Interviews Mar 16, 2017 | 9:43 AMby Colin McGourty

Petrosian on talent, character and near misses

Arshak Petrosian has had a highly successful coaching career, leading the tiny Armenian nation to an astonishing hat-trick of Olympiad victories. He was also a promising player in his own right, but in a recent interview he reflects on why he failed to reach the very top level. He also talks about what’s held Levon Aronian back from playing a World Championship match, and why his son-in-law and long-term protégé Peter Leko fell just short of becoming the 15th World Champion when he faced Vladimir Kramnik in 2004.

Arshak Petrosian and his Armenian team receive a heroes' welcome from the Armenian President on their return to Yerevan after winning the 2011 World Team Championship 

Last year Arshak Petrosian gave an in-depth interview to Sergey Kim for ChessPro, where he looked back on his own chess career and those of some of the players he’s known and worked with. In these translated highlights we focus on three near misses:

Arshak Petrosian’s most painful game

Ashak is no relation to World Champion Tigran Petrosian, but his great namesake did once share a sobering verdict on his chess, as Arshak revealed when he was asked why his contemporaries gradually overtook him:  

Nowadays you need to become a grandmaster at 13 years old, while back then it was already great if you became a master at 16. Things didn’t go so well for me after that, and even Tigran Petrosian… when he looked at my games… said literally the following: “You’ve got talent and have to keep going, but due to a character flaw it’s unlikely it’s going to work out”. In chess, if you want to achieve great results, you need to have an unyielding and very tough character. With a mellow one you won’t achieve great success. That’s absolutely true! My life, my experience as a chess player, the experience of chess players I know, all proves that.

A young Arshak Petrosian | photo: B. Dolmatovsky, ChessPro

Petrosian describes the moment as a 22-year-old that he came within a move or two of playing in the powerful 1976 USSR Championship final, which was ultimately won by Anatoly Karpov above the likes of Tigran Petrosian, Mihkail Tal and Vasily Smyslov: 

In Minsk, for the first and last time I had tears in my eyes. Back then I was with Dementiev – we’d just started to cooperate in 1976. In the last round I was playing against Grandmaster Semyon Furman, Anatoly Karpov’s trainer. With Black. If I won I’d make it into the Higher League. Perhaps my fate would have worked out differently… My next chance arose only in 1985 – can you imagine that?

With Black I had to play for a win, but I played only the Queen’s Gambit, which isn’t particularly great for playing for a win. Furman, however, played 1.Nf3, 2.c4, 3.Nc3… In that game I was playing at the board, with no preparation. We’d prepared something completely different. And then I managed to outplay him and get a totally stunning position. I sacrificed a piece and pushed a pawn to e2! And I had 20 minutes left, while Furman had 3 minutes until the time control! And I recall it perfectly: finally he played the move Rd2 – he simply didn’t have anything else.

With 26...Rxd2! Petrosian could have played a simple sequence that leaves both the b2-bishop and f3-knight under attack

And running through my head: “What’s he thinking so long about?” He thought for 17 minutes, and in that time I calculated how to mate in a few moves instead of simply taking that rook, then queening the pawn, exchanging queens, attacking two pieces and that would be that – I’m a piece up. He’d resign. Simply two moves! But I had a powerful attack, a very interesting one, a beautiful game. Later they gave some kind of prize for a beautiful draw…

I still remember it to this day: the black bishop is on b7, cutting the board in two, and then I play Qc6 – a move I’d calculated in advance, and he can’t stop mate.

It would have been such a beautiful win… But the problem was that when I play Qc6 it’s as if the bishop is blocked and he can offer the queen up for exchange, on e4! Previously he couldn’t (the bishop got in the way), but now he can. Can you imagine I missed that? And after that the position became absolutely drawn. I still had an hour to go, but that no longer had any significance.

And that was, of course, a terrible mistake on my part, which had great significance from the point of view of what followed… For me that would have been a gift of fate, because in 1976, in that Championship, EVERYONE played! But it turned out that I didn’t make it into it because of that game. I can tell you for a fact that it had a very big influence on me. Later I often played in qualifying events, but I didn’t make it into the Higher League until 1985.

Efim Geller vs. Arshak Petrosian | photo: M. Rabkin, ChessPro

Peter Leko – 5 minutes from the World Championship title

Peter Leko is still only 37, but in recent years he’s dropped off the supertournament radar. New chess fans might not recall that the Hungarian, who was the youngest ever grandmaster when he gained the title as a 14-year-old in 1994, was for a very long time a fixture at the top. Arshak explains: 

What does it mean to be in the Top Ten, in those years and now? Those are people who constantly demonstrate a certain level. You think it’s easy? When I was working with Peter he was in the Top 10, he was third, and fifth, and fourth, seventh, eighth. Over the course of 10-12 years! That’s very tough – a huge amount of work! Constant training, constant improvement. It’s someone who treats chess not simply as a pleasure but as hard work. Nowadays everyone works, because otherwise it’s impossible. It’s only work, multiplied by talent, that gives stability…

Arshak recounts how his individual coaching jobs were connected to Dortmund, where he first played Arkadij Naiditsch and then went on to coach the young star. Then he met Peter Leko, though not directly but through his daughter:

A year later I again played in the Dortmund side tournament. My daughter came to the rounds to root for me, and she met and then got to know Leko. It seems Peter and her immediately hit it off. They began to go out… Of course Peter came to our house, and how could we not look at chess? We pushed the pieces together, and after he and Sofia got engaged he came with his manager and suggested that I work as his main coach. To do that I had to move to Hungary.

