Armenia was not an independent state in the 1960s, when Tigran the Great was the king of the world. Tigran Petrosian put Armenia and Armenians on the world map of chess. His almost impenetrable defensive playing style earned him the nickname “Iron Tigran” by Soviet grandmaster Lev Polugaievsky.
Petrosian was born in Tiflis on June 17, 1929. He learned to play chess at the age of 8, though his father, who was illiterate, encouraged him to continue studying. He was orphaned during World War II and was forced to sweep streets to earn a living.
He began training at the Tiflis Pioneers’ Palace in 1941, and became a candidate Master at the age of 17 (1946). He then moved to Yerevan and won the Armenian chess championship. He earned the title of Master during the USSR junior chess championship of 1947.
After moving to Moscow in 1949, Petrosian's career as a chess player advanced rapidly. In 1951 and 1952 he earned the titles of International Master and Grandmaster. In the tournament of candidates for world championship of 1953, he arrived in fifth position. After the 1956 candidates’ tournament, he made a turnaround in his production. He went on to win the 1959 and 1961 USSR championships, and after winning the candidates’ tournament of 1962 in Curacao, he earned the right to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik, another Soviet player, for the title of world chess champion. Petrosian won the match in 1963 with a final score of 12.5 to 9.5.
Upon becoming world champion, Petrosian became editor-in-chief of the chess monthly Shakhmatnaya Moskva (1963-1966) and campaigned for the publication of a chess newspaper for the entire Soviet Union. This newspaper became known as 64. He would become its founding editor from 1968-1977. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophical Science at Yerevan State University in 1968, with his dissertation entitled “Chess Logics: Some Problems of Logic of Chess Thought.”
After successfully defending his crown in 1966 against Boris Spassky, Petrosian, who had won the Soviet championship in 1969, was challenged again by the same player in the same year. This time, Spassky won the match by 12.5-10.5.
The Armenian player continued his career and participated four more times in the candidates’ tournament (1971, 1974, 1977, and 1980). He won again the Soviet championship in 1975. He participated as a representative of the USSR in ten Chess Olympiads from 1958-1978, where he obtained the third all-best performance of all times (79.5 per cent, with only one defeat on 129 games) and won six individual gold medals.
Petrosian photographed during a match with rival Bobby Fischer in Belgrad, Yugoslavia, 1970.
In his 1973 book on grandmasters of chess, New York Times journalist Harold C. Schonberg said that “playing him was like trying to put handcuffs on an eel. There was nothing to grip.” Boris Spassky, Petrosian’s successor, described his style of play: “Petrosian reminds me of a hedgehog. Just when you think you have caught him, he puts out his quills."
Petrosian passed away of stomach cancer in Moscow on August 13, 1984. He was buried in the cemetery of Vagankovo, where world chess champion Garry Kasparov unveiled a memorial on his grave in 1987, depicting the laurel wreath of a world champion and an image contained within a crown of the sun shining above the twin peaks of Mount Ararat. In the district of Davtashen, in Yerevan, a monument honoring the world-famous player was opened in 2006 on the street that carries his name.
Tigran Petrosian contributed enormously to popularize chess in Armenia. The country became a great power in the chess world after independence. Grandmaster Tigran L. Petrosian, born a month after his death, was named after him.