Arshak Petrosian has had a highly successful coaching career, leading the tiny Armenian nation to an astonishing hat-trick of Olympiad victories. He was also a promising player in his own right, but in a recent interview he reflects on why he failed to reach the very top level. He also talks about what’s held Levon Aronian back from playing a World Championship match, and why his son-in-law and long-term protégé Peter Leko fell just short of becoming the 15th World Champion when he faced Vladimir Kramnik in 2004.
Last year Arshak Petrosian gave an in-depth interview to Sergey Kim for ChessPro, where he looked back on his own chess career and those of some of the players he’s known and worked with. In these translated highlights we focus on three near misses:
Arshak Petrosian’s most painful game
Ashak is no relation to World Champion Tigran Petrosian, but his great namesake did once share a sobering verdict on his chess, as Arshak revealed when he was asked why his contemporaries gradually overtook him:
Nowadays you need to become a grandmaster at 13 years old, while back then it was already great if you became a master at 16. Things didn’t go so well for me after that, and even Tigran Petrosian… when he looked at my games… said literally the following: “You’ve got talent and have to keep going, but due to a character flaw it’s unlikely it’s going to work out”. In chess, if you want to achieve great results, you need to have an unyielding and very tough character. With a mellow one you won’t achieve great success. That’s absolutely true! My life, my experience as a chess player, the experience of chess players I know, all proves that.
Petrosian describes the moment as a 22-year-old that he came within a move or two of playing in the powerful 1976 USSR Championship final, which was ultimately won by Anatoly Karpov above the likes of Tigran Petrosian, Mihkail Tal and Vasily Smyslov:
In Minsk, for the first and last time I had tears in my eyes. Back then I was with Dementiev – we’d just started to cooperate in 1976. In the last round I was playing against Grandmaster Semyon Furman, Anatoly Karpov’s trainer. With Black. If I won I’d make it into the Higher League. Perhaps my fate would have worked out differently… My next chance arose only in 1985 – can you imagine that?
With Black I had to play for a win, but I played only the Queen’s Gambit, which isn’t particularly great for playing for a win. Furman, however, played 1.Nf3, 2.c4, 3.Nc3… In that game I was playing at the board, with no preparation. We’d prepared something completely different. And then I managed to outplay him and get a totally stunning position. I sacrificed a piece and pushed a pawn to e2! And I had 20 minutes left, while Furman had 3 minutes until the time control! And I recall it perfectly: finally he played the move Rd2 – he simply didn’t have anything else.
And running through my head: “What’s he thinking so long about?” He thought for 17 minutes, and in that time I calculated how to mate in a few moves instead of simply taking that rook, then queening the pawn, exchanging queens, attacking two pieces and that would be that – I’m a piece up. He’d resign. Simply two moves! But I had a powerful attack, a very interesting one, a beautiful game. Later they gave some kind of prize for a beautiful draw…
I still remember it to this day: the black bishop is on b7, cutting the board in two, and then I play Qc6 – a move I’d calculated in advance, and he can’t stop mate.
It would have been such a beautiful win… But the problem was that when I play Qc6 it’s as if the bishop is blocked and he can offer the queen up for exchange, on e4! Previously he couldn’t (the bishop got in the way), but now he can. Can you imagine I missed that? And after that the position became absolutely drawn. I still had an hour to go, but that no longer had any significance.
And that was, of course, a terrible mistake on my part, which had great significance from the point of view of what followed… For me that would have been a gift of fate, because in 1976, in that Championship, EVERYONE played! But it turned out that I didn’t make it into it because of that game. I can tell you for a fact that it had a very big influence on me. Later I often played in qualifying events, but I didn’t make it into the Higher League until 1985.
Peter Leko – 5 minutes from the World Championship title
Peter Leko is still only 37, but in recent years he’s dropped off the supertournament radar. New chess fans might not recall that the Hungarian, who was the youngest ever grandmaster when he gained the title as a 14-year-old in 1994, was for a very long time a fixture at the top. Arshak explains:
What does it mean to be in the Top Ten, in those years and now? Those are people who constantly demonstrate a certain level. You think it’s easy? When I was working with Peter he was in the Top 10, he was third, and fifth, and fourth, seventh, eighth. Over the course of 10-12 years! That’s very tough – a huge amount of work! Constant training, constant improvement. It’s someone who treats chess not simply as a pleasure but as hard work. Nowadays everyone works, because otherwise it’s impossible. It’s only work, multiplied by talent, that gives stability…
Arshak recounts how his individual coaching jobs were connected to Dortmund, where he first played Arkadij Naiditsch and then went on to coach the young star. Then he met Peter Leko, though not directly but through his daughter:
A year later I again played in the Dortmund side tournament. My daughter came to the rounds to root for me, and she met and then got to know Leko. It seems Peter and her immediately hit it off. They began to go out… Of course Peter came to our house, and how could we not look at chess? We pushed the pieces together, and after he and Sofia got engaged he came with his manager and suggested that I work as his main coach. To do that I had to move to Hungary.
We did an awful lot of work together! An incredible number of hours, almost every day, but for a trainer of the Soviet school that wasn’t tough. And Peter as well is a chess fanatic, he can work however much you like. We decided we’d target the World Championship, and we achieved that. It was tough, but if that’s what’s it took that’s what it took! We were together for all the tournaments and all the qualifiers to the main match. Our cooperation continues to this day, but in recent years, understandably, in lesser amounts. After all, there’s already over a decade of very hard work behind us…
Arshak is asked to talk about the 2004 World Championship match in Brissago, where Leko took on the reigning World Champion Vladimir Kramnik:
It’s amazing – if you take the match between Petrosian and Botvinnik, then the first 14 games went in an identical manner to the match between Peter and Kramnik. There as well after 14 games the score was 7:7, but the match continued (Petrosian won 3 of the remaining 8 games to become World Champion), while here… By the way, that was the last match where the Champion retained the title in case of a draw. In the run-up to the match you had to go through a tough qualifier, the Candidates Tournament, and there Peter managed to do something that happens very rarely: in the middle of the tournament he scored 6.5/7! It’s not so simple to win multiple games against Shirov, Topalov, Bareev… That was a pretty tough tournament. True, Kasparov didn’t play. He insisted on a separate match with Kramnik. I understand that if he’d played then his chances would no doubt have been greater, but it turned out he didn’t play.
What happened during the match? In the first game Peter lost. Why? Can you imagine what it means to play a World Championship game for the first time in your life? He wasn’t yet 25. Kramnik had wonderful preparation and Peter was playing but getting nothing. He wins a queen for a rook and bishop, but the position is drawn with an outside passed pawn.