The draw for the quarter-finals of the 1980 Candidates’ series pitted Lev Polugaevsky against his old adversary, Mikhail Tal. Both had qualified from the Riga Interzonal, where Tal had taken first place, a full 3½ points clear of the field, in one of the greatest victories of his later career. Indeed, that success had lifted the ex-World Champion to No. 2 in the FIDE rating list of January 1980, 70 points clear of Polugaevsky.
Nonetheless, it was difficult to say who was favourite to progress to the semi-final of the Candidates. Despite the fact that Tal had gained a crushing victory over Polugaevsky in Riga (and moreover, with the black pieces), his score v. the Moscow grandmaster in 21 games stretching back to the 1955 USSR Team Championship was ‘-3’ (+2, -5, =14).
The match took place in the capital of the Kazakh SSR, Alma-Ata (today known as Almaty). It was scheduled to take place over 10 games; the first player to score 5½ points would go through.
Polugaevsky was assisted by his seconds Evgeny Sveshnikov and Orest Averkin, while Tal had among his helpers the Latvian master Alvis Vītoliņš.
Coverage of the match in the Russian-language edition of Shakhmaty (Riga) (№ 11, 1980)
After being delayed by Tal’s ill health, the match finally got under way in Alma-Ata’s House of Officers on 24th April. Tal did not really get going in the 1st game. With the black pieces, he chose an opening – the Makogonov-Bondarevsky system in the Queen’s Gambit Declined – with which he had very little experience; indeed, it seems he had only played it on two previous occasions. One of those was against Polugaevsky in the 46th USSR Championship (Tbilisi, 1978), where the game had ended in a draw. On this occasion, however, Polugaevsky played simply and strongly, and Tal soon found himself in difficulties. White traded two minor pieces for Black’s rook and pawn, and in the resultant situation Tal himself assessed his position as lost. He adjourned in a hopeless position and resigned the game without resuming once it became clear that Polugaevsky had sealed the strongest move.
Tal had White in the 2nd game. He was known for his attachment to the move 6.Bg5 against the Najdorf Variation. Thus, the scene was set for the appearance of Polugaevsky’s eponymous variation, (6…e6 7.f4 b5!?), about which he had written an entire book -‘The Birth of a Variation’, which had appeared three years earlier. Tal sprung an opening surprise as early as the 10th move – 10.Bxb5+!? – a suggestion of his second Vītoliņš that was not even considered in Polugaevsky’s book. The play followed prepared analysis for some time, until at the 26th move a critical position was reached:
Here Tal continued 26.Ng4?, when the three-move tactic 26.Qd3+ Qf5 27.Qg3+ Qg5 28.Qb3 (hitting a4 and e6) would have given him excellent winning chances. After various adventures the game was adjourned in a position that, despite Black’s extra piece, should have been drawn with correct play. Howeve, Tal went wrong after the resumption and went down to a second successive defeat.
The 3rd match-game turned out to be a colourless draw, with Tal improving on his play in the 1st game. The 4th saw a return to the battlefield of the Polugaevsky variation. On this occasion the ex-World Champion played a recognised line, but introduced a novelty at the 16th move. Fantastic complications soon arose after Tal offered a rook with 18.Rxf5!.
Polugaevsky defended very coolly, however, making use of all the tactical resources at his disposal, and Tal could find no way through, despite thinking for around an hour over his 21st move. In the end, it was Polugaevsky who missed a probable win, and in sharp mutual time-trouble the players agreed a draw shortly before the time control.
The 5th game took place after an interval of six days, after both players made use of one of their permitted ‘time-outs’. Tal switched to the more aggressive King’s Indian, but in the Classical System he avoided the critical lines of the ‘Mar del Plata’ variation, in favour of the solid, but somewhat passive, exchange 11…fxe4. A draw was soon agreed. Thus, at the half-way point the score was 3½:1½ in favour of Polugaevsky. Tal could not afford to lose more than 1½ points in the final five games.
In the 6th game, perhaps wisely, Polugaevsky avoided a further dispute in the Sicilian Najdorf, choosing instead the more solid Taimanov system. Tal gained absolutely nothing from the opening, and had Polugaevsky not gone wrong at the 30th move, it could have been a model game from Black’s point of view. As it was, the result was another draw.
The 7th game saw Tal ‘go for broke’, choosing the critical main line – the ‘Mar del Plata’ variation – in the classical King’s Indian. However, he mishandled the position in the middlegame and his attacking attempts came to nought. Polugaevsky won the game in convincing fashion. With the score now at 5:2, the match was effectively over. The final game saw another Taimanov Sicilian; White again went all-out for the win but a draw was agreed at the 33rd move in a position where Black had an overwhelming advantage.
Thus, a comfortable win for Polugaevsky, who went through to face Viktor Korchnoi in the semi-final (you can read more about that match here).
The games of the match were later annotated in the Soviet Latvian publication Shakhmaty and in the newspaper ‘64‘. Translations of the annotations to the critical games can be downloaded at the following links:
The game annotations appear in Shakhmaty (Riga) (№ 11 & № 12, 1980) and in ‘64‘ (No. 9, 1980).
Background on the development of Polugaevsky’s eponymous variation of the Sicilian Defence is given in his remarkable book Rozhdenie Varianta (Fizkultura i Sport, Moscow 1977); an English translation by Ken Neat was published by Pergamon Press in 1980.