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July 5, 2013

‘The Magician’ sees through the smoke

Mikhail Tal is renowned as the greatest attacking player of all time. Known as “the Magician from Riga,” he was the World Chess Champion from 1960 to 1961. Illness hampered his career, and he died in 1992.

This week’s position is from Tal’s game against Cikovani in 1961. Tal is white; Cikovani, black. Black’s weakened king-side pawn structure sets off a round of typical Tal fireworks. With this hint in mind, please try to find white’s best move.

Cikovani has tried to distract Tal by moving his h7 pawn to h6, threatening white’s bishop on g5. Tal ignores this and sets fire to black’s position by capturing black’s e6 pawn with white’s light-squared bishop on a2.

Black loses in all lines. Taking the bishop on e6 permits white’s queen to explode on g6. The queen captures black’s g6 pawn, then white wins a piece with the surviving bishop’s capture of the knight on f6. White wins material and is poised to soon mate black.

Black’s best reply is to move its king to g7. But this loses to first having the bishop on g5 capture black’s h6 pawn, checking black. After the king takes the bishop, white’s e6 bishop snatches black’s f7 pawn. Now the bishop and queen threaten mate on g6. Black must bring its rook to g8, which is then captured by white’s bishop. Black’s knight takes the bishop on g8 (the best move). White’s e1 rook next joins the attack and slides to e6, again threatening mate with the intersection of the rook and queen on g6.

White’s attack is overwhelming, as its knights soon join in the fireworks.

Perhaps this is why Cikovani opted to capture white’s bishop on g5 after white’s a2 bishop took black’s e6 pawn. Tal then exploited the pin on black’s f7 pawn and captured black’s g6 pawn with his queen, checking black and forcing the king to h8. The white queen again checked black from h6.

If black’s knight blocks the check, white’s bishop moves to f5 and black is quickly mated on h7. Cikovani thus moved his king back to g8. White’s f3 knight responded by capturing black’s g5 pawn.

It is now impossible for black to defend all the squares around its king, as white’s pieces encircle black’s king. Cikovani tried to defend f7 by bringing his rook to f8. However, Tal lifted his e1 rook to e4, and Cikovani resigned. This is because the rook is heading towards h4, preparing queen to h8 mate.

Often Tal’s attacks were technically unsound. But he was playing human beings under time controls. When the fireworks were booming, he knew he could usually see best through the smoke. This is how he became known as the Magician from Riga.

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