If you have spent a little bit of time learning the history of chess there must be two names that you have heard at some point, Magnus Carlsen and Mikhail Tal. They are pretty famous for their craft.
There has been an ongoing debate between these two great players, whether which one is actually better than the other? I will be answering this question as someone who has extensive knowledge of chess history.
As a chess player here is what I know:
Magnus Carlsen is the better chess player when compared to Mikhail Tal since he has a higher rating, his style works better in the long run, he has an engine-like precision, and he had been a champion for a longer time. Tal lost his world title almost instantly.
Both of these players have huge fan bases that support them and think that they are the best overall. The answer to this is actually pretty clear, and I will be explaining that in this article.
If you still think otherwise I can understand, however, the point of this writing is to give a clear winner between the two which I will deliver. I will be explaining my points thoroughly.
Magnus will beat Tal using his engine-like precision
We need to understand that Magnus is so accurate that he is often referred to as the human version of alpha zero, which is arguably the worst opponent for a tactician like Tal.
Tal thrives in the areas of complication where he will pressure an opponent to make some sort of a mistake, this is hard to do against someone like Magnus.
Carlsen is probably the most precise player in chess history, a lot of his moves are identical to that of a strong chess computer. The world champion rarely blunders, I don’t think that Tal can pressure him.
Tal uses his sacrifices even though they may be unsound, to complicate the position in the hopes that his opponent cannot take advantage. Someone as precise as Carlsen can definitely convert.
Magnus has been known to “squeeze water from stone” basically creating an opportunity in drawish positions that are theoretically easy to play. The guy knows how to convert an advantage.
There might be an occasion where Mikhail Tal can beat Magnus, but in the long run, Carlsen is the overall better player since his style (complication versus precision) is a direct counter against Tal’s madness.
Magnus will beat Tal’s unsound sacrifices
Tal is not an accurate player, he even said that “there are two types of sacrifices: the correct ones and mine”. Even he himself acknowledges that his moves are objectively, not very precise.
Now you might think that there is no way he can become a world champion without meeting someone that can take advantage of his unsound style, you would be correct.
He did meet people who can counter his ideas as to the reason why he didn’t become world champion for a long time. This already makes Magnus better than Tal.
Carlsen has become a world champion for over a decade now, something that way surpasses the amount of time Mikhail Tal became a world champion.
Unsound sacrifices are incredibly risky, Mikhail Tal is a legend for being able to reach the world title with such an off-beat style, but he is definitely not better than Magnus who has already proven himself.
Tal wins in short matches, Carlsen dominates in consecutive matches
Tal can definitely beat Carlsen in a game or two if he has managed to trick Magnus in some of the more messy lines.
However if we are talking about long consecutive matches that are in the format of a world championship match, Carlsen will take the cake.
We have already seen many times how Magnus can be tricked here and there, inevitably losing a game after performing some sort of a mistake. It has happened before.
Tal can definitely put Carlsen’s tactics to the test since he is the magician of complicated variations. However due to their style, Carlsen has the edge in long consecutive matches.
Carlsen’s style is less risky but just as dominating if not more than that of Mikhail Tal, he can win one game and more or less play for a draw in other games.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is still quite a challenge to draw against someone like Mikhail Tal.
However I believe that Magnus is just overall, a better player in consecutive matches since he is the more solid player yet can still take advantage if there is an opportunity.
Magnus can beat Tal using the difference in their specialty
Magnus specializes in the endgame but can still perform well in attacking games. Tal is incredible in attacking, but is definitely not near Carlsen in the endgame department.
I think the difference between the specialty can also be a factor for assessing which of these players are better. Because when we talk about Magnus it’s really hard to pinpoint his mastery.
We know that his specialty is the endgame of course, however, he is just as dominating in other aspects of the game such as attacking and defending.
Magnus is not a one-trick pony, he has won a lot of games even before the endgame has reached his grasp. The same cannot be said about Mikhail Tal though.
Tal is incredibly suited for messy positions where a lot of tactical shots are possible, this is usually when there are too many options to consider. He is not as good in the endgame for example.
This also applies in the opening. I don’t think a lot of people would claim that Mikhail Tal is one of the best among his colleagues when it comes to the endgame and theoretical openings.
When someone says that Carlsen is the best when it comes to tactics and openings on the other hand, it is not that far-fetched. Magnus has the upper hand when it comes to the specialty category.
Magnus is better than Tal rating-wise
When it comes to sheer rating alone, Magnus has a higher one and has reached it faster than probably any other player in history, including Mikhail Tal.