Peter Leko and Arshak's daughter Sofia | photo: ChessPro

We did an awful lot of work together! An incredible number of hours, almost every day, but for a trainer of the Soviet school that wasn’t tough. And Peter as well is a chess fanatic, he can work however much you like. We decided we’d target the World Championship, and we achieved that. It was tough, but if that’s what’s it took that’s what it took! We were together for all the tournaments and all the qualifiers to the main match. Our cooperation continues to this day, but in recent years, understandably, in lesser amounts. After all, there’s already over a decade of very hard work behind us…

Arshak is asked to talk about the 2004 World Championship match in Brissago, where Leko took on the reigning World Champion Vladimir Kramnik:

It’s amazing – if you take the match between Petrosian and Botvinnik, then the first 14 games went in an identical manner to the match between Peter and Kramnik. There as well after 14 games the score was 7:7, but the match continued (Petrosian won 3 of the remaining 8 games to become World Champion), while here… By the way, that was the last match where the Champion retained the title in case of a draw. In the run-up to the match you had to go through a tough qualifier, the Candidates Tournament, and there Peter managed to do something that happens very rarely: in the middle of the tournament he scored 6.5/7! It’s not so simple to win multiple games against Shirov, Topalov, Bareev… That was a pretty tough tournament. True, Kasparov didn’t play. He insisted on a separate match with Kramnik. I understand that if he’d played then his chances would no doubt have been greater, but it turned out he didn’t play.

What happened during the match? In the first game Peter lost. Why? Can you imagine what it means to play a World Championship game for the first time in your life? He wasn’t yet 25. Kramnik had wonderful preparation and Peter was playing but getting nothing. He wins a queen for a rook and bishop, but the position is drawn with an outside passed pawn.

Kramnik managed to win this position with the black pieces

He doesn’t want to end his first game in a quick draw, although that would have been no problem for him. It was a World Championship match, and he wanted to play. And it so happened that in an absolutely drawn position, where he could have forced a draw on a few occasions, he suddenly blundered in a single move and lost. You can imagine how terrible it is when something like that happens. And that was with White, don’t forget. Unfortunately, for family reasons, I couldn’t be with him for the first two games. He was really anticipating my arrival and, thank God, he made a draw in the second game… He was, though, being helped by Vladimir Akopian and Vladislav Tkachiev.

I already saw in the third game that he needed to switch to d4, because I know Kramnik. If he prepared some opening then it meant everything had been studied inside out. When you’ve played so many games against Kramnik you’ll know what I mean (laughs). He’s always wonderfully prepared and, in general, I think he’s no. 1 in that regard - it’s perfectly possible that even now. In the third game he was again two moves ahead of us in preparation, and then we beat him in game 5, playing d4 for the first time! Of course we couldn’t prepare it well, but it was a Plan B. Then Kramnik unexpectedly lost in the Marshall Attack, having failed to analyse a variation to the end. Don’t forget, though, that Peter found it all at the board, and that’s very tough. We hadn’t prepared the line and Peter had to look for a refutation on his own. And it turned out it was +1 in our favour!

Even today with more powerful computers it's only when 24.Qxe2 is actually played that our broadcast system realises Kramnik is not slightly better but losing!

A different psychology began. After all, back then Peter was losing once a year. And now imagine the situation where it’s enough to make draws in the remaining games in order to win the match.

I consider the reason for the failure in the match to have been Game 12. Out of the opening Peter got a slightly better position. In general, we played a good system, as Bareev later noted in his book “Notes of a Second”. There as well you can find it subtly noted that we would go for walks in the evening. They’re studying and studying and then they see again that we’re going for a walk. With Black we were constantly changing either the opening or the variation. That was all correct, even if at times it was to the detriment of the position. We always got more or less normal play. And then in the 12th game, in a slightly worse position, Peter makes a few absolutely stunning moves, retreating the blockading bishop from d6 to c7, attacking the d5-pawn. After that he won two pawns. White had counterplay, of course: the extra pawns were doubled and it was a queen and knight vs. a queen and bishop. It was all tricky, but it was clear that Black was better.

