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05 Dec

The Day the Music Died

Sadly, as we were all engrossed in the Carlsen-Karkjakin World Championship tussle in Manhattan, one of the former Soviet greats of the game passed away peacefully in his sleep in St. Petersburg: the multi-talented Mark Taimanov, an acclaimed virtuoso pianist and former Soviet chess champion, who perhaps will somewhat cruelly be best remembered in the annals for his lopsided loss to Bobby Fischer in 1971 - a traumatic loss that cost him his standing, government salary and his marriage. 

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After 24.Rd6!

Before his death at the age of 90, Taimanov was the world’s second oldest grandmaster (only his compatriot, Yury Averbakh was older, by four years), and both were the only two survivors left from the great Candidates Tournament in 1953 in Zurich, where he tied for eighth place.  From 1946 to 1956, he was among the world’s top ten players.  He played in 23 USSR Championships (a record he shared with Efim Geller), tying for first place twice.  In 1952 he lost the playoff match to Mikhail Botvinnik, while in 1956, he beat Averbakh and Boris Spassky for the title.  

But Taimanov is unique, as unlike his many mono-maniacal colleagues, he combined two parallel careers as a world-class player and professional concert pianist, and was able to switch seamlessly from one creative outlet to another. He played as part of a duet team with his first wife, Lyubov Bruk - and in 2000, both were immortalised in the Philips CD series 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century', which included 200 compact discs, the Taimanovs being the only duo in the set. 

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He met all the great players of his time, and few in the game have beaten six world champions (Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Karpov) as Taimanov did; and he also played chess with several historical personalities of his era, such as Winston Churchill, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro.

After reaching his peak in the mid-1950s, Taimanov later qualified again for the Candidates’ matches, but famously had the misfortune to face a rampant Bobby Fischer in 1971 in Vancouver, who went on to win 6-0 en route to capturing the world crown from the Soviets. “This dramatic match changed my life into hell,” Taimanov later said in a 2002 interview.

On his return home from Vancouver, a border search was ordered on Taimanov, and it proved incriminating. He was carrying US dollars, payment for an article for a Dutch magazine written by his friend and trainer Salo Flohr, and worse of all at the time, a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. While his internal exile lasted only two years, the consequences affected his chess life and the added stress was also said to have contributed heavily to the ending of his marriage to Ms. Bruk; and with it, their musical collaboration died.

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Taimanov never got another shot at the title because he never again qualified for the Candidates'. However, later in life, in the early 1990s, he did though capture two back-to-back World Senior titles.  Taimanov was also a welcomed guest at many elite tournaments, where he would often delight chess fans by playing the piano, such as this photo I captured of the maestro tinkling the ivories in 2001 at Wijk aan Zee.

GM Mark Taimanov - GM Yuri Averbakh
Zurich Candidates 1953
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Rubinstein Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 The Rubinstein Variation was practically de rigour for White during the era this game was played. 4...0-0 5.Bd3 d5 6.Nf3 b6 7.0-0 Bb7 8.a3 Bxc3 9.bxc3 dxc4 10.Bxc4 In the Rubinstein, generally White will get the two bishops - but his dark-squared bishop is hemmed in, and Black tries to stop it from finding activity. 10...c5 11.Bd3 Nbd7 12.Re1 Ne4 Stopping White getting in e4 and activating the dark-squared bishop. 13.Bb2 Rc8 14.c4 Ndf6? In his Zurich 1953 book, David Bronstein was critical of this move. Instead, he suggested 14...Rc7 with the idea of ...Qa8, ...Rfc8 and...Nf8. 15.Ne5 Rc7 16.a4! Before embarking on a kingside foray, Taimanov creates the opportunity to damage Black's queenside pawns, that could well offer further possibilities later in the game for his rooks. 16...Nd6 17.a5 Nd7 18.axb6 axb6 19.Qh5! Taimanov seizes his chance to weaken Black on both sides of the board - he has good queenside play against his opponent's pawns, and now a clear line of attack on the kingside. Something has to give. 19...g6 20.Qh6 Nxe5 Averbakh opts to resolve sooner, rather than later, any possible chances of an X-ray mating attack on g7. 21.dxe5 Ne4 22.Bxe4! The best practical choice to keep the momentum of the attack going. If Taimanov retreats his bishop, then 22...Qd2 and suddenly Averbakh is the one looking to win. 22...Bxe4 23.Red1 Rd7 24.Rd6! Taking full advantage of the X-ray mating attack on g7 to completely dominate the d-file. 24...Bb7 If 24...Rxd6 25.exd6 f6 26.Ra7 is decisive. And if 24...Qc7 25.Qf4! gains a valuable tempo by attacking the bishop. 25.Rad1 Rxd6 26.exd6 f6 27.d7 Bc6 If 27...e5 28.Rd6! is very strong, as Black can't play 28...Qc7 or 28...Qe7, as 29.Qxf8+ forces the matter. And if 28...Rf7 29.Qh3! 28.h4 While 28.Qxf8+ looks spectacular, it backfires as Black can escape into the notoriously drawn opposite-color bishop ending after 28...Kxf8 29.Bxf6 Qxd7! 30.Rxd7 Bxd7 and a likely draw here. 28...Bxd7 29.h5 gxh5? A tougher nut for Taimanov to crack may well have been 29...g5!? 30.f4! (Not 30.Bxf6? Rxf6 31.Rxd7 (If 31.Qxg5+ Kf7 32.h6 Ke8! and the king is escaping to safety while keeping the sacrificed material.) 31...Qxd7 32.Qxf6 Qd1+ 33.Kh2 Qxh5+ with a draw) 30...gxf4 (Remarkably, if 30...g4 White's winning plan is simply 31.Kh2- g3 for an endgame win: 31...Rf7 32.Bxf6! Rxf6 33.Rxd7! Rxh6 (Now there's no perpetual after 33...Qxd7 34.Qxf6) 34.Rxd8+ Kf7 35.Kg3 Rxh5 36.Rd1! and White wins the rook and pawn ending.) 31.exf4 Rf7 32.Rd3! and Black's only hope is to head for the worse ending after 32...Qf8 33.Qxf8+ Kxf8 34.Rb3. 30.e4! Suddenly the threat is simply Rd3-g3 mating. 30...e5 31.f4 exf4 Black is now lost as 31...Qe7 falls to 32.fxe5 fxe5 33.Bxe5! Qxe5 34.Rxd7 Qa1+ 35.Kh2 Qe5+ 36.Kh3 and Black has run out of checks and lives. 32.Rd6 Qe8 33.Bxf6 Rf7 34.Rd5! 1-0 Averbakh resigns, as now Rg5+ mating can't be stopped without a heavy loss of material.  

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