Friday, October 17, 2014

Why didn't Petrosian play 3.e3?

The sixth game of Petrosian's 1971 match with Fischer, the Candidates' Final, took place on the seventeenth of October. As Petrosian lost the game and the three that followed, the match is probably best remembered now as the fourth of Fischer's five consecutive crushing victories which began with the procession at the Palma Interzonal became and ended with his trouncing of Spassky in Reykjavík.

Or was that Fisher?

Whoever owns AGON, they can neither spell Fischer nor resist the 600 million nonsense.

It didn't seem like that on the afternoon of 17 October: the scores were equal, Petrosian had the advantage of the White pieces and should have had the advantage on the scoreboard, which stood at 2.5:2.5. Granted, he'd lost the first game, but he'd been winning out of the opening: in the second he annihilated Fischer, bringing to an end a twenty-game winning streak, quite likely the most impressive (though not the longest) in the history of chess.

After that there were three draws, during which sequence it was Fischer struggling to hold the balance. In game three, indeed, Petrosian had been close to winning when he had, to his chagrin, allowed a threefold repetition. According to Crouch:
He had much the better of the draws in games 3, 4 and 5...on the run of play it could easily have been 4-1 to Petrosian.

How to Defend in Chess (Everyman, 2000, p. 190).
So to game six, forty-three years ago today. Fischer had been on the ropes for a week and Petrosian had the White bits. To the surprise of everybody and the disappointment of Petrosian's supporters, the game began 1. Nf3 c5 2. b3 d5 - reaching the position at the head of this piece - 3. Bb2?! after which Black played 3...f6 4. c4 d4 5. d3 e5

after which White may not be worse, but he's not even tried to be better.

Korchnoi, for one, thought Petrosian was worse:
It is a rare occurrence, let's face it, that a grandmaster gets the inferior game as White as early as move three!
So what's the problem with move three? Korchnoi went on:
Nimzowitsch always played 3. e3 here so that if 3...f6? 4. d4! and Black cannot form a massive pawn centre.
Not all commentators have been as harsh as Korchnoi (whose best mate Petrosian was not). One authority on flank openings and Nimzowitsch, annotating a different game, defended 3. Bb2 provided that it was followed up with 4. e3:

The comment is of course from Aron Nimzowitsch - A Reappraisal* which fact the author strangely omitted to mention when copying out the notes in the Spectator of 6 November 1999.

Still, most annotators have followed Nimzowitsch in disapproving of the move. So why did Petrosian - who didn't play Ray's follow-up - select it? In Russians versus Fischer (Everyman, 2005) Plisetsky and Voronkov quote Petrosian thus:

which is all very interesting, but more interesting if it's Petrosian's choice 2. b3 that puzzles you, rather than, as here, his preferring 3. Bb2.

Fischer was also puzzled, but he got over it

In volume four of My Great Predecessors Kasparov, while marking Petrosian's third as dubious, offers us, directly or otherwise, a couple of possible explanations.

One of these lies in the Petrosian-Korchnoi game he cites - played towards the end of July in the same year - in which White deliberately set up a similar formation.

Petrosian-Korchnoi after 6...c5

Petrosian-Fischer after 5...e5

Korchnoi did, however, have a fine position early on, which makes it in some ways obscure that Petrosian should wish to repeat it so soon. On the other hand Petrosian did actually win the game - and essentially the match with it - which maybe made it an attractive option for him, swapping the chance of a White advantage for the chance to say to Fischer "I am comfortable with this arrangement of the pieces - are you?"

The second possible explanation lies in Kasparov's "Game No.88" which turns out to be Fischer-Mecking from the Palma Interzonal.

The position after White's apparently inaccurate third was the same as the one occurring in Nimzowitsch-Rubinstein, many years earlier, and Petrosian-Fischer, just a year later. Mecking continued as Rubinstein had in 1926 - and met a similar fate - rather than as Fischer would in 1971. But why Fischer followed Nimzowitsch's play - rather than Nimzowitsch's advice - is perhaps as obscure as why Petrosian followed Fischer. (For sure, in the case of Fischer-Mecking, after two moves the bishop had already been developed and the knight had not, but the principle, to play 3. e3 against the possibility of 3...f6, is the same.)

So what was going on? Who knows. Petrosian did have a penchant for provocation and maybe that was in his mind, to encourage Fischer to come forward, much as he had previously encouraged Korchnoi, in the hope that Fischer would over-extend himself. And yet he himself criticises his second move, to the extent of not even being able to explain his choice. Has he ever explained why he chose his third?

I was just thinking of Tal's annotation to his dubious twelfth move in the seventeenth game of his 1960 match against Botvinnik, in his book of the match. (My edition is RHM Press, 1977.)

I think the reader will not consider me immodest if I say that I took all this into consideration in the game.
Of course: Tal was a world champion, after the match at least. And Petrosian was a world champion too. He will have known all there was to know about the move-orders involved. No doubt Petrosian, too, took all this into consideration in the game.

But still, why didn't he play 3. e3?

[Korchnoi comments from Cafferty, Candidates Matches 1971 - Russian comment on Fischer's victories (The Chess Player, 1972) which quoted a variety of Soviet sources. I have changed descriptive into algebraic and altered the book's spelling of Nimzowitsch.]

[* Or strictly speaking, in my edition, Master of Planning.]
[Thanks to Matt Fletcher]
[Image: Echecs-photos]

[Why didn't Topalov?]  

[Ray Keene index] 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In 1971, there wasn't quite the same respect for a big space advantage, also players would worry about the Bishop on the same colour squares as all the pawns. So particularly with the memory of his "off the ropes" strategy in that final game against Korchnoi, perhaps Petrosian didn't play e3 because he wanted a reverse Benoni pawn structure. Maybe also he considered that Fischer, not being a 1 d4 player would be less familiar with the middlegame ideas that result.