10 Things We Can Learn from Mikhail Tal

10 Things We Can Learn from Mikhail Tal

In every sport, some personalities are loved by all and whose play ignites the imagination in our minds. Watching them play inspires us to be like them and wonder about the unfound possibilities of the game. Mikhail Nekhemyevich Tal was one such personality. He was a larger-than-life person who opened new dimensions of the game in his lifetime.

In this article, we’ll take a look at 10 things we can learn from Mikhail Tal.

An Aggressive Mindset

Tal’s play is the epitome of attacking chess. Perhaps only rivaled by Rashid Nezhmetdinov. An attacking mindset is the perfect mindset for chess. The fundamentals of a sequential game dictate that a player impose his will on his opponent to maximize gains. When looking at Tal’s game we should try to emulate this mindset.

A good thought process would start by looking for Forcing moves (Checks, Captures, Threats) and then thinking about how to pose problems for the opponent.

An Aggressive Mindset

Black has just played Ba6. It seems White has to react to this threat. What would you play as White?

Tal of course ignored this completely and went for Black’s king with Nxg7!!

Let’s take a look at another example

10 Things We Can Learn from Mikhail Tal

Black to Play

In this position, a young Mikhail Tal refuses to exchange rooks and plays Rf8?! A deliberate undeveloped move and it’s a dubious move. But Tal’s reason is simple – I want more pieces to attack.

“Believe me, playing in such a style, this guy has no chess future.” – Peter Romanovsky (on a young Tal)

Tal went on to become the 8th World Chess Champion.

Speculative Sacrifices

We can speculate in the game of chess. Taking risks is one of the traits of a master. But Tal took this to a whole another level. Sometimes the sacrifices don’t make sense; Until you see the next move. Going for speculative sacrifices is risky but it can bring you dividends.

“You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one.”– Mikhail Tal

If you struggle with sacrificing pieces then try to look at sacrifices as an ‘exchange’. Remove the word ‘sacrifice’ from your thinking and replace it with mindset. This helps because you no longer associate a sacrifice with losing material.

For example, I will exchange my Knight for two tempi and a pawn. Or I will exchange my Rook in return for a damaged pawn structure and a weak King.

Always look for forward moves

Although many of Tal’s sacrifices are fantastic and fascinating, most of them are grounded on one basic fundamental of the game – activity. Piece activity can be improved by increasing the mobility of the pieces and giving them multiple duties.

Moves that go forward achieve the same with the most efficiency. We observe this time and time again in Tal’s games.

“I like to grasp the initiative and not give my opponent peace of mind.” – Mikhail Tal

Play with energy against an Uncastled King

Tal never let go of the opportunity to attack an Uncastled King. He used to attack with great energy and ferocity.

“As long as my opponent has not yet castled, on each move, I seek a pretext for an offensive. Even when I realize that the king is not in danger.” – Mikhail Tal

In the following game Tal’s opponent delays castling to pursue other strategic goals. Tal doesn’t miss the opportunity and plays an exemplary game.

Tal vs Fuster, Portoroz 1958

Playing with an Open Mind

Playing chess with an open mind can be a rewarding experience. Club players tend to get bogged down by piece values and other principles.

We should take each position as a unique position with endless possibilities.

Let’s see a beautiful Queen sacrifice by Tal.

Bobotsov vs Tal, Varna 1958

Check for the Assault Ratio

You should attack when you possess any one or both of the following:

  • A lead in development
  • Local superiority of forces

The strategy dictates that a player is ‘obliged’ to attack in such a scenario. If not then he risks losing the advantage.

One way to check if the attack will be successful or not is to use the assault ratio. This rule of thumb stems from the following logic. An attack on the King is guaranteed to be a success only if a strong grouping of pieces. And the power of this grouping should be greater than the defensive possibilities.

Humans Err in difficult positions

It is not easy to calculate through long variations and multiple branches. In these cases, a simple oversight happens more often than you think. Even strong players can overlook easy details.

Averbakh vs Tal, Riga 1958

Humans Err in difficult positions

In this position, Tal goes in for a speculative sacrifice. The position is a standard Benoni position where White hasn’t done anything wrong. But after the move Nxe4 the position is turned on its head.

Now suddenly White has to play concretely to maintain the advantage. White managed to err in another 3 moves losing all his advantage.

10 Things We Can Learn from Mikhail Tal

Here White plays Bxd6?

Now Black gets a decisive advantage after Nf6!

Dynamism over Static advantages

From a young age, Tal had a liking for dynamism. If you pit a young strong calculator against an experienced strategic player then the calculator will always win. Tal was exactly this. He beat one experienced Grandmaster after another.

He would look for opportunities to give up static advantages in favor of dynamism. Such a playstyle can offset your opponent.

Pose problems to your Opponent

“Tal’s genius consists of posing his opponents with tempting ways to go wrong.” – Larry Evans

When you constantly pose problems for your opponent you make them expend their energy. Mental energy is limited. Forcing your opponents to use it early in the game is a good strategy.

In this position, White has several reasonable moves but Tal chooses the one that poses problems for his opponent.

Tal vs Botvinnik, Game 8, World Championship 1961

Pose problems to your Opponent

White to play

In this position, Tal played Qg4. This move violates several opening principles but poses problems for his opponent.

Psychological Effect of a Sacrifice

One of the aspects of playing against a human opponent is psychology. Sacrifices tend to disturb the equilibrium of intuition. Suddenly the game is not about logical generalizations but uncharted territory where intuition isn’t much help.

Tal excelled in this aspect of psychology. He understood the consequences of this and repeatedly used his inclination for attacks to disrupt the equilibrium of the game.


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Updated 06.28.2024