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Petrosian or The Art of Doing Nothing

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The first time I saw the catchphrase “The Art of Doing Nothing” associated to Tigran Petrosian was in 1978 (!) when I was reading my first ever Chess book: a collection of Petrosian´s games made by Alberic O’Kelly de Galway. An outstanding work. The game in question was Petrosian-Cardoso, Portoroz 1958. Influenced by this comment or not, in the following years a number of people have mentioned the idea in books and magazines. But, what is “the art of doing nothing”  in Chess ,where both players are compelled to make a move in his/her turn?. This is one of the details which makes of Chess a wonderful vital experience. In essence this “art of doing nothing” is related to the famous Taoist idea called “Wu Wei”.(In short  because this is not a Taoist Philosophy blog, let’s accept the explanation of “Wu Wei” as “no action or rather “active no-action”) Let’s go back to Chess now and I will try to explain how the concept could be understood.

Well,there are positions in Chess where the player cannot engage in active operations. The nature of the position is such that it cannot be improved (it can be worsened though) and the only practical chance is to hold it by making consolidating moves, avoiding committing oneself while, at the same time, one is trying to entice one’s opponent into some sort of activity which will offer us some sort of target. The opponent confronted with an apparently balanced or blocked position may try to do “something” to punish his opponent who is ,apparently,  wandering here and there with his pieces. But in fact Petrosian was doing so once he had consolidated his position to the utmost. His pieces were always coordinated and helping each other. When the occasion appeared, they would liberate the inner energy they had accumulated and his rivals’ positions collapsed without any apparent reason. Petrosian was able of spending many moves going to and fro with his pieces,manoeuvring incessantly. Many opponents fell into an illusory feeling of safety…Then, if they are not wiped out by a ferocious unexpected attack, their positions simply collapse as if by magic. (The key words above are “hold“, “consolidating” and “manoeuvring”. Many games have been lost because the player wants to do something when this “something” only leads to creating weaknesses or the appearance of a strong counterattack from the enemy’s side). This is why the expression “doing nothing” is too misleading.

Let´s have a look at the games:

W.: Petrosian (1)

B.: Cardoso (0)

Portoroz 1958

1. d4  Nf6  2. c4  e6  3. Nc3  Bb4  4. e3  d5  5. a3  Bxc3  6 bc3  c5 7. cd5  ed5  8.Bd3  0-0  9. Ne2  Nc6  10. o-0  Re8  11. f3  cd4  12. cd4  b6  13.Bd2  Bb7  14. Ng3  Rc8  15. Rb1  Rc7  16. Qa4  g6  17. Rfc1  Re6  18. Rc2  Qe8  19. Nf1  Kg7  20. Rbc1 (Once the centre is  fixed -Black cannot hit  on it: no flank Pawns to do so- Petrosian began  his oppressive manoueuvring strategy trying to lure his opponent into “activity”)   20…, Qd8  21. Bb5  Qa8  22.  Bd3  Rd7  23. Ng3  Rdd6  24. Kh1  Nd7  25. Qb3  Qd8  26. Ne2  Qh4  27. Qb2  Nf6  28. Rf1  Re8  29. Bb5  Kg8  30. Qc1!  Rc8  31. e4!!  de4  32. Bg5  Kg8  33. Ng3  ef3  34. Nxh5  fg2  35. Rxg2  Nxh5  36. Qc4  Nd8  37. Qb4  Re6  38. Kg1  Bxg2  39. Kxg2 Re4  40. Kf3  a5  41. Qd2 , Black resigned.

W.: Kasparov (0)

B.: Petrosian (1)

