Iron Tigran

Iron Tigran

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Recently I've read several nice blog postings, such as this one, featuring Tigran Petrosian. They reminded me of an interview published in "Chess Life and Review," May 1976  (pp. 271-273) after Petrosian won the famous Lone Pine tournament.

The cover shows Louis Stratham (who's generosity funded the tournament) and Petrosian

The interview was conducted by Col. Ed Edmondson, a former president of the USCF whose contributions to US chess are worthy of a book.  

from a memorial article by Burt Hochberg in Chess Life 1983 after Edmonson's untimely death.






     Former World Champion Tigran Petrosian surprised most of us by winning the first Swiss System open event in which he ever played, the 1976 Louis D. Statham Masters-Plus at Lone Pine. This was his second victory in a row, for last December he won the 43rd USSR Championship—the fourth time he has won the national title.
     The happy winner submitted to this interview during dinner in New York City, on the eve of his departure for home.

Q: You were born June 17, 1929, in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia. Were your father and mother both of Armenian ancestry?
   A: Oh yes, they were true Armenians.
Q: How did they come to be in Georgia?
   A: My father was a refugee from Turkey.
Q: In what year did he go to Georgia?
   A: In 1904.
Q: And at what age did you eventually leave Georgia?
   A: When I was 17.
Q: Was this because of chess?
   A: Yes, it was.
Q: And did your parents stay in Georgia, or did they depart when you did?
   A: Both of my parents had died before I left Georgia. However, I did not leave Georgia because it was bad for me—simply, I was seeking something better.
Q: When you left Georgia, to what place did you go?
   A: To Yerevan, in Armenia.
Q: I think that answers my next question. Born in Georgia, but do you think of yourself as Georgian or as Armenian?
   A: True Armenian! But if it seems to you that this is a long journey, please be aware that it is only 160 miles from Tiflis to Yerevan.
Q: The next two questions are really for your wife, Rona. Does being the wife of a chess professional, a former World Champion, now and three times previously the Champion of the USSR, keep you busy enough, or do you engage in another profession?
   A: (Rona.) No, I like being his wife; it is enough.
Q: What was your profession before you were married?
   A. (Rona.) I was a teacher of English.
Q: How many children do you have?
   A: (Tigran.) Two sons.
Q: Their names and ages?
   A: Mikhail, 28, and Vartan, 21.
Q: Is Mikhail sometimes called Misha?
   A: Yes, he is called Misha. (Answered with a laugh at this use of a family nickname.)
Q: And What does Misha do?
   A: He is a biologist, now completing the necessary work for his doctorate.
Q: Has Misha found time for marriage, or only for studies?
   A: He is married and he has a daughter of his own, so we are grandparents.
Q: Misha and Vartan—do they play chess?
   A: (Enthusiastically.) Yes, they play chess and they like to play.
Q: Would you want Vartan to be a chess professional?
   A: No. (Petrosian chuckled.) He won't be!


Q: What other games do you play?
   A: Many, many games. I play checkers, cards, and something like backgammon—it's called Nardy.  Nardy is an Armenian game, and I began to play it when I was five years old.

(Here, memories of his youth prompted Petrosian to relate the following anecdote.) You know, when I first became World Champion, I was congratulated by many people on the stage of the theater. Among them was a famous Georgian writer. He was from Tiflis, the place where I was born. So he said to me, "The Armenian people would pay dearly to have Yerevan your birth place, rather than Tiflis."

Q: What other games?
   A: Table tennis and billiards. But even more than games, I love skiing, which I do outside of Moscow—in the country, where I live most of the time.
Q: At what sports do you enjoy being a spectator?
   A: Ice hockey and football—what you call soccer. I am a keen fan of both sports.


Q: Do you root for any special team?
   A: Yes, the "Spartak." In other words, the Sports Club in Moscow. Not only am I a fan of their other teams, I play
first board on the Spartak chess team.

(Here, Petrosian volunteered further information without being asked a question.)

   A: You and I share a common hobby—philately.
Q: Your stamp collection—is it mostly stamps with a chess motif?
   A: I collect both chess stamps and art stamps.
Q: For example, the fine art series issued by France?
   A: Not only from France; art stamps from all countries.
Q: And how many chess stamps would you say you have?
   A: Altogether—with singles, blocks, and covers—more than 180 different ones.

(Here, like any two philatelists who discover their shared interest, we took time out for a discussion of our two collections. Petrosian related a fortunate happening in Palma de Majorca during his Candidates Match with Portisch in February, 1974. In a small shop there, he discovered a chess stamp from Cuba on which the name "Capablanca" was misspelled.
The day before this interview, the Soviet Champion had visited a stamp dealer in New York. He purchased mint blocks of the recently-issued Nicaragua chess series, plus blocks of several stamps with reproductions of world-famous oil paintings.)

