Petrosian's zen chess

Jun 21, 2009, 6:36 PM |

Whenever we chessmaniacs are asked who we think is the best player of all time, we usually give quite a few names, rather than just one. I, for instance, usually name Vishy Anand, J.R. Capablanca, (the great) Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy and Tigran Petrosian. I really can't narrow the list to fewer than 4, minimum 3 players. However, if asked who is the most original player of all time, I think I could settle to just one: Petrosian, one of Armenia's many bright stars. First, a dash of history - Tigran was Armenian but he grew up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, then part of the USSR. He was twice champion of the Soviet Union before beating Botvinnik to become the world champion in 1963. He defended the title against Spassky in 1966 but lost to him 6 years later (not doubt due to the fact he was seriously ill). In terms of style, Petrosian is considered a 'hypermodernist'. Hypermodernism in chess is characterised by a) control of the centre by pieces instead of pawns, b) prophylaxis, i.e. pre-empting your opponent's plans, c) supersafety and blockade. We owe much of the theory underpinning these ideas to the Latvian Aron Nimzovitch, of whom Petrosian must be considered the greatest follower. For me, Petrosian is the closest thing to Zen in chess. Like a Shaolin master, he does not force himself on his opponent. Rather, he dances around him, turning his opponent's blows back on him, letting him harm himself! It is this sense of deep, intellectual aloofness that attracts me most to Petrosian. In his games positional play becomes much more than a theory - there is something organic about the way his pieces move, something akin to natural growth. Anyway, here's some of his games that I'd like to share with you. I have annotated them with help from Irving Chernev's Most Instructive Games Ever Played, Chess Companion,, plus a few other online resources. Enjoy!










So that was a pretty straightforward game, with a standard king side attack. The one that follows is more Petrosian-like. More Zen:)) I hope it makes clear what I meant about the Shaolin master (Chernev himself describes the game as 'A touch of Jujitsu!)











Up to some one hundred years ago, every Maltese family would keep a jug on the roof to collect rainwater. The water was purified and used by the household, even as table water. The practice has since died out but a saying related to it survives in our language - we say 'bil-qatra l-qatra timtela l-garra' (the water jug is filled drop by drop) I am sure Aron Nimzovitch would have agreed, in fact in his book My System, he proposes a system of accumulating small advantages, even though they might not promise a quick or easy win, and nursing them to the endgame. The following game of Petrosian is the perfect example of how to do it.











So, if you are new to Petrosian, you can think of the foregoing 3 games as a brief intro, while in the following game you will see the master at his most original. In his Chess Companion, I. Chernev makes a list of the pecularities that define Petrosian's style: a) Opening moves which seem to contradict established principles b) Late development of several pieces c) Long-delayed castling d) Castling into a wing where the King seems exposed to danger e) Retreat of seemingly well-placed pieces, developing backward into the first rank or into a corner. f) Early advance of the King Rook pawn (h-pawn), a step that seems immature and makes castling on the King side dangerous g) A serious of strange, apparently purposeless moves. h) Unexpected zwischenzige - in-between moves i) Little stabbing pawn pushes, alternating from one side of the board to another, nibbling away at the enemy position j) Subtle defensive touches, when there is no sign of danger In other words, a genius. Here is the game. See how many of the above can you spot!








I hope that was helpful and worth sharing. Thanks