Mikhail Tal at the ‘Tournament of Stars’ (Montréal, 1979).

A blog post featuring annotations to five of Tal’s victories (v. Spassky – twice!, Larsen, Hübner & Portisch) from the ‘Tournament of Stars’ (Montréal, 1979), together with some background on the tournament.

1978 - URS-ch46 Tbilisi - Georgadze-Tal

Mikhail Tal in play at the 46th USSR Championship, Tbilisi, December 1978 (Photo: TASS)

Mikhail Tal’s career famously featured many ups and downs (you can read about some of them in this blog post).  The year 1979 was one of his very best.  As a result of his play, his Elo rating rose to 2705 (perhaps comparable to ~2800 today), taking him to the number two spot in the rating list of January 1980, only 20 points behind the then World Champion, Anatoly Karpov.

Tal began the year with a share of 2nd place in the traditional Keres Memorial tournament in Tallinn, finishing a half-point behind the winner, Tigran Petrosian.  A couple of months later, he was in Québec.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the émigré Czech grandmaster Lubosh Kavalek and Roger Lemelin (CEO of the Québécois newspaper La Presse and, besides a writer and journalist, a keen amateur chess-player), an exceptionally strong ten-player double-round-robin event – dubbed the ‘Tournament of Stars’, was to be held in the city of Montréal from April 10th until May 7th.  Lemelin was a well-connected figure, close to the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; together, they had sought to establish cultural contacts between Canada and the USSR.  Among those promoting the tournament were the city’s mayor’s office, the provincial government, the national airline, two national newspapers and a large Montréal hotel (Le Méridien).

Viktor Korchnoi was not among the participants; in the years following his defection from the USSR (background on this is available here), Soviet players declined to take part in any events with him outside of the FIDE World Championship cycle.  However, his absence meant that three former world champions (Anatoly Karpov, Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal) were included in the line-up, as well as the top-flight grandmasters Lajos Portisch (Hungary), Bent Larsen (Denmark), Jan Timman (Netherlands), Vlastimil Hort (ČSSR), Robert Hübner (BRD), Lubomir Kavalek (USA) and Ljubomir Ljubojević (Yugoslavia).  The chief arbiter of the event was Svetozar Gligorić (Yugoslavia).  The Elo ratings of the participants meant that the tournament was a Category XV event – one of the strongest ever to have been held at that time.

Gligoric & Kavalek, Montreal 1979 (Huffington Post)

Svetozar Gligorić & Lubosh Kavalek, at Montréal 1979 (Photo: Huffington Post)

The tournament was held at the Québec Pavillion on Notre Dame Island in the Saint Lawrence River.  The prize-fund for the event was $110,000 – a considerable figure for the time.  Though the tournament lasted a month, interest in it among the public remained high, with four hundred spectators regularly filling the hall.

Tal got off to a magnificent start, defeating his old rival Boris Spassky in the opening round.  Remarkably, in 25 years of their meetings at the chessboard, this was the first time that Tal had defeated Spassky with the white pieces.  After drawing the next four games, he then demolished Bent Larsen in only 22 moves.  Nevertheless, after the first half of the tournament, it was Karpov who held the lead with 6½/9, a half-point ahead of Tal and Portisch.

If any confirmation were needed that Tal was finding his best form, it came in the first game of the second cycle.  This time with the black pieces, he scored a crushing victory against Boris Spassky (again, in only 22 moves).


Spassky v. Tal, the final position after 22…Ng4!

Solid wins against Hübner and his rival Portisch followed, and thanks to Karpov’s loss against Bent Larsen in the 12th round, with 15 of the 18 rounds played, Tal was a half-point clear in first place.  However, the World Champion made up the deficit by winning v. Ljubojević in the penultimate round, so that 1st-2nd places were ultimately shared.

Montreal 1979

Tal later commented on his wins v. Spassky and Larsen in the Soviet newspaper ’64’.  His victories v. Hübner and Portisch were annotated (by Sergey Makarychev and Ratmir Kholmov, respectively) in Shakhmaty v SSSR.

Translations of these annotations are available to download here:

Tal-Spassky, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Tal)

Tal-Larsen, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Tal)

Spassky-Tal, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Tal)

Tal-Huebner, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Kholmov)

Tal-Portisch, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Makarychev)

Tal-Portisch, Montreal 1979 (annotated by Tal)


1979 - Montreal - La Presse (via chesspro.ru)

(Article from the Québécoi newspaper La Presse, announcing the victory of Tal & Karpov.)

Together with the journalists Aleksandr Roshal and Viktor Chepizhnyi, Tal later wrote a book on the event – Turnir Zvezd, Monreal’ 1979, which was subsequently translated into English and published by Pergamon Press.


After his victory in Montréal, Tal’s good form continued as he defeated Dragoljub Velimirović 2½-1½ on top board of the traditional friendly match between Yugoslavia and the USSR, which that year was held in the Bosnian town of Teslić.  In July, playing on 1st board for the Latvian Republic in the 7th USSR People’s Spartakiad in Moscow, he played fairly disappointingly, losing to the young master from Kyrgyzstan, Leonid Yurtaev and winning only one of his remaining games.  A short training match with Albert Kapengut followed, and then in the autumn of 1979 the stage was set for one his greatest triumphs, the FIDE Interzonal tournament in his home town of Riga, where he scored 14/17 (+11, -0, =6), outpacing the field by 2½ points.  Sadly, as so often, Tal was unable to maintain his sparkling form – he played poorly in the 47th USSR Championship in Minsk at the end of the year, and in the Candidates’ Quarter-final match in Alma Ata in the spring of 1980, he was convincingly defeated by the runner-up in Riga, Lev Polugaevsky.



Details on the organisation of the tournament in Montréal, and the press clipping, are from a 2009 article by K. Berdnikov, published on www.chesspro.ru.

Tal’s annotations are from ‘64‘ (№. 16 & №. 18, 1979).  The annotations by Makarychev and Kholmov are from Shakhmaty v SSSR (№. 7 & №. 8, 1979).


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