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The following interview appeared in 2003 in Russian in the newspaper Chess Week (Russia). We would like to thank Chess Today reader Jim Marfia for translating it. The English version was first published in C No. 1144 (26 December 2003)

"Even Now, He Will Not Leave Me..."

Interview with Sally Landau

Sally Landau was the first wife of the 8th World Chess Champion, Mikhail Tal (they were married from 1959 to 1971). She lives in Antwerp, Belgium. Recently she was in Moscow, where Shakhmatnaya Nedelia correspondent Vladimir Anzikeev took the following interview with her.

Your marriage to Mikhail Tal happened at the most romantic moment in the history of our country: the Khrushchev "thaw". And in Dal's dictionary [classical dictionary of Russian – translator], ‘tal’ means ‘thaw’. Vassily Smyslov believes that every World Champion is a reflection of his era. And in those ‘thawing’ (or ‘tal-istic’) times, the majority of Soviets were romantics.

Indeed Tal was a romantic man.

And so were you, I'm sure. Particularly as you met in Riga - an astonishingly romantic city. And I personally am not surprised that, as soon as the ‘thaw’ ended, you two separated.

Yes. It was in 1964 that we began to come apart.

When you met, did you have some premonition, from the stars?

Not the slightest. I only became interested in this in 1988, when I made a friend who is a great specialist in this field. And at that time, I had no idea what could happen in a union of two Cancers... And even in the Chinese horoscope, we were incompatible: I'm a Tiger, and he was a Rat. Though my whole life was connected with rats – my father, second husband, son – all Rats. As far as Cancer goes, well, we were both leaders by nature; and neither one wanted to give in to the other. But Misha was a gentleman, and he would, sometimes, give in to me because I am a woman.

Did you ever give in?

My son says of me: "Mama is a special case. She always believed she was in the right – in order to stay sane, as there was too much injustice in her life." With my character, it is difficult to understand who is right and who is not. And besides, I was too inclined to believe in my own intuition, which rarely betrayed me. After we had parted, I told Misha that he could only have become Champion with me; and that without me, he could not become Champion again. And that's what happened. Whenever I say a thing out loud, it is bound to come true. Misha's mama would always ask me how Misha was playing in his matches, and I almost always guessed right.

Was Tal superstitious?

In life, no. But in chess - yes. In Malaga, I had to wash his sweaty shirt twenty times, because it was his ‘lucky’ shirt. When Misha came to Brussels in 1983 or 1984, I was astounded at how poorly he was dressed. So I took him to the stores, and re-dressed him from head to toe. But the next day, he lost his game; and he blamed me for that.

We had an amazing relationship. We needed on another our whole lives. After we separated, Misha always found an unobtrusive way to look in on me, to see if I was doing all right. And I always worried - how was he playing? Was he feeling all right?

When we got married, I was only 19 years old. There was a lot I didn't understand. In my mind, I understood that he was a genius; but to accept that I would have to live with just him and chess - that I could not do. I was unable even to imagine myself a normal "chess-player's wife" - someone like Rona Yakovlevna, Mrs. Petrosian, for example. Without her, Tigran Vartanovich would hardly have become Champion. That was an amazing woman; I loved her a lot, and we spent a lot of time together. But again, Rona Yakovlevna would only talk about Tigran and chess. I loved theatre and music.

When we met, I was pretty much unaware of what chess was, and what it meant to be Tal. I lived in the world of the theatre, which is a world unto itself. And that's why Misha's relatives were so suspicious of me at first. I had just been in the play, ‘The She-Devil's Windmill’- and I played none other than the she-devil! My costume was original, with a part of my belly exposed. Imagine what that signified in those ‘vegetarian’ times! You wouldn't believe the rumors that were circulating about me then! I couldn't even appear in public with a man, without the rumors starting up. Misha's mother was overwhelmed by phone calls painting me in a particular way… And I was just 19 - a child, really. Things a 12-year-old girl knows today, I didn't know even when I was 30.

What was the Riga TUZ [theatre – translator] like in those days? Theatre people and biographers seem to agree that, for Riga in those days, it was like Moscow's ‘Sovremennik’.

Probably. In any case, our repertoire was just as courageous, if not more so. In any case, this was the Baltic; and the Soviets always let them do just a little bit more than anybody else - even Moscow. But besides, this was the TUZ (it translates as Theatre of Young Spectator) – theatre attended by everyone, young and old alike.

Did Tal love the theatre?

A lot. I think he had the soul of an actor. There was a reason why he always loved appearing as master-of-ceremonies. He needed an audience. He couldn't play without one - people inspired him. Misha was unbelievably artistic by nature. Just like me, he loved mimicking everybody. Sometimes we would compete that way. And sometimes, together, we would create real theatre. Misha was very pleased when people admired me. And he would gradually speed it up. He'd ask me to play the piano; then, sing. And when he could feel that everyone was practically overcome - then he would take my hand, and lead me away.

