Sunday, April 5, 2015

Juggernaut: Petrosian vs Bondarevesky, USSR Championship 1950

Edit: In view of your upcoming exams, I will refrain from posting lengthy articles like this for the next couple of weeks or so. All the best, guys!


All around you the sounds of battle rage furiously. The rat-tat-tat of machine guns, the swishing of bullets, the screams of wounded men. Shells whistle overhead and land with a deafening roar, stirring up clouds of mud and grass. You lie in the middle of the carnage, brought down by a leg wound. While trying to pull yourself to safety, you hear the low rumble of an engine nearby. Through the gunpowder-filled smoke, you see the shadow of an enemy tank materializing not far away.

The tank is headed in your direction. You hear the growl of its engine, see the turret rotate in search of targets, and those awful caterpillar tracks rolling slowly towards you.

"We'll be safe if we hide under him, boys"

Frantically you try to crawl away from the steel beast, but your wounds are too painful. You cry out for help, but the acrid smoke chokes you and the sounds of battle silence your calls. You can only watch helplessly as the tank silhouette gets bigger, the roar of its engine growing louder. Soon, there is a crunch of bones coming from where your legs were, then your waist, then stomach... slowly, the squeeze creeps up to your chest. You open your mouth to gasp for air, but the squeeze gets tighter and tighter, until a point when the pressure becomes unbearable and you succumb to darkness...


No, this isn't a nightmare. This is the feeling which you get when being "squeezed" by a master of positional play. Legendary positional players like Nimzowitsch, Karpov and Carlsen. Once they gain the tiniest advantage they will capitalize on it, slowly adding pressure until the opponent is crushed to death. A totally different style from the bold, dashing attacks of Tal and Alekhine!

Today, we will examine a game from one such positional master: Tigran Petrosian. A game where he patiently expands in the centre and Queenside, cramping up his opponent's position and depriving him of all counterplay.

"Iron Tigran", the 9th World Champion

The game has been annotated in detail by Peter Clarke, and I will include some of his comments in the analysis.

Petrosian, Tigran V vs Bondarevsky, Igor
USSR Championship, Moscow 1950

1. Nf3 e6
2. g3 f5
3. Bg2 Nf6
4. O-O Be7
5. d4 O-O
6. c4 c6
7. Qc2 Qe8
8. Nbd2 d5 (D)

Position after 8... d5

Black has set up a Stonewall formation, a solid and reliable pawn structure of the Dutch Defense with opportunities for expansion on the kingside. The downsides to this structure are the hole on e5 and Black's incarcerated light-squared bishop.

9. Ne5

Clarke: "Petrosian is employing the same strategy as he did against Pirtskhalava-placing his Knights on d3 and f3 in order to exploit the hole on e5. What is interesting is that he has found an entirely different route for them to take."

9... Nbd7
10. Nd3 Ne4
11. Nf3

Clarke: "White has avoided relieving Black's game by exchanges and is now ready to begin the drive forward in the center. This is a critical moment for the second player, for he must seek counter-play on the K side and yet not overreach himself there; 11...Qh5 seems natural. Instead Bondarevsky tries to combat White's plans by striking out first on the other wing, a policy as wrong as it is anti-thematic."

11... Nd6
12. b3 b5
13. c5

Between unclear territory that offer tactical opportunities and a slow positional grinding, Petrosian chooses the latter. The other variation I looked at was 13. cxd5 cxd5 14. Nde5 Nxe5 15. Nxe5 Ne4 (15... Bf6?! 16. Ba3 Qd8 17. Rac1 Be7 18. Qc7 White threatens to win a piece after the trade of Queens.) 16. f3 (D)

Position after 16. f3

This is the sort of position that Fischer or Anand would enjoy playing, but not Petrosian. Nevertheless, it does give White a slight edge after 16... Nf6 17. e4 dxe4 18. fxe4 fxe4 19. Bxe4 Nxe4 20. Qxe4 due to his greater piece activity.

Returning to the position after 13. c5:

13... Nf7

13... Ne4 14. Nfe5 Nxe5 15. Nxe5 would have lead to a similar position as the variation we analyzed earlier.

