Tigran Petrosian (1929-1984) - World Chess Champion from 1963 to 1969
"One must beware of unnecessary excitement."
Life and Chess Career
Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian (or Petrosyan) was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, on 17th June, 1929. He learned chess from his parents when he was eight, and won some local tournaments as a junior. After both his parents died in World War II when he was 16, he moved to Erevan, Armenia on his own and won the Armenian championship in 1946 and 1948. In 1949 he moved to Moscow and continued to win tournaments, winning the Moscow championship in 1951 and taking second place in the USSR championships that year behind Paul Keres.
He continued to excel throughout the 1950's, finally winning the USSR title in 1959 and then again in 1961. He won the privilege to play Mikhail Botvinnik, the reigning World Champion, by taking first place at the 1962 Candidates Tournament in Curacao (ahead of no less a player than Bobby Fischer, who later claimed that the Soviet Bloc players had conspired against him by sharing their analysis). He defeated Botvinnik, who was by then a spent force in chess, in a match of five wins, fifteen draws and two losses. He defended his title three years later against Boris Spassky and won narrowly, but Spassky beat him second time around in 1969.
He tried to come back and win the championship a second time in 1971, but this time he was destroyed by the then-unbeatable Bobby Fischer, who went on to beat Spassky in the highest-profile chess match of all time. Petrosian played tournament chess strongly during the 1970s and early 1980s despite the loss of his title, until illness overcame him and he died of cancer on August 13th, 1984.
"It was really hard to play Tigran. The thing is that he had a somewhat different understanding of positional play. He went deeper into it than usual and even I did not fully understand Tigran’s way and depth of judgment."
- Mikhail Botvinnik
Petrosian is regarded (perhaps unfairly) as one of the weakest players out of all world chess champions of the modern era, second only to Max Euwe, who defeated Alexander Alekhine when Alekhine was struggling with depression and alcoholism. A warm, agreeable and calm man, Petrosian's playing style reflected his personality. Despite his name ("Tiger"), he almost never took risks, and, heavily influenced by the great Aron Nimzovitch, he favoured an extreme form of prophylaxis, preferring to stifle all of his opponents plans before attempting to form a plan of his own. Out of 2500 tournament games, he drew over 50%, a higher percentage of draws than any other world champion. He favoured unusual piece manouevers, and it was not unheard of for his opponent to resign with all of Petrosian's pieces still confined to his own half of the board, often his own back rank.
He was once asked how many moves ahead he tended to calculate, and replied "One!" This illustrates a point of which he and his opponents were well aware - when it came to tactics and calculation, Petrosian was not exceptionally strong. He tended to avoid complicated positions, and was never in any hurry to force a game to its conclusion. He relied on patient, strategic manouevering to confuse and outwit his opponents, and he had an exquisite sensitivity to the nuances of any position on the chess board. He was a master of the positional 'exchange sacrifice', which became his trademark. He was said to be highly disturbed by the chess style of his compatriot Viktor Korchnoi, a highly tactical, calculating player whose style was diametrically opposed to his own - Petrosian saw chess above all as a game of logic, and he hated any form of unclarity or chaos on the chessboard.
His play was not understood well at the time, and he was not a popular world champion - it's difficult to get enthusiastic about a player whose games seem to be a mystery, whether he wins or loses. However, as chess has continued to develop in the late 20th century, commentators have been looking back to Petrosian as the initiator in a change of chess play and chess theory, in which the emphasis has shifted from speed and even material to more abstract positional considerations which were not fully understood while he was alive.