Tilburg 1981

1. d4  d5 2. c4  dc4  3. Nf3  Nf6  4. e3  Bg4  5. Bc4  e6  6. h3  Bh5  7. Nc3  a6  8. g4  Bg6  9. Ne5  Nbd7  10. Ng6  hg6  11. Bf1  c6  12. Bg2  Qc7  13. 0-0  Be7 14. f4  Nb6 15. g5  Nfd7  16. Qg4  0-0-0!  17. Rb1  Kb8  18. b4  Nd5  19. Nc4  f5  20. Qg3  Nb4 (Another attacking victory for Kasparov?. Unfortunately for him, Petrosian had learnt a lot from Nimzowitsch: prophylaxis, manoeuvring, all sort of defensive strategies…)  21. Bd2  Nd5  22. Rfc1  Ka7  23. Qe1  Bc3  24. Rc2  Qd6  25. Rb3  Qe7  26. Qe2  Rb8 27. Qd3  Bd6  28. Nb2  Rhc8  29. Nc4  Bc7  30. a4  b5  31. ab5  cb5  32. Ra2  Kb7!  (and in ten moves White´s position simply staves in…)  33. Bb4  Qe8  34 Bd6  Ra8  35. Qb1  Kc6! 36. Rba3 bxc4!  37. Ra6  Ra6  38. Ra6 Bb6  39. Bc5  Qd8  40. Qa1  Nc5  41. dc5 Kc5!  (and Kasparov played 42. Ra4 resigning at the same time.)

W.: Petrosian (1)

B.: Unzicker (0)

Hamburg 1960

1. d4  Nf6  2. Nf3  e6  3. Bg5  d5  4. c4  c6  5. Qc2  Be7  6. e3  0-0  7. Nc3  h6  8. Bf4  Nbd7  9. cd5  cd5  10. Bd3  a6  11. 0-0  b5  12. a4  b4  13. Na2!   Ne8  14. Nc1!(to b3)  a5  15. Nb3  Ba6  16. Bxa6 Rxa6  17. Qd3  Ra7  18. Rfc1  Nd6  19. Bxd6!  Bxd6  20. Rc6  Nb8  21. Rc2  Nd7  22. Racl  Nb6  23. Qb5  Nc4  24. Nfd2  Ncd2  25. Rxd2  Qa8  26. Rdc2  Rd8  27. Rc6  g6   28 g3  Kg7  29. Kf1! A well-known manoeuvre in Nimzowitsch’s practice)   Kg8  30.h4  h5  31. R1c2  Kh7  32. Ke1  Kg8  33. Kd1  Kh7  34. Kc1  Kg8 35. Kb1  Kh7  36. Qe2  Qb7  37. Rc1  Kg7  38. Qb5!  Qa8  39. f4  Kh7  40. Qe2  Qb7  41. g4  hg4  42. Qxg4  Qe7  43. h5  Qf6  44. Ka2  Kg7  45. hg6  Qxg6  46. Qh4  Be7  47. Qf2  Kf8  48. Nd2  Rb7  49. Nb3  Ra7  50. Qh2  Bf6  51. Rc8  Rd7  52. Nc5  b3  53. Kxb3  Rd6  54. f5  Rb6  55. Ka2,  and Unzicker resigned.

It is this uncomparable art of going to and fro holding the position till the opponent makes the slightest of slips and Petrosian’s position  springs at you… 

Well, a close study of Petrosian´s positional masterpieces will always be rewarding…


Pos. 1 :The following position is from Petrosian-Golombek, Stockholm 1952. What would you choose as the 35th move? (Solution below)

petrosian 1

Pos.: 2 : This other position appeared in Bisguier-Petrosian, USSR-USA Match, 1954. What would you play here? (Solution below)

petrosian 2

Pos. 1. Petrosian played 33. Qd5! The centralization of White’s Queen forces Black to exchange or to retreat with disastrous results. The game continued  33. …, Qxd5 34. cd5 Kf7  35. Nd2  f5?! ( better 35…Nd6)  36. Nc4  Kf6  37. f3  e4? Desperation :37…h5 would have been much better) 38.fe4  fe4  39. g4  h5  40. Kg3 hg4. The game was adjourned here but Black resigned.

Pos.: 2:  15… , b4! (a key critical moment: Black decides to close the Q-side forcing White to attack on the K-side. BUT Petrosian had seen that he could parry the attack by means of a counterblow in the centre)

16.Nd1  a5  17. Ne3  a4  18.Rab1  ab3  19 ab3  Ra2  20. g4 Nd7  21. g5 Re8  22. Kh1 Nc5  23. h4 Qd8!  24. Rf3  Bf8  25. Rg3  e5  26. f5  Nd4 !!  27. Qf1  Ndxb3  28. Nxb3 Nxb3  29. Qe1 Nc5!  30. Qxb4 Bb7  31. Nd5  Ra4  32. Qd2 Bxd5  33. Qxd5  Rb4!  34. Bf3  Qa8  35. Qd2 Qb7  36. Rg2  Rb8  37 Bd1 , Qxe4 38. Bc2  Qxc4  39. g6  Rxb2  40. gh7  Kh8  41 Rbg1 Qxh4  42. Rh2  Qf4 and White resigned. 


