Special thanks go to Phil Innes and to Boris Yeshan (Russian Chess) both for arranging the writing of this column with GM Taimanov, and also for their work translating the original text into English.

Today’s game is from the famous 1971 World Championship Quarterfinal Candidates Match between GM Taimanov and then-future World Champion Bobby Fischer.

A Defeat Which Could Not Be Forgotten

The chess player’s way – from beginner to super-class grandmaster – is not just strewn with roses; afflictions, to a greater or lesser extent, occur to everyone who sits down at the chessboard.  They are connected with inevitable defeats in both overall competitions and in separate games.  It is impossible to get used to this, alas…

Certainly disappointments are not all the same.  Some failures are not so painful and hence quickly forgotten; others remain in the memory for a long time.

I can admit with full frankness that in my more than semi-centennial chess career, the distressful match of 1971 with Robert Fischer was the most dramatic experience, and the third game of this duel was the most bitter defeat. I will share my memories with present admirers of chess creativity.

Taimanov,M (2620) – Fischer,R (2740) [E97]
Candidates qf3 Vancouver (3), 21.05.1971

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 e5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7

I had no doubts that this position will appear in our match, and probably my opponent had similar expectations.  Both of us belonged to a category of polemists of principle, ready to assert our belief in the King’s Indian ‘tableau’, which was always a favorite weapon for me with White and for Fischer with Black.

But who would have the first opportunity to present a prepared surprise?


Fischer might have expected here 9.Ne1, 9.Nd2, or 9.b4, which had repeatedly featured in my games.  I worked out with my second especially for this match this calm developing move with the Bishop, which has the goal of prompt mobilization of forces of the queenside.


Fischer was always most versed in opening subtleties of his favorite systems. He certainly knew that a conventional maneuver 9…Nh5 here is inexpedient in view of 10.g3 f5 11.exf5 Bxf5 12.Ng5 Nf6 13.g4 Bd7 14.Nge4 Nxe4 15.Nxe4.


The move 10.b4 has been frequently tested here, however I rejected it as superfluous to the scheme I had prepared.


This position was already essayed in our first game of the match.  There I played 11.exf5 and then 11…gxf5 12.Ng5 h6 13.Ne6 Bxe6 14.dxe6 Qc8 15.Qb3 c6 led to a double-edged position with mutual chances.  That game proceeded fascinatingly, the scales inclined to one side then the other several times.  I was the last to make a mistake in time trouble and lost the game, but it was obvious that the opening conversation had not been exhausted, and that the discussion would be continued.  So, it happened.


My innovation comes first!  This follows my preparation for the duel!  The main idea from the first game remains: transfer the knight to e6 followed by opening the center, but the text sharply enlivens the tactical set-up.  The Queen from b3 ‘X-rays’ the Black King, and simultaneously ‘looks’ at the b7-pawn, which could be vulnerable to capture after an eventual exchange of the bishop for the e6-knight.  The theoretical dispute with Fischer has found a new impulse!


Fischer thought on this reply for a long time (which testifies to the advantage obtained by his opponent’s home preparation) and probably came to the conclusion of the necessity of first stopping the advance c4-c5, which promotes White’s chances to open the strategically important c-file.  Subsequently analysts put forward alternative ideas of merit – 11. f4 (I. Boleslavsky) and 11… Kh8 (M. Tal).

12.exf5 gxf5

It is always basic with Fischer.  With 12… Nxf5 or 12… Bxf5, White’s possession of the outpost e4 ensures a stable positional advantage.


The general plan in operation – the knight is aiming at e6.


In case of 13…h6 14.Ne6 Bxe6 15.dxe6 Qc8 (or 15…c6 16.Bh5!) a highly advantageous continuation for White is 16.Nd5 Qxe6 17.Nxe7+ Qxe7 18.c5+ Kh8 19.cxd6 Nxd6 (or 19…cxd6 20.Rfd1) 20.Rc6!, confirmed by my game with M. Tseitlin played two years later.


An important part of the preconceived plan, whose value Fischer apparently underestimated…


Fischer trusts in the reliability of Black’s formation and bravely enters uncompromising conflict. More circumspect, but also more “yielding” would have been 14…e4.  However in this case White gains obvious positional advantages by way of 15.Nd1 h6 16.Nh3 followed by Ne3, Nf2 and Bc3.  Such conformism is alien to Fischer and he never opted for such passive continuations.

