Mikhail Tal was only world champion for one year, from 1960-61 - but unlike Mikhail Botvinnik, the straight-laced, long-time champion he replaced for that short period, Tal simply adored and revelled in playing blitz chess, and he would play the fast and furious form of the game with anyone and everyone, even chess fans. And along the way, Tal won many, many Russian and Moscow blitz titles.
They say Tal ‘lived for blitz’, and never was this truer than in late May 1992 when he was dying in hospital of major organ failure - yet somehow he ‘escaped’ from his intensive care bed to play in the very strong Moscow Blitz Championship. His arrival in an emancipated state stunned everyone; even more stunned though was his first round opponent, Garry Kasparov, who succumbed to a typical Tal queen sacrifice, as our frail hero beat the world champion. This was to be Tal’s swan song, and a month later he died in the same intensive care bed he escaped from to play in his final blitz tournament.
And Tal’s love of blitz inadvertently led to a change in a boring chess tradition in elite tournaments. Previously, the pairings had been determined by drawing of lots, often in quite ornate ways - one memorable occasion being in 1989 in Skellefteå, Sweden, with the lots on the bottom of a selection of gold bars, and the players were warned just beforehand that the bars were too heavy to be picked up with one hand.
England's Dr John Nunn tells the amusing story that immediately Kasparov saw this as a challenge to his masculinity even before the tournament had started and he began flexing his right hand, determined to draw his lot one handed. He tried, but failed and had to use both hands. Lajos Portisch, despite being 60, was known to work-out throughout his life, and he simply picked his bar up with one hand.
But when it came to poor Misha Tal's turn, he was so frail with the many illnesses that had plagued him throughout his life, that he needed help from one of the nearby official to pick his gold bar up.
But at the 7th Tal Memorial Tournament in Moscow in 2012, they held the Blitz Tournament at the start of the tournament, rather than being tagged on as a ‘fun event’ at the end as they usually did, and the finishing order would determine their lot numbers - and this new tradition honouring Tal has now more or less become the standard, with the players deciding the pairing order themselves in elite events by doing battle in blitz on the eve of the tournament.
And winning the latest Tal Memorial Blitz Tournament for the bonus of a preferential pairing number and an extra White is Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who was in top form to dominate with his unbeaten score of 7.5/9, a full two-points clear of his nearest rival.
Tal Memorial Blitz: 1. Mamedyarov 7.5/9; 2. Aronian 5.5; 3-5. Svidler, Giri, Nepomniachtchi 5; 6. Kramnik 4.5; 7. Anand 3.5; 8-10. Li Chao, Tomashevsky, Gelfand 3.
GM Vladimir Kramnik - GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
10th Tal Memorial Blitz, (4)
1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5 g6 4.c3 Bg7 5.Nbd2 0-0 6.e3 Nbd7 7.Be2 Re8 8.0-0 e5 9.a4 a5 10.h3 c6 11.Rc1 Qe7 12.Qb3 Qe6 13.dxe5 Nxe5 14.Nxe5 Qxe5 15.Nf3 Qe7 16.c4 Be6 17.Nd4 dxc4 18.Bxc4 Bxc4 19.Rxc4 h6 20.Bxf6 You might wonder why Kramnik doesn't just keep the bishop with 20.Bh4? the trouble is that, after 20...g5 21.Bg3 Ne4! 22.Nf5 Qe6 23.Nxg7 Kxg7 the Black knight on e4 is by far the best piece on the board and dominates the position. So rather than this, Kramnik exchanges off that knight to prevent it gaining access to the wonderful e4 outpost. 20...Bxf6 21.Qc2 Rad8 Mamedyarov has a slightly better position, as both his rooks are centralised and his bishop has better long-term prospects than Kramnik's knight - though there's really not much in the position. If this weren't a blitz game, I would expect the game to be a draw - but the time-factor of blitz changes everything. 