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    Friday
    Sep102010

    Bent Larsen, 1935-2010

    Danish chess legend Bent Larsen died yesterday in Buenos Aires, following a short illness, at the age of 75. He was a leading grandmaster from the mid-to-late 50s through the early 80s, and for a period from the mid-to-late 1960s until his 1971 Candidates match against Bobby Fischer was considered a genuine title contender and even at one point possibly the strongest player outside the Soviet Union.

    He was a Candidate four times, losing narrowly in the semi-final match to Mikhail Tal in 1965, losing another semi-final in 1968 to eventual champion Boris Spassky in 1968, losing a third semi-final to Bobby Fischer in 1971 and in the quarter-final match to Portisch in 1977. When he lost to Fischer in 1971, it was by the terrible score of 6-0, but while Fischer was a clear and dominant victor, it need not have been a whitewash. This put an end to talk of Larsen as a potential world champion, but to see how serious and justified that talk had been, consider that in 1970 he beat Fischer in their individual game in the Interzonal, and when Larsen insisted, based on his results the past few years, that he and not Fischer should be board one in the USSR vs. the Rest of the World Match, Fischer accepted this.

    Larsen managed to defeat all the players who held the title in the post-WWII era up through and including Anatoly Karpov, and in many cases, did it while they were champions. He famously crushed Tigran Petrosian twice in the Second Piatigorsky Cup in 1966, shortly after Petrosian had successfully defended his title against Boris Spassky, and twice defeated world champion Karpov.

    Characteristically, both of his wins against Karpov were with Black. In the super-tournament in Montreal in 1979, Larsen beat Karpov (appropriately enough) with the Scandinavian. If today it's a normal but second-tier opening, back then it was considered slightly somewhat eccentric. A year later, in Tilburg, Larsen soundly beat Karpov in the Petroff, of all openings. Karpov went pawn grabbing and was crushed in an opposite-colored bishop middlegame. Karpov survived to reach the ending, but was always lost and never had a chance.

    Speaking of opening eccentricities, that was part of Larsen's charm, though he sometimes carried it to excess. (Remember of course the famous massacre he suffered with 1.b3 against Spassky in the USSR vs. the Rest of the World match.) Thanks to his consistent patronage, 1.b3 is now generally labeled the "Nimzo-Larsen", and the Caro-Kann variation 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2/c3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 gxf6 is generally credited to him (and fellow, late legend David Bronstein) as well. Nowadays pushing rook pawns, especially the h-pawn, is taken as a matter of course in many situations and not just when trying to mate the Dragon Sicilian; this is in part thanks to him.

    He was a very combative player (probably too combative for his own good, at least when facing his fellow elites and when in suboptimal form) who loved complicated positions, and whether he was in good form or not his games were always interesting for the spectators. He was also a friend to chess fans everywhere in his writing. Unfortunately for those of us in the English-reading world, we don't have access to much of his writing, but his chapter in the compilation volume How To Open a Chess Game was remarkable, and his chess autobiography (through 1969, when he was hitting his peak) Larsen's Selected Games of Chess is widely viewed as a classic.

    He was also very well-liked by his peers in the chess world, and also enjoys the very odd claim to fame of having been one of Bobby Fischer's very few seconds. He helped him in the 1959 Candidates, although it seems that one of his main "duties" was reading Tarzan comics to him! Once again, when it came to Larsen, the odd was actually normal when it came to his chess career.

    And so, sadly, another great figure in the history of chess has passed away. He deserves to be remembered.

    (You can find further factual information about Larsen here. Later, I hope to post some of his best and most famous games - not necessarily the same thing.)

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    Reader Comments (7)

    23. Qxg6 Valhalla awaits you :-(

    September 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJaideepblue

    The week after the 1966 Piatigorsky, Larsen gave a lecture and simultaneous at the Mechanics' Institute in SF. He showed us the Petrosian games and told us that the game with the queen sacrifice was, by far, MUCH the easier of the two. In the simul, he entered my KID preparation and, at about the 20th move, thought for about 5 seconds and made the obvious (wrong!) move that would have lost the exchange. As he turned to move on, he somehow realized his mistake (the calculation was pretty deep), took back the move (I didn't care and didn't complain, although some of the spectators did), thought for about 30 seconds, and made the right move ("No, this way!" he said) that led to a winning endgame. It was an honor to lose to him, of course. He will be missed.

    September 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Sullivan

    Chessvibes has a nice article.

    Still I remember a story from his last tournament appearance in 2008. He was 0/8 playing all garbage openings. In the last round, his opponent offered him an early draw so there would be no chance of Larsen finishing on 0/9. Larsen not surprisingly turned it down because he was a fighter. He finished on 0/9 but his last round opponent said indeed he would have been shocked if Larsen had taken his draw offer.

    September 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

    I played him four times.
    The first I drew with black in a Bishop´s opening.
    The next two were Sicilians which I won with white.
    Played him 4 years later with white and he again played the Sicilian.
    He wiped me out in 25 moves.
    The man was a magnificent fighter and, as British organiser Stewart Reuben observed, "My favourite after dinner company." He was a polyglot with a command of some eight languages and had a wealth of anecdotes on every subject.

    The chess world has lost one of its greats.

    September 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames Plaskett

    ". . . his games were always interesting for the spectators."

    "He will be missed."

    Agreed.

    September 10, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhylen

    Bent Larsen was the first grandmaster I ever met---he gave a simul at the Dumont Chess Club in Bergen County, NJ, when I was 10 or 11, in 1970. I think I lasted 30 moves, and he was very nice. And I took after him with several of my openings...

    I'm jumping the gun a bit as the following figures will change when I make needed upgrades to my data-collating scripts and alter my version of the Guid-Bratko "Average Difference" metric even further. The larger project is not yet ready for publication, and my regular CS research has taken precedence. However, the conjunction of Larsen and Fischer near the top of my all-time Rybka 3 (fixed reported depth 13) move-matching table bears mention now:

    Rank Match% AvgDiff #Moves Player Event/source-file
    ------ --------- --------- ------ ---------------- -------------------------
    ...
    10 70.3% 0.065 185 Fischer, Robert FischerLarsenCM1971R3d13
    11 70.0% 0.061 130 Beliavsky, Alex USSRvROW1984R3d13
    12 70.0% 0.068 110 Leko, Peter BledOl2002SelectR3d13
    13 70.0% 0.078 120 Larsen, Bent USSRvROW1970R3d13

    Larsen's performance on top board for the World has been deprecated because of his 19-move loss to Spassky, but his two wins and a draw in the other three games saw play of a supremely high order. About the same order, in fact, as Fischer's 6-0 whitewashing of him the following year, whereon one must say Bent just ran into a buzzsaw.

    Condolences to his family, thanks to many for great articles I'm reading and nice posts like the above, and peace upon him.

    September 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKenneth W. Regan

    It says something about Larsen that even the non-chess public in Denmark knew the name of Larsen. This is a sad day for me and other Danish players. He popularised the royal game in Denmark; his influence here is possibly similar to Bobby Fischer for the USA.

    September 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGraham

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