15.fxe5! dxe5

Certainly Fischer must not have liked the continuation 15…hxg5 16.exf6 Bxf6 17.Bh5.


But I think this blow turned out to be an unexpected and distressing surprise for Fischer.  The battery of white pieces has come into action!  However, had I been in a less martial mood, I might have contented myself with the quiet 16.Nf3, maintaining White’s doubtless positional plusses.


It is obvious that the alternative 16…hxg5 17.d6+ Kh8 18.dxe7 Qxe7 19.cxb6 axb6 20.Bxg5 was quite unattractive, as well as the reply 16…Kh8 in view of 17.d6!

Hand-to-hand fighting begins where courageous imagination, exact calculation and … strong nerves are required.  By the way, in this game, nerves “played pranks” on both players.  I remember, at one moment of the duel, when I rose from the table after making a move, and by customary habit, walked on the stage.  Fischer, having his meditation interrupted unexpectedly, turned to the chief arbiter Bozhidar Kazhic, through his “charge’ d’affaires” Ed. Edmondson, with the complaint that my walking disturbed him.  Kazhic delicately related this to me, adding that from his perspective he could not support Fischer’s claim as it was my right to walk on my own side of the stage.  But not wishing such a conflict, I offered a gentlemen’s compromise – if Bobby for his part would desist from his habit of beating out “a tattoo with his legs” under the table, I would abandon my walking on the stage…  Fischer agreed, a consensus was found…

But let us return to the game, which had entered a most dramatic phase.

17.Nxd5 Nxd5 18.cxb6 axb6

Certainly the continuation 18…hxg5 19.Bxg5 Qd6 20.b7 Bxb7 21.Qxb7 is not advantageous for Black.


The “Salt” of the large-scale tactical operation begun by White nine moves back!  All White’s pieces have occupied threatening positions, and the threat of eventually supplementing the attack with the addition of a bishop at c4 throws my opponent into emergency mode.


Perhaps the only means of defense. In case of 19…hxg5 20.Bc4 Kh8 21.Bxd5 f4 (or 21…g4) 22.Rc3! with the double threat of 23. Rh3+ and 23. Bxa8, which is impossible to prevent.

I do not stint on one more diagram as it not only reflects both the culmination and turning-point of this game, but the match as a whole.  Fischer himself later recognized it: “It was the turning point of the match.  Taimanov missed a win by 20. Qh3.”  It additionally serves as a reference point to all the subsequent and unpredictable dramatic peripeteias [ed. philosophical self-questioning, Aristotle] which befell me.

I remember that at that moment I felt a veritable ecstasy from the struggle – I estimated the position as rather advantageous.  I trusted in success, pleased at my good luck employing my opening preparation, and in the idea of rapid development of the initiative -and the maneuver 20. Qh3, for example.  Was it was possible to anticipate that all this would turn to ashes?!

Disappointment began from the moment when I, cheerfully having estimated the position, began to concretely calculate variations.  It was obvious that after 20.Qh3 Black in view of the threat 21. Rxh6+ has only two defenses – 20…Nf6 and 20…Rf6.  I began to examine them in the happy belief that any attempt to cover the gaping approaches to the Black King would be impossible.

The move 20…Nf6 really did not shake my optimism.  Variations found without any special work are: 20.Qh3 Nf6 21.Bc3 f4 ( other continuations are worse. For example, 21…Bd7 22.Ne6 Bxe6 23.Rxe6; or 21…Ng4 22.Rg6! Rf6 23.Qh5) 22.Qh4 Bb7 ( 22…Qe8 23.Bf3!) 23.Rd1 Qe7 24.Re6 Qc5+ 25.Kh1 are obviously developments to White’s benefit.

But I couldn’t find any decisive continuation on 20…Rf6 in any continuation.  First it seemed to me that good is 21.Qh5, but in testing it I didn’t like 21…Bd7! 22.Rxf6 Qxf6 23.Nf7+ Kh7 24.Nxh6 Bxh6 25.Bxh6 Qg6!.  The idea of 21.Nf7+ Rxf7 22.Bxh6 was entertained, but I found a refutation at once in 22…Bf6.  At last I found the best plan: 21.Bc4! when really, in view of 21…Rxc6 22.Nf7+, the White rook is impregnable.  Now 22.Rxf6 is simply threatened, and both replies 21…Bd7 22.Bxd5 and 21…Bb7 22.Rxf6 Qxf6 23.Rxf5 are poor.

