- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

For we proud members of the Cult of the Tiger, Alexey Bezgodov’s eagerly awaited “Defend Like Petrosian” (NewInChess, 269 pp. $24.95) is a fascinating but frustrating survey of the life and works of the inimitable Tigran Petrosian, the ninth world champion and perhaps the most original player of the modern era.

Petrosian, who held the title for six years before he was dethroned by Soviet compatriot Boris Spassky in 1969, favored a hyper-subtle, defense-first style far from the crowd-pleasing approach of a Tal, Fischer or Kasparov. He had a justly earned reputation for drawishness, often agreeing to split the point after a heroic defensive stand had finally turned the game in his favor.

Yet he was a unique strategist, a brilliant tactician (when he had to be) and (when roused) a fierce counterpuncher. A great Petrosian game is sui generis, often featuring positional ideas and individual moves that no other strong player would even consider. Bezgodov, a former Russian national champion, is very good on Petrosian’s unorthodox approach. His pronounced preference for knights over bishops, his seeming lack of ambition with the White pieces, his propensity for exchange sacrifices and sudden, head-spinning shifts in the character of the play.

Oddly, though, the 176 games in “Defend Like Petrosian” include a high number of flat-out duds, short draws and outright defensive disasters from our hero. (Of the first 40 games surveying his career in the book, Petrosian scores a pretty unimpressive 19½ points, including lopsided losses to such lesser-known players as Rudolf Maric and Herman Pilnik.) The author’s desire to avoid hagiography is admirable, but it makes for a highly ambivalent tribute at times.

Luckily, there are more than enough high points to balance the lows. If you want to know why even players like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov had an immense respect for Petrosian’s unique genius, check out the famous position from today’s diagram, when the 24-year-old Petrosian, pitted against veteran U.S. star Sammy Reshevsky at the 1953 Zurich Interzonal, played a move that could fairly be said to have revolutionized the game.

White has just played 25. Rf1-e1, and Black appears to be in a world of hurt: His cramped pieces would seem to be no match for White’s coming central pawn march.

Petrosian’s brilliant solution looks at first like a gross oversight: 25…Re6!!, just giving away the exchange. But check out the position just a few moves later after 26. a4 Ne7!! 27. Bxe6 fxe6 28. Qf1 Nd5 29. Rf3 Bd3 — White’s center is stymied, Black’s knight occupies the glorious d5 outpost, and Reshevsky’s bishop on b2 is a spectator.

White soon felt compelled to return the sacrificed material, and the game, which would prove enormously influential, ended in a 41-move draw.

“Defending Like Petrosian” does offer some lesser-known gems, including another amazing defensive idea from our hero in a 1965 game against Yugoslav great GM Svetozar Gligoric.

Things look bleak for White’s lonely king after Gligoric’s 23…Qd8-g5, with nothing to hold back the coming kingside assault.

But Petrosian found 24. Kh1!! (the prelude to a crazy idea to plant the White queen beside her consort as a defensive stopper) Qh4 25. Qd2! Rcc8 26. Rb7 Rcd8 27. Qe1! Rd5 28. Rxa7 Qh6 29. Qg1! — a remarkable position. The White queen will remain buried, parrying all Black’s threats, until the final move of the game.

Stymied on the kingside, Gligoric cannot hold back his opponent on the other wing. A final finesse clinches the game for White: 41. Ne6+ Kf6 42. f4! (a highly unusual pin preventing an en passant capture) Bb2 43. Ng5 Bd3 44. Ra7 Bc4 45. Qd1!, with the killer threat of 46. Qd6 mate; Black resigned.

Petrosian-Gligoric, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 1965

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. e3 O-O 6. Bd2 c6 7. Be2 Ne4 8. O-O Nxd2 9. Qxd2 e6 10. cxd5 exd5 11. b4 Nd7 12. b5 Nf6 13. bxc6 bxc6 14. Na4 Bf5 15. Bd3 Ne4 16. Qc2 Rc8 17. Rac1 Re8 18. Nc5 Bf8 19. Bxe4 dxe4 20. Ne5 Bg7 21. Nc4 Rc7 22. Rb1 Bf8 23. Rfc1 Qg5 24. Kh1 Qh4 25. Qd2 Rcc8 26. Rb7 Rcd8 27. Qe1 Rd5 28. Rxa7 Qh6 29. Qg1 Bg4 30. Ra5 Be2 31. Nb3 Bb4 32. Ra4 Rb8 33. Ne5 Rbb5 34. Rxc6 Bd6 35. Rc8+ Kg7 36. Raa8 Rxe5 37. dxe5 Bxe5 38. Rc5 Rxc5 39. Nxc5 Qh4 40. Ra4 f5 41. Ne6+ Kf6 42. f4 Bb2 43. Ng5 Bd3 44. Ra7 Bc4 45. Qd1 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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