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Petrosian on the Younger Generation by Danny McGowan

While working on Python Strategy by Tigran Petrosian (excerpt here), I especially enjoyed reading his opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of other players. The ‘younger generation’ players alluded to in the title, namely Jan Timman, Zoltan Ribli and Ulf Andersson, were all born in 1951 and all went on to have hugely successful chess careers – and indeed all still play to a high level to this day. Petrosian made his comments in 1973 as the players were rising through the ranks. Timman was an International Master at the time, while Andersson and Ribli had been awarded the Grandmaster title in 1972 and 1973 respectively. It is interesting to compare Petrosian’s contemporary assessment of the trio with those we may hold now. So without further ado, I will hand you over to Petrosian:

I would particularly like to discuss the play of Timman, Ribli and Andersson. The Swede Andersson, the Dutchman Timman and the Hungarian Ribli are among the leading young players who will undoubtedly put pressure on the older generation in the next few years. And whenever I come together with them, there is something I would like to know. When we give up our place in the chess sun to the young talents, will it be because our play has changed for the worse on account of our age? Or will those who begin to surpass us be chessplayers who have risen to a new, higher level of mastery?

Ulf Andersson: small and slight, in outward appearance he seems more like a child who has strayed into the hall looking for a simultaneous display than a fully-fledged competitor in the main tournament. I somehow feel sorry for him. He crazily trails from tournament to tournament, and the easy opportunity to lead the life of a modern chess professional (who fortunately is not overburdened with worries about every crust of bread, unlike the professional of the not too distant past) has already left a grave imprint on his manner of play and his tournament psychology. In his games you rarely, very rarely see him aspiring to a full-blooded struggle. “Safety first” is not a motto before which chessplayers in such young years ought to bow. It leads to nothing good. And yet Andersson is capable of simply playing well. He possesses positional understanding, a keen eye for tactics, and vast theoretical knowledge to go with a well-worn tournament repertoire. In a word, all the signs of a top-class player are present. And at the same time – there are all the signs of creative stagnation.

The play of the young Hungarian Zoltan Ribli arouses conflicting feelings. After going through a solid course of chess education, he appeared in the international chess arena at quite an early age. Today he is an experienced and frequent competitor in international tournaments. His opening repertoire is fairly original, ranging from conventional systems in the English Opening to the sharpest of forced variations in the Sicilian Defence. But from examining his games I have not been able to make out where his heart lies – in chess adventures, or in positional manoeuvring? I readily admit that Ribli is still at a chess crossroads, seeking his style. If that is so it is a very good thing, because it is only by independently seeking his way that a talented young player can be launched into the orbit of high-level chess. But there is one “but” with his play, and it is a big and disturbing one – namely the speed with which he takes crucial decisions. In his game with me, there was an instance of this.

 Tigran Petrosian – Zoltan Ribli

Amsterdam 1973

 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bg5 Bg7 4.Nbd2 0–0 5.c3 d6 6.e3 Nbd7 7.a4 h6 8.Bxf6 Bxf6 9.a5 a6 10.Qc2 e5

In this position there followed:

11.Bc4 Kh8 12.h4 h5 13.Ne4 Bg7 14.Neg5
It was only here that Ribli permitted himself to catch his breath. His last three moves, every one of which deserves a question mark, were played in a manner characteristic of blitz chess. I must admittedly give him his due – at this point and on the next move, he found the only possibility for continuing the game:

14…Qe7 15.Qb3 e4 16.Nd2 Bh6 17.Nxf7+ Kg7 18.Nxh6 Kxh6 19.Nf1 Nf6 20.f3 exf3 21.gxf3 Ng4 22.fxg4 Bxg4 23.Be2 Rxf1+ 24.Rxf1 Qxe3 25.Qc2 Re8 26.Rf2 Qg3 27.Qd2+ Kg7 28.Qf4 Rxe2+ 29.Kf1
½–½

So the facts show that Ribli suffers from a malady characteristic of many talented young chessplayers, who are convinced (who did convince them?) that they are capable of grasping the essence of a position at lightning speed and finding the correct move just as quickly. At the present time, superficiality is Ribli’s main weakness.

The Dutch set high hopes on Jan Timman. A young but already experienced professional, the impression he makes on the uninitiated can be that of a youth whose life as a chessplayer rests purely on his outstanding talent. This is not so. Timman works at his chess systematically, and as a result his analyses have contributed to numerous topical variations of contemporary theory.

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  1. April 23rd, 2015 at 11:08 | #1

    The question of style in chess is very interesting. Petrosian mentioned above that Ribli was seeking his style at the time.

