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By Ron Kroon for Anefo - http://proxy.handle.net/10648/ab320934-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66475789

Mikhail Tal Sacrifices a Queen for Art - HCWMTS Part 5

ChessChess PersonalitiesAnalysisTactics
Many pundits claim that Mikhail Tal's sacrifices were objectively quite unsound, but how true is this claim, really?

All of my content and writings will be free forever. Donate or become a patron to help support this content.

Writing these articles took about 4 months of reasonably constant daily work (March 2024 till June 2024). I looked through almost 3000 games by Mikhail Tal. A 200-part series on Mikhail Tal's sacrfices takes some work, yes!

Important Information

Please refer to the master article, split into four parts: parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Note that since this series of articles aims to analyze whether or not Tal's sacrifices were as unsound as most people make them out to be, I will only be analyzing the sacrifices and judging them — the remaining parts of the game will only be discussed briefly.

I've also stored all the analysis done by Stockfish 16.1 and it's available upon request.

Introduction

It should come as no surprise that the 8th world champion could play some stunningly accurate chess. Combined with his tactical genius, Tal was seriously keeping the Romantic era alive — a more sound Romantic era, that is. In games 2, 5, and 7, Tal plays brilliantly and accurately. However, such brilliance comes at a cost: in game 9, he went for a completely unnecessary queen sacrifice which eventually won him the game! Even when Tal takes risks, they pay off.

Games

Game #1: Imre Varasdy vs. Mikhail Tal, 1986, 44 moves (Kingside Attack Piece Sacrifice)

In our first game, Tal goes for his favorite Benoni, but his opponent, Imre Varasdy, a Hungarian international master, transposes to the English instead. Tal equalizes comfortably as Black and seizes the initiative by giving up the bishop pair, where after his position is slightly better. Varasdy's pieces look awkwardly placed, and after Tal activates his rooks and starts an attack, we get to see Tal sacrificing some pieces to mate Varasdy.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/uacI5ffy#71

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: The only "issue" with this sacrifice is that 33...e3 seems to be more accurate than 33...hxg3, the latter being the move that allowed the sacrifice to take place in the first place. Therefore, I'll give this sacrifice 6 points out of 7.

Sacrifice rating: 9/10, a very sound sacrifice.

Game #2: Mikhail Tal vs. NN, 1975, 20 moves (Kingside Attack Piece Sacrifice)

This is one of those Tal games that makes it look incredibly easy to crush the Sicilian Defense, even without any fancy opposite-side castling race situations. Tal brilliantly brings the queenside knight into the fray and sacrifices to get a quick victory. The Greek gift sacrifice is relatively typical, but still quite beautiful to see.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/DfjVAnJ2#32

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: No reason to go against the objective rating here! 7/7

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Game #3: Jan Timman vs. Mikhail Tal, 1973, 32 moves (Kingside Attack Piece Sacrifice)

Tal gets to play the Benoni this time as Jan Timman happily obliges. After Tal goes for a King's Indian Defense-esque setup, however, Timman mistimes the critical f4 break with 11. f4 and sees his advantage dissipate. Moving with speed and positional genius, Tal goes for the brilliant 14...Bxc3!!, giving up his strong dark-squared bishop to damage White's pawn structure and make use of the open g-file. Soon Tal's pieces line up on the g-file and the sacrifice on move 27 seems very natural:

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/wSez7wo7#53

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: No reason to go against the objective rating here! 7/7

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Game #4: Mikhail Tal vs. Murray Chandler, 1982, 76 moves (Pawn Sacrifice for Activity)

Tal is playing against his favorite Caro-Kann opening and goes for long castles, which was, and remains, a popular way to meet the Classical Caro-Kann. After facing the challenging 14...Nc5, though, Tal reacts poorly and sacrifices a pawn for little compensation, following that decision up with a mistaken bishop placement. Tal goes on to lose the game as his opponent, bar one minor blip, converts well.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/ERTr34gU#30

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move, 16. c4, is given a +0.4 evaluation, while Tal's move, 16. Qe2, is given a 0.00 evaluation. Our table shows that Tal should therefore be awarded 3/5 points, but since his move barely retains equality, I'll give it a 2/5. 2/5 * 3 = 1.2, so 1.2/3.

Subjective rating: Tal's sacrifice was rather unnecessary and made him lose just after the opening. Moreover, he followed it up incorrectly — had he intended to play 18. Bc3 and draw that way, his sacrifice would have made more sense. I'll give this a 2/7.

Sacrifice rating: 3.2/10, a reasonably unsound sacrifice, and some might see this as a very generous rating, and they'd be right!

Game #5: Mikhail Tal vs. Liuben Spassov, 1977, 35 moves (Opposite-Side Castling Pawn Sacrifice)

Tal again makes short work of the Sicilian Defense. This time, he castles long and launches a powerful attack as he skillfully maneuvers his queen and minor pieces to support his onslaught. The pawn sacrifice with 21. f5 works out tactically and is very strong.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/6FU2942U#40

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: No reason to go against the objective rating here! 7/7

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Game #6: Mikhail Tal vs. Anatoly Lutikov, 1967, 40 moves (Defending by Counter-Sacrificing)

From a quiet Semi-Slav Defense, it seems as if Tal is going to play a calm, positional game. Of course, you know what to expect by now! In fact, it was Tal's opponent, Anatoly S Lutikov, a strong player who Tal played many times, who started the fireworks with 20...f5. Tal responded with more chaos, going for a potential tripled pawn position, which Lutikov declined. Eventually, seeing as the position was trending in Lutikov's favor, Tal chose to sacrifice to defend and played 27. Re6, which will be the subject of our analysis.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/paq9dejA#52

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move, 27. Rde1, is given a -1.3 evaluation, while Tal's move, 27. Re6, is given a -3.72 evaluation. Therefore, Tal gets 0/3 for his counter-sacrfiice.

