Petrosian’s Powerful Positional Play Wins the Crown

Blog Post 2 1200x628 Tigran Petrosian 1

Tigran Petrosian, like Tal, was a world chess champion who dealt with poor health throughout his life. However, the challenges he faced as a child helped him forge the strength of character needed to become a world champion.

A stout defender and master of the exchange sacrifice, Tigran Petrosian was known as a player who was incredibly difficult to defeat. Some believe his ability to defend and earn draws might have even held him back.

There was nothing flashy about Tigran Petrosian’s play, but it brought him something not many have ever obtained – the title of World Chess Champion.

One of the hallmarks of Tigran Petrosian’s play was his exchange sacrifices. Here is one he used against Hubner in the 1971 Candidates Tournament, presented by GM Aleksandr Lenderman in his popular Master Method course:

Collaboration in the Curacao Candidates Chess Tournament

During the 1962 Curacao Candidates Tournament, there was a lot of cooperation among the Soviet delegation. However, even within their ranks, there were conspiracies aimed at two other Soviet players – Viktor Korchnoi and Mikhail Tal.

After the twenty-first round, Tal dropped out of the tournament due to ill health.

Upon his return to the States, Bobby Fischer accused the Soviets of fixing tournaments by taking early draws and offering each other advice on how to win against him. He also claimed Korchnoi was under orders to lose to the other three Soviet players.

Viktor Korchnoi
Viktor Korchnoi

Korchnoi would deny Fischer’s accusations, saying that even he was surprised by the number of quick draws. At that time, many believed that if two Soviet players played against each other, you could assume the result would always be the most useful.

More collusion happened within the tournament when a decisive game, in terms of the tournament outcome, between Benko and Keres was adjourned. Petrosian and Geller offered to help Benko with his analysis.

Benko later said he turned down their offer and won the game on his own effort.

Benko won the game against Keres during the tournament using the King’s Indian Attack. Unsurprisingly, Keres chose to play 2…Bg4, which is known as the Keres Variation.

Pal Benko – Paul Keres, 1962.06.23, 1-0, Curacao Candidates Round 27, Willemstad CUW

Tigran Petrosian won the 1962 Curacao Candidates Tournament with 17.5 points, a half point ahead of his alleged co-conspirators Keres and Geller. Fischer finished in fourth place, with 14 points, behind the three Soviet players.

On the way to winning the tournament, Tigran Petrosian defeated Bobby Fischer in round 13.

Robert James Fischer – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1962.05.23, 0-1, Curacao Candidates Round 13, Willemstad CUW

The Candidates Chess Tournament Gets Changed

Rather than run the risk of further controversy in future candidates chess tournaments, FIDE decided to change the format. These changes would come into effect at the following Candidates Chess Tournaments.

FIDE changed the format of the Candidates Tournament from a round-robin to a series of elimination matches, with a best-of-ten quarter and semi-finals and a best-of-twelve semi-final.

A resolution was passed stipulating that any draws before move thirty needed approval from the arbiter.

The changes came into effect in 1966 and stayed in place until 2013.

Ironically, nineteen years later, in 1971, accusations of a conspiracy involving Tigran Petrosian winning the right to play Bobby Fischer in the Candidates Final Match would surface.

Many believed that Korchnoi was asked to lose his semi-final match against Petrosian because Petrosian had better chances against Fischer.

Fischer defeated Petrosian comfortably in that match by 6.5 points to 2.5 points.

Tigran Petrosian only managed to win one game in their Candidates Final. However, it should be said, many chess players went through their entire careers without managing to beat Bobby Fischer.

Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian – Robert James Fischer, 1971.10.05, 1-0, Fischer – Petrosian Candidates Final Round 2, Buenos Aires ARG

Tigran Petrosian Challenges Mikhail Botvinnik in 1963

Despite winning the Candidates Tournament, Tigran Petrosian had to wait to learn if Mikhail Botvinnik was willing to defend his title.

mikhail botvinnik 1962
Mikhail Botvinnik, 1962

After winning his rematch against Tal, Botvinnik said he might not defend his title if a Soviet player won the Candidates Tournament. In November 1962, Mikhail Botvinnik agreed to defend his title.

Petrosian was due to have surgery at the end of November for chronic angina and requested the start of the match be rescheduled from March 14th, 1963, until April 1st, 1963.

Botvinnik refused because this meant the match might continue into June, which can be extremely hot in Moscow. FIDE president Folke Rogard was asked to adjudicate and set the start date to March 23rd.

The venue was Moscow’s Estrada Theater, and the rules would be the same as for many previous world chess championship matches. The match would continue for a maximum of twenty-four games or until one of the players reached 12.5 or 13 points.