Written by QChess

January 16, 2015 at 9:05 am

Tigran Petrosian. In Memoriam

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This year the 30th anniversary of Tigran Petrosian untimely death will be commemorated. The 9th World Champion of Chess was born in 1929 and passed away in 1984. (For another post on him, see the one published on April the 2nd, 2012).

Petrosian’s Chess career started in 1946 and he was active nearly until the moment of his death. His World Championship Candidates series ran from 1952 till 1980. He was a Candidate in 1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1971, 1974 and 1980. In 1971 he defeated the Germa GM Hübner and the Soviet GM Korchnoi, losing in the Final to Fischer. In 1974 he defeated GM Portisch (Hungary) but lost to Korchnoi. In 1980, he lost again to Korchnoi who had become his arch-enemy (Korchnoi, who became a defector in the mid 70’s of the 20th century, accused and blamed  Petrosian (and many others too) of everything… In 1963, he became a Challenger and in the World Championship Match he defeated no other than Mijail Botvinnik. In 1966 Petrosian defended the Title successfully in a match against GM Boris Spassky but in 1969 against the same opponent he lost the match passing the honours to Spassky.

Petrosian played in 10 Chess  Olympiads with an overall impressive score of +79 -1 =50. Apart from the many international tournaments he took part in, he also played in a lot of Soviet Team events, Championships, etc. He was four times Champion of the Soviet Union  (1959, 1961, 1969 and 1975) .

Petrosian’s style was positional, strongly influenced by Nimzowitsch (he grew up studying his books). In fact, he used every Nimzowitsch’s weapon: overprotection, blockading Knight, prophylaxis, centralization, blockade, restraint, attack /play on squares of the same colour, etc., carefully blending them with the fresh new approaches of the Soviet Chess School. Petrosian was a master of manoeuvring, defence and prophylactic thinking. But he was also a superb tactician, very strong in blitz games, for instance. His games are full of hidden dynamism in Vasiliev words. He also mastered the art of sacrificing the exchange and his games were not as “dry” as many people, commentators and “experts” believe. He was able to realise advantages by means of tactical and combinative means, which mainly crop up after a careful strategical and manoeuvring play. He was able to detect and prevent the slightest of threats (some people have written that even before his opponent realized they existed ) , taking measures against them, which in some cases provoked a sudden collapse of his opponents’ positions.

Bobby  Fischer acknowledged his strength and skills and even his arch-enemy Korchnoi wrote that one had to accept Petrosian really understood Chess.

One of the hardest ever player to beat, he was more an artist and a sort of anti-hero than a fighter like a Fischer, it was said that ,in fact, he was not interested in honours and public acknowledgement. He simply loved playing Chess and spoke of his games as his “old friends”. Shortly before his death,at the beginnings of the 80’s,  he complained to Smyslov that , at least, the latter was engaged in Candidates’ matches… 

The following position, from the Black side, belongs to the game Kasparov-Petrosian, Tilburg, 1981. The young Kasparov has mounted what seems a terrible attack. It’s Black’s turn, what would you play here?


Now I am going to give the solution, but first try, at least, to choose the move you would have played as Black. Pay attention to White wonderful dominating position. Will you choose an overwhelming defensive move trying to steer the game into a draw?. Would you try to exchange pieces and hope for the better? Or perhaps you would try to hurry your King away from White’s ire looking for a safe haven on f7, for instance?.

Choose your move and go to the game continuation:

 35…, Kc6!!  (yes, even Kasparov was shocked after seeing this suicidal attempt. But there still was a pretty surprise for him in the offing…) 36. Rba3 bxc4  37. Rxa6  Bb6  38. Rxa6  Bb6  39. Bc5 Qd8  40. Qa1 Nxc5  41. dxc5  Kxc5  42. Ra4 and White resigned at the same time!


Written by QChess

April 4, 2014 at 11:41 am

Posted in CHESS, Chess History, Petrosian

Tagged with ,

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