TIGRAN PETROSIAN

1924 - 1984

Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian is widely thought of as an Armenian player whereas he lived for only a short time in Armenia, sufficient to win the 1946 Armenian Championship, before moving to Moscow and capturing that city's championship on many occasions. He was born in Tbilisi, the capital of the former USSR republic of Georgia, on the 17th June 1924 and lived with his parents before they both died prior to the start of the Second World War.  An orphan at the age of 12. and suffering from deafness, he learned how to play chess during the period that his father spent as a caretaker of an officer's club, by watching off-duty military personnel playing. On entering the Tbilisi House of Young Pioneers, he was spotted by a chess master, Archil Ebralidze, who nurtured his natural aptitude for the game, so much so that he reached first category strength by the age of fourteen.

He honed his skills by virtually learning Nimzowitsch's Chess Praxis off by heart whilst still a teen-ager.  This, and his sessions with Ebralidze, explains his style in later years,  However, before he became so reserved, he was a keen tactician and some of his early games demonstrate how proficient he did become in this particular style.  However, eventually the positional side of his game began to dominate and he became extremely pragmatic in his approach to the game.  He treated his play as a sport and was quite content to draw games when he was assured of a high position in any tournament he played.  Not  for him was the "death or glory" style adopted by the likes of Tal or the deadly winning streak of Bobby Fischer.  He consequently became known as a dull player although when the occasion demanded it he would uncork his tactical ability.  In fact Spassky referred to him as a tactical player. 

His first claim to fame was a win over Salo Flohr during a simultaneous display and following the capture of first place in an All-Union Junior Championship in 1945 and still a teen-ager he began to play in adult tournaments with considerable success.  The competition he experienced in Armenia was by no means stretching his ability and in 1949 he moved to Moscow.  Their he met much tougher resistance and in his his first major tournament, the 17th USSR Championship Finals he just put together a plus score of 7 points from 19 games.  His moderate start persuaded Soviet statisticians place him in 39th place when trying to rank the top 72 places players of the USSR.

He improved steadily until his breakthrough came in 1951 when he finished equal second in the 19th USSR Championship. His drawing technique then earned him the title of *Iron Tigran" and his star began to shine as an international player.

He qualified for the FIDE Inter-Zonal Tournament held in Saltjobaden, near Stockholm, in 1952 and this earned him a place in the Zurich Candidates Tournament of 1953.  He finished in second place, tying with Mark Taimanov, doing so without losing a game.  This result demonstrated his pragmatism as it made him eligible for the Candidates.

His play in Saltjobaden also earned him the title of grandmaster, the youngest at that time.  Such an achievement can be put in its place when one observes that at the time there were only 34 players having that title.   

The Candidates was not a marked success for Petrosian as he made what became usual  for him - a poor start.  However, he pulled himself together and with 18 draws finished in fifth place.  This result added to his title of a "drawing master".

The Candidates was preceded by a rather small but very strong tournament held at Gagra, close to the Black Sea.  Here he shared first place with Smyslov ahead of Boleslavsky, Bonderavsky, Geller and Ragozin.  A very creditable result that led his compatriots to predicting a success at the Candidates.  It was destined to be another ten years before Petrosian at last came into contention for a match for the World Championship.  His string of draws continued until the 1955 USSR Championship in which he drew fifteen of the nineteen games he played.  However, he won the four remaining games but nevertheless he earned a rebuke from other grandmasters who reminded him that the Soviet School of Chess had a reputation for a dynamic approach, something it was difficult to attribute to Petrosian's play.  The next Candidates Tournament was held in Amsterdam and once again a poor start took him out of contention from a highly plced finish and he compounded this by losing a game with Bronstein where he left his queen en prise!  This result, plus adverse comments from other players made Petrosian seriously consider whether there was any future for him in the game.

Slowly the wheel began to turn and better days lay ahead.  In the semi-finals of the 24th USSR Championship, for the first time he scored more wins than draws and that propelled him to first place, two whole points ahead of the field.  Sadly this form deserted him in the finals where Tal scored his first significant victory.

Perosian had to wait until 1959 before he won his countries championship, which many contended was one of the strongest tournaments of its age.  Now he was playing more ambitiously and this brought him his first candidates success in Curacao, where at last he qualified to meet the World Champion in a match for the ultimate crown. Fischer, who also played at Curacao, claimed that there was collusion between the USSR participants which allowed them to draw with each other, saving their energy for competition against the remaining contestants.

In 1963 Petrosian sat opposite Botvinnik in his first attempt to wrest the title away from the patriarch of the Soviet School.  In previous matches with Tal and Smslov, Botvinnik had been allowed a return match if he lost and he put this to good use.  However, this concession was not available in his match with Petrosian and as he had little experience of play against the young contender, he could not draw on the same knowledge as he had enjoyed in previous contests. 

The match started on March 17th 1963 and as could have been expected Petrosian lost the first game.  He steadied his play and the next three games were drawn, which meant in practice that he was two points down as Botvinnik had retained theunderstanding that in the event the match was drawn he would retain the title. The next game could have determined the outcome of the match.  Petrosian found himself on the White side of the Gruenfeld Defence.  On reaching the adjournment, Petrosian had to seal his move.  There was some difficulty when this move was disclosed, mostly due to Petrosian's writing and the Arbiters had to decide what move had been sealed.  Their ruling upset Botvinnik and after a further eight moves he resigned.  After a series of draws, Petrosian's back-to-back victories in the eighteenth and nineteenth games broke Botvinnik's resistance and the challenger became the ninth World Champion.

In 1966, Petrosian was called upon to defend his title against the younger Boris Spassky and did so with a score of 12-10.  He was not successful in 1969, when Spassky again won the right to challenge.  This time a somewhat distraught Petrosian went down by 11 points to 9 and so he had to enter the cycle of matches tournaments to challenge yet again for the title.  However, the age of Fischer had arrived and Petrosian found himself the only player to take a point off him in a series of three six-game matches and he never again won the chance to contend for the title he lost n 1969.  Despite acquitting himself well in candidates matches, he did not get the opportunity to challenge either Fischer or Karpov. Except for the time he was the World Champion, he played in every candidates cycle from 1952 to 1980 and his success in the Olympiads was awe-inspiring.

He had very little success in other tournaments and on 13th August , 1984 he died of cancer at the early age of 60.

His chess legacy included a style of play that did not attract a number of fans, but his aim was to win and not to create images of chess beauty.  His achievements included winning six Championships of the USSR and he had won medals in six Olympiads.

Here are some Petrosian games with notes.

Bill Frost

June 2015

 

 

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