    Usually we talk two main categories in chess, attacking and positional style.

    Yet, grandmasters blend strategy and tactics all the time to express their personal style. Contrary to the popular belief, Tal was a great positional player while he was preparing his fireworks before setting them off. On the other hand, Petrosian, the archetype of a positional player was a great tactician too; his positional style concealed “first and foremost a stupendous tactician.” (Boris Spassky once said to Svetozar Gligoric).

    It must be something else that defines style. Petrosian again gives us a hint:

    “If it is true that a player’s style is his person, then everyone plays as he is intended to by nature. I am naturally cautious, and I altogether dislike situations which involve risk.”

    So risk and aggressivity seem to be a major element of style.

    This clearly indicates that chess style emulates the player’s personality and character. Simply put, style is you, it’s how you express your inner being outwardly. While you may be unaware of what and how you are communicating to the outer world, your style is how world sees you.

    In his last interview Tal gave a hypothesis of what might affect developing one’s style, the life as we had led it. He lived a relatively quite life in a problem-free family, while Petrosian’s life was harder, in particular during the turmoil of the WWII…

  2. Ray
    April 23rd, 2015 at 17:43 | #2

    Great to see the excerpt – I’m very much looking foward to this book!

  3. Dennis M
    April 23rd, 2015 at 17:45 | #3

    What is the relationship of this book to the Shekhtman’s two volume series on Petrosian? Does this book just excerpt (some of) the annotated games from that one?

  4. Jacob Aagaard
    April 24th, 2015 at 12:41 | #4

    @Dennis M
    I read the blue and red books back in the 1990s when they were still in print (legally). But honestly I cannot remember them well enough to comment on the overlap. I am sure there is some, it would be dishonest to think anything else. This book has undergone the typical QC check in the classics series, where we try to make the books as attractive as possible, without greatly changing the content. We do not want to throw a computer after Petrosian all the time, though we do have an article at the back of the book by Karsten Mueller that does exactly that. This is one clear difference. Also, I annotated two games in the end of the book.

    The red and blue books were monumental works when they came out and honestly I do not know why they went out of print. I do not wish to compare in quality and content, as I lost my copies (lent them out :-(), but I am very happy with our edition and think most people will be happy with it. Sadly we did not manage to communicate with the dead master and get him to write an instructional book; but then we do have one of those by Boris Gelfand coming out at the same time…

  5. boki
    April 24th, 2015 at 14:44 | #5

    Although my Russian is not very good, I have the russian original publication from the 80s. ( as part of the famous “black series”). . As I had problems with certain positions and defending my Coach ( he recently published a book about the Catalan at a well respected chess publisher based in Glasgow 🙂 ) recommended to work with this book.
    And in my opinion it is ( at least the russioan edition) an absolut fantastic book with great games and comments ! Previously I was no big fan of Petrosjans play ( because I had barely seen a game of him), but this book was an eye opener and became one of my all time favourite books !
    I look forward in reading it in english !

  6. Senchean
    April 24th, 2015 at 23:51 | #6

    @Jacob Aagaard
    The Red and Blue books were reprinted. They can be found on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Games-Tigran-Petrosian-1942-1965/dp/4871874230/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1429917497&sr=8-3&keywords=petrosian

    I haven’t gone through them yet as I wanted to get a much better understanding of positional play before I try and tackle a World Champion that even other World Champions have a hard time understanding. But from what I have look at they are very good.

    I have been looking forward to this book for a long time. I first found out about it before it was translated by Quality Chess. But I didn’t speak Russian, so I was absolutely delighted when I found out QC was doing a translation. I’m slowly going through the PDF and and it is the first time I have every gone through actual games in an excerpt. Normally I just look at the table of contents, maybe read the introduction and leave the actual analysis for when I get the book. But with this I just couldn’t wait.

    I’m a huge fan of Capablanca, Petrosian, and Karpov. And it’s actually Petrosian that I have the most texts on: Petrosian Move by Move, the Red and Blue Books, Tigran Petrosian his Life and Games, and Petrosian’s Legacy. I’m going over How to Defend in Chess right now which has about 15 highly annotated games by Colin Crouch. I’ve also read QC’s My System twice and I have Soviet Chess Strategy as well as A Contemporary Approach to the Middle Game by Alexey Suetin who was a coach of Petrosian. I still need to get Chess Praxis. and eventually want Botvinnik – Petrosian 1963 and Petrosian vs. the Elite. I really want to understand how Petrosian thought and approached the game. And I know Python Strategy will fill in a lot of gaps.

