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A character formed in harsh adversity: Tigran Petrosian in 1975 (Koperczak)

In a two-horse race it’s important to remember that the rank outsider is only one accident away from victory. Chess matches are not like horse-racing — if you fall in one game you can get up and win the next one. But chess history has seen many world championship matches in which the outcome has confounded all the most confident predictions: most notably in 1927 when Alexander Alekhine wrested the title from José Capablanca. Apart from Alekhine himself, no one had thought the Cuban “chess machine” could be beaten.

Fifty years ago this month another world championship match began: but on this occasion it was the challenger whom almost all the grandmaster and amateur pundits tipped to win. That challenger was Boris Spassky, then 30, acclaimed as a future champion since at least the age of 18 when he won the world junior title. Now, he had comfortably won three successive qualifying matches, concluding with a 7-4 victory against the former world champion Mikhail Tal.

The only obstacle remaining was the defending title-holder, Tigran Petrosian, who in 1962 had taken the crown from the “father of Soviet chess” Mikhail Botvinnik. Petrosian, an Armenian, was the outsider among all the Moscow-based luminaries of Soviet chess — and it was in that empire’s headquarters that he was obliged to defend his title against the Muscovite Spassky.

There were more substantial reasons why Petrosian was seen as the underdog. In tournaments ahead of the match he had failed to take first place, often conceding draws against significantly weaker players. But matchplay and tournament play are very different. In tournaments it’s necessary to pile up a very big “plus” score to guarantee first place. In matches, it doesn’t matter how many draws you concede. Also, in those days, world championship matches were over 24 games. This required immense durability — and Petrosian was a tough little nugget of a man — as one might expect of someone who had been orphaned as a child and survived as a street-sweeper. During that time he had lost most of his hearing, as result of some infection picked up on the streets — but this is hardly a handicap for a chess-player.

Petrosian’s chess style was evocative of a character formed in harsh adversity. He had an astonishingly acute sense of any hazard lurking in a position. Bobby Fischer — not a man easily given to praising others — marvelled: “No matter how deep you think, he will ‘smell’ any kind of danger 20 moves before.”

Petrosian perfected the method outlined many decades earlier by the great chess theoretician Aron Nimzovitch — which the author of My System termed “prophylaxis”. The idea was to play moves which are principally designed to prevent what the opponent wants to do: if you do this successfully, he is liable to become frustrated, and make bad decisions.

So it was not surprising that the match, which began on April 9, 1966, opened with six consecutive draws; nor so surprising that in the seventh game, playing White, Spassky decided to play sharply for a win. It was fatal: Petrosian effortlessly blocked his opponent’s premature attack and then launched a massive counter-offensive which ended with Spassky’s king in a mating net.
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