Why did Petrosian stop playing the Petroff?

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December 2021 There’s only one topic to write this month, right? The World Cup game. I’m referring to the 1969 Petrosian-Spassky game, of course. Come on, reader, you didn’t think I was going to write about Carlsen versus Unmemorable, did you? I should explain that Facebook automatically translates “Nepomniachtchi” (Непомнящий – learn pronunciation!) From Russian to English as “Unmemorable”. You’ll have to fix that if the brilliant Russian claims Magnus’ crown.

I have no doubt that our editor-in-chief will have a lot to say about the current clash of the titans. In order to avoid duplication, it is safer for me to give in to my overwhelming urge to look back and relive a few moments from the first World Cup match that I followed in detail.

I wasn’t a competitive player when Petrosian first defended his title against Spassky in 1966, so the 1969 World Cup game between the same players was new and exciting to me. Title fights were a real marathon back then – 24 games, played in the classic rhythm of 40 moves in two and a half hours, with interruptions after five hours. I followed the progress from Leonard Barden’s reports in the Guardian the next day.

Often times the game was adjourned to hold another day in suspense, similar to a two-part television mystery drama, but that could be fun as you had a day to discuss the adjourned position with fellow chess addicts. Sometimes there was disappointment: you opened the paper in the expectation of finding a new game to enjoy, only to read that it was postponed for a few days because of a player’s discomfort. The rule that allows players to take time off was originally intended to cover real illness, but at this point it was routinely used to take a day or two off, often for tactical reasons.

Tigran Petrosian defeated Boris Spassky in his 1966 game on the black side of the Torre attack, but three years later it was all about whether or not he was defending Petroff.

One question remains in my mind about the game from 1969. Why did Petrosian stop playing Petroff? A bit of background first: Petrosian won the first game of the game, but Spassky then struck back with three wins in Games 4, 5 and 8. However, Petrosian rallied and won Games 10 and 11. At halftime the score was level. Remember, Petrosian only needed the game to be a tie to keep his title.

For game 13 Spassky switched back from 1 d4 / 1 c4 to 1 e4, which he had played in games 1 and 3, but with little success. The game continued 1 … e5 2 Nf3 Nf6, the Petroff defense. Iron Tigran, who plays the Petroff, sounds like the definition of a tough defense and, in fact, it was like navigating to a comfortable 25-move draw. Spassky tried it again in Game 15 with 1 e4: Petrosian played the Petroff again and scored an even easier draw in 19 moves.

They were still in the field when they sat down to play game 17. A two-day postponement followed, which Spassky had requested, suggesting that it took him some time to figure out a way to break Petrosian’s defense. It was 1 e4 again. At this point Petrosian surprised the world by not playing 1 … e5. Instead he played 1 … c5 and eventually lost. Game 19 was another Sicilian and this time Petrosian lost catastrophically. He managed to win game 20, but he never got along with Spassky, who duly won the game.

I still don’t understand why Petrosian moved away from Petroff when Spassky hadn’t yet found a viable answer to it. Compare and compare Kasparov-Kramnik in 2000, when the challenger’s tenacious dedication to the Berlin defense was crucial to the title (despite moving to a different Ruy Lopez line in one game).

A look back at the 1969 game reveals several other surprises. When Petrosian defended with the Petroff in Game 13, he was the very first player to do so in a World Cup match. Given Petroff’s long history and solid reputation, this may raise some eyebrows now, but Petrosian’s acquisition of Petroff has been described by Peter Clarke at BCM as a “first-order sensation,” with BH Wood making a similar comment in our own magazine.

I have looked for the use of Petroff’s defense in world championship games and tournaments and found that there are only 21 of them. The next Petroff after Petrosian’s first pair in 1969 was when Korchnoi lost to Karpov in game 4 of their 1981 game. Karpov and Kasparov both defended Petroffs in their 1984, 1985 and 1990 games, with the only decisive result being Karpov’s loss in the 48th game of the 1985 game. That’s two wins for White, with Kramnik being the only player to win from Black when he defeated Leko in Game 1 of their 2004 game. The remaining 18 draws underline the modern view that Petroff is a highly reliable draw weapon for Black at the highest level. Most recently, Caruana used it twice in 2018 to thwart Carlsen.

I should also add that Game 13 was the first time Petrosian’s Petroff has played it himself in a game that has been recorded. He played it seven more times in his career, including in his 1971 candidate match with Fischer as well as against several other high-ranking GMs. He drew all nine of his Petroff games.

Peter Clarke tried to understand Petrosian’s role as Petroff in Game 17, but his argument was not convincing. BH Wood commented, “This is quite a puzzle. Why does Petrosian suddenly leave Petroff after the all too easy draw in the 13th and 15th game when the scores are even? “But then he adds:” And why does he play the line that had disadvantaged him in the first game instead of the dragon for the Sicilian who gave him an easy draw in the third? The answer is that he is now playing for victory with Black! ”Just as unconvincing: the jury is still pending.

If Petrosian had stayed with Petroff, he and not Spassky would have defended the title against Fischer in 1972, and chess history would have been completely different.

You can search for “Petrosian Spassky 1969” in our live database to call up all the games in the game and play through with the engine rating.


The above article was reproduced by Chess Magazine December 2021, with kind approval.

CHESS Magazine was founded in 1935 by BH Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published monthly by the London Chess Center and edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read. The editor-in-chief is Malcolm Pein, who organizes the London Chess Classic.

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