What kind of player was Tigran Petrosian?
What happened when the very young and talented Garry Kasparov met former World Champion Tigran Petrosian in 1981? Image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlAiQOh

What kind of player was Tigran Petrosian?

IM vinniethepooh

"Some consider that when I play chess I'm excessively cautious. But it seems to me that the question may be a different one. I try to avoid chance. Those who rely on chance should play cards or roulette. Chess is something quite different. -Tigran Petrosian

Emanual Lasker's mastery in practical and psychological facets of the game, the machine like precision of Jose Raul Capablanca, Mikhail Tal's fantasizing attacking masterpieces, Anatoly Karpov's slow grinds deep into the endgame, the relentlessly aggressive and accurate Garry Kasparov, the World Champions were all famous for their incredible ideas in one particular area of the game.

But what kind of a player was 9th World Champion Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian? He is famous for his breathtaking exchange sacrifices, but then again, his defensive skills were absolutely phenomenal too. He had a strong feel of where his pieces should be placed, but he could also calculate very accurately when required.

To reach the pinnacle of success, you need to be extremely strong in a complete sense, attack, defense, positional, tactical, practical, psychological... everything. But usually something stands out.. in Petrosian's case.. maybe not.

Tigran Petrosian is one of the finest examples of a truly universal chess player. 

Take a look at these three games:

Absolutely stunning!

What is particularly enlightening about these games are the stark contrast of the style of play displayed by Petrosian. The mega complexities of the first game- first the queen sacrifice, and then this maneuver with Bg1-Bh2-Bg3. The great understanding of the opposite colour bishop middlegame, carrying out a swift attack and crushing someone who was almost invincible at that time. And a prophylactic exchange sacrifice which helped him to save the game in the 3rd one.

Just wow.

Like Petrosian said, some consider that he plays "excessively cautious" chess. But they just need to have a look at the following game, and that evaluation of his playing style will take a complete turnaround!

Garry Kasparov vs Tigran Petrosian, Interpolis / Tilburg 1981

White to play. 

Black is a pawn up!? No, my dear reader, that's too far away from the point. One look at Black's position is enough to give you the chills. Pieces bundled inside their own camp, so passively placed. Queenside pawns hanging on by a thread, and a King that is crying for someone to give it some shade. And what about White? A whole attacking army, along with the great co-ordination between them... and Petrosian with Black in this situation managed to end the game in his favour, against probably the most promising youngster at the time, in just 10 moves. Just 10.

32.Ra2! Wait, wasn't the knight on c4 hanging? Yes, but Kasparov isn't Kasparov for nothing. Taking the knight with 32...bxc4?? leads to immediate mate after 33.Rxa6!-Kxa6, 34.Qxc4-Ka7, 35.Qa4-Ba5, 36.Qxa5#. Such is the dominance of White's position. 

First of all, White is threatening Rba3. Black seems on the verge of calamity. Everything is falling apart for him. "Total collapse appears inevitable," (Kasparov) But the ever so calm Petrosian goes for...

32...Kb7! Are you for real?? Petrosian brings his king in the middle of two deadly pins, right into the epicenter of an attack. Objectively speaking 32...Bd6!? is a better defense, but this incredible display of bravery and grit by Petrosian resulted in Kasparov starting to go wrong immediately. While such a defensive move might be shocking for us, maybe it is 'as natural as a baby's smile' for the great Tigran!?

33.Bb4?! A very natural move, pushing Black's queen even more behind, and improving the bishop. But this blocks the line of attack on the b file. Much stronger was 33.Qb1! when White's attacks on the b file are probably irresistible. After 33...Re8, 34.Rc2!-Ka7, 35.Qa1!-Kb7, 36.Bb4 White's attack is too strong for Black to handle. Coming back to the game, after 33...Qe8! we reach the following position:

34.Bd6?! This isn't the most precise, but it is hard to criticize considering the deep idea behind the most accurate one. Again, this is very natural; White just keeps on jumping inside Black's camp and inflicting damage on his sorry king. The objectively stronger continuation was 32.Nb2! with the incredible idea of regrouping with Qb1-Nd3-Rba3 and after something like 32...Bd8, 33.Qb1-Be7, 34.Nd3-Rc4, 35.Qa1 Black might be lost.

In the game, after 34.Bd6-Ra8! Suddenly it seems Black has a better chance of putting up a successful defense. It was still not too late for Kasparov to understand his mistake and retreat with 35.Ba3! with the idea of Qb1 and again White has very strong threats down the b file. Instead, he played another very natural move, 35.Qb1?! We reach the following position.. capitulation does not seem far away for Black. There are no immediate deadly threats but try making a move with Black!? White's army have totally ganged up on Black's monarch, and are getting ready to detonate atomic bombs inside Black's camp. Is it all over?

35...Kc6!!! "If ...Kb7 was at least somewhat understandable, then this move looks suicidal to the point of absurdity." (Naroditsky) Petrosian just jumps. Straight into a deadly fire. And comes out unscathed. Can it get more insane than this? This brazen sally deserves a diagram, at the very least:

Now, only if you have managed to calm yourselves, take a closer look at the position. It turns out that Black simply threatens to win a piece in two ways. "The effect of ...Ka7-b7-c6 was so strong, that I was unable to collect myself." (Kasparov) Legendary defense by 'Iron Tigran'! Kasparov immediately goes astray now..

36.Rba3?? White, unable to control his emotions after the turn of events, sacrifices a piece for no real compensation. 36.Bxc7! would still lead to an unclear game: 36...bxc4! (36...Kxc7, 37.Nb2 followed by Nd3 looks quite unpleasant for Black) 37.Rb7!-Rxc7, 38.Rxa6!-Rxa6, 39.Qb5-Kd6, 40.Qxa6-Ke7, 41.Bxd5-Rxb7, 42.Bxb7 and at the end of this highly forcing line, after 42...Qb8! The engine claims Black is fine.

In the game, Petrosian just took the offering with 36...bxc4, and after 37.Rxa6-Rxa6, 38.Rxa6-Bb6, 39.Bc5-Qd8, 40.Qa1-Nxc5, 41.dxc5-Kxc5, White is totally lost and Kasparov threw in the towel after 42.Ra4, without waiting for a move by his opponent. The position after ...Kxc5 is just beautiful, White being a piece down, and able to do absolutely nothing to harm the super king on c5!

The will of a Monarch!

Replay the whole game:

If you had to learn chess, and could only pick one player's games, then Petrosian is the right choice! He was the true artist who painted all kinds of different ideas on the 64 squares.