He stands out as one of my favourite players of all-time, so it would be remiss of me not to mention the milestone anniversary this week of one of the undisputed icons of the game, with it being the 90th anniversary of the birth of the late, great Soviet-Armenian giant Tigran Petrosian, the 9th World Champion, the World Chess Hall of Famer with the unique playing style who finally ended the long title era of Mikhail Botvinnik, and went on to hold the world crown from 1963 to 1969 before losing to Boris Spassky.
Petrosian was born on June 17, 1929, in Tiflis (modern-day Tbilisi), Georgia to proud Armenian parent. As a young boy, he was an excellent student and enjoyed studying. After learning to play at the age of 8, he was almost consumed by chess, despite the best efforts of his illegitimate father to get him to concentrate on his academic work, as he thought the game was unlikely to bring his son any success as a career.
Sadly, Petrosian was orphaned during World War II. He relocated back to Armenia after the war, and with times being tough, was forced to sweep streets just to earn a meagre living. But despite all the hardships, chess still consumed Petrosian, and he used his rations to buy Chess Praxis by the Danish grandmaster Aron Nimzowitch, a hefty tome which would later claim to have had the greatest influence on Petrosian’s development as a chess player.
This led to Petrosian adopting perhaps the most singular style of all in chess: he went on to elevate Nimzowitch’s concept of prophylaxis into an almost subtle fine art, whereby he would often prevent his opponents from undertaking actions, long before they had even thought of them – and with it, he acquired the moniker of “Iron Tigran” due to his almost impenetrable defensive play, which emphasised safety above all else.
On the rise, Petrosian was a formidable force with a track record second to none. He was a Candidate for the World Championship on eight occasions (1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1971, 1974, 1977 and 1980). He won the world championship in 1963 (against Botvinnik), successfully defended it in 1966 (against Spassky), and lost it in 1969 (to Spassky). Thus he was the defending World Champion or a World Championship candidate in ten consecutive three-year cycles. He also won the notoriously tough Soviet Championship on four occasions (1959, 1961, 1969, and 1975).
He died all too young though at the age of just 55 in 1984 when he was stricken down with pancreatic cancer. But his name lives on, not only with his chess legacy but also several public statues in Armenia and also a street named in the capital in his honour. And at the start of the year, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s national currency, several artists were commemorated with the issue of new banknotes, including Petrosian – fittingly, also coinciding with his own 90th anniversary year – who now adorns the 2,000-dram note.
As the end of his epic 1963, World Championship Match with Botvinnik neared, I remember well how Bob Wade in his book on the title match reported that “Traffic was brought to a halt in many of the main streets of Erevan, which were packed with chess fans. Scenting the possibility of victory, they stood there for hours, following….on giant demo-boards.”
Petrosian’s own personal favourite from his match with Botvinnik is today’s game, an effort that showcases best of all the Armenian’s masterful hold over a position. In his pre-match preparation, Iron Tigran confidently predicted Botvinnik would lose if he went for the queen trade in the Grünfeld, owing to the isolated Black e-pawn and the dominance of the White knight – and boy, how he showed it!
Photo: The formidable “Iron Tigran”, 1929-1984 | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
GM Tigran Petrosian – GM Mikhail Botvinnik
World Championship Match 1963, (5)
1.c4 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.e3 0-0 6.Be2 dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.d5 e6 9.dxe6 Qxd1+ 10.Kxd1 Bxe6 11.Bxe6 fxe6 12.Ke2 Petrosian actually trailed by a point when this game was played, but he stays true to his style with a low-key opening content to seek the tiniest of advantages. In his pre-match preparation, Petrosian confidently predicted Botvinnik would lose if he went for the queen trade owing to the isolated Black e-pawn and the dominance of the White knight – and how right his assessment was of the position! 12…Nc6 13.Rd1 Rad8 14.Rxd8 Rxd8 15.Ng5 Re8 16.Nge4 Nxe4 17.Nxe4 b6 18.Rb1 A very subtle move, typical of Petrosian, that aims to neutralise Black’s primary compensation: the queenside pawn majority. 18…Nb4 19.Bd2 Nd5 20.a4 Rc8 21.b3 Bf8 22.Rc1 Be7?! Mikhail Tal, great contemporary of both Botvinnik and Petrosian, suggested that now 22…Rb8! is best to sidestep White’s next move – a move that will see Petrosian take the clear upper hand. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20. 23.b4! c4 24.b5 Now Black’s cut-off c-pawn can’t be saved in the long run. Botvinnik had to realise around here, that he was facing a very tough defence – not something anyone would relish against Petrosian in his pomp! 24…Kf7 25.Bc3 Ba3 26.Rc2 Nxc3+ 27.Rxc3 Bb4 28.Rc2 Ke7 29.Nd2 The c-pawn is just too vulnerable – and if that falls, the ending with the isolated e-pawn will be very bad for Black. 29…c3 30.Ne4 Ba5 31.Kd3 Rd8+ 32.Kc4 Rd1 33.Nxc3 Rh1 34.Ne4 Rxh2 35.Kd4! Kd7 The point of Petrosian’s play, is that if 35…Rxg2 36.Rc7+ White easily wins after Rxh7 first followed by then capturing the a7-pawn. 36.g3 Bb4 37.Ke5! With White’s king joining the fray, Petrosian finishes things off with pinpoint accuracy against Botvinnik’s misplaced forces. 37…Rh5+ 38.Kf6 Be7+ 39.Kg7 e5 40.Rc6 Rh1 41.Kf7! [see diagram] Petrosian’s sealed move – and he makes no mistake with it being the winning move. There’s no escape from here; not even for the redoubtable Botvinnik, who was regarded as the absolute master of the lost art of adjournment analysis. 41…Ra1 42.Re6 Bd8 43.Rd6+ Kc8 44.Ke8 Bc7 45.Rc6 Rd1 46.Ng5 Rd8+ 47.Kf7 Rd7+ 48.Kg8 1-0 Botvinnik throws in the towel, facing lines like 48…h5 49.Ne6 Re7 50.Rxc7+ Rxc7 51.Nxc7 Kxc7 52.f4! Kd6 53.Kf7 exf4 54.exf4 with an elementary win.