And yet, sometimes on the night before a morning performance, when I had to go home and get some sleep, he would not let me go. He would make a scene, insisting that I had to stay with him. We fought often, over everything imaginable. One time it got so bad that I threw his engagement ring in the toilet, he got it back, and put it back on my finger. Ah, we would fight, swear, break up, and get back together again... Well, in fact, we were children. It was childhood - a sweet, romantic childhood!

What if you had been older?

That wouldn't have changed anything. I always understood that, no matter how talented I was, I could not compete with him - I would always lose. I understood that I couldn't prevail over him, because he would always be Tal. There was no use fighting it.

How about if you had lived away from his relatives?

He couldn't live apart from them. Misha was so ill-equipped for living... When he travelled to a tournament, he couldn't even pack his own suitcase. We went to Paris once. I opened the suitcase, and there were only chess books, empty bottles, and dirty underwear. What kind of suitcase is that?! He didn't even know how to turn on the gas for cooking. If I had a headache, and there happened to be no one home but him, he would fall into a panic: "How do I make you a hot-water bottle?" And when I got behind the wheel of a car, he would look at me as though I were a visitor from another planet. Of course, if he had made some effort, he could have learned all of this. But it was all boring to him. He just didn't need to.

And he was just as impractical on the material level. When he travelled to Soviet tournaments, he wouldn't even fill out the expense form for the Chess Federation, so he went at his own expense. Actually, it is be more accurate to say that he was paid for by a doting relative. Misha hadn't the faintest idea about money. In Curacao, he managed to spend $500 in one month, just on haircuts - and this was in 1962! And when the relative was jailed, I got all the financial worries. We got really poor. It got to the point where there wasn't even money for milk - and we had a three-year-old son! That was when I had to leave the theatre, and join a singing group - because it paid almost three times as much.

A lot of people have said that if Tal had looked after his health, if he hadn't led such a dissolute life... and so forth. But with people like Tal, the idea of "if only" is just absurd. He wouldn't have been Tal then. I can't imagine him without a cigarette in his mouth - he'd smoke five packs a game! He never needed a lighter - he'd finish one, and light the next one from it. Most of his illnesses were inherited. When it came time for us to marry, a doctor from the Riga Special Clinic, where Dr. Nehemiah Tal once worked, told me that I shouldn't marry a man with that kind of health. He was always ill. And in the last years of his life, all his illnesses got worse. There were three whole years in which his temperature simply never went down. I have no idea how a man playing with a constant temperature of 38-39 degrees could become World Blitz Champion in 1988! And on May 28, 1992, at the Moscow blitz tournament, he became the only player to defeat Kasparov. I'm told he even left the hospital to play. The strongest chess-player in the world still lost to a dying Tal.

The night before my trip to Riga, for the opening of Misha's memorial, I had a dream. I dreamed that he and I were walking down some long staircase, and he was telling me: "I came to Riga especially to see what kind of memorial they would build for me." And then he continued to accompany me down that staircase. And suddenly, I said to myself, “He's taking me with him!”.

He's waiting for you in another world...

He was an unusual man. I miss him terribly. Sometimes I think that Misha flew in from another planet - just to play chess, and then fly home. He was asked once how he would categorize chess - is it a sport, or an art? He was simply exasperated: how can you call chess a sport? I don't know much about it myself - but they did call Tal the Mozart of chess. And he was a genial sort in real life, too. He was kind, cheerful, and never had a bad word to say about anyone. Mark Taimanov wrote a very nice piece, ‘A Life Lived Genially’, where there is a description of Misha's last trip to Germany. Somebody came up to him there, and said “Hi!”. Misha thanked him profusely. Surprised, the man asked, "What for?" - "For recognizing me."

A lot of people thought the memorial didn't look like Tal. My son told me, "Is it possible that whatever lies in that grave can be him? Tal was only Tal as long as he was alive."

I am proud of having lived with such a person, proud of his love. I miss him very much. My only consolation is in knowing that he will never be forgotten. Fedor Chaliapin said something great: "Only he who is forgotten, dies." I have always envied people like that. What wonderful creations! Mozart...Rachmaninov... What music they wrote! What life they gave to the souls of those who listened to it!

Lately, I have come more and more to the conclusion that from the beginning, there was some secret bond between us. During the war, we were evacuated to Siberia to the same region: the villages where we lived were, by Siberian measurements, practically neighbours. And it is this bond that tells me that even now, he has not left me...

© Copyright 2003-2004 by Chess Today and Grandmaster Square

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted