Between Tuesday 15th March 1960 and Saturday 7th May 1960 the current World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, defends his title for the fourth time. His opponent this time is the young, flamboyant and uncompromising Latvian, Mikhail Tal. The contest is scheduled over 24 games, with the winner the first to reach 12½ points; or in the event of a 12-12 draw, Botvinnik retains his World Championship title.
The contrast between the challenger and the champion is stark. The colossus of chess, the father of the Russian school of chess against her newest protégé. The strategic, focused, inexorable pressure against the cavalier or swashbuckling risk-taker.
Mikhail Tal qualified as challenger through the most difficult route. Winner of the 1958 USSR Championship (for the second time), second in the Portoroz Interzonal, and out-distanced the remarkable Paul Keres in the Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade hosted Candidates Tournament. At 23 Tal is the youngest challenger to the World Champion.
Mikhail Botvinnik, the reigning World Champion has held the title for 12 years, albeit with a short one year break to Smyslov. As the anointed patriach of Russian chess, his annexing of the title in 1948 was a convincing display of the superiority of the Russian approach, outscoring Keres and Smylov, and well ahead of the Western contingent of Euwe and Reshevsky.
Yet, Botvinnik's three defences of his title have been stodgy confrontations. Two drawn matches, and one loss to Smyslov. He admirably overcame his great rival Smyslov in the 1958 return match to reclaim his title.
Botvinnik's play through these matches has been solid. He is remorseless with the initiative, and equally remorseless in endings where he has the slightest of advantages. His nickname of the Iron Logician demands and delivers such precision. Though in matches Botvinnik has shown occasional lapses, and outright blunders; overlooking tactical fine points, or losing the thread of play in complex positions. Mostly this is down to his lack of regular practice, Botvinnik seems content to just play World Championship matches.
Tal's performances, on the other hand, are a breath of fresh air. He revels in tactical play, whether it be simple positions with an initiative, or relishing in intuitive sacrificial play in complicated positions. His natural inclination is to attack and take control.
The richness of the match ahead will be a continual battle between whether Botvinnik can keep Tal's fantasy play in check, or whether Tal can burst the bonds of strategic play and give himself the room for a rapier-series of tactics and combinations.
If Botvinnik succeeds in stemming Tal's natural flair, then the match becomes a test of Tal's courage under fire. If Tal cannot be tamed, we could have the thrilling spectacle of a reigning World Champion consumed by raging fire. Expect upsets both ways, as tactical strikes and misfires reverse expected results, or expect one way traffic as Botvinnik asserts his will on Tal and converts one remorseless win after the other.
However, Tal's successes have mostly been in tournament conditions. He is relatively inexperienced in matchplay, so he may find facing the same opponent day-after-day may drain his appetite for confrontation.
Tal's inexperience and immaturity compared to Botvinnik's long track record must put Botvinnik ahead in retaining his title. But there's 24 games that need to be negotiating, the first being today, 12th March 1960.
In the drawing of lots two days ago Tal gained opportunity to start off with the White pieces. And he's already promised to play 1. e4.
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