7
5. Lines of communication (ie. interference): obstructive sacrifice e5-e6
6. Outposts: e.g. N on e5
7. Eliminating defenders: Rd1xNd7
8. At the Royal Court (ie. 7th and 8th ranks):
9. Destroying the Fortress walls: Be3xh6, Bc3xg7, Bd3xh7+
Let me say immediately: the book is warm and witty, and the examples are hugely enjoyable. So, if the material and ideas listed above are unfamiliar to you, then I'd grab it. Criticisms? It's churlish to carp about such an enjoyable book, and since Tal's death, a moving one, but I'll mention one or two.

  It was never going to be everything about attack. It is missing the concrete examples (for which see Livshits), and also the rather slow attacks with a closed centre that need not require a sacrificial outburst. It also lacks any reference to the various 'natural histories' of attack that have gone before (for example, the works of Vukovic), and so the examples may be hard to integrate in your mind. But alongside these works, AWMT has a place as a modern handbook of examples.

  These are perhaps things that the authors would freely concede, because they never claimed more for their book. But they did say their "aim... of suggesting: where and on which paths in the dense forest of variations are concealed those ...indicators ... that will allow you ... to switch ... to an attack". This is an enticing prospect: to accompany these master physicians in their diagnoses. How far is this aim realised? My view is that the book fails here. I got an early impression that these indicators include, firstly, a lead in development, and secondly, open lines or the capacity to open them, but after this, it is all rather post hoc. We meet often comments like:

  "it turns out that now this is possible" (p.12)

  "The correct evaluation of the position is only established by the typical attacking device carried out by the ex-world champion" (p.19)

  So, although the examples are rich, the explanations are not very crisp. Tal says at one point (p.8) "we are talking here rather abstractly, rather in the spirit of Mikhail Moiseyevich" (Botvinnik), and while this book is full of Tal's charm, it lacks Botvinnik's science.

  Lastly, the test positions I often found at once too hard and too easy. Let me give you an example:

This is the first test position from the first chapter. It may take you half a second to spot the only sacrificial idea, namely Nxf7, it may take you forever to judge it properly. The game is actually from Tal-Simagin (given below), and clearly his Grandmaster opponent misjudged the sacrifice. I don't know if he missed Tal's fifteenth move, but the game was not decided until move 45.

  Almost all the examples are, like this one, successful examples - a sacrificial opportunity arises and is discovered to be sound. Only by comparing cases where sacrifices succeed and where they fail will we start to develop the judgement, and start to identify the indicators, for ourselves.

  The whole game shows at once the strength an weaknesses of the book: a wonderfully dramatic attack, but could the reader emulate it?

  Tal - Simagin 1956: 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. f4 Qb6 5. Nf3 Bg4 6. Be2 Nbd7 7. e5 Nd5 8. O-O Nxc3 9. bxc3 e6 10. Ng5 Bxe2 11. Qxe2 h6 (DIAGRAM) 12. Nxf7 Kxf7 13. f5 dxe5 14. fxe6+ Kxe6 15. Rb1 (This cheeky move regains some material)15... Qxb1 16. Qc4+ Kd6 17. Ba3+ Kc7 18. Rxb1 Bxa3 19. Qb3 Be7 20. Qxb7+ Kd6 21. dxe5+ Nxe5 22. Rd1+ Ke6 23. Qb3+ Kf5 24. Rf1+ Ke4 25. Re1+ Kf5 26. g4+ Kf6 27. Rf1+ (White's harrassment picks up a piece. Now Black must mobilise his rooks before White picks up all the pawns; sadly, he's too late.) 27... Kg6 28. Qe6+ Kh7 29. Qxe5 Rhe8 30. Rf7 Bf8 31. Qf5+ Kg8 32. Kf2 Bc5+ 33. Kg3 Re3+ 34. Kh4 Rae8 35. Rxg7+ Kxg7 36. Qxc5 R8e6 37. Qxa7+ Kg6 38. Qa8 Kf6 39. a4 Ke5 40. a5 Kd5 41. Qd8+ Ke4 42. a6 Kf3 43. a7 Re2 44. Qd3+ R6e3 45. Qxe3+ 1-0 Superb: Tal kept the pot boiling throughout.