Friday, August 24, 2007

Chess CSI: Identify this photo...

When I first saw this photo, it immediately reminded me of another photo featuring Tal and Pal Benko at play. In that photo, the latter wore dark glasses to combat Tal's legendary basilisk stare. It's a famous photo and you have probably seen it in older chess books. A basilisk, by the way, is a mythical creature, invariably portrayed as a serpent, lizard, or dragon, said to kill by its breath or look. You might have one at your work place actually. Seriously now, the photo above portrays Tal employing the same deadly stare at his opponent, but the who, where, and when are unknown. Perhaps, somewhere in a dusty and musty photo/newspaper archive the information lies waiting. But, we don't know that. So, I investigated.

Fortunately, we can see a significant portion of the position on the board and we can extrapolate some information from it. That will be our key to identifying this photo. There are the obvious clues: Tal had the white pieces and it was black's move. Although not crucial in identifying the photo, the time on the clocks showed that Black was behind in time by approximately 33 minutes. With the a8 and b8 squares out of view, we can't see what pieces occupy them. Because one black bishop and a knight can be seen at Tal's left, obviously captured pieces, we know that there must be a rook and another knight out there on the board. We can also safely deduct that this was an official tournament game based on the cordoned off spectators.

The photo must be studied carefully for minute details. The white pieces appear bleached out, and the task requires serious eyeballing. There is no question that a white rook stands of g1. From there, we can proceed westward for a roll call. The bishop on f1, Queen on d1, and the Knight on e2 ( it stands one square north of a dark square that must be e1 ) do not present a problem. But where is the King? He stands tall in front of the Queen and to the left of the Knight, partially blocked block from view by the black Queen, on what could only be d2. The remaining rook can be see at the far corner on a1. In the foreground, you can see the captured white pieces: a knight with its back towards you and two hard-to-discern pawns. So, where is the other bishop? If you look closely, you can see its miter between the tops of the Queen, Knight and King. It's very hard to see. If there are two captured pawns, there must be five pawns out there. Again, sharpen your vision by looking at the latest issue of FHM or Maxim magazine, and then come back to the photo. You can see them at a3, c3, d4, h2, and on g4, in the shadow of the black Queen---the hardest to see of them all. We are almost done, but one more problem. I count only one captured black pawn and six on the board. Where's the eighth pawn? I could not figure it out and so I decided to call it AWOL.

It was time to look for the game with what we already know about it. I whipped out my trusty travel drive, plugged it into the USB port, opened my Fritz9 program, searched my saved databases, and found one with 3,111 of Tal's games. I used the Edit/Filter Games function of Fritz9 to search the database after setting up the position. I was not getting any hits in the beginning. I looked at the photograph again and reconfigured the setup in Fritz9. Initially, I had the g4 pawn on g5 and the black bishop on d5. After the changes, and an assumption that the missing black rook and knight were on a8 and b8 respectively, I got a hit. The found position appears here:

We are almost there except that the missing black pawn showed up on c5, a square that is empty in the photograph. What the devil is this? Checking the game score, I saw that this position appeared two moves prior to the one in the photograph. The next moves were 13...cd4 14. ed4 and that brings us to the photograph. So, if the C pawn was exchanged, where is it in the photograph? Of course, it could have been taken off the table but that is highly unlikely. Have you ever taken a captured pawn, or piece, completely off your table? Kinda strange, don't you think? Okay, back to the photograph we go.

I've got it. Look very closely at the area encompassed by the tops of the white king and the rook on a1. It could be mistaken as part of the woman's skirt, but it has a different shade of black. It is the head of the missing eighth pawn. So, it was there after all. The puzzle is complete.

The photograph shows Tal playing against Nikola Padevsky in 1960 in Leipzig ( Nimzo-Indian, Samisch, E-25). Padevsky was about to make his fourteenth move which was 14...Qg5+ ( from the photograph). Padevsky earned the IM title in 1957, the GM title in 1964. He won the Bulgarian championships for 1954-55, 1962, 1964. BTW, Tal won the game. You can play over the entire game here:

I would like to give credit to the photographer, but his/her identity is still a mystery to me. That will be your homework for this weekend.


Blogger Ryan said...

Chessbuff - that was detective work worthy of Columbo. Great post!

7:49 AM  

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