Previewed by Steve Lopez

Ahhhhh, man, where do I start? Sometimes you open the mailbox and get something so cool that you just can't believe it.

First, some caveats (as always). Mikhail Tal is my all-time favorite chessplayer. And, as you know, I'm a longtime ChessBaser. So, you'd assume, why would I not like the new ChessBase CD World Champion Mikhail Tal? Fair enough and I'll cop to the bias. But I'll tell you straight up that this CD is so much more than just a collection of his games -- it's a true biographical work. It just happens to be about a chessplayer. Not a chessplayer but, to me, the chessplayer.

I loved Tal. I never met the man, but I would very much have liked to. When he died in 1992, I was devastated. I dedicated one of my last radio broadcasts to his memory. Tal was amazing -- World Champion, artist, drinker, raconteur, demon, genius, and one hell of a funny guy. Back in the days when I played tournament chess, we'd sometimes hit the hotel bar after the Saturday night round was over and spin yarns about Tal, repeating anecdote after anecdote, splitting our sides laughing until the bartender tossed us out (and then, of course, we'd completely screw up our Sunday morning games). How could anyone not love a guy who gave such great interviews:

Interviewer: How do you relax during a World Championship?

Tal: I relax while I'm at the board.

Interviewer: While you're at the board?

Tal: Yes, because my wife and trainer aren't allowed to speak to me.

World Champion Mikhail Tal (spelled "Michail" on the package -- it's the old "Cyrillic to English" thing rearing its ugly head again) is one of the coolest chess CDs ever. The database contains over 2800 of his games -- all of Tal's confirmed known games that we could get our hands on. More than 230 are annotated. And, just for chuckles, I did a search for games containing sacrifices. After I doused the flames that were gouting from the back of my computer (scorched the @##%# wall, too!), I found over 400.

But (to me, at least) the real "guts" of the CD are contained in the biographical section. Here you'll find Tal's life story, told in text, pictures, and video (including links to illustrative games and to some Internet sources [including one of my own articles! Cooooooool...]). One of the gems on the CD is a video interview with Tal's widow Engelina and his daughter. Although the video itself isn't in English, a complete text translation is included. You'll read some great insights into Tal's character, both as a man and a chessplayer:

Interviewer: And all through his life he kept on claiming that in chess you had to prove sometimes that 2x2 was 5, although Koblenz tried to knock this out of him, however, without success. So he was never interested in the scientific approach to find the best move?

Engelina Tal: No.

Interviewer: But he always searched for the psychologically most unpleasant move.

Engelina Tal: Yes. Psychology is very important too. He played with a partner, the partner had a character. You can make the best move, he, however, chose a psychological move for his partner. To upset his mind. So he was a bit of a black genius after all.

A "black genius", always seeking to throw off his opponent by playing the bizarre, the unexpected. As the man once said of his own play, ""There are two kinds of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine."

Tal was also famous for one of the great psychological "tricks" in all of chess history: his notorious "glare". The guy would make a move and then just stare at his opponent with a piercing hypnotic gaze. It was considered so devastating that Pal Benko once wore sunglasses to the board to avoid the "Tal glare".

It's no wonder that some people in the chess world believed him to be some sort of sorcerer. But I think they were just covering for their own inability to fathom his play. The position would look safe when suddenly a wild sacrifice would hit like lightning from a clear blue sky -- a few moves later, Tal's opponent would be busted. They just couldn't figure him out, ever.

It was for his combinative and sacrificial genius that Tal became known as "the Magician from Riga", not for any strange supernatural abilities he possessed. And what made this even more remarkable was that Tal was plagued by serious health problems all of his life. Most of us have trouble playing with a headache (see my "Sunday morning" comment above); Tal sometimes played in excrutiating pain, even under massive doses of painkilling medication. And through it all, his amazing talent never flagged, and he never lost his irrepressible sense of humor.

You'll learn all about him in the biographical section of this CD, which contains over forty photos and fifteen video clips (including some rare black and white footage of Tal playing a very young Bobby Fischer).

In addition, you can enjoy interactively the combinative genius of Tal through a special training database: nearly 250 of his best combinations are presented as timed training questions for you to solve by finding the best move. These are divided into seven separate categories (although to see the categories you'll need to click on the "Annotator" tab instead of one of the other tabs in the game list window).

There's a lot to see and do on this CD; I've spent a week with it and I'm still not close to being finished. And I suspect that I'll be coming back to it again and again for inspiration, instruction, and just to enjoy the (sometimes shocking) artistry of Tal's games.

I'm a writer by trade and I'm therefore seldom at a loss for words. But nothing I can write will possibly do justice to this CD -- in my opinion, it's one of the finest things ChessBase has ever produced. Even if you don't have any other ChessBase products (and, by the way, you don't need them to use this CD; the ChessBase Reader is included, so the CD is a standalone product), you owe it to yourself to check out World Champion Mikhail Tal if you're at all interested in exciting games or the life story of chess' most colorful and interesting character.

Until next week, have fun!

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