    Actually I’m going over Art of Positional Play by Reshevsky and How to Defend in Chess at the same time, and doing that has led me to a knew understanding of Petrosian and Chess in general. GM Melikset Khachiyan on Chess.com was a student of Petrosian’s and he says that Petrosian believed that chess was all about controlling squares. And Crouch in How to Defend said that positional play generally has three approaches: the Steinitz/Lasker Appraoch, which was about using position to gain initiative and this was done by creating pawn weaknesses and attacking those weaknesses. This is the general way Positional Play is taught. And this is how Art of Positional Play approaches it as well. But Nimzowitsch looked at it more from a defensive approach where a person was not allowed to gain any meaningful advantage at any contested point of the board, Prophylaxis. And it was this style that Petrosian used. The third is the Russian idea of Dynamics, and that a weakness isn’t really a weakness unless it can be attacked. I never really thought about the differences between positional approaches before but it was very enlightening.

    Two reasons why I like Petrosian’s approach is because why should I ever let my opponent attack me when I can just avoid the situation to begin with (Prophylaxis) and Andrew Soltis, in his book Rethinking the Chess Pieces, said that the pieces seek to gain, mobility, coordination, and targets. Well that whole idea can be reduced to square control. If your pieces are on, or control the right squares, then you will have mobility, coordination, and targets. Plus I like the idea and Psychology of the whole restriction approach that was used by Capa, Petrosian, and Karpov. It plays both the board and the man, by taking way the opponent’s options and leaving him frustrated. And this fulfills one of Sun Tsu’s maxims, “If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him.”

    I”m also really looking forward to Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making, especially for the better explanation of the Space Advantage. I can’t wait!

  7. Oscar
    April 25th, 2015 at 09:41 | #7

    It is rather confusing. I looked up the game Petrosian-Yukhtman in Shekhtman. It has notes by Petrosian there. But they are so different from the ones in the new book! Even the end “black resigned” versus “black overstepped the time limit” is different…

    The notes in the game against Lutikov and Krogius are the same as in Shekhtman. The wording is different, probably due to translation.

    The notes in the game against Spassky do not appear in Shekhtman (that book has very light notes of O’Kelly), but are the same as in “Die Schachuniversität”.

    It is inevitable that sometimes notes that already appeared are connected to the games. Someone who has all the books on Petrosian and knows them by heart might be a little disappointed. Personally, I am a big fan and do have many of those books. Getting older made the memories of them disappear from my head. Even for me it is very nice to have a complete collection together, not having to look from book to book what is written there. So I’ll definitely buy the new book. And I can imagine that somebody who is completely (or relatively) new to Petrosian will find it a real treasure trove!

  8. Jacob Aagaard
    April 27th, 2015 at 11:39 | #8

    @Oscar
    There will obviously be differences in translation, but also, the book is newly edited in Russia, so there will be differences there as well.

  9. Jacob Aagaard
    April 27th, 2015 at 11:42 | #9

    @Senchean
    These are allegedly dodgy reprints; as in so far as I know, the rights are not with Ishi Press and they have scanned the original books. But this should be checked with someone better informed than me.

  10. Senchean
    April 28th, 2015 at 05:32 | #10

    @Jacob Aagaard

    Wow, I did not know that. It’s funny because I’m currently reading the Ishi Press version of Art of Positional Play by Reshevsky. I bought this one over the Algebraic Edition because there were a lot of complaints about the games being mistranslated from Descriptive to Algebraic Notation. I also Have the Ishi Press version of Petrosian’s Legacy.

  11. Jacob Aagaard
    April 28th, 2015 at 12:46 | #11

    @Senchean
    Obviously I am only putting forward things I have heard and have no clear opinion or knowledge that can or should be taken as final. In other words, I do not want to be sued :-).

  12. Senchean
    April 28th, 2015 at 18:47 | #12

    @Jacob Aagaard

    LOL! I completely understand and that will never come from anything I do or say. I haven’t noticed any problems with Art of Positional Play, aside from the fact that I am not used to Descriptive Notation. And I haven’t read the Petrosian Books yet but when I leafed through them, I didn’t see anything wrong with them.

  13. Jacob Aagaard
    April 29th, 2015 at 08:42 | #13

    @Senchean
    As far as I know, the only thing wrong with them is that the content was allegedly stolen. Whether or not this is true is for others to find out.

  14. Michael Bartlett
    May 5th, 2015 at 15:30 | #14

    @Senchean
    I wish you could have a regular column on chess books. What you wrote I found absolutely fascinating.

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