Q: I understand you enjoy listening to music. Any special favorites?
   A: I used to attend the opera regularly, but in recent years I stay at home more and listen to recorded music.
Q: Over the years, I have seen you often carrying a camera. Is photography also a favorite hobby?
   A: More. or less. Less now than some years ago. For example, I have taken almost no photographs on this visit to the USA.
Q: Back to music. At home, do you listen more to tapes or to records?
   A: Mostly records.
Q: In our country, many of the people who like to listen to music at home buy equipment from England, Sweden, Japan, or other countries. Your equipment—is it made in the USSR, or in other countries?

(Hilarious laughter all around over this question and answer.)

   A: Most of my equipment was made in the USA!

Q: Shall we turn now to chess?
   A: Certainly.
Q: In recognition of your prowess at the chess board, you were named a Master of Sport of the USSR in 1960. Who decides to confer that title, that honor, upon a person?
   A: The Committee on Physical Culture and Sports.
Q: Does a Master of Sport automatically receive a monthly or yearly remuneration?
   A: No, it is purely an honorary title.
Q: As a chess professional, do you give many lectures, demonstrations, exhibitions in your home country?
   A: Not many.
Q: Do you have any students?
   A: None.
Q: Are you still involved with "64," the chess newspaper?
   A: Yes, I am the Chief Editor.
Q: To give our readers some idea of the differences in the lives of chess professionals in our two countries, would you tell us whether or not you receive your income directly from the government?
   A: We are paid not by the government but by professional chess clubs and teams. That's why we call ourselves "professionals." At the same time, we work as journalists, coaches seconds for other famous players. Our income is derived from all of these sources. And, of course, from winnings in tournaments.
Q: Do you, for example, receive payment when you play for the Spartak chess team?
   A: Yes, yes, yes. I think that these many possible sources of income make it far easier to be a chess professional in the Soviet Union than in any other country.
Q: Because a strong player can count on at least a regular, minimum income from all these sources?
   A: Yes. You see, it is also not so horrible for a chess professional to get older in our country. The nation still has need of ones experience in journalistic and teaching capacities. Occasionally, for team or other play. (Petrosian laughed aloud at himself before and after the next statement.) This is good, because chess players prefer to play the game and not to work at other things.
Q: How is it in Moscow, the apartment you have there do you pay rent, and to whom?
   A: In our country, the government owns all of the apartment buildings. I pay a small sum to the government, which goes for the upkeep and services required. At the same time, however, I am the owner of a nice house outside of Moscow.
Q: How did you acquire this house outside of Moscow?
   A: From the previous owner.
Q: Private construction is permitted, then?
   A: Yes, he built it; I bought it from him and rebuilt it.
Q: Who owns the land under the house?
   A: The land belongs to the government.
Q: I realize that you own a car, but if you didn't have that—when you need transportation, for business reasons, is is this provided? How do you go from one place to another in pursuit of your professional duties?
   A: There is no specific rule which covers transportation for chess professionals. It depends upon your reason for travel. If a club has transportation, they provide it when you play for them. But the majority of chess players have their own cars, or they use a taxi.
Q: Are taxis privately owned?
   A: No, owned by the state.
Q: When you win prize money outside of your country, do you retain all of it? Or does your Sports Committee or your Chess Federation get a certain percentage?
   A: A percentage will go to the government, through our Sports Committee. I think it's just that people who make something must give something to the government.
Q: A question which, I think, is of importance to chess players outside of your country. How do you identify young talent and at what age do they begin to get assistance?
   A: I haven't dealt directly with children myself. Speaking generally about youth, one may often judge their raw talent from observing how they play in blitz tournaments. It doesn't matter which player wins a certain game; it is necessary to observe the level at which they play.
Q: Where does a young boy or girl in your country first receive lessons, at a Palace of the Pioneers?
   A: Yes, in the Palaces or in the schools.
Q: In these two places, do they have actual classes where several young players assemble to take lessons or to receive
instruction from a relatively strong player?
   A: It is not done uniformly everywhere. Methods may differ from community to community. In some places, they may identify the gifted ones and give them special lessons. In others, they may give approximately the same lessons to all of the children who are interested. There isn't an exact, universal approach.
Q: Do methods sometimes vary within the same city or town?
   A: Yes. But remember, some children have to be taught more than others. A really gifted child may learn much on his own.
Q: In your brief stay here, or in any other way, have you had opportunity to make any observations of our younger players?
   A: I have really had no other contact with your young players, but in Lone Pine I did play skittles games with
some of them, including Yasser Seirawan. I was not serious, I was having fun, but one of our games was won by that young chess player in a very talented way.
Q: Did you have opportunity to observe any games by Christiansen?
   A: He plays rather well, but he is already 20. (Thinking of Christiansen's height as well as his age, Petrosian chuckled.) Not a child!
Q: There is a book by Vasiliev, "TIGRAN PETROSIA." Did he quote you correctly? "I deeply believe that in chess there is nothing accidental. I believe only in logical, correct play."
   A: Correctly quoted and apparently accurately translated. I still have the same thought.
Q: Very interesting. Fischer has said that he never "plays his opponent," but always strives to make the best move.
   A: (Interrupting the questioner.) I know quite well how Fischer plays.
Q: The two of you seem to be at least saying that you have a similar approach. Do you see any similarity in the approach to chess of yourself and of Fischer?
   A: According to these words, there is much similarity but not in play! (Laughter.) Fischer tries to make the opponent play something other than the best move, then he—in turn—does make the best move.
Q: Do you feel that your logical approach to chess—approaching other matters the same way—has helped you to solve the other problems encountered in life?
   A: No. It is often said that chess is a mirror of life, but I disagree. Everything in chess is rather wooden—wooden pieces, wooden problems, wooden decisions. In life, everything is quite contrary, you must consider the human factors.
(Pause.)
In chess, there are too many legends. Another one concerns the majority of chess ideas. It is said that chess is infinite; this is also one of the legends. Strong players know that they know all their ideas about chess. When one truly learns chess, one understands that everything has been already. What we sometimes think of as new ideas have occurred before.
Botvinnik is angry with me. In "HOW TO OPEN A CHESS GAME," I wrote that everything which Botvinnik was credited with originating had existed earlier. I believe this—"in chess, nothing ig new."
Q: Am I correct—did you move into your flat on Moscow's Piatnitskaya Street just before becoming World Champion in 1963, and have you lived there now for 13 years?
   A. (Petrosian and his wife smiled at one another over this question, and then Rona replied.) We moved there 14 years ago, before Tigran became World Champion. Q: After 14 years, it must be full of memories and of mementos—not only of chess, but of your family, your life together, your combined interests. But is chess dominant?  how much space is taken up by chess trophies, books, tables, sets, etc.?
   A: (Again Rona answered.) One room is devoted entirely to chess. As for chess boards, sets, books—they are all over the apartment. The same is true of our home in the country—chess can be-found everywhere.
Q: Is the place in the country a summer home?
   A: No, it is a real home and we live there most of the time.

