WE THINK of Mikhail Tal as the great attacking genius.
That kind of player is bound to have losses among his wins. Not so, Tal holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history.
From the very beginning of his life, he suffered from ill health. Tal learned to read at the age of three, and was allowed to start university studies while only fifteen. At the age of eight, Tal learned to play chess while watching his father, a doctor and medical researcher.
In 1959 he married 19-year-old Salli Landau, an actress with the Riga Youth Theatre; they divorced in 1970, but in 2003, Landau published a biography of her late ex-husband.
“Misha was so ill-equipped for living... When he travelled to a tournament, he couldn’t even pack his own suitcase... He didn’t even know how to turn on the gas for cooking. If I had a headache, and there happened to be no one home but him, he would fall into a panic: “How do I make a hot-water bottle?” And when I got behind the wheel of a car, he would look at me as though I were a visitor from another planet. Of course, if he had made some effort, he could have learned all of this.
But it was all boring to him. He just didn’t need to. A lot of people have said that if Tal had looked after his health, if he hadn’t led such a dissolute life... and so forth. But with people like Tal, the idea of “if only” is just absurd. He wouldn’t have been Tal then.
In 1960, at the age of 23, Tal thoroughly defeated the relatively staid and strategic Mikhail Botvinnik in a World Championship match, held in Moscow, by 12½–8½ (six wins, two losses, and thirteen draws), making him the youngest-ever world champion (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov, who earned the title at 22).
Botvinnik, who had never faced Tal before the title match began, won the return match against Tal in 1961.
Tal’s chronic kidney problems contributed to his defeat, and his doctors in Riga advised that he should postpone the match for health reasons. Yuri Averbakh claimed that Botvinnik would agree to a postponement only if Tal was certified unfit by Moscow doctors, and that Tal then decided to play
From July 1972 to April 1973, Tal played a record 86 consecutive games without a loss (47 wins and 39 draws). Between 23 October 1973 and 16 October 1974, he played 95 consecutive games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws), shattering his previous record. These are the two longest unbeaten streaks in modern chess history.
Next to Tal, the eighth champion comes Vladimir Kramnik, the 14th champion. Kramnik is one of the toughest opponents to defeat, losing only one game in over one hundred games leading up to his match with Kasparov, including eighty consecutive games without loss.