Armenian Underdog

Tigran Petrosian's prophylactic prowess

Dominic Lawson

In a two-horse race it’s important to remember that the rank outsider is only one accident away from victory. Chess matches are not like horse-racing — if you fall in one game you can get up and win the next one. But chess history has seen many world championship matches in which the outcome has confounded all the most confident predictions: most notably in 1927 when Alexander Alekhine wrested the title from José Capablanca. Apart from Alekhine himself, no one had thought the Cuban “chess machine” could be beaten.
Fifty years ago this month another world championship match began: but on this occasion it was the challenger whom almost all the grandmaster and amateur pundits tipped to win. That challenger was Boris Spassky, then 30, acclaimed as a future champion since at least the age of 18 when he won the world junior title. Now, he had comfortably won three successive qualifying matches, concluding with a 7-4 victory against the former world champion Mikhail Tal.
The only obstacle remaining was the defending title-holder, Tigran Petrosian, who in 1962 had taken the crown from the “father of Soviet chess” Mikhail Botvinnik. Petrosian, an Armenian, was the outsider among all the Moscow-based luminaries of Soviet chess — and it was in that empire’s headquarters that he was obliged to defend his title against the Muscovite Spassky.
There were more substantial reasons why Petrosian was seen as the underdog. In tournaments ahead of the match he had failed to take first place, often conceding draws against significantly weaker players. But matchplay and tournament play are very different. In tournaments it’s necessary to pile up a very big “plus” score to guarantee first place. In matches, it doesn’t matter how many draws you concede. Also, in those days, world championship matches were over 24 games. This required immense durability — and Petrosian was a tough little nugget of a man — as one might expect of someone who had been orphaned as a child and survived as a street-sweeper. During that time he had lost most of his hearing, as result of some infection picked up on the streets — but this is hardly a handicap for a chess-player.
Petrosian’s chess style was evocative of a character formed in harsh adversity. He had an astonishingly acute sense of any hazard lurking in a position. Bobby Fischer — not a man easily given to praising others — marvelled: “No matter how deep you think, he will ‘smell’ any kind of danger 20 moves before.”
Petrosian perfected the method outlined many decades earlier by the great chess theoretician Aron Nimzovitch — which the author of My System termed “prophylaxis”. The idea was to play moves which are principally designed to prevent what the opponent wants to do: if you do this successfully, he is liable to become frustrated, and make bad decisions.
So it was not surprising that the match, which began on April 9, 1966, opened with six consecutive draws; nor so surprising that in the seventh game, playing White, Spassky decided to play sharply for a win. It was fatal: Petrosian effortlessly blocked his opponent’s premature attack and then launched a massive counter-offensive which ended with Spassky’s king in a mating net.
This seemed to liberate Petrosian psychologically and in the 10th game he unleashed the prodigious tactical talent usually devoted to foreseeing and preventing the opponent’s possibilities. As Petrosian’s biographer Vik Vasiliev wrote: “Spassky did not simply lose the 10th game — he was routed. Petrosian sacrificed both rooks and noticed with pleasure that he could also sacrifice his Queen. This he did, and Spassky immediately resigned.”
Then in the 12th game, Petrosian was, to the amazement of all those who saw him as just a great master of defence, on the verge of another attacking masterpiece, at one point offering three different pieces with a single move. But then he ruined it all as he ran short of time. One of his friends recorded that Petrosian was profoundly affected by this “creative tragedy” and fell into a deep depression: “He had no desire any more for battle, nor any reserves against the apathy which threatened him.” His team persuaded the match doctor to give Petrosian a few days off, and, although he did not play again with the same sparkle, managed to finish ahead of Spassky by a single point — after no less than two months of struggle. He thus became the first champion since Alekhine in 1934 to win a match in defence of the world title.
Petrosian lost his final struggle — against stomach cancer — at the age of 55 in 1984. But his birthplace in the Armenian village of Mulki contains his monument — an eternal flame; and his example continues to inspire that tiny nation to extraordinary achievements in chess. Here then, is that first win of the 1966 world championship match, an enduring testament to one of the game’s most original talents.
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5
(Spassky plays the Torre Attack. This normally sees White attacking on the K-side and Black on the Queen’s wing. Petrosian, it turns out, has other ideas) d5 4.Nbd2 Be7 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 c5 7.c3 b6 8.0-0 Bb7 9.Ne5 (This was meant to be the start of Spassky’s K-side attack) Nxe5 10.dxe5 Nd7 11.Bf4 Qc7 12.Nf3 h6! 13.b4 g5! (Now we see Petrosian’s idea: he will castle Q-side and go for Spassky’s King) 14.Bg3 h5! (14…cxb4? 15.cxb4 Bxb4 16.Nd4 is just what Spassky wants) 15.h4 gxh4 16.Bf4 (White has to maintain his e5 pawn) 0-0-0 17.a4? (Spassky had to open a file for his own attack with 17.bxc5.) c4! (This, combined with Black’s next move, effectively prevents all counterplay: classic Petrosian) 18.Be2 a6! 19.Kh1 Rdg8 20.Rg1 Rg4 21.Qd2 Rhg8 22.a5 b5 23.Rad1 Bf8 24.Nh2 Nxe5! (A completely sound exchange sacrifice: another Petrosian hallmark) 25.Nxg4 hxg4 26.e4 Bd6 (Obviously not 26…dxe4?? 27.Bxe5 and if Black recaptures on e5 then 28.Qd8 mate) 27.Qe3 Nd7 28.Bxd6 Qxd6 29.Rd4? (Spassky is now floundering: he has no good plan) e5 30.Rd2 f5! (A tremendous blow, liberating his central phalanx of pawns, which sweep down the board) 31.exd5 (if 31.exf5 Qf6 is very strong) f4 32.Qe4 Nf6 33.Qf5+ Kb8 34.f3 Bc8 35.Qb1 g3 36.Re1 h3 37.Bf1 Rh8 38.gxh3 Bxh3 39.Kg1 (If 39.Bxh3 Qd7! is the killer) Bxf1 40.Kxf1 e4! 41.Qd1 (If 41.fxe4 f3 is decisive) Ng4 (Spectacular, though not the only way to win) 42.fxg4 f3 43.Rg2 (Desperately trying to cope with the threat of Qh6 followed by mate) fxg2+ and Spassky resigned. After 42.Kxg2 Rh2+ 43.Kg1 Qh6 checkmate can only be delayed, not prevented. A perfect synthesis of strategy and tactics.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens