Collectors typically study photographs of events to help them determine what type of pieces they have in their collections, when they were used, in which events, and by which players. Sometimes, however, they discover pieces in photographs of which they have not seen surviving examples, launching them on a quest to find them. So it is with the chessmen appearing on the cover of the Cadogan and Everyman paperback editions of former World Champion Mikhail Tal’s autobiography, The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal.
The book’s cover bears a photo of Tal contemplating his position after Black’s 32nd move in Tal v. Krogius, played in the 30th Soviet Championship in Yerevan in 1962, a Ruy Lopez won by Tal. These chess pieces comprise one of three sets Portuguese collector Arlindo Vieira described as “Utopia” in his 2012 video on Soviet and Russian chess sets. Collectors of Soviet chessmen have come to call them “Tal Pieces” in homage to the former World Champion’s connection to them in this photo.
The photographic record of the Tal chess pieces strongly suggests that they originated in the pre-Annexation Baltic states around 1940, most probably Estonia, but then evolved stylistically, and migrated to a new home in Georgia SSR in the fifties, where they remained in use until at least 1979.
The pieces largely follow neoclassical Staunton conventions, while also incorporating certain Soviet design elements, the combination of which collectors have come to call Soviet Stauntons. Among the traditional Staunton elements present in Soviet Stauntons are: relatively wide bases that incorporate a step as they rise to meet the stem; vertical stems that rise from the bases’ steps with a bottom diameter appreciably less than that of the base; stems that taper as they ascend to form a largely vertical segment and intersect the pedestal at a distinct, perpendicular or near-perpendicular joint; upon the pedestal rests a piece signifier resembling the symbolic representation of the piece in chess diagrams; which is offset from the circumference of the pedestal and connected by a connecting section defined by two collars resembling the rims of crowns or miters (together with the pedestal the two collars of the connector are often referred to as a “three collar structure”); the king’s signifier often incorporates a cross-like finial; the queen wears a coronet; the bishop’s miter often bears a cut; and the rook’s turret typically contains merlons; when arrayed on their starting squares the pieces resemble a series of columns supporting a triangular pediment. The shape of the knight’s back approximates the S curve characteristic of Staunton knights.
Among the typically Soviet design elements of Soviet Stauntons are the opposite colors of the king, queen, and bishop finials; the modification of the king’s cross to one not quite recognized by Christian iconography; and, with one notable exception, a knight not patterned after the Elgin Marbles. Among the features that distinguish the Tal set are the hefty wide and tall bases; the thick rook towers; the crisply carved angled merlons; the squat pawns; and the jaunty knights, which appear to lean backwards with their heads tilted up toward the sky. The traditional and idiosyncratically Soviet elements of Soviet Stauntons are illustrated above.
The origins of the design have been a matter of some interest. Based on his extensive review of photographs from Georgia SSR and elsewhere, American collector Ron Harrison has suggested that the design is Georgian in origin. To be sure most of the photos of the sets in use from the fifties, sixties, and seventies were shot in or nearby Georgia. My own research, however, suggests that the set originated in the Baltic states, where it appears in the photographic record as early as Spring 1940, notwithstanding its later ubiquity in Georgia.
The photo above shows Paul Keres and Vladas Mikenas playing in a match between Estonia and Lithuania held in Tallinn prior to the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union later in 1940.
A specimen of this set from the collection of Mike Ladzinski is shown below. Ladzinski obtained his set from a Lithuanian dealer in 2019. Lacking several elements of the mature Tal design of Yerevan 1962, these chessmen adopt traditional elements of the English Staunton design, most notably the long stems narrower at the top than the bottom; the distinctly jointed pedestals, the three-ring collar system, the cross-crowned king, the bishop miter cuts, the merlons of the rook turrets, and the collective column-pediment. Unlike traditional Stauntons, the crosses and finials are opposite-colored. The unique, jaunty knights do not emulate the Elgin Marbles in realism or detail, but are very close in design to those of the 1959 Tbilisi and 1962 Yerevan sets. The pieces contain the wide, almost squared-off bases characteristic of the mature sets, but not yet as tall. The cross is a true cross, not the quasi-cross of the 1962 set. While the rooks’ turrets incorporate merlons, their towers are noticeably narrower than their successor’s, and concave rather than the straight Tbilisi and Yerevan towers. The pawns’ stems are longer than the late versions, making the pawns less squat.
Shortly after the Second World War, Tal sets were used in a simultaneous exhibition that Estonian great Paul Keres played with players from the crew of the Soviet battleship October Revolution when it docked in Tallinn in 1946. The pieces in the following two photos seem to have evolved. The bases appear thicker, the pawns stubbier, and the rook stems thicker and straighter.
Over the next few years, the pieces continued to be used in the then-annexed Baltic states and in nearby Leningrad, as the following three photos indicate. In these photos, the pieces can be seen evolving towards their 1962 form, with widened, straightened rook towers and stouter pawns. The first photo depicts Akaki Pirtskhalava and Alexander Tolush playing in the match between Leningrad and Georgia in the 1948 USSR Team Championship. The tournament was held in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The second photo documents a game between Viktor Korchnoi and Vasily Smyslov playing in the 1951 Mikhail Chigorin Memorial tournament, held in Leningrad.
In the third photo, Vytautas Landsbergis and Tigran Petrosian are seen playing in the 1951 Lithuanian Championship, held in Vilnius, Lithuania.
By the late fifties, use of these pieces migrated to Georgia SSR, where they became very popular, and used in major tournaments there and nearby Yerevan for decades. It was in Georgia that they likely evolved into the form seen on the cover of Tal’s biography, complete with the taller bases and stout pawns with very short stems. The next three photos show the Tal pieces in use in Georgia from 1959 to 1979.
The next photo shows in great detail the Tal set used in the 1959 USSR Championship held in Tbilisi, Georgia SSR. The pieces have reached their mature form, with stout bases, extraordinarily squat pawns, and chunkier, less tubular knights than in the original Tallinn version of the set. The photo depicts the pieces at use in Tigran Petrosian’s game against Yuri Averbakh, a Najdorf Sicilian Defense won by Petrosian, who won the game and the championship.
The next two photos depict original Tal pieces like those shown in the photos above from the 1959 Soviet Championship in Tbilisi. Whereas the pieces in the photos appear to be natural and black, these originals are natural and a very dark brown. The finials on the dark pieces are painted rather than finished natural wood.
Although photos have emerged purporting to show a surviving set of pieces like those used in Yerevan, 1962, there is no evidence corroborating the pieces’ authenticity, and at least one collector and dealer from Kyiv believes the pieces are modern reproductions.
Tal pieces continued in front line service until at least 1979 but were largely displaced as pieces of Soviet Championships by another Soviet Staunton design, the so-called Grandmaster 3 design, after the 1962 Championship in Yerevan. They enjoyed a long and storied existence on the front stages of Soviet chess at the apex of its dominance, beginning with their appearance in Tallinn in 1940 to their popularity in Georgia SSR in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Tied to the ever-popular World Champion Mikhail Tal by the cover of his autobiography, the Tal pieces remain a favorite to collectors of Soviet chess sets.
A version of this article is appearing in a forthcoming issue of Chess Collector International Magazine.