It would seem that the required decision has held up to scrutiny, but is complicated by the response 21… f4.  To everything that I have here examined, alas, there was an objection:

On 22.Qh5 possible was 22…Bb7 23.Bxd5 (or 23.Rxf6 Qxf6) 23…Qxd5;
On 22.Qh4 – Bb7 23.Ne6 Qd7;
On 22.Qd3 – 22…hxg5 23.Rxf6 Bxf6;
And finally on 22.Qf3!? – Bb7! 23.Rxf6 (23.Ne6 Qd7! 24.Bxd5 Rxe6!) 23…Nxf6! 24.Nf7+ Kh7 25.Qxb7 (25.Bd3+ Kg8!) 25…Qxd2 26.Qxa8 Qd4+ 27.Kh1 Qxc4.

In all variations Fischer emerges in the clear.

It was amazing!  All my understanding of chess, all my experience and flair convinced me this position should be won, but concrete ways to victory did not appear.  Disappointed in 20. Qh3!, I began to evaluate other ideas – 20. Rd1, 20. Bc4, but also in vain.

And here I was, I will admit, seized by a helpless state of despair – “What is this Fischer, like?  Is he invulnerable or bewitched?”  Again I returned to the maneuver 20. Qh3, and again sorted through tens of variations, and again unsuccessfully.  And time passed, time-trouble approached.  As measured by the arbiters I had considered this position for 72 minutes!  Perhaps in the entire half-century of my performances I never spent so much time on one move!

And I was simply psychologically broken.  Energy had run low; there was apathy; nothing made sense, and I made the first move that came into my head, which, certainly, was losing…

So what is the truth?  Is it possible that the critical position is reliable for Black, and his backwardness in development can be defended?  Certainty is not present!  Chess is full of internal logic and when one side has an indisputable positional advantage, it should bear fruit.  In this case I failed to find the right decision over the board, camouflaged as it was in a pile of tempting opportunities.

But time passed, passion to resolve it ceased, and objective analysis yielded the following results.  It appears that by looking at the numerous branches, I probably wanted to achieve too much in the variation 20.Qh3 Rf6 21.Bc4 f4, and having lost objectivity (excessive optimism at times results in an over-estimation of chances!) overlooked a continuation which, although would not have brought me to the required forced win, nevertheless guaranteed an obviously better endgame.

Briefly, after the obligatory variation 20.Qh3 Rf6 21.Bc4 f4 it was necessary to play 22.Rxf6+ Bxh3 (On 22…Qxf6 decisive is 23.Qd3 Qxg5 24.Qxd5, and if 22…Nxf6 23.Nf7+ the game returns to the main variation.) 23.Nf7+ Kh7 24.Nxd8 Nxf6 (or 24…Bxf6 25.Nc6 Be6 26.Re1; and on 24…Rxd8 it is possible to play 25.Rc6 Bd7 26.Bd3+ Kh8 27.Rc2) 25.Nc6 Bf5 ( if 25…Ne4 26.Bd3 Bf5 27.Bc3!) 26.Nxe5 and here White has every reason to expect success.

I finished this analysis with a sigh of simplification and belief in the celebration of logic in chess.  But young Sergey Klimov once came to me for training (these days he is an international master) and … tried to challenge my final conclusions.  He tasked himself with independently estimating the critical position and after two-weeks of home research found a completely unexpected resource for Black.

On 20.Qh3 Rf6 21.Bc4 Sergey offered a paradoxical continuation: 21…Rxc6 22.Nf7+ Kh7 23.Nxd8 Rxc4

Black has a material deficit but his pieces are active, and the White Knight on d8 is in danger.  And in case of the natural 24.Nf7 Kg6! the impression is created that White should be content with a draw by way of 25.Nh8+ Kh7 26.Nf7 because after 25. Nxh6 Nf4 26. Bxf4 exf4 the initiative passes to Black…

I admit having no desire to reconcile myself with such a revolution of events, and it was necessary again to sit down to more formidable analysis. The hanging arrangement of my opponent’s pieces offered a clue to the decision of the problem.

