Armenian Artist

‘To become world chess champion is to join the immortals. Yet some who have reached the top have been less lionised than others.

Dominic Lawson

To become world chess champion is to join the immortals. Yet some who have reached the top have been less lionised than others. Perhaps the least celebrated of all is Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian. As next month would have marked his 80th birthday—he died of stomach cancer in 1984, aged 55—we should pause to honour the achievements of this great Armenian.

As the ninth official world champion, reigning from 1963 to 1969, Petrosian was seen in the West as just the latest off the production line of the Russian chess school. This was very much what the Soviet government wanted us to think, but of course Petrosian would have considered himself Armenian first and foremost, and his own people—with a history of persecution perhaps second only to the Jews—derived a huge national pride from his achievements. 

His birthplace, in the village of Mulki, is marked by a monument with an eternal flame. This is especially appropriate, as he inspired an entire generation of Armenian players, who—now that the former Soviet “republics” can play as individual nations—have taken the gold medals in the last two chess Olympiads.

Tigran Petrosian, however, was not a player with great fighting spirit—and this probably accounted for the lack of glory attached to his name outside Armenia. He was seemingly ever ready to agree quick draws against lesser players rather than take even the slightest risk of losing. This was invariably described as “defensive”.

There were good reasons for this, which—like most attributes of character—lie in childhood. Petrosian came from a poor background and claimed not to have started playing chess until he was 12. This is very late for a grandmaster, let alone a future world champion. The most confident players tend to be those who absorbed the game as an infant, so that it seems as natural as breathing. Second, Petrosian was orphaned during the Second World War. According to one account, he was reduced to sweeping streets. Such terrible personal setbacks in early life gave Petrosian almost too vivid an appreciation of how much can go wrong in even the most innocuous circumstances. In his chess style, this was seen in his ability to see danger in positions which everybody else would regard as without risk.

This cast of mind made Petrosian’s games often very hard to understand—not just to the bemused amateur club players, but even to his fellow grandmasters. The former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, has put this very well: “Petrosian was, so to speak, a very ‘secretive’ player. There is something mysterious about Petrosian.”

This was no accident. Petrosian was a devoted disciple of the great teacher Aron Nimzovich, who eulogised the notion of the “mysterious” move. Many grandmasters would be lulled by the Armenian’s apparently pointless manoeuvrings, until it dawned on them, much too late, that they had been completely encircled. Thus, the Dutch ex-world champion Max Euwe pointed out, in a flurry of zoological metaphors, that, despite his first name, “Tigran Petrosian is not a tiger that pounces on his play, but rather a python that smothers its victim or even a crocodile, waiting for hours for a convenient moment to strike.”

For all its critics, this style was fantastically effective at world championship level. After all, Petrosian was either a defending world champion or a candidate for that honour in ten consecutive three-year cycles. This was an unmatched record of durability—and doubtless his tendency to fight hard in only a minority of his games minimised the stress on the nervous system, which causes many at the highest level to burn out after showing dazzling early promise.

In his superb book, The Battle of Chess Ideas, Dr Anthony Saidy described Petrosian as the appropriate world champion in the “age of the anti-hero”. He concluded his chapter on him by observing: “To base one’s campaign on the capacity to foresee and forestall every threat of the adversary is an impressive and original contribution to the evolution of chess thought. But it is not a creative, artistic achievement. It is a negation of the beauty and richness of the chess god Caissa.”

Much as I admire Dr Saidy’s book, I think this is most unfair on Petrosian. The Armenian was, for all his dour professionalism, a true artist of the chess board when the Muse was upon him. In fact, I would argue that no player in the modern era has produced anything that surpasses Petrosian’s best games in sheer beauty and harmony of expression. 

That is why, in the freezing winter of 1977, I spent a fortnight in Hastings to see Petrosian in the annual tournament which has taken place in that resort every year since 1895. He was no longer world champion, but still had a certain aura about him. And I was delighted to see the very way in which he moved the pieces—with tremendous and fastidious delicacy, as if stirring a extremely rare tea with an ivory spoon.

I was rewarded in a more thrilling way, as were the other spectators, when Petrosian played a game against the British grandmaster John Nunn, which can properly be described as a work of art. I felt, watching it unfold, as perhaps an art student might find the experience of being in the presence of a great painter as he puts the finishing touches to a masterpiece. This is what happened, with Petrosian playing White. 

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.Nd2 Bg7 8.Nc4 0-0 9.Bg5 h6 10.Bf4 b6 11.Bxd6 Re8 12.Bg3 Ne4 13.Nxe4 Rxe4 14.e3 b5 15.Nd2 Rb4 16.b3!! (Petrosian at his best, completely refuting Black’s premature attack)…Bxa1 17.Qxa1 Qxd5 18.a3 Rg4 19.Be2 Nc6 20.Bf3 Qe6 21.Bxg4 Qxg4 22.0-0 Bb7 23.f3 Qe6 24.Ne4 Rd8 25.Nxc5 Qxe3+ 26.Bf2 Qe7 27.Re1 Qc7 28.h4 h5 29.Ne4 Ne7 30.Nf6+ Kf8 31.b4!! (The second delicate move of the b-pawn, and this time it’s a killer, preparing to fix the White Bishop on c5)…Bc8 32.Nxh5 gxh5 33.Qh8+ Ng8 34.Bc5+ Rd6 35.Qe5 and Nunn resigned, since Bxd6+ comes next, with utter annihilation.

Happy 80th Birthday, Tigran. 

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