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20 May

Iron Tigran

Armenia’s love affair with the game can be traced directly to this very day over half a century ago. The tiny country caught the chess bug on May 20, 1963, when Tigran Petrosian dethroned reigning Soviet world champion Mikhail Botvinnik over a grinding 24-game match to become the 9th World Chess Champion. After this victory, Petrosian single-handedly changed a nation. 

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“That [Petrosian’s victory] was what started it all. It was a fantastic example for the development of chess in Armenia,” said Armenia’s national chess team coach, Arshak Petrosian, no relation to the legendary player. Chess quickly became a national obsession, thousand’s of families named their children Tigran in his honour, and enthusiasm for the game has only grown in the decades since.

Through happenstance my first serious chess book obtained from my local library was Bob Wade’s account of the 1963 match between Botvinnik and Petrosian. Nowadays there’s an even more fascinating insight on the match by Botvinnik himself, with his inside book Botvinnik-Petrosian: The 1963 World Championship Match, published in 2010 by New in Chess.

Petrosian got off to a disastrous start with an horrific loss in the opening game with White after which he later characterised his play as “roughly first category strength, not even a candidate master.” But with 24 games, Petrosian had plenty of time to recover - and he equalised with a wonderful win in game 5, a springboard for going on to win the match 12.5-9.5, and fortunate to capture the world title at the very moment FIDE denied Botvinnik his habitual return match which had been the undoing of one-year ‘Winter Kings’ Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal when they respectively defeated the great patriarch in 1957 and 1960.

As the end of the match neared, Wade in his book reported that “Traffic was brought to a halt in many of the main streets of Erevan, which were packed with chess fans. Scenting the possibility of victory, they stood there for hours, following….on giant demo-boards.”

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Petrosian was nicknamed ‘Iron Tigran’ because he was one of the hardest players in the game to beat.  His personal favourite in his match with Botvinnik is today’s game, an effort that showcases the Armenian’s masterful positional skills at its best.

In his pre-match preparation, Petrosian confidently predicted Black would lose if he went for the queen trade in the Grünfeld with 9.dxe6! Qxd1+ 10.Kxd1 Bxe6 11.Bxe6 fxe6 12.Ke2, owing to the isolated Black e-pawn and the dominance of the White knight - and how ably he demonstrated this. 

GM Tigran Petrosian - GM Mikhail Botvinnik
World Championship 1963, (5)
Grünfeld Defence
1.c4 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.e3 0-0 6.Be2 dxc4 7.Bxc4 c5 8.d5 e6 9.dxe6 Qxd1+ 10.Kxd1 Bxe6 11.Bxe6 fxe6 12.Ke2 Petrosian stays true to his style with a low-key opening content to seek the tiniest of advantages. 12...Nc6 13.Rd1 Rad8 14.Rxd8 Rxd8 15.Ng5 Re8 16.Nge4 Nxe4 17.Nxe4 b6 18.Rb1 A subtle move that aims to neutralise Black's primary compensation - the queenside pawn majority. 18...Nb4 19.Bd2 Nd5 20.a4 Rc8 21.b3 Bf8 22.Rc1 Be7?! Mikhail Tal, great contemporary of both Botvinnik and Petrosian, suggested that now 22...Rb8! to sidestep White's next move - a move that see's Petrosian take the clear upper-hand. Hindsight is always 20/20. 23.b4! c4 24.b5 Now Black's cut-off c-pawn can't be saved in the long run. Botvinnik had to realise here he was facing a very tough defence. 24...Kf7 25.Bc3 Ba3 26.Rc2 Nxc3+ 27.Rxc3 Bb4 28.Rc2 Ke7 29.Nd2 c3 30.Ne4 Ba5 31.Kd3 Rd8+ 32.Kc4 Rd1 33.Nxc3 Rh1 34.Ne4 Rxh2 35.Kd4! Kd7 If 35...Rxg2 36.Rc7+ and White easily wins after Rxh7 first followed by the a7-pawn. 36.g3 Bb4 37.Ke5! With White's king joining the fray, Petrosian finishes things off with pinpoint accuracy against Botvinnik's misplaced forces. 37...Rh5+ 38.Kf6 Be7+ 39.Kg7 e5 40.Rc6 Rh1 41.Kf7 (See Diagram) Petrosian's sealed move, and the winning move. There's no escape from here - not even for Botvinnik, the absolute master of the lost art of adjournment analysis. 41...Ra1 42.Re6 Bd8 43.Rd6+ Kc8 44.Ke8 Bc7 45.Rc6 Rd1 46.Ng5 Rd8+ 47.Kf7 Rd7+ 48.Kg8 1-0 Botvinnik gives up facing lines like 48...h5 49.Ne6 Re7 50.Rxc7+ Rxc7 51.Nxc7 Kxc7 52.f4! Kd6 53.Kf7 exf4 54.exf4 with an elementary win.

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