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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Bard Meets the Magician From Riga

Patzer n. [Slang] an amateur or inferior chess player

Vladimir Vysotsky wasn't very good at chess.

In fact, the best advice the Soviet Union's most famous folk singer had to give about the royal game was this:

"If someone offers to play you at chess, never say 'I don't know how.' Say: 'I know how but don't want to.'"

But although he wasn't a pawnpusher, Vysotsky's prolific creative achievements in music and poetry connected him with at least one of the Soviet Union's greatest chess players.

In 1972, before the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world championship match in Reykjavik, Vysotsky wrote two ballads collectively called "The Honor of the Chess Crown." In his gravelly voice, Vysotsky sings from the perspective of a Soviet chess champion preparing to face an opponent named "Shifer" by training with the eighth world champion, Mikhail Tal. The song features the following stanza:

"Tal and I played 10 games:

Of preferans, gin and billiards

And Tal said: 'This guy can't be beat.'"

That's my translation. It rhymes in Russian, but I'm not a poet. But that's not the point.

After thinking about the song recently, I realized it was no coincidence that Vysotsky chose to include Tal in the song. After all, they seem to have a lot in common.

First of all, Vysotsky and Tal both drank and smoked themselves to death -- Vysotsky in 1980 at age 42 and Tal in 1992 at age 56. Tal was known to suck down 10 cigarettes an hour, a habit which only aggravated his ailing kidneys.

But aside from their vices, both Vysotsky and Tal took risks in their art.

Vysotsky's songs openly challenged the banality and hypocrisy of life in the Soviet Union, making him an open target for nervous Soviet officials. At the chessboard, Tal -- known as the Magician from Riga -- would put on a demonic display of stunning and dangerous sacrifices, a style that helped him in 1960 to wrestle the World Chess Championship away from the Politburo's favorite champion, Soviet "chess as science" guru Mikhail Botvinnik.

And as it turns out, Vysotsky's lyrics aren't fiction: Vysotsky and Tal actually met on several occasions.

In an article in the Kazakhstan literary journal Prostor, author Zhaskyran Musin cites Tal's version of his first meeting with the great bard after one of his concerts in 1963.

"We were introduced," Tal said, "and after two minutes, I got the feeling that we had known each other for a thousand years. ... We talked about everything. In situations like that, as chess players like to say, [Vysotsky] always played black. In any conversation he held his ground, grabbed the initiative and began to develop."

Yakov Damsky, a close friend of Tal's and currently the director of the Russian Chess Federation's board of arbiters, notes the similar personalities of the two legends.

"First of all, both of them had this complete inner freedom so atypical of people in the Soviet Union," Damsky said. "Secondly, both of them had adventurous spirits. And finally, they were both bohemians who naturally attracted friends."

According to Damsky, however, Tal was humble about how he ended up in Vysotsky's song.

"Misha always liked to play things down," Damsky said. "He would say the only reason Vysotsky used his name in the song is because the name Flohr wouldn't have rhymed." Grandmaster Salo Flohr was a Czechoslovakian/Soviet chess great.

Did Vysotsky and Tal ever play chess against each other? Damsky says no, though he admits they played cards and billiards. But Musrin's article quotes Tal as follows:

"We didn't play all of the games that Vysotsky mentions in the song. But few know that we played two games of chess. I remember that in the second game I kept trying to offer a draw."

When I began studying Russian, Vysotsky instantly became a hero of mine. When I began playing chess, Tal followed suit.

But that's not exceptional. Ordinary folk are always drawn to geniuses with self-destructive tendencies. And maybe the bond between Vysotsky and Tal resulted from their recognition of a common fate.

"When people meet for the first time," Damsky said, "either there's a connection or there isn't. They always know it immediately."

1.Re1!! Qc5 (if 1...Rxe1 2.Nf6+ Kh8 3.hxg7+ mating; if 1...Kf8 2.hxg7+ Ke7 3.Ne4+ Ke8 4.Nd6#) 2.Be6...(black lost quickly)

 In this position, try to find the sacrifice that Tal, playing white, saw could lead to a forced mate.

Tal -- Veder

Riga, 1951

White to move and win