The Iron Fortress

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Petrosian as a youth in Moscow

1963 world chess champion Tigran Petrosian was nearly deaf, a trait that produced several interesting tournament tales. In one tournament game, Petrosian offered Serbian grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić a draw. Gligorić was taken aback and declined, but seconds later he reevaluated and accepted the draw offer. Petrosian, however, had already entered “concentration mode” and had shut off his hearing aid. He didn’t hear Gligorić’s re-offer, kept playing, and went on to win the game.

At a candidate’s match in Seville, Petrosian played Robert Hübner, who was at the time a frail 22-year-old college student. Hübner was driven to distraction by the noise produced by the crowds and by the streets outside. Ultimately, he overlooked a winning move, burst into tears, and forfeited the tournament. Petrosian, meanwhile, hadn’t heard a sound [1].

Petrosian’s performance on the chessboard matched closely his external demeanor. No matter how destructive and chaotic was his opponent’s attack, Petrosian’s iron fortress would remain standing.

“In those years, it was easier to win the Soviet Championship than a game against ‘Iron Tigran’.” – Lev Polugaevsky

As a young upstart coming out of Moscow, Petrosian quickly gained a reputation as a defensive master, described frequently as the hardest player in the world to beat. He emphasized prophylactics and caution, silencing his opponent’s threats instead of producing his own. Only when his opponent tired and began to stumble would Petrosian strike. But when the fortress manned the artillery, so to speak, the results were devastating.

Still, Petrosian frequently drew criticism for his draw-worthy play. He’d often consent to draw weaker players, instead of fighting for the win–even if a win was certainly possible (consider the game against Gligorić). For a few years, Petrosian’s performance stagnated on the international scene. In 1961, a young Bobby Fischer remarked: “If Petrosian played more boldly, he would be the strongest player in the world.”

“They knock me for my draws, for my style, they knock me for everything I do,” he said. But Petrosian kept on playing–much like in Seville, years ago–like he hadn’t heard a thing. And just two years after Fischer’s remark, Petrosian found himself back in Moscow for the world championship match against the defending three-time world champion, Soviet titan Mikhail Botvinnik.

The championship match was drawing to a close. Game 18 presented itself as a critical juncture; Petrosian had a 1-game lead. Botvinnik needed a win to stay in the running. Meanwhile, Petrosian was just playing to draw. He made all the safest positional decisions, just waiting for Botvinnik to slip up. And finally, he did. e4 was a game-long goal for Botvinnik, but at move 34 he played it prematurely. From then on, everything fell into Petrosian’s favor. He came away with more than he had ever hoped for: a win.

Petrosian went on to win the world championship, and held the title for 6 years until he was dethroned by Spassky. But though his reign as champion was temporary, his legacy was permanent. When we look back through chess history for the best defensive player of all time, we’ll always come back to Tigran Petrosian, sitting relaxed atop his iron fortress.

  1. Six moves toward a world championship. Originally written by Larry Evans for Sports Illustrated in 1971.
  2. Great analysis of Petrosian vs Botvinnik 1963, in 4 parts. 1 2 3 4

2 comments on “The Iron Fortress

  1. Mattson says:

    It seems as though, while not directly warranting some kind of productive action which would technically make it another task, something as periphery as hearing can have a profound impact on the amount of mind power which may be devoted to the central task at hand. I wonder how much other seemingly innocuous side effects of being alive, like feeling your extremities or experiencing thirst, affect the players ability to focus on the game. That’s probably why computer programs can play so well, no pesky bodies to worry about.

    • Josh says:

      Yeah, totally true. If I’m playing chess, I need to turn the music off in more intense parts of the game. It’s just too difficult to concentrate with that amount of incoming sensory stimulation.

      It just goes to show how important concentration is in general. Feeling extremities, experiencing thirst, etc., are all things that we should be able to turn off if we’d like to concentrate on a more important task at hand. I guess it goes to show why ADD is so debilitating.

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