Bent Larsen, 1935-2010
Friday, September 10, 2010 at 11:04AM
Dennis Monokroussos in Bent Larsen

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.)

Article originally appeared on The Chess Mind (
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