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Mikhail Tal (Biography): The Magician From Riga – 30 Intriguing Facts

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

You might not have heard of Mikhail (“Misha”) Tal before, yet he is among the most celebrated grandmasters among chess fanatics. He had a creative play strategy, often improvising his moves, which made his game unpredictable.

Mikhail was a chess player of Soviet-Latvian descent and held the title of the 8th World Chess Champion. He had a unique chess-playing style, making him a feared competitor. Mikhail was also admired for his determination, playing even when he was terminally ill. 

Mikhail Tal was appropriately nicknamed “The Magician from Riga,” being one of the most talented chess players of his time. 

These are 30 interesting facts about Mikhail Tal:

1. Tal Was Born In 1936

Mikhail Tal’s mother, Ida Grigorievna, gave birth to him on 9 November 1936 in Riga, Latvia. His father, Nekhemia Mozusovich Tal, was a local physician.

2. Tal Had A Deformity

Mikhail Tal was born with Ectrodactyly, a congenital disease that left him with only three fingers on his one hand. 

3. Tal Showed Early Signs Of A Chess Mind

Mikhail Tal started reading at the age of 3. Later, at the age of 5, he could already do advanced calculations.

4. Tal Started Playing Chess At Age 6

Mikhail Tal learned chess from his cousin when he was six years old. Soon after, he joined a local chess club, which was part of the Pioneers of Riga.

5. The Start Of Tal’s Chess Greatness 

Mikhail Tal was 13 years old when he played in a simultaneous chess exhibition against the young master Ratmir Kholmov. Mikhail won and caught the attention of many.

6. Tal Had A Chess Tutor

Alexander Koblencs, who won the Latvian Chess Championships four times, started tutoring Mikhail Tal in 1949. 

7. The Young Chess Prodigy Went To University

Mikhail Tal started studying Russian literature at the University of Latvia at the tender age of 15. 

8. Tal Played Chess And Piano

Despite his deformity, Mikhail Tal played the piano and was quite skilled at it.

9. Tal Became A Latvian Chess Master 

By 1953, Mikhail Tal (16 years old) was a recognized professional chess player known and feared by many. 

He played in the Championship that year, and although he didn’t beat Koblencs and Gipslis, he won the tournament. The win brought him fame and the title of Latvian Chess Master.

10. Tal Became a Soviet Chess Master

Mikhail Tal gained the prestigious title of Soviet Master in 1954 after beating Vladimir Saigin in a qualifying match. This year also marked another milestone for him: beating grandmaster Yuri Averbak.

11. Tal Became The Youngest Winner Of The USSR Championship

In 1956, Mikhail Tal played in the USSR Championship and performed very well, sharing 5th-7th place.

The following year, he returned and made history by winning the Championship as the youngest player to ever do so at 20.

12. The Chess Prodigy Graduated From University

Amongst his extraordinary rise, Mikhail Tal continued his studies and graduated from the University of Latvia in 1957 with a degree in Russian literature. This milestone was yet another outstanding achievement destined to fall short of what was to come.

13. Tal Became A Grandmaster

At the 1957 FIDE Congress, Mikhail Tal was awarded the title of Grandmaster. Although playing fewer games than required, the congress deemed him worthy based on his Soviet Championship victory and the quality of the participating players.

14. Tal Was An Author Of Chess Books

Earning the title of Grandmaster was no reason for Mikhail Tal to relax. Since he had a degree in literature, he became an author and published several chess books.

15. Tal Participated In His First World Chess Championship

In 1958, Mikhail Tal returned to the USSR stage and successfully defended his Soviet Championship title. From March to May, he played in his first-ever World Chess Championship. 

16. Tal Won The Portoroz Interzonal Tournament

In September 1958, Mikhail Tal won the Portoroz Interzonal Tournament with a 13.5/20 score.

17. Tal Got Married In 1959

In 1959, Mikhail Tal married his first wife, Salli Landau, a 19-year-old actress with the Riga Youth Theatre. 