Truly, from the position of the last diagram, after the forced introductory moves – 24.Nf7 Kg6 25.Nxh6 Nf4 (I could not find anything better for either side) the disharmony is evident not only of White’s position, (the queen and the knight under pressure) but also in his partner’s camp (the improvident position of the Black King, rooks on c4 and a8, and undeveloped c8-bishop).  How to capitalize on this?  The required chance is provided by the strike 26.Qf3!  The attack on the rook wins a tempo for promising tactical operations.  Despite an abundance of replies, it is apparently impossible to solve Black’s problems.  For example:

  1. a)  ..Re4 27.Bxf4 exf4 28.Nxf5! Bxf5 29.g4!;
b)  26…Rxa2 27.Bxf4 exf4 (27…Rxf4 28.Qc6+ Kh7  29.Nf7) 28.Qd5 Ba6 29.Qe6+;
c)  26…Ra7 27.Bxf4 exf4 28.Qd5 Rc5 (28…Rd4 29.Qc6+  Rd6 30.Qe8+ Kxh6 31.Qxc8) 29.Qg8 Ba6 30.Qe6+ Kh7 31.Nf7
d)  26…Rb8 27.Bxf4 exf4 28.Qd5 Rc5 29.Qf7+ Kxh6 30.Rxf4

In all cases White gains an advantage.  Maybe the position is fraught with other secrets, but I admit, after seemingly endless analyses, it causes in me this “idiosyncrasy” or particular way of thinking.  And therefore I pass the analysis to the attention of the inquisitive reader…

The flair didn’t deceive me. Many years later I found out, that in the position of the last diagram White has one more tempting tactical opportunity: 24.Bxh6! Bxh6 25. Qh5! and in view of the threats 26. Qf7 and 26. Nf7 White achieves real benefits…

But lets return to the critical position arising after nineteen moves.  Alas, I didn’t play 20.Qh3! and all these fascinating and complicated variations of this extremely substantial position remained only as potentialities, not being found either in printed texts, nor published by numerous annotators. And the whole game remained as an unsolved rebus of 20 years…

What actually took place, as they say, was:


The capitulation…

20…Bb7 21.Rg6 Nf4!

A magnificent idea.  By exchanging the opponent’s dark-squared bishop, Fischer deprives White of any further illusions.

22.Bxf4 exf4

At the cost of a deterioration in the central pawn structure, Fischer opens the game and the bishops find their invincible power.  It is one more example of his favorite method of transformation of one kind of advantage to another.

23.Rd1 Qe7 24.Re6 Qc5+ 25.Kf1 Rfd8

Fischer is in his element.  Intercepting the initiative, he develops offensive potential all over the board with irrepressible energy.  First of all he threatens 26… Bd5.

26.Rxd8+ Rxd8 27.Qa4

A hope to simplify the defense by eventual rook exchanges turned out to be in vain.

27…Qc1+ 28.Kf2

Better is 28.Ne1


A universal maneuver – it prevents simplifications, (29.Re8?? Bc6) and creates a terrible threat: 29… Bc5+ .

29.b4 Be4!

Black’s attack develops itself, and his doubled pawns provide important outposts for his pieces.


The evidence of hopelessness and confusion.  In any case more persistent would be 30.Qb5 so that in the event of 30…Qe3+ 31.Kf1 Rd1+, to be protected by the move 32.Ne1.  Alas, at this moment I no longer owned my nerves…

30…Bc6 31.Qxc6

Nothing changes by 31.Rxd8 Bxa4 32.Rxf8+ Kg7.

31…Qxc6 32.Rxd8 Qf6

The rest is clear and simple without need of comment.

33.Rc8 Qe7 34.Kf1 Kh7 35.Nd4 Bg7 36.Nb5 Be5 37.a3 Qd7 38.Ra8 f3 39.gxf3 Bxh2 40.Kg2 Qg7+ 41.Kxh2 Qe5+ 42.Kg1 0-1

In this position the game was adjourned and, certainly, I resigned without resuming play.  Perhaps, it is the most bitter game of my life.  I felt it sharply at first, then painfully for many years…

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