A blog post devoted to the 1971 Candidates’ final match between Bobby Fischer and Tigran Petrosian, featuring downloadable translations of leading Soviet grandmasters’ annotations to the games of the match.
Bobby Fischer and Tigran Petrosian, pictured during their 1971 match (credit: unknown).
Bobby Fischer and Tigran Petrosian’s performances en route to the final could scarcely have been more different. As the loser of the 1969 match for the World Championship, Petrosian qualified automatically for the quarter-final of the Candidates’ matches that began in the spring of 1971. Once there, he narrowly defeated Robert Hübner in Seville (+1, -0, =6) after the latter withdrew from the match, and then scraped past Viktor Korchnoi in the semi-final in Moscow (+1, -0, =9). Thus, he had won only two games out of the fifteen played, and both matches had featured a large proportion of colourless draws.
Fischer, in contrast, had been setting the chess world alight. He had utterly dominated the Interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca, taking first place by 3½ points, and had then famously gone on to defeat Taimanov (in Vancouver) and Larsen (in Denver) by clean scores. (You can read more on these matches here and here.) This was unprecedented; taken together with his eight consecutive victories in the final rounds at Palma, he had won 20 consecutive games.
Bobby Fischer at the board during the match (photo credit: (Photo credit: La Nación).
Nevertheless, the ultra-solid Petrosian was a different proposition from the more mercurial Taimanov and Larsen. He was famously difficult to defeat (indeed, neither Hübner nor Korchnoi had succeeded in doing so), and had enormous experience in match-play. The question was: would be be able to withstand the strain of facing Fischer at his peak?
The match, which began on 30th September, took place in Buenos Aires. The venue was the Teatro General San Martín on Avenida Corrientes, in the heart of the Argentinian capital. It scheduled for 12 games; the first player to score 6½ points would advance to challenge Boris Spassky in the 24-game match for the World Championship the following year.
As it turned out, contrary to general expectations the first half of the contest was dominated by the Soviet grandmaster. In the 1st game he sprang an opening surprise with the black pieces (11..d5!) in a well-known position that had occurred in the 6th game of the Fischer-Taimanov match.
(Footage of the opening moves of the 1st game can be seen in this Twitter post.)
This novelty, which had evidently been conceived by the Moldavian master Chebanenko, essentially refutes White’s play, yet at the 16th move Petrosian inexplicably avoided the obvious and strong continuation 16…Rxg2 and as a result, Fischer got out of the opening with a slight advantage. Petrosian never quite managed to equalise and the his opponent capitalised on some uncertain play towards the time control to take the full point.
The position in the 1st game, in which Petrosian rejected the obvious and strong 16…Rxg2.
In the 2nd game, however, Fischer was finally stopped. In a well-known variation of the Grünfeld Defence, Petrosian introduced another important theoretical novelty (8.cxd5!), and inflicted a crushing defeat on the American grandmaster, who had to resign at the 32nd move.
Petrosian varied his opening choice for the next encounter, playing a slightly off-beat variation of the French Defence that had nevertheless previously employed on a number of occasions, and as such, could not have been a surprise to his opponent. But once again it was Petrosian who took the initiative in the opening; his novelty 7…f5! provoked Fischer into the sacrifice of a pawn for uncertain compensation. In a complex middlegame White failed to find the best continuation, and as the time control approached, Fischer appeared to be on the verge of a second consecutive defeat. However, in a position in which he had a clear positional advantage, Petrosian stumbled into a three-fold repetition of the position. He had allowed his opponent to escape once again.
The position in the 3rd game, in which Petrosian played 33…Rd5?, allowing Fischer to claim a draw by three-fold repetition.