14. a4 bxa4
15. Rxa4 Bf6
16. Bb2 a6

Clarke: "For the one and only time he could have played 16... e5 here. Although it would have greatly freed his pieces-after, for instance, 17. dxe5 Nfxe5 18. Rfa1 Nxd3 19. exd3 Bxb2 20. Qxb2 Nxc5 21. Rxa7 White's too would have had the board opened up for them. And open positions invariably favor the side with the initiative."

17. Nfe5 Nfxe5
18. dxe5 Be7
19. f4!

Gaining space bit-by-bit, slowly building up the advantage and not straying into unclear waters. Wilhelm Stenitz would have been proud!

19... Rb8
20. Rfa1 Rb5
21. b4 (D)

Position after 21. b4

With the centre in his control White proceeds to expand on the Queenside.

21... h5!

Clarke: "Bondarevsky has not yet had all the fight squeezed out of him! He is aiming to win some space on the K side and so perhaps put White out of his methodical stride."

22. Bc3 h4

Another way to continue the kingside attack would have been 22... g5 23. e3 h4 Either way, seeking play on that wing would have been much preferable to a passive defense on the Queenside.

23. e3 Nb8?!

Why suddenly postpone the counterattack with this passive looking move? Once again, I felt Bondarevsky would have been better off seeking kingside expansion as according to Stonewall/Dutch doctrine: 23... hxg3 24. hxg3 Kf7 25. Bf3 Rh8 26. Kg2 Rh6 where the threat of Qh8 and g5, followed by an occupation along the Kingside, ensures sufficient counterplay.

24. Ne1

The threat here now is 25. Bf1 skewering the a6 pawn.

24... Rb7
25. gxh4 Bxh4
26. Nf3 Bd8
27. h4! (D)

Position after 27. h4

A powerful, prophylactic move that prevents Black from advancing g5. Petrosian already has a central and Queenside advantage which won't disappear anytime; why hurry with the execution when you can deprive the opponent of all counterplay first!

27... Qh5
28. Be1 Bd7?!

Bondarevsky keeps making passive moves one after another, and as a result he is helplessly squeezed into a corner. 28... Ra7 might have been better, although after 29. Ng5 Bxg5 30. hxg5 Kf7 31. Qf2 Rh8 32. Bf3 Black is not going to make further progress on the kingside. After 32... Qh3 33. Qg3 Qxg3+ 34. Bxg3 Rh3 35. Kg2 Rh7 36. Be2 Black still has a difficult task of freeing his minor pieces, who are tied down babysitting the a6 pawn.

29. Qf2 Kf7?

Clarke: "A final error, shortening the game by many moves. He had to return his Bishop to c8 to protect his a-pawn, in which event it still would have required a long campaign of White to breach the defences (the g-file is the weak spot). As soon as the pawn is removed, there is nothing to hold the attacker off."

30. Bf1 Rh8
31. Bxa6 Nxa6
32. Rxa6 (D)

Position after 32. Rxa6

Petrosian's positional squeeze has paid off with a breakthrough on the a-file.

32... Be7
33. Ra7 Rhb8
34. Rxb7 Rxb7
35. Nd4

White's knight is stronger than Black's light-squared bishop in this closed position.

35... Qh8
36. Qg3 Qb8
37. h5

Notice that White's former dominance of the Queenside helped to tie down Black's pieces on that wing, thus enabling him to "transfer" this power to the other wing!

37... Ra7

By now Black's last chances for counterplay would have to involve a desperate piece sacrifice: 37... Bxc5 38. bxc5 Rb1 but after 39. Qg6+ Kf8 40. Rxb1 Qxb1 41. Kf2 Qb2+ 42. Kf3 the Black Queen's infiltration will run out of steam, while White's superior minor pieces and dominating Queen position will eventually prevail.

38. Rc1 Qg8
39. Qg6+ Kf8
40. b5

Principle of two weaknesses: White simply rolls down his pawns on both sides of the board and it will be too much for Black's passive pieces to handle!

40... Qf7
41. bxc6 Bc8 (D)

Position after 41... Bc8

Clarke: "Black sealed this move and the next day, in view of the continuation} 42. Qxf7+ Kxf7 43. Nb5 Ra8 44. Nd6+ Kf8 45. c7 he resigned"

Petrosian's lasting patience enabled him to carry out a slow but deliberate expansion, enough to crush his opponent like a tank running over helpless infantrymen. Truly a strategic masterpiece.


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