Tigran Petrosian; The World Champion with an impenetrable defence

Nicknamed the “Iron Tigran”, Tigran Petrosian was a Soviet Armenian Grandmaster, and World Chess Champion, who was most famous for his defensive style of play. He was difficult to beat because he prioritised the safety of his pieces above all else. He is also famed for being the person who popularised chess in Armenia.

Tigran Petrosian had a unfortunate start to life, experiencing tragedy at a young age, and yet he still went on to dominate in the chess world, becoming  a Candidate for the World Chess Championship on eight occasions, spanning 30 years! So let’s found out how he came to do it…

The Early Life of Tigran Petrosian

Born on the 17th June 1929 to Armenian parents, Tigran Petrosian developed a love of chess from an early age. He was a bright child, who enjoyed studying, just like his brother and sister, and he learnt to play the game from 8 years old. His father was illiterate and didn’t believe that chess could produce a career for his son, so encouraged Tigran to focus more on his studies.

In a sad turn of events, young Tigran Petrosian found himself orphaned during World War II, and had to turn to sweeping the streets in order to make a living. During this time he began to experience some hearing loss, a condition that continued developing and deteriorating throughout his life.

Tigran has since recalled that the thing which had the greatest influence on him as a chess player was the book Chess Praxis by the Danish grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch, which he bought for himself using his rations. He also spoke of being inspired by José Raúl Capablanca who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927.

At age 12, Tigran Petrosian began training at the Tiflis Palace of Pioneers, and thanks to his mentor Archil Ebralidze, he developed a scientific approach to chess and learnt a range of solid openings for his game play. After just a year of training, Petrosian played a simultaneous exhibition against visiting Soviet grandmaster Salo Flohr, and was victorious.

Tigran Petrosian

The Chess Career of Tigran Petrosian

By 1946, Tigran Petrosian had earned the title of Candidate Master. During this year he won the Armenian Chess Championship as well as the USSR Junior Chess Championship.

The following year in 1947, Petrosian earned the title of Master during the 1947 USSR Chess Championship, despite the fact that he failed to qualify for the finals. Following this he made the decision to move to Moscow in 1949, to seek greater competitions and opponents. This was clearly the right move for his career as his gameplay improved and his results went from strength.

Tigran earned himself a second place finish in the 1951 Soviet Championship, and thus was given the title of international master. It was in this tournament that he came face to face with world champion Mikhail Botvinnik for the first time.

Although he then qualified for the 1953 Candidates Tournament, he only finished in fifth place, a result which marked the beginning of what was considered by some to be a somewhat stagnant period in his career. It appeared as if he was content to play and draw against weaker players and to simply maintain his title of Grandmaster rather than trying to improve his chess or to make an attempt at becoming World Champion.

Although Tigran Petrosian’s defensive and safe style of playing meant he was still obtaining decent tournament results, his consistency was deemed boring and it was looked down upon by both the public and by Soviet chess media and authorities.

Tigran Petrosian

Things changed in 1957 when Petrosian took part in the 1957 USSR Championship. Although he only finished in seventh place, after winning seven, losing four, and drawing 10 games, it was noted that he played with a much more ambitious approach, much to the appreciation of the Soviet chess community.

Tigran went on to win his first USSR Championship in 1959, and then later that same year he defeated Paul Keres in the Candidates Tournament, demonstrating his often-overlooked tactical abilities. Off of the back of this victory, Petrosian was awarded the title of Master of Sport of the USSR in 1960, and then won a second Soviet title in 1961.

His renewed excellent level of playing continued up and in to 1962, when he qualified for and ultimately won the Candidates Tournament, thus going for what would turn out to be his first of multiple World Championship matches.

Tigran Petrosian earned the right to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik for the title of World Chess Champion, and he appeared to have the initial advantage just by being so much younger than his opponent. Petrosian ultimately won the match against Botvinnik with a final score of 5 wins, 2 losses and 15 draws, helped to victory by his signature style of cautious play; waiting for his opponent to make mistakes and then capitalising on them.

Tigran Petrosian’s Later Career and Life

Petrosian used his newly acquired World Champion status to campaign for the publication of a chess newspaper for the entire Soviet Union rather than just Moscow.

In 1966, three years after he had first earned the title of World Chess Champion, Tigran Petrosian was challenged by Boris Spassky. He managed to defend his title by winning rather than drawing, something which had not been accomplished since the 1934 World Championship. But Spassky continued to have great successes against other worthy opponents and earned the right to a rematch 3 years later in 1969.

The rematch, which took place in Moscow, was ultimately won by Spassky, ending Petrosian’s reign as World Champion.

Tigran Petrosian continued to play competitively for a number of years, with some of his notable victories including at Lone Pine in 1976 and also in the 1979 Paul Keres Memorial tournament in Tallinn. His last famous victory was a miraculous escape against the young Garry Kasparov during the Tilburg tournament of 1981.

Petrosian died of stomach cancer on August 13, 1984, in Moscow and is buried in the Moscow Armenian Cemetery.

Tigran Petrosian

Quick Facts

  • In the lead up to his World Championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik, Petrosian also prepared by skiing for several hours each day. He believed that physical fitness could end up playing a factor in such a long match.
  • Tigran Petrosian was partially deaf and wore a hearing aid to assist him during his matches.
  • Petrosian used his chess skills to obtain a degree of Master of Philosophical Science at Yerevan State University. In 1968 he published his thesis, titled “Chess Logic, Some Problems of the Logic of Chess Thought”.
  • Along with a number of other Soviet chess champions, Tigran signed a petition condemning the actions of the defector Viktor Korchnoi in 1976.
  • When living in Moscow, Petrosian famously answered ‘Abroad, they call us all Russians. I am a Soviet Armenian.’ when asked if he was Russian.
  •  Tigran had a number of other hobbies outside of chess which included football, backgammon, cross-country skiing, table tennis, and gardening.