The time control was two-and-a-half hours for forty moves and one hour for sixteen moves after adjournment. Help for adjourned games was only available from a second nominated two weeks before the match started.

Tigran Petrosian nominated Isaak Boleslavsky, but Botvinnik chose not to have any help.

A three-day postponement was allowed if a player became ill during the match

Tigran Petrosian Becomes World Chess Champion

Prior to the match, Petrosian and his training partners, Boleslavsky and Suetin began their preparations at a sanatorium. One month before the start of the match, they moved to a convalescent home near Moscow.

During his preparations, Tigran Petrosian bought himself his first warm winter coat after twenty-two years of living in Moscow.

He also took a break from chess for three weeks to distract himself from the upcoming match.

Botvinnik prepared for the match by playing a training match against Semyon Furman, the renowned opening specialist Botvinnik had worked with to prepare for his 1961 match against Mikhail Tal.

Mikhail Tal 1962
Mikhail Tal, 1962

Spectators were to remain silent during the games, and photographers were not allowed to use a flash.

Before the match began, Tigran Petrosian noticed that Botvinnik often won matches where he scored an early win. Despite being aware of this tendency, Petrosian lost the first and fourteenth games.

However, Petrosian won the fifth and seventh games, leaving the match tied after fourteen games.

Mikhail Tal entertained the crowd by playing a game against them when Botvinnik took a timeout at the start of game nine.

Tigran Petrosian went on to win games fifteen, eighteen, and nineteen but asked for a postponement before game twenty. The match resumed two days later after he recovered from an upset stomach.

The match ended with draws in games twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two with a final score of 12.5-9.5 in Petrosian’s favor.

Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian – Mikhail Botvinnik, 1963.04.01, 1-0, Botvinnik – Petrosian World Championship Match Round 5, Moscow URS

Petrosian Defends His Title Against Boris Spassky

Torre Attack 3.Bg5
The Torre Attack can be a dangerous surprise weapon.

After holding the title for three years, Tigran Petrosian faced Boris Spassky in a World Chess Championship Match from April 9th until June 9th, 1966. The match would make use of all twenty-four games.

Many players often assume others choose to play positional chess to avoid tactics. Popular opinion believed this was true of Petrosian, so Spassky did his best to create double-edged positions with either color.

The warning signs that this strategy was doomed to failure arose as early as game seven of the match. This was the only game where Spassky deviated from 1.e4, played 1.d4, and chose the Torre Attack (see diagram to the right) over the Queen’s Indian Defense.

Boris Spassky – Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1966.04.25, 0-1, Petrosian – Spassky World Championship Match Round 7, Moscow URS

Petrosian would describe this game as “one of my best games.” This game is an excellent example of restricting your opponent and playing across the whole board.

Such games are why many have likened Petrosian’s play to that of a python. You often couldn’t do anything while he slowly squeezed the life out of your position.

Although known for his defensive exchange sacrifices, Tigran Petrosian was not afraid to play them to get attacking opportunities.

If game seven did not provide Spassky with enough warning signs, then game ten should have got the alarm bells ringing. The winning move in this position is arguably one of the most beautiful in chess.

Tigran Petrosian showed he could find tactics as good as the best-attacking players. In this position, he forced immediate resignation with a queen sacrifice - 30.Qh8+

Yes, the winning move is 30.Qh8+ gaining a decisive material advantage after 30…Kxh8 31.Nxf7+ and Nxg5. Reaching this position involved crafting a beautiful game as well.

Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian – Boris Spassky, 1966.05.02, 1-0, Petrosian – Spassky World Championship Match Round 10, Moscow URS

The match was a hard-fought victory for Petrosian, who won four games to Spassky’s three. The final result was +4 -3 =17 in favor of the world champion.

In Conclusion

Tigran Petrosian proved a worthy world chess champion who showed us the importance of excellent defensive skills and the power of positional chess. Although these were the foundation of his success, he was not afraid to enter tactical positions where he demonstrated admirable tactical skills.

There is much we can learn from the games of Petrosian, and many of the strategies he employed you can use with success in your games. It took a great player like Boris Spassky two attempts to outplay Petrosian in matchplay.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from many of the past world chess champions is to be grateful for the abundance of chess wisdom available today. When he started learning chess, Petrosian did not have access to nearly as much information as us.

When it comes to accessing chess information, the exclusive iChess Master Method series provides high-quality chess instruction covering all facets of chess.

GM Aleksandr Lenderman has collected some of the best games of past world chess champions for us to enjoy. There is no need to spend valuable time reinventing the wheel when you can use deadly chess strategies from the greatest chess players.

Grab your copy of “Chess Secrets of the World Champions” today! Get 15 hours of chess instruction for the price of one hour of chess coaching!

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