Subjective rating: The combination initiated with Tal's sacrifice is actually a smart way to try to get the draw, but it fails because of not one, but several concrete lines which offer chances for Black to play for a win. I'll give this a 2/7 because if it was good enough to confuse Lutikov, it must not be so easy to calculate the concrete engine lines over the board.

Sacrifice rating: 2/10, an unsound sacrifice.

Game #7: Mikhail Tal vs. László Szabó, 1973, 36 moves (Opposite-Side Castling Piece Sacrifice)

The Modern Defense invites many attacking setups from White, but, it being a hypermodern opening, the hope is that White overextends and leaves weaknesses Black can exploit later. In this game, Tal left no weaknesses and steamrolled the Modern in exemplary fashion. The sacrifice on move 22 with Bxf7+!! was accurate and well-timed.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/j3nXko6H#42

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: No reason to go against the objective rating here! 7/7. In fact, Tal's play before the sacrifice is so precise and ahead of its time that I wish I could award this sacrifice more points!

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Game #8: Kārlis Klāsups vs. Mikhail Tal, 1955, 40 moves (Pawn Sacrifice for Activity)

Kārlis Klāsups played the King's Indian Attack while Tal chose the King's Indian Defense. Attack vs. Defense, unstoppable force vs. immovable object — who wins? Tal, Tal wins. Tal sacrifices a pawn on move 23 and is completely winning by move 29. Tal makes it look so easy. Granted, White did not defend in the best way possible, but Tal was playing accurately and his pawn sacrifice was perfectly sound.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/yBbnzebI#45

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: No reason to go against the objective rating here! 7/7.

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Game #9: Larry Kirk vs. Mikhail Tal, 1988, 42 moves (Positional Queen Sacrifice)

From a closed Sicilian, Tal's pieces seem much more active as White is quite underdeveloped, while Tal has some strong knights in the center and a powerful dark-squared bishop. After Tal goes for the logical 14...Be2, though, Larry Kirk uncorks the powerful 15. Bg5!, which surprisingly sets up some problems for Tal. For better or worse, Tal sacrifices his queen — perhaps forced to do so, and, most likely, forced artistically rather than him missing 15...c4. After some complications, Tal manages to swindle his opponent as Tal manages to activate his heavy pieces after it looked like he was going to be mated by his opponent's major pieces.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/vEicmn4M#29

Sacrifice Rating

Objective rating: The best move, 15...c4, is equal (-0.05), while Tal's move, 15...Bxf1 is given a +2.79 evaluation. Therefore, Tal unfortunately gets 0 points on the objective scale for his queen sacrifice.

Subjective rating: This queen sacrifice is extremely artistically beautiful. Tal did have a simple and better alternative in 15...c4, though. However, with accurate play, the queen sacrifice might not be a forced loss, so I'll be generous here. I'll give it a 2/7, even without taking artistic merit into consideration as the position remains quite complicated.

Sacrifice rating: 2/10, an unsound sacrifice. But, gorgeous!

Game #10: Boris Spassky vs. Mikhail Tal, 1958, 73 moves (Pawn Sacrifice to Advance Passed Pawns and Exchange Sacrifice)

Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal had a long history full of exciting games, and this one was no exception. Tal sacrifices an exchange early on, but Spassky wisely rejects that Trojan horse. Then, to keep the game going, Tal sacrifices a pawn to promote his pawn and keep the game complicated, which works out spectacularly as Tal is able to mate Spassky's king in crushing fashion.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/kzURi0T9#35

Sacrifice #1 Rating

Objective rating: The best move was chosen, so 5 points are awarded. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: 7/7. A good, positional move in 18...Nd6 that also tempts White to win the exchange.

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/kzURi0T9#61

Sacrifice #2 Rating

Objective rating: The move chosen by Tal is given the same evaluation as the engine's top choice, 31...b5, at 0.00. The objective rating is weighted at 30%, so 3 points are awarded.

Subjective rating: 7/7, and more like 8/7. Tal finds a way to keep the game going in what looked like a simple draw!

Sacrifice rating: 10/10, a completely sound sacrifice.

Inclusion Criteria

For games 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9, the reasons for including those games in their respective categories are pretty clear. For game 8, the pawn sacrifice could be argued to be a "distal kingside attack pawn sacrifice", but the kingside attack only came later after it was allowed. I believe it is more accurate to label this as a "pawn sacrifice for activity," even if said activity is aimed against White's king. In game 10, Tal sacrificed a pawn to reach the queen + rook vs. queen + rook position he eventually won, so I classified this game under "pawn sacrifice to advance passed pawns".

Puzzles / Review

White was actually better here. What should Tal have played?

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/3Z5pcBig

Pawn sac?

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/ET68xgzN

Just a simple 25 ply calculation ...

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/vK4aohuk

How could Spassky not take the exchange?

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/q07zoYt1

Typical, but with an important nuance!

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/TsI9XC9p

Whose king is unsafe?

https://lichess.org/study/15R6jcxG/uaKQTtlk