Though the 6th game is generally regarded as the turning-point in the match, the 4th evidently played an important psychological role. With the White pieces, Petrosian could have been expected to attempt to capitalise on the shaky mental state that his opponent must undoubtedly have been in. Instead, he took a safety-first approach and provoked early simplification – a draw was agreed in only 20 moves in a position that was still known to theory. Yuri Averbakh, who was in Buenos Aires as one of Petrosian’s seconds, later recounted that the ex-World Champion wished to demonstrate that he could draw against Fischer ‘on demand’ – apparently he had been stung by the American’s criticism of some of the short draws in the Petrosian-Korchnoi semi-final; Fischer had gone so far as to suggest that these must have been pre-arranged. Petrosian had proved his point, but an opportunity had surely been missed. Viktor Korchnoi, commenting in the magazine ‘64’, called the decision to play for a draw ‘altogether incorrect’ and added that he could not have imagined Botvinnik or Spassky passing over the chance to press home their advantage in such a scenario.
Fischer himself was later quoted as saying
At the start I did not feel too well. But when in the 4th game, where he had White, right from the opening Petrosian avoided any ‘aggression’, I realised that I would win the match.
Nonetheless, the Soviet grandmaster, with the black pieces, had the better of the 5th game as well. He again varied his defence to Fischer’s habitual 1.e4, on this occasion choosing the Russian Game. He had previously employed this defence in his World Championship title match v. Spassky a couple of years earlier, but it was nevertheless rare in his practice. He chose a relatively unusual line that had been employed by Florin Gheorghiu against Fischer in the international tournament at Buenos Aires the previous year. Black emerged from the opening with a solid but somewhat cramped position, but uncertain play by Fischer allowed Petrosian to gain the initiative in the middlegame; once again, though, the ex-World Champion failed to make the most of his chances, and the play soon simplified to a drawn ending.
Five games had been played, and Petrosian had, against all expectations, shown his play to be more than the equal of Fischer’s. However, the score was still level. Moreover, as was to become apparent, the strain of four full-blooded encounters had taken its toll on the older player. With the white pieces in the 6th game, he went wrong as early as the 3rd move (later, he was to admit that he could not even explain his choice of 2.b2-b3). Fischer emerged from the opening with a spatial advantage; he stood clearly better in the middlegame and by the end of the first session he had won a pawn. Evidently, the analysis of the adjourned position deprived Petrosian of much of his remaining reserves of mental energy – despite exhaustive efforts by the ex-World Champion and his seconds, no clear path to a draw could be found. After the Soviet grandmaster voluntarily cut off his rook from his own camp, his position became hopeless and he was soon forced to resign.
Tigran Petrosian waits on the stage of the Teatro Gen. San Martín (photo credit: D. Zento, AP)
This proved to be a decisive blow. In what followed, in the words of Averbakh, the fatigued Petrosian played ‘significantly below his capabilities’, losing three games in succession. Nevertheless, Fischer’s play in the final games of the match – in particular the 7th – deserves the highest praise.
Thus, the final score was a convincing 6½:2½ (+5, -1, = 3) in favour of the American, who went on to face Boris Spassky.
(Evidence of the enthusiasm of the Argentinian chess fans is provided by this clip, from the Associated Press Archive, which captures the moments following Petrosian’s resignation in the final, 9th, game.)
Tigran Petrosian is pictured in preparation for the match with Fischer, along with Viktor Korchnoi (left) and Yuri Averbakh (photo source: TASS).
The games of the match were annotated by leading Soviet grandmasters Semyon Furman, Viktor Korchnoi, Ratmir Kholmov and Lev Polugaevsky for the fortnightly newspaper ‘64‘, and, subsequently, by Petrosian’s seconds in Buenos Aires, Aleksei Suetin and Yuri Averbakh for Chess in the USSR. Translations to the annotations from ‘64‘ are available to download at the links below; commentary from the latter source has been incorporated and referenced at key junctures.
SOURCES, REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
The annotations to the games appear in ‘64‘ (№ 41-44, 1971) and Shakhmaty v SSSR (No. 1, 1972).
Dmitry Plisetsky & Sergei Voronkov’s Russians Versus Fischer (Everyman Chess, 2005 – translated by Ken Neat) is an invaluable source for background on the match. The quote by Fischer is from this book.