Tigran Petrosian, an ethnic Armenian, was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. His parents died before he was 16. He worked as a street sweeper while he improved his chess. Unlike prodigies, who prove their mettle in a blaze of glory, Petrosian gradually moved up the ranks as his skills improved. His life was filled largely with chess play.
This is a story of a subtle, unassuming man, who became the champion of the world, though chess fans reviled him. Petrosian worked the subtlest chess art, work so subtle that its beauty could not easily be understood. He proved perhaps the greatest chess prophet, though, as prophets often are, he received no more than a fraction of the recognition he deserved.
Some people flourish through swashbuckling. The world Champion Mikhail Tal wove intricate mating traps, "brilliancies" both wild and graceful. But Tigran Petrosian approached chess in an altogether different way. He had an uncanny knack for divining his opponent's plans, and derailing them.
Some people called Petrosian "The Python", because he seemed to squeeze the life out of a position. He was very difficult to beat, and uncannily capable of trading seemingly innocuous positions into won games. As all great grandmasters can, he could launch a brilliant attack. But it is as chess' greatest defender that Petrosian is best known.
In 1963, despite a bout of personal illness, he defeated world champion Mikhail Botvinnik, one of the founders of the "Soviet School" of chess players. Botvinnik had a forceful style and left an indelible mark, in the form of an analytical approach that converted the study of chess into a near science. The Soviet system, based on some comments of Lenin's, considered chess the perfect crucible to demonstrate the supposed "superiority" of the Marxist state. Botvinnik, a modest man and dominating chess player, arguably epitomized that rational, clear style.
Petrosian harkened back somewhat to the "hypermodern" era of Aron Nimzovich, the German grandmaster whose writings taught the virtues of blockade and luring one's opponent to his or her doom. Petrosian
had the deepest feel for positions, and for understanding how to take the juice out of an attacker's onslaught, and then feast on the rind.
Petrosian held his title for six years, defeating the suave and
dynamic Boris Spassky in the first defense of his title. In 1969, however, Spassky edged out Petrosian in hard-fought games in which Petrosian's subtle style nearly withstood Spassky's challenge.
Even after Petrosian had been ousted as world champion, he remained a formidable competitor for many years to come. He made it to the semi-finals of the next round of candidates' matches for the world championship, losing at last to Bobby Fischer, who became the next world champion. He qualified in other championship cycles, but each time fell just short of the finals. He died of cancer in 1984, shy of his 60th birthday.
The fascinating thing about Petrosian is that during his time, his brilliance eluded the common chess player. Petrosian did not delight in wild sacrifices and risky positions. Instead, he sought a methodical style which prevented losing first, and then sought out a win. He played many draws in serious competition, and he won many games. He lost rather fewer games.
Petrosian's games include many situations in which he took what seem to be risks, but which prove, upon calculations, to be carefully constructed defensive strategies. Petrosian would often close up the position, and then work in cramped quarters. Sometimes he would move his pieces back to the squares on which they started the game, only to rearrange them for better defense. He was the consummate "positional" player, a player less concerned with aggressive attacks than with finding the "truth" in every position--the way the patterns of the pawns and pieces prove out the less obvious strategies of the players.
His life was not entirely free of fireworks. A famous story relates how his wife, Rona, slapped his chess trainer when Petrosian lost his famous match to Fischer. She felt the trainer, and not Petrosian, was to blame. I think that such slaps are rather a shame. I wonder how Petrosian felt about it.
Petrosian advanced chess theory, and many opening lines bear the term "Petrosian Variation" or "Petrosian system". But though he was reputed to be an affable man, Petrosian's style never charmed other players.
He lived in an era of "chess characters". Fischer's ascent threatened Soviet chess dominance, while Fischer's eccentricity (arguably, mental illness) gave rise to many distractions. The Danish Grandmaster Bent Larsen, though not so strong, showed that
numerous flank opening systems thought unfashionable were in fact
intriguing. Henrique Mecking, the Brazilian grandmaster, combined a gift for the attack with a battle with personal illness. The Canadian Duncan Suttles captured the spirit of the 1960s, with
an opening style based on the "Modern" Opening, which flouted every classical rule. Turn on, tune in, checkmate.
But I argue that there is a place for the subtle genius in this world. They call Petrosian's style "prophylactic", because he could seemingly adjust to any attack and any strategy. One found it hard to "take the fight to him"; often, he had to be beaten by people who could "play his game" positionally.
Some call Petrosian the "grandmaster's grandmaster". In theory, the old saw goes, only other grandmasters really "got" his games. In Petrosian game, nothing seems to happen, only, all of a sudden, Petrosian is winning. A winning attack, seemingly unstoppable, is transformed into a disarray of pieces and pawns, picked apart by Petrosian.
My theory is that great art is sometimes so subtle that nobody realizes it is great art at all. People imagine that a stained glass window just appears as a work of glass-installation, or that a perfect photographic image is entirely a trick of the light and the happenstance. The most artistic things sometimes seem artless.
Petrosian lived in grey times, as Soviet Communism breathed its last gasps before its eventual transition into oblivion. He lived in a world of KGB agents, party loyalties, and restricted travel. When he played a match against the famous defector Korchnoi, they apparently played behind bullet-proof glass. Perhaps he can be forgiven a life of defense. But I find in his subtle strategies the deepest grace. Some said he was lazy. If he needed 10 points to win a tournament, he did not worry about scoring the eleventh point. He frequently found a great move instead of the best move, and then ground out the win. Some call him the founder of the "pragmatic" school of chess. But to me, his is an art of living--of finding the ways to breathe even when the constriction and complexities arise. It is all well and good to be a wild attacker. But who shall stand for the defense? Sometimes I think there is a great deal of virtue in defending what matters.
I will likely never have a child. But if I did, I would buy her
a book of Petrosian's games. We'd play them over together, one by one. I'd teach her the beauty of defense, and the art of adjusting to the position at hand. We'd gaze on Petrosian's games, as if they were our Louvre.