Athletes Chess

Mikhail Tal

Mikhail Tal was a Soviet Latvian chess player and the eighth World Chess Champion. Widely regarded as a creative genius and one of the best attacking players of all time.

Tal played in a daring, combinatorial style. His play was known above all for improvisation and unpredictability.

It has been said that “Every game for him was as inimitable and invaluable as a poem”. He was often called “Misha”, a diminutive for Mikhail, and “The magician from Riga”.

Both The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games and Modern Chess Brilliancies include more games by Tal than any other player.

In addition, Tal was a highly regarded chess writer. He also previously held the record for the longest unbeaten streak in competitive chess history with 95 games (46 wins, 49 draws) between 23 October 1973 and 16 October 1974, until Ding Liren’s streak of 100 games (29 wins, 71 draws) between 9 August 2017 and 11 November 2018.

The Mikhail Tal Memorial has been held in Moscow annually since 2006 to honour Tal’s memory.

  • Full name: Mikhail Tal
  • Profession: Latvian chess player
  • Born: 9 November 1936, Riga, Latvia
  • Died: 28 June 1992, Moscow, Russia
  • Nationality: Latvian
  • Spouse: Salli Landau (m. 1959–1970)
  • World Champion: 1960–61

About Mikhail Tal

Tal was born 9 November 1936, Riga, Republic of Latvia, into a Jewish family. According to his friend Gennadi Sosonko, his true father was a family friend identified only as “Uncle Robert”; however, this was vehemently denied by Tal’s third wife Angelina.

From the very beginning of his life, Tal suffered from ill health. He learned to read at the age of three, and was allowed to start university studies while only fifteen.

At the age of eight, he learned to play chess while watching his father, a doctor and medical researcher.

Shortly thereafter Tal joined the Riga Palace of Young Pioneers chess club. His play was not exceptional at first, but he worked hard to improve.

Alexander Koblents began tutoring him in 1949, after which Tal’s game rapidly improved, and by 1951 he had qualified for the Latvian Championship.

In the 1952 Latvian Championship, Tal finished ahead of his trainer. Tal won his first Latvian title in 1953, and was awarded the title of Candidate Master.

He became a Soviet Master in 1954 by defeating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. That same year he also scored his first win over a Grandmaster when Yuri Averbakh lost on time in a drawn position.

Tal graduated in Literature from the University of Latvia, writing a thesis on the satirical works of Ilf and Petrov, and taught school in Riga for a time in his early twenties.

He was a member of the Daugava Sports Society, and represented Latvia in internal Soviet team competitions.

In 1959 he married 19-year-old Salli Landau, an actress with the Riga Youth Theatre; they divorced in 1970. In 2003, Landau published a biography in Russia of her late ex-husband.