And then a draw agreement followed! Frankly speaking, I couldn’t understand that back then… It was nerves, nerves, nerves… pure psychology. With Black you steel yourself before the game to make a draw, so you shouldn’t win, right? And when the worst was behind him and the computer was already showing -1… I’m by no means saying that it was won, but in any case, you could have played on. More likely than not Peter would have won and the match would have ended there…

In Game 13 he made a draw with White with difficulty… and then the fourteenth game. We again guessed right with the opening - Kramnik got nothing and played too sharply. At one point it was necessary to sacrifice a pawn with d5-d4 and, more likely than not, it was White who would have had to make a draw. The diagonal is opened and White has played g4…

To play d4 here, or on the previous move, would have taken true guts - but would it have worked out better?

But here psychology came into play: Peter wanted to make a rock solid draw without giving anything away. His nerves didn’t withstand it… It’s by no means simple, of course - many fans had come from Hungary and there was additional pressure. In my life I’ve followed many matches, but when you’re there yourself, even with short draws and other such things, the tension is at times extraordinary. Each game is worth its weight in gold! Do you think it’s easy? And Peter didn’t withstand that pressure… Volodya, meanwhile, is an experienced guy and took advantage, although after the match both players were like lemons that had been squeezed dry. Look at the photos in the book! I remember a photograph with the caption: “The winner”? And he just couldn’t look. Peter lost the first and the last game – the first due to inexperience, the second due to psychology…

The match ended with a beautiful mating construction

Just like that, in the 63-match Petrosian lost the 1st and 14th games, but then, as I said before, the match went on. Moreover, in terms of style of play Peter and Tigran Vartanovich are very similar! That striving for safety, prophylaxis, the same logical play – “step by step”, as they say. That’s a real thing, although I never try to compare chess players of different eras, since chess has changed. Comparing is very hard and to say that someone played better or worse is impossible. There’s a time for everything!

Petrosian and his son-in-law Leko | photo: Y. Vasiliev, ChessPro

So that’s how the match in Brissago went. We were within “five minutes” of the title! The main World Championship in the classical line, not the FIDE knockout championship. If Peter had won he would have become the 15th World Champion. But it so happened that… Besides, he didn’t lose the match – it was 7:7! The World Championship runner-up… Now they would play rapid, and in that case, who knows? But back then it wasn’t like that. We used up a lot of energy. It was in those years, immediately after the match, that Peter played stronger than at any other time. A couple of months later he shone as he won Wijk aan Zee. Of course he’s an exceptionally gifted chess player, and it seems to me he’s played at 50-60% of his potential. Every chess player of the very highest level, though, has his own view of things. That’s HIS alone! You can’t make Petrosian into Botvinnik or vice versa - each has their own opinion. For a trainer it’s important to help, to set them on the right path. But how far a player goes ultimately depends on him.

Levon Aronian: Falling at the last hurdle

With Levon Aronian on top board and Arshak Petrosian as captain the Armenian team has won three Olympiads and the World Team Championship. They’ve also worked together individually, though, with Arshak holding sessions with 16-year-old Aronian and most recently holding a training camp with Levon before the Moscow Candidates tournament. 

Levon and Arshak have tasted team glory together! | photo: K. Landa, ChessPro

That was to prove another bitter disappointment for a player who for a long time was considered Magnus Carlsen’s natural challenger. Arshak was asked what’s holding Aronian back:

That same psychology! There’s nothing else. You look at all the Candidates Tournaments where he’s played. He usually starts well, and now as well he was in first place after the first half. +2, sharing 1-2nd place. Moreover, he didn’t have any particular opening problems. But then he lost a roughly equal or slightly worse position to Anand. There was no way he should have lost. He didn’t take all his chances in the game against Karjakin, although he carried out a wonderful combination… It was very uncharacteristic for him that he got into time trouble. First and foremost, that’s explained by nervousness. He’s a chess player who takes decisions quickly – an incredible talent! How many tournaments has he won! But when he’s close to the goal… After all, what does it mean to become World Champion? I can tell you: it’s essential to win the necessary tournament at the necessary time. You can win a hundred tournaments, but you need to win precisely that Candidates Tournament! And that’s the toughest thing. In the first rounds you don’t think about that, but when by a certain point things are going well and you start to think that the goal is close… It’s very hard to stay calm, and the player himself needs to find some means of his own to do that.

Levon was neck and neck with Karjakin after the first half of the Moscow tournament

It was in the second half that Levon didn’t manage to convert his edge in the game against Topalov and lost a slightly better position to Svidler in the space of a few moves. Add those dropped points and he could have taken first place, but there’s something missing. No, not “steel” – he’s a chess player of a pretty strong character – but perhaps he’s lacking some “steeliness”, some steeliness NOW, right NOW! It’s not so simple… But I still think that he’s got a chance. We’ll see. In Moscow and London he was pretty close to the goal.

Levon Aronian’s next major tournament will be the GRENKE Chess Classic from April 15-22, where his seven opponents include Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

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