Q: Especially in the winter, when you like to ski?
   A: Yes, we spend most of our time there, the year round.
Q: I have just given you the lists showing player distribution in the two 1976 Interzonals. Any comments regarding this distribution?
   A: I think it would be preferable to play in the Philippines.
Q: Not speaking of the climate, but of the opponents?
   A: (With a quick laugh.) Because of the opponents. I don't like climates such as they have in the Philippines.
Q: I know it's foolish of any of us to make predictions, but of all the players in the two Interzonals, which ones do you think are most likely to become Candidates?
   A: (With a giggle this time, rather than a laugh.) He who has the highest rating should have the highest chances.
Q: So you think the three Candidates from each Interzonal shall come from among the six highest-rated players in each tournament?
   A: Of course! (With an impish look.) And now I wonder, why must we play, since the system of Elo exists? (Followed by uproarious laughter, at which I realized that I had fallen into a Petrosian trap.)
Q: Apart from the FIDE Rating System (which we know to be very accurate), of the eight possible Candidates, which one or two or three do you perceive as having the best chances to become Challenger in 1978?
   A: I can't say anything now, because the older players may gradually be losing their high positions and the younger players rising. I really couldn't predict who might become Challenger. However, I am inclined to think that the older generation has the better possibilities this time. Spassky, Polugaevsky, Portisch—I consider them now to be of the "older" generation.
Q: You are being very modest, leaving out Petrosian.
   A: In Switzerland, Geller is older than I. In the Philippines, I am the oldest.
Q: Young players versus old players. Looking ahead to 1981, which of the rising young players—those who are now below the age of 30—do you see as possible Challengers?
   A: I believe in Ljubojevic more than in Mecking. I also think Huebner is very talented. Andersson reminds me of myself in character, so I hope he will awaken one day. But much can be changed in five years, or even in three.



Petrosian at Lone Pine 1976

Lone Pine 1976
Doris and Louis Statham (left), Petrosian at the board, Isaac Kashdan, TD (far right)