Tigran Petrosian (17 June 1929 - 13 August 1984), Armenia's World Chess Champion (1963-69), became known as Iron Tigran due to his impenetrable defensive skills. At his peak he was almost impossible to beat. He was World Champion from 1963-69 with a polar opposite style from Mikhail Tal.
Petrosian is credited with an unprecedented, unique understanding of positional chess. While others had learned how to position their pieces for better activity and prospects later on, Petrosian seemed to understand how to position his forces in order to condemn his opponents to long term passivity.
Garry Kasparov said of him:
Petrosian introduced the exchange sacrifice for the sake of 'quality of position', where the time factor, which is so important in the play of Alekhine and Tal, plays hardly any role. Even today, very few players can operate confidently at the board with such abstract concepts. Before Petrosian no one had studied this. By sacrificing the exchange 'just like that', for certain long term advantages, in positions with disrupted material balance, he discovered latent resources that few were capable of seeing and properly evaluating.
Tigran Petrosian was born in 1929 in the small village of Mulki, Armenia. The family moved to Tblisi, Georgia when he was two years old. Young Tigran and his brother and sister enjoyed their studies and he liked school.
Tigran took up chess at the age of eight and was a good player by the age of twelve. The family was hit by tragedy, they lost both parents at a young age. He had to sweep the streets of Tblisi to survive. It was hard because he was not a strong boy and he was also a little embarrassed about being a street sweeper.
The other street sweepers, grown men, used to help him but he got sick and missed a year at school. His aunt helped the children out, giving them food to keep them going but life was hard. It was around this time that Petrosian first began to develop hearing difficulties.
Petrosian began to take his game to the next level from the age of twelve. He started training at the Palace of Pioneers in Tiflis. Archil Ebralidze was his mentor there. Ebralidze had previously worked with Aaron Nimzowitsch and favored a systematic, methodical approach.
Petrosian was given the Nimzowitsch works such as Chess Praxis and My System to study. The ideas and concepts in these books would form the basis for Petrosian's chess philosophy for the duration of his life.
Nimzowitsch's emphasis on tying the opponent up in knots and strangling him would take precedence over the dynamic attacks of Alekhine or the tactical tricks of Reti.
Petrosian moved to Moscow at the age of 20 and his career took off. He improved immensely over the following years and took second place in the 1951 Soviet Championship, earning the title International Master.
This success gained him access to the Interzonal Championship in Sweden a year later. He finished second there and was awarded the title of Grandmaster. It was also his spring board to his first appearance in the Candidates Tournament in 1953. The winner would challenge Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1954.
Petrosian finished fifth in a field of 15. Vasily Smyslov topped the table and challenged Botvinnik a year later. Petrosian played safe and ended up with very few losses but ultimately not enough wins to challenge for the tournament. This would set the tone for some time to come.
The Soviet chess fraternity were beginning to regard Petrosian as somewhat conservative in his play. Yes he was extremely talented and yes his amazing appreciation of dangers lurking far beneath the surface made him the best defender ever.
But they bemoaned the lack of adventure in his play. They said he was more concerned with not losing than winning. This lack of ambition certainly prevented him from losing many games and earned him the nickname Iron Tigran. But the fear was that it might also prevent him from realizing his full potential.
He went through a number of tournaments in this way. Winning just a handful of games whenever his opponents erred, drawing most of them and losing hardly ever. He wasn't losing any ground but the draws weren't going to get him to the top either.
Petrosian mixed it up a bit towards the end of the 50's. He remained true to his safety first principles. He never, as Botvinnik said, attacked unless he felt secure. But he did up the aggression significantly.
He was taking more risks now although they were calculated risks. It did result in a couple of more losses than he was used to but he was winning more games. And crucially he was winning championships.
He won the USSR Championship for the first time in 1959 and came closer in the Candidate's Tournament that year, his third. His game continued to progress and in 1962 at the fourth attempt he won the Candidate's Tournament and the right to face Botvinnik for the World Championship.
At last Tigran Petrosian had his big chance. He would take on the mighty Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship. Botvinnik had been World Champion for 15 years excepting a couple of brief interludes.
Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal had both snatched the title away from Botvinnik during the 50's. But on both occasions, Botvinnik had dug deep, trained hard and ripped it back in the customary rematch. Now Petrosian would throw down the gauntlet. He brought to the table the same significant edge that many young pretenders had before him.
Petrosian would cancel out Botvinnik's greater experience with youth and fitness. He went skiing every day during the build-up to the match as he figured that fitness could well be a factor late on. He may have been right because he overcame Botvinnik in the best of 24 game encounter on a score of 5-2 with 15 draws.
FIDE terminated the policy of granting the deposed champion an automatic rematch. Botvinnik rejected the option of competing in the Candidates Tournament. He withdrew from World Championship chess and confined himself to a select number of tournaments.
Petrosian knew that in 1966 he would face a new challenger. Boris Spassky emerged from the pack by winning the Candidates Tournament in 1965. He would provide a stern test for Petrosian. Petrosian passed the test, winning a tough encounter 4-3 among 17 draws.
Three years later Spassky was again the man to emerge as the challenger. This time Petrosian could not stop him from taking the title. Spassky triumphed 6-4 with 13 draws.
Petrosian continued to compete right into the early 80's. Apart from when he was champion, he competed in every Candidates Tournament between 1953 and 1980. He was still winning tournaments into the late 70's.
He finished first in the Paul Keres Memorial Tournament in Estonia in 1979 without losing a game. He finished second in Tilburg, Holland in 1981. That tournament is noteworthy because he took his last major scalp there, winning a remarkable game against Garry Kasparov.
Tigran Petrosian died in Moscow in 1984 at the young age of 55. A memorial was unveiled at his grave depicting the laurel wreath of world champion. It also contains an image within a crown of the sun shining above the twin peaks of Mount Ararat. This is the national symbol of Petrosian's native Armenia. A monument honoring Petrosian was also erected in Yerevan, in the street named after Petrosian.
They called him Iron Tigran because he was the most defensively solid player in the history of chess. He took Nimzowitsch's system to new levels. He could sense all of his opponent's threats before they could be developed.
Petrosian was the Immovable Object of chess. And it's because of his extremely cautious style that his remarkable chess talents aren't more celebrated. Sure his positional awareness was as deep as that of Botvinnik in his hey day. People that stereotype him as a boring player either forget or never knew that his tactical nous was in the same league as Tal.
He introduced the motif of exchanging a rook for a minor piece when it gave him a long term positional edge. His ability to evaluate these positions in this way was unprecedented. As Kasparov said, no one had studied these concepts before Petrosian. Understanding when to do this was second nature for him.
Tigran Petrosian is probably the least well known of the 20th Century World Chess Champions. When he got typecast as an ultra-conservative positional player, people lost enthusiasm for his chess.
But if you play back some of his games and get a feel for his chess philosophy, you gain serious respect for his positional awareness. With his exchange motif, he is telling us in some positions, the arrangement can make up the difference between a rook and a minor piece, the minor piece can be equal. You can learn much by playing through his games.
Now we will turn our attention to the man that took Petrosian's crown in 1966. That man was Boris Spassky.
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