A blog post dedicated to the Fischer-Taimanov Candidates’ Quarter-final, with translations of the annotations to the games, by Tal and Moiseev, from ‘64‘ and Chess in the USSR.
Bobby Fischer came into the series of Candidates’ matches in utterly dominant form. Six months previously, in his last appearance, he had won the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal tournament by a clear 3½ points, scoring 18½/23 (+15, -1, =7) and defeating Taimanov in their original encounter (you can read more on that game, and the event in Palma, here). Although he ominously won his last seven straight games (admittedly, the final one by default), no-one could have predicted the whitewash that was to follow in Vancouver. Indeed, both Tal and Botvinnik were on record before the match as stating that there was no question of Fischer being guaranteed the win.
The 6th game of the match in progress (credit: unknown).
The match, which was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was to be played over 10 games, with the first player to reach 5½ points progressing to the semi-final stage.
Many years later, Taimanov would recall, in an interview with French grandmaster Joel Lautier for the ChessBase website:
Until the match with Fischer in 1971, everything went smoothly in my chess career. This dramatic match changed my life into hell…
As Fischer himself admitted at the time, the final score did not reflect the true balance of strength. The terrible feeling that I was playing against a machine which never made any mistake shattered my resistance. Fischer would never concede any weakening of his position, he was an incredibly tough defender. The third game proved to be the turning point of the match. After a pretty tactical sequence, I had managed to set my opponent serious problems. In a position that I considered to be winning, I could not find a way to break through his defences. For every promising idea, I found an answer for Fischer, I engrossed myself in a very deep think which did not produce any positive result. Frustrated and exhausted, I avoided the critical line in the end and lost the thread of the game, which led to my defeat eventually.
[As a result of the result in Vancouver] The sanctions from the Soviet government were severe. I was deprived of my civil rights, my state salary was taken away from me, I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press. It was unthinkable for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an American, without a political explanation…
Mark Taimanov, pictured in Vancouver at the time of the match (photo: New York Times).
In reality, the root of the extraordinary result was psychological rather than political. Taimanov had played well in the 1st match-game, but indecisive play prior to the time control led to his defeat. In the 2nd match-game Fischer played a model game with the white pieces against Taimanov’s patented variation in the Sicilian, and achieved a winning position at the first adjournment, with a clear extra pawn. However, far from playing in machine-like fashion, the American treated the position superficially and allowed his opponent to reach a clearly-drawn position by the time the game was adjourned for a second time at the 73rd move.
Before the 2nd game was played to a finish, the 3rd game – which did indeed prove to be a pivotal point in the match – took place. The key moment arrived after Black’s 19th move. In his notes in ‘64‘, Tal went so far as to say that Taimanov’s failure to decide on 20.Qh3 – the ‘critical line’ referred to in his interview – in fact cost him 1½ points.
The position after 19…Kh8 in the 3rd match-game.
In his annotations to this game published many years later, Taimanov explained that while examining this and other continuations for fully 72 minutes, he was seized by a feeling of despair – perhaps Fischer really was invulnerable?!. His eventual choice of 20.Nf3? proved disastrous, and his position soon proved to be lost.
Grandmaster Aleksandr Kotov, who was present at the match as part of the Soviet entourage, was later quoted as saying:
It is an undisputed fact that Fischer’s personality had a strong effect on his opponent. In Vancouver I carefully observed Taimanov and Fischer at the board. I myself was distinguished all my life by even an excessive chess boldness (which was often a hindrance to me), and I feared no-one. But, to be honest, if I had had to play against Fischer, I would no doubt have felt intimidated. That long, fanatical face, perpetually impending over the board, the burning eyes, the remoteness from the outside world. Those long fingers, removing your pawns and pieces from the board… That is how Fischer’s opponents lose control of themselves.
Evidently suffering from a complete lack of confidence, and still distracted by ‘what might have been’ in the 3rd game, Taimanov lost the adjourned 2nd match-game from a trivially drawn position. Even after playing in uncertain fashion after the resumption, there was still a simple draw to be had as late as the 81st move.
The position after 81.Kxf6 in the third session of the 2nd match-game.
In the position in the above diagram Black draws easily after 81…Nd3 or 81…Kd6 (82.Bc8 Nf3, etc.). Taimanov’s 81…Ke4?? allowed the white h-pawn to advance after 82.Bc8!, and the score became 3:0. As Tal pointed out in ‘64‘, the Leningrad grandmaster’s seconds were clearly at fault here in not having found a clear path to a draw in their analysis of the adjourned position.
After a textbook victory by Fischer in the 4th game, a still more incredible turn of events unfolded in the 5th. Taimanov had been pressing for much of the opening and early middle-game, but with impeccable defensive play Fischer had managed to steer the game towards a drawn major-piece ending by the time the game was adjourned at the 41st move. Yet only five moves into the second session, in a position that must surely have been considered in home analysis, Taimanov blundered a whole rook.
The position before 46.Rxf6?? – 46…Qd4+ 47.Rf2 Ra1+ wins a rook and the game.
Tal, in ‘64‘, called the move 46.Rxf6 ‘unbelievable’. It is indeed difficult to recall a more shocking blunder in such a critical situation, coming so soon after the resumption of the game. According to Fischer’s biographer Frank Brady, after the end of this game Taimanov left the playing hall “…dazed, almost in tears”. He later called it “probably the most painful game” in his long career.
Taimanov put up little resistance in the 6th game of the match, and the result – 6:0 – went into the history books. Fischer went on to face Larsen in the Candidates’ semi-final – you can read about that match here.
Translations of the annotations to the games of the match can be downloaded at the URLs below:
The games are annotated by Tal in ’64’ (№ 21, № 22 & № 23, 1971) and by Moiseev in Shakhmaty v SSSR (№ 9, 1971).
Taimanov’s analysis of the crucial 3rd match game is presented in depth in Taimanov’s Selected Games (Cadogan Press, 1995) – translated & edited by Ken Neat.
Some background to the match is provided in Frank Brady’s Bobby Fischer – Profile of a Prodigy (New York, 1973). Greater detail is given in Dmitry Plisetsky & Sergei Voronkov’s Russians Versus Fischer (Everyman Chess, 2005) – the Kotov quotation is from this source; the translation is by Ken Neat.