To become world chess champion is to join the immortals. Yet some who have reached the top have been less lionised than others. Perhaps the least celebrated of all is Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian. As next month would have marked his 80th birthday—he died of stomach cancer in 1984, aged 55—we should pause to honour the achievements of this great Armenian.
As the ninth official world champion, reigning from 1963 to 1969, Petrosian was seen in the West as just the latest off the production line of the Russian chess school. This was very much what the Soviet government wanted us to think, but of course Petrosian would have considered himself Armenian first and foremost, and his own people—with a history of persecution perhaps second only to the Jews—derived a huge national pride from his achievements.
His birthplace, in the village of Mulki, is marked by a monument with an eternal flame. This is especially appropriate, as he inspired an entire generation of Armenian players, who—now that the former Soviet "republics" can play as individual nations—have taken the gold medals in the last two chess Olympiads.
Tigran Petrosian, however, was not a player with great fighting spirit—and this probably accounted for the lack of glory attached to his name outside Armenia. He was seemingly ever ready to agree quick draws against lesser players rather than take even the slightest risk of losing. This was invariably described as "defensive".
There were good reasons for this, which—like most attributes of character—lie in childhood. Petrosian came from a poor background and claimed not to have started playing chess until he was 12. This is very late for a grandmaster, let alone a future world champion. The most confident players tend to be those who absorbed the game as an infant, so that it seems as natural as breathing. Second, Petrosian was orphaned during the Second World War. According to one account, he was reduced to sweeping streets. Such terrible personal setbacks in early life gave Petrosian almost too vivid an appreciation of how much can go wrong in even the most innocuous circumstances. In his chess style, this was seen in his ability to see danger in positions which everybody else would regard as without risk.
This cast of mind made Petrosian's games often very hard to understand—not just to the bemused amateur club players, but even to his fellow grandmasters. The former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, has put this very well: "Petrosian was, so to speak, a very ‘secretive' player. There is something mysterious about Petrosian."