Tal is not well-known for his rating since his style involves more risk, something that is not beneficial for a player who is trying to get their rating as high as possible.
Magnus on the other hand is consistent with his games and can even draw a lot of them, Tal does not have the same consistency in order to maintain a good rating.
Don’t get me wrong, Tal’s rating is still incredible compared to some of his peers. But comparing him to someone like Magnus, who achieved the highest rating in history, is a reach.
Carlsen also acquired his ratings quickly, probably one of the fastest in chess history as well. If the primary criteria of the comparison are about the ratings, it is clear that Magnus wins by a landslide.
Magnus Carlsen as a world champion is better than Mikhail Tal
If we are going to be sizing their achievements as a world champion, Magnus has the edge since Tal didn’t even win his return world championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik.
Magnus has been a solid world champion for over a decade now, he has proven time and time again that he can go against uprising players who can take his throne.
This is what I meant by consistency, being strong is a good thing but you also need to be strong for longer periods of time. It is hard to maintain the world champion title while being inconsistent.
Different players will be on the rise wanting to take the world title while being at their specific prime, you need to match up these players on demand over and over again.
Mikhail Tal was not able to do this which is why he immediately lost his world championship title after acquiring it. He might have been the better player when he got the title but that is not always the case.
Magnus encountered similar situations over the course of his career and still triumphed, that is the heart of the champion. I think this is the reason why Carlsen is better than Tal in the championship category.
Magnus is just stronger than Mikhail Tal
Magnus would definitely beat Tal just because players have become stronger over time. Carlsen has more access to updated knowledge and theories that would allow him to beat past players.
Even with just the theoretical openings, players of today can memorize up to 20+ lines that have been novelties since the dawn of Tal’s era. There is a gap in knowledge.
Some strong grandmasters can even play a whole game entirely based on theory, something that would definitely destroy any creativity since it is usually based on engine suggestions.
Magnus is a player that has risen above this era of precision, he is the epitome product of modern knowledge and engine incorporation in the games. Tal would get destroyed.
As I have said above, Tal might win a game or two but would definitely lose against Magnus in long consecutive games.
Mikhail Tal will not perform well against engine-like precision
Mikhail Tal often uses complication to his advantage, confusing enemies with unsound sacrifices until they have made a mistake which is more on the psychological part. This would not work as well in the era of engines.
If you have played against an engine before then you would know this, strong chess computers like Stockfish can definitely beat anybody in tactical games, even the world champion.
Most grandmasters who were able to defeat chess computers did so by limiting the engine’s time (bullet), or beating them in a sort of an endgame.
Players of today have incorporated these ideas into their games, competitors are more precise when dealing with tactical shots.
This is why most games end in a draw, just because the games are usually accurate where there are fewer mistakes. Carlsen’s game is so accurate that you could mistake it for an engine’s game.
Magnus should be able to deal with Tal since his engine-like precision position is a direct counter to Tal’s complicated style.
Modern grandmasters can beat Mikhail Tal
Even Garry Kasparov has remarked that modern grandmasters at his time would definitely refute some of Tal’s ideas. It’s not like Tal could not keep up, he just couldn’t dominate as he used to as players have become stronger.
Tal was able to get away with some pretty bad moves just because his opponent could not take full advantage, modern grandmasters do not have the same inconsistency.
As I have said above, modern grandmasters are more likely to be accurate than previous ones. They could definitely match up with Tal’s ideas well.
Playing bad moves and hoping that the opponent can make a mistake is a big blunder against someone who can take advantage of them. Competitors have become better over time.
This even more applies to someone like Magnus, the pinnacle of a modern grandmaster. We have seen him take advantage of a small inaccuracy in the endgame where it should be a theoretical draw.
Taking advantage of an actual bad move should be easy for someone of his caliber. Carlsen is way ahead in the battle of complications.
It is usually hard to make a comparison between two players that lived in different generations, the knowledge has increased as we find out more about things. However, this topic in particular is not that hard.
If Magnus had lived in the era of Tal (even without the modern knowledge) I am still sure that Carlsen’s talent can still take him to the pinnacle of the chess world. He can even be the world champion for quite some time.
If Tal had lived in today’s era I doubt that he could even keep up with the top 10 players, grandmasters today are just stronger.
In the end you will still be the one to decide what you believe in, you may think otherwise which is okay, this is just my take on this topic. That is all, sleep well and play chess.