22.Nb3 Rd5! Defending ...a5 and indirectly preventing Kramnik's knight hopping into c5. 23.e4 Tempting was 23.Nc5 but it all but loses on the spot to 23...b5! and White is losing at least a piece, as after 24.Re4 the knight on c5 becomes overworked. If it moves now, then ...Bh2+ wins at least the exchange. And if 24...Be5! 25.Rc1 f5 there's no squares for the rook. And if White tries to just 'sit' on the position with 23.Rc1 then comes 23...Red8 and Black controls the only open file on the board. 23...Re5 Now the e-file comes under enormous pressure from Black's 'heavy furniture' of queen and rooks. 24.Re1 You may think this looks wrong, as it puts White into a self-pin on the e-file, and wonder what was wrong with 24.f3? defending the pawn. The answer is that White will become chronically weak on the dark-squares around his king, and the Black forces will easily mount a threatening attack with his queen and bishop. So in playing Re1, Kramnik is trying to prevent this dark-square threat towards his king. 24...g5 Stopping f4. 25.Re3 Kh8 Mamedyarov wants to pressure Kramnik with the push ...f5, but first he plays a little safety move to remove his king out of any possible checks on the c4-g8 diagonal (and, perhaps, a saving Qg6+). 26.g3 Bg7 Clearing the runway for ...f5. 27.Nd4 Kramnik could have tried preventing ...f5 forever with 27.g4 - but again, there would be long-term consequences to deal with on those vulnerable dark-squares around his kingside. He instead opts to try and go for an endgame he can try to save, albeit he will lose a pawn. 27...Rxe4 28.Nxc6 Rxc4 29.Qxc4 Qd7 30.Rxe8+ Qxe8 31.Na7 Bxb2 32.Nb5 Qe1+ Also good was 32...Qd7! taking a stake on the white-squares while his bishop dominates the dark-squares. 33.Kg2 There's not much in this ending when the queens come off the board, but I imagine that by now time was playing a big factor in the game, and it is not so easy to play a simple ending a pawn down. 33...Qe6 34.Qxe6 fxe6 35.Kf3 Kg7 36.Ke4 Kf6 37.Nd6 b6 Despite being a pawn down, Kramnik has defended well - but the ever-present blitz time pressure sees him blundering. 38.Nc4 Bc3 39.Nxb6 Be1 40.Ke3 When you are behind in an ending, a good rule of thumb is to try and complicate matters by creating your own passed pawn - and here, Kramnik could have played 40.Nc4 Bxf2 41.Nxa5 Bxg3 42.Nc6! forcing Black into 42...h5, where Black has to exchange off White's h-pawn or he could well lose the game: 43.a5 g4 44.hxg4 hxg4 45.Ke3 Be1! 46.a6 g3 47.Kf3 (Not 47.a7? g2! and suddenly it becomes awkward for White; probably losing.) 47...Bf2 48.a7 Bxa7 49.Nxa7 and a draw. 40...Ke5 41.f4+ gxf4+ 42.gxf4+ Kd6 43.Ke4 Time changes everything, as the Merle Haggard song goes. Kramnik had an easy draw, by tieing his opponent's bishop down to defending the all-important a-pawn with 43.Ke2 Bb4 44.Kd3 Kc6 (44...Be1 45.Ke2 Bb4 46.Kd3 Be1 47.Ke2 etc.) 45.Nc4 Kc5 46.Ne5 Be1 47.Nd7+ Kd6 48.Nf6 Kc5 49.Nd7+ Kd6 (If Black goes for the a-pawn, then his e-pawn falls and an easy draw 49...Kb4 50.Nf8 Kxa4 51.Nxe6 Kb5 52.Nd4+ Kb6 53.Kc4 drawing.) 50.Ne5 Kc5 51.Nd7+ with a draw. However, faced with his digital clock metaphorically ticking down, Kramnik picks the wrong option. 43...Kc5 44.Nd7+ Kb4 (See Diagram) 45.Ke5? The only chance to realistically hang on was 45.Ne5! Kxa4 46.Nc6 Kb3 47.Nxa5+! Bxa5 48.f5! exf5+ 49.Kxf5 and then march your king to that wonderful white corner of h1 with a technically drawn ending, as the bishop is the wrong colour to win. 45...Bd2 46.h4?? One blunder usually begets another in a frantic blitz time scramble....and sure enough, Kramnik obliges. There was still saving hope after 46.Kxe6 Bxf4 47.Nb6 Kc5 (47...Bg3 48.Kd5 Bc7 49.Nc4! and again, the knight will sacrifice itself on a5 and the king marches to the safety of a technical draw by heading to h1.) 48.Nd7+ Kb4 49.Nb6 with some saving chances. 46...Kxa4 0-1 Kramnik resigns, as now if 47.Kxe6 Kb5 48.Kd5 a4 the knight can't get around the board in time to sacrifice itself for the running a-pawn.