Review: Tal-Botvinnik 1960 - Tal

[This review has been submitted for publication in KingPin Magazine.]

Tal-Botvinnik 1960: Match For The World Chess Championship

  by Mikhail Tal, trans. Hanon Russell. pub. Russell Enterprises 1996

iv+214 pp.

  What do you mean, you haven't read Tal's book of the first match with Botvinnik? I admit I hadn't before, although I knew it is a common choice for the top ten chess books ever written. The book itself starts with a confession:

"I must confess to the readers that my spirits, right up until the beginning of the match, were not too high" (Game 1)

  Just 21 games, and many draws, but this book was every bit as good as I had heard.The joy of this book is the feeling that Tal is genuinely revealing to you his preparation for and thinking during a game, warts and all.

  I have a view that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a paragraph of explanation of a position is worth a thousand moves in analysis. Some of the merits of this book are apparent on opening a page at random: the ratio of chess moves to words is weighted strongly in favour of the latter. While Tal does not ignore analytical complexities it is not these that he has been concerned to record - it is a much more human record of hopes, fears and frustrations. Each game begins with his reflections on the match situation and choice of opening, which decades later still retains a sense of excitement. He is rather sparing with his "!" "?" and "+/-", reflecting this same stylistic bias, but the search for crucial moments and oversights seems no less self-critical and rigorous for all that.

"...I was terrified to notice that the intended defense (...) does "not quite" work in view of ... mate in one!" (Game 16)

  In this era of PR and soundbites, where Kasparov's relationship to historical truth seems less than intimate, Tal's openness and self-criticism are both engaging and illuminating.

  Tal's writing style is also hugely enjoyable, being breezy and conversational - there are many uses of quotation marks (as above) where he is speaking metaphorically or colloquially, and which I assume are true to the original.

  The moves are recorded in long algebraic, together with the times of moves which is often revealing. This edition has a distinctive and attractive layout, and is enhanced by the inclusion of several contemporary photos.

  Nitpicks: there are a few minor spelling errors which can mostly be ignored, but I was amused to see Botvinnik's choice as Black in Game 7: the Cann-Kann Defence (Offenbach-Orpheus, Paris 1900). Emanuel Sztein contributes a colourful but rather disjointed introduction which says as much about politics as Tal. One might look forward to the day when biographies of Western players include summaries of their various stances on the excesses of capitalism.

Dave Regis P.S. If the editor fancies more reviews which lay into new books, he'd better find fewer publications like this one. Where is Ray Keene when you need him?