18. Tal Won The Candidates’ Tournament

Mikhail Tal participated in the Candidates’ Tournament in 1959. His competitors included big names like Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Tigran Petrosian, Bobby Fischer (16 years old), Svetozar Gligorić, Pal Benkö, and Fridrik Ólafsson. Mikhail won the tournament and qualified for the World Chess Champion against Botvinnik the following year.

19. Tal Became The World’s Youngest Champion

Mikhail Tal was to play Mikhail Botvinnik in the World Chess Championship of 1960. Botvinnik was World Champion (1948-1957) before Vasily Smyslov broke his streak. Many hoped another “Winter King” would dethrone Botvinnik.

Mikhail won the first game of the Championship and drew the next four. He continued to win the next two games, and as the match continued, the gap stayed relatively the same to end in a 12½-8½ victory for Mikhail Tal. He became the eighth (and youngest) World Chess Champion. 

20. Tal’s World Champion Streak Ended In 1961

Botvinnik got his rematch in 1961 and won 13-8, ending Mikhail Tal’s only World Champion streak.

21. Tal Was Diagnosed With Kidney Disease 

Shortly before the rematch against Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal was diagnosed with kidney disease. This disease limited his ability to travel, and concerns about his health were at an all-time high.

22. Tal Lost A Kidney

Mikhail Tal was quite known for his bohemian lifestyle, which included drinking and smoking excessively. Unfortunately, these vices contributed to his struggle to stay healthy. In 1969, one of Tal’s kidneys was removed.

23. Ding Liren broke Tal’s Longest Streak Record

Mikhail Tal’s most noteworthy streak was from Oct. 1973 to Oct. 1974: he participated in 95 games without losing, winning 46 of those games. This record was only broken in 2018 by Ding Liren, who played 100 games but won only 29.

24. Tal Had A Unique Style Of Playing Chess

Like Mihail Tal’s lifestyle, few could keep up with his chess style. He played an attacking game but often sacrificed a piece to gain more time. This move often created doubt in his opponent’s mind, allowing Mikhail to continue his ‘attack.’

25. Tal Won The World Blitz Championship 

Mikhail Tal played against Rafael Vaganian in the final of the World Blitz Championship in 1988. He beat Vaganian 3½-½ to win the Championship in the presence of previous champions Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov.

26. Tal Played His Last Official Tournament in 1992 

In early May 1992, Barcelona saw Mikhail Tal playing in the official Blitz tournament with Ivan Sokolov, Vladimir Akopian, and Mikhail Gurevich. Mikhail Tal was said to have phoned Sokolov and Akopian before their games, indirectly proposing a draw. Akopian rejected Mikhail’s proposal and lost to him, ending in fourth place.

This encounter was Mikhail Tal’s last official tournament chess match.

27. Tal’s Last Chess Game Was Against Kasparov 

On 28 May 1992, Mikhail Tal was terminally ill in a Moscow hospital. Yet, he sneaked out to play one last game against Gary Kasparov in a Blitz tournament. Mikhail won the match, inflicting Kasparov’s only defeat before he went on to win the tournament. Mikhail ended in third place.

28. Tal Passed Away On 28 June 1992

Mikhail Tal passed on in Moscow on 28 June 1992. He might have lost the battle against his illness, but many say he lived life exactly the way he wanted.

29. Moscow Hosted A Chess Tournament In Memory Of Tal

The Mikhail Tal Memorial Chess Tournament was held in Moscow every year from 2006 to 2018. 

30. A Monument Was Erected In Honor Of Tal

In 2001, a bronze bust resembling Mikhail Tal was installed in Latvia to honor his contributions to the game of chess. 

In Closing

Mikhail Tal’s life was ordinary in many ways but was lived extraordinarily. Mikhail might have lost his fight against a disease, but his dedication to chess was a triumph. He remains a popular figure in chess communities, and many consider him one of the ultimate Grandmasters.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.