Tigran! Tigran! Tigran!

Nov 25, 2009, 10:23 PM |

Petrosian brings to such marathon encounters [referring to his 2 month 1963 world championship match with  Botvinnik] all the drive and tenacity of a man who had to struggle to get there.  He was born of semiliterate  parents in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.  He was orphaned at 14, and had to earn his bread as a street  sweeper.  He was desperately ill and even hungry during the hard times of World War II.  When he recals his  youth now,  he is matter-of-fact,  like someone speaking of an old automobile accident.  Only his hearing aid,  which he habitually pops in and out of his ear, is there a constant physical reminder.
     "I started sweeping streets in the middle of the winter and it was horrible.  Of course there were no machines  then, so we had to do everything by hand. Some of the older men helped me out.  I was a weak boy.  And I was  ashamed of being a street sweeper - that's natural,  I suppose.  It wasn't so bad in the early morning when the  streets were empty, but when it got light and the crowds came out I really hated it.
     I got sick and missed a year in school.  We had a babushka, a sister of my father, and she really saved me.   She gave me bread to eat when I was sick and hungry.  That's when this trouble with my hearing started.  I don't  remember how it all happened.  Things aren't very clear from that time."
     He already had chess, though, thanks to a 12-year-old friend who had taught him the rudiments of the game.  "I got my first chess book by saving my kopeks.  Instead of buying food I held on to them until I had enough for a  book.  You know,  when you get a book that way,  you really read it.  I was so carried away by that book that I  used to take it to bed with me at night and put it under my pillow so I could read it some more in the morning  when I woke up."
     He went through the book without benefit of a chess board,  proof that he had been born with the exceptional  memory common to the masters.  At age 13, within a year of his first game,  he achieved his first small  notoriety by beating a visiting grandmaster.  At 17 he had won the Soviet Junior Championship and terrorized  enough adults to be classified officially as a master.  At 23 he was a grandmaster.  He got married and  graduated from college as a teacher of Russian,  but through it all played and studed chess constantly.  He can  still remember details of the thousands of games he has played.  "I look on my old game like old friends," he  says.
   By 1963 he had beaten everyone but the world champion himself.  On Saturday, March 23 f that year,  he and  Botvinnik sat down and faced each other across the board in the packed Estrada Theater in Moscow,  The  crowd was so large it spiled into the street outside where a huge demonstration  board followed the game  move by move.  Petrosian's supporters - convinced that a good Armenian diet was a prerequisite for winning  anything - brought in trays of lavash, dolma, shashlik, matnakash and fresh trout, which had been flown in from  Armenia.
                      Tigran with his son Vartan
     Petrosian blew the first game.  "I played like a bad child," he recalls.  "You understand, Botvinnik is an  institution.  He's always spoken of in superlatives, and of course that influenced me from the start.  It was terribly  oppressive.  Any book you open is connected to him one way or another.  The press was always saying he'd  made a science of chess.  So when you realize you're just an ordinary human being who happens to play  chess, you get the impression that there's no possible way to beat him.  It gets biblical - David and Goliath and  all that.  Well, maybe I thought of myself as David later, but in the beginning I was just poor old Petrosian.  The  first game was like a cold shower - I was really ashamed of myself.  I decided that either your opponents beats  you legitimately or you give in to him."
     Petrosian had one advantage.  As a writer on championship games for a Soviet sport paper he had studied  Botvinnik's every move for five years.  Petrosian won the fifth game and was never behind thereafter.  By the  19th game, the weeks of fierce concentration had taken their toll on the older man, and Botvinnik soon caved  in.  Three games later he got up and shook the hand of the new and ninth world champion.  From Yerevan a  proud Armenian mother wired Petrosian that she had just named her triplets Tigran, Vartan and Petros.

[To the best of my knowledge, Petrosian was married to Rona Yakovlevna with whom he had 2 sons Vardan and Mikhail]


excepted from the April 11, 1969 issue of LIFE magazine, pages 41-46