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T. Petrosian 80

Interview with GM Svetozar Gligoric
Interview with Svetozar Gligoric, Honorary Guest of the Tigran Petrosian 80th anniversary Grand Prix tournament in Jermuk, Armenia

Too often we chess fans are too heavily focused on discovering and promoting the next up and coming star.  But it is both proper as well as insightful to pay tribute to living legends, individuals who paved the path that we walk on today.  And in chess, this is relevant on yet another level, as much of the opening theory, strategic approaches to the game, and knowledge that we make use of today is attributable to the warriors of the past generation.  The organizers at the Grand Prix tournament in Jermuk, Armenia are sensitive to and appreciative of all of the above, and as such, made the magnanimous gesture of inviting one of the greatest chess figures of all time, Serbian GM and World Champion Candidate Svetozar Gligoric, to be the honorary guest of the Grand Prix event in honor of one of the principal rivals (and friends) of Gligoric, World Champion Tigran Petrosian.  Chief organizer GM Smbat Lputian sat down to have a lengthy and warm discussion with the esteemed 86 year old Gligoric, who has made his muti-faceted mark on the chess world as a top-ten player, noteworthy theorist, eloquent commentator, inspiring journalist as well as a tournament organizer and arbiter.  Below we present the first part of the discussion between the grandmasters, Smbat Lputian (SL) and Svetozar Gligoric (SG).

SL: At what age did you start to play chess?
SG: I started much later than many to-be-chessplayers, learning how to play the game at the age of eleven.  As I discovered shortly thereafter, chess came easy to me.  In 1939, at the age of sixteen, I became a master, this from the era when there were relatively few masters, and at a relatively young age.

SL: And when did you become a GM?
SG: Unfortunately, coinciding with my becoming a master in 1939, World War II broke out, and for the subsequent six years I fought as a member of a partisan unit against the Nazi-led Axis powers, and I was forced to put on hold the studying chess until 1945.  At that point in time, I started to play chess again, and in 1951, I became a GM.

SL: During this hiatus away from the board, did chess play a role for you?
SG: Although I was far removed from the latest goings-on about the game, chess actually saved my life three times.  Those stories are probably too lengthy to get into now, maybe we can discuss those later on.

SL: During those years, did you know Tigran Petrosian?
SG: Of course I did.  Tigran was 6 years younger than I, and in 1945, the same year when I returned from the war, he became a master.  As such, our chess lives were intertwined as we embarked on the journey as chess professionals in parallel and together.  In the 50s, we became close friends as well, acknowledged that we shared a lot in common.

SL: Did you face Petrosian across the board many times?
SG: Yes, we played each other a total of 27 times, with 17 of the games decisive.  I won eight of the encounters and Tigran came out on top nine times. Ten of the games were drawn.

SL: But it’s well known that Petrosian lost very few games in general.  How were you able to beat Iron Tigran so many times?
SG:  As I said earlier, we were very similar to each other philosophically and stylistically.  We both preferred to play chess according to strict logic, as it is called, correct chess.  For me it was not important who the opponent was sitting across from me, it was important that I play correct and active chess.  Maybe I was, relatively speaking of course, a more unpleasant opponent for Petrosian for the reason that I was both logical in my approach and active in my style.  Regardless, we were close friends away from the board despite our competitive struggles during our games.


SL: Please tell us a bit about Petrosian the person, as opposed to Petrosian the chessplayer.

SG: What is amazing is that in many respects, Tigran and I were so similar.  We both were simple men and not saddled by ego problems.  We both enjoyed music, humor, and we understood the intricacies of the game of chess.  Possibly most interesting is that neither of us had pretenses that we must become champions.  Regardless, nature and talent combined in Tigran and carried him to the greatest of heights.

Let me share some of my personal insights in the form of a story: In 1963 he was playing Botvinnik for the World Championship, and he confided in me that he couldn’t believe that he is playing Botvinnik for the title.  Petrosian lamented that he was unable to concentrate and focus on the task at hand to compete for the title.  As a result, I think he was unable to collect himself and he lost.  But then after gathering his energy and focusing on the task at hand through three stabilizing draws, Tigran struck back in game 5 and won a beautiful game with a king invasion; at this point, the impossible was already possible.  It was a fantastic display of understanding, intuition, and skill all fused into one.

SL: What interesting memories do you have from games with Petrosian?
SG: Well, among the many vignettes over the 34 years we played each other, I’ll share an excellent memory from one game when I played against him.  We were playing in an international tournament and we were leading the pack in the final round, when we squared off.  I had the white pieces.  Black equalized after the opening and Petrosian understandably offered me a draw.  Without thinking, I rejected his offer, as I was playing with white, and something inside me compelled me to react negatively, motivated by the feeling that with white I should endeavor to have an advantage, so I instantly rejected the offer.  Seconds after saying no, I asked myself: why am I saying no?  The position is equal and I felt the urge to take back my rejection.  But when I looked up and saw that Petrosian had already removed his hearing aides and was getting settled in his chair preparing to analyze the position anew, I realized that the window of opportunity had closed.  To have restarted the conversation would have meant to yell in across the tournament hall.  I accepted that my communication connection with Petrosian for that game was now gone.  The combination of my inner discomfort together with Tigran’s redoubled concentration on the game resulted in only 7 more moves being played until Tigran was victorious.  It was good lesson I learned that day.
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