Watching a legend in action

Games that one has witnessed live always make a special impression on one, even if the game itself was not of great quality. In my youth, the main chance to see top players in action in this country was at Hastings, and I would always visit the event for a day, in the company of one or two clubmates. In the year 1977-8, we were particularly excited, because the Premier featured the legendary Tigran Petrosian, the first and only time he played at Hastings. Although it was eight years since he had lost his world title, “Iron” Tigran was still one of the strongest players in the world. The day we went down, he was Black against the young English IM, Simon Webb.

This is what unfolded.

[Event “Hastings 7778”]
[White “Webb, Simon”]
[Black “Petrosian, Tigran V”]

1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 d5 4. cxd5 cxd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. O-O e5 7. d4 e4 8. Ne5 Bd6 9. Bf4 O-O 10. Nc3 Re8 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. Bxd6 Qxd6 13. Rc1

At this point, we didn’t think Webb was doing so badly. After all, the only obvious weakness on the board is the pawn on c6, and White is getting ready to play Na4-c5.  In reality, though, this weakness is easily defended, and the dead bishop on g2 is the more important factor, although we did not appreciate it at the time. But now, without much thought, Petrosian played

13…h5!

This shocked us a bit at the time. Although we were not quite sure what to make of it all, one of my friends made the prescient observation, “Petrosian only plays moves like h5 when he thinks he’s winning!”.

14. Qd2 h4 15. Qg5 h3 16. Bh1 Qb4! 17. Qd2 Rb8 18. b3 Ng4 19. Qf4 Rb7 

By now, it was becoming apparent that White was being pushed around. d4 is hanging and the threat of e4-e3 is in the air. Webb now thought for a long time, before playing his next, already desperate move. After the game, I saw Petrosian set up this position on the board, play the moves 20.e3 Qe7, push his pawn to g5, and then hold out his arms in front of Webb, with a huge grin on his face, and shrug very expressively: “What can you do about this threat?” A depressed Webb could only smile wanly back.

20. Nxe4 dxe4 21.Bxe4

But now we begun to think that Webb had some serious swindling chances – he has two pawns, c6 is dropping, etc. This moment was also very instructive, because Petrosian stopped for the first significant time in the game. He thought for 20 minutes, and then the rest of his moves were played instantly. He had worked it all out.

21…Bd7 22. Rc5 Rb5 23. Bxc6 Rxc5 24. Bxd7 Qb7!

As I said, all played instantly.

25. f3 Qxd7 26. dxc5 Ne3

And Webb resigned, as there is nothing to be done about 27…Qd2. 0-1

The whole game had lasted barely over two hours (the time-limit was the old 40 in two and a half hours, so a five-hour session). My friends and I were stunned. We had just watched this solid, talented young IM utterly destroyed, despite being White in a rock-solid flank opening. We could not believe it.

“You want to play THAT move?”

Neither could Simon Webb. I can still picture him, totally shell-shocked, showing the game to the veteran Harry Golombek, on the side of the room. Webb just kept shrugging helplessly as he showed the moves, as if to say “What can I do?” The experienced Golly, who had suffered the treatment at Petrosian’s hands fully 25 years before, just smiled sympathetically, as if to say “I know, I’ve been there myself!”.

For Petrosian of course, it was all just another day at the office. Awesome!

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