Bent Larsen: An optimist with great fighting spirit

by Johannes Fischer
9/9/2020 – On September 9, 2010, ten years ago, the Danish Grandmaster Bent Larsen died in Argentina where he lived with his wife Laura Benediz Benedini, a lawyer, whom he had met in 1980. Larsen was born on March 4, 1935, and in the 1960s he was arguably the most successful tournament player and definitely one of the best players in the world. He is famous for his fighting spirit, his optimism, his original play and his entertaining writing. | Photo: Bent Larsen © Hans Peters

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Bent Larsen, a passionate chess player

In the spring of 1970 an unusual and remarkable event took place in Belgrade: ten of the best players of the Soviet Union played against ten of the best players from the "Rest of the World". Four games were played on each board, and in the end the Soviet Union won by a very narrow margin of 20.5-19.5.

The event was particularly exciting because Bobby Fischer, who had vanished from the tournament scene for more than a year and a half, wanted to play again. But on board 1 for the "Rest of the World". The Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen, however, protested against this. With good reason. After all, he had far more successes to show than Fischer and was considered to be one of the best tournament players in the world. Larsen had won the Interzonal Tournament in Amsterdam in 1964 and three years later he also won the Interzonal Tournament in Sousse. Moreover, he also won tournaments in Havana 1967, Winnipeg 1967, Palma 1967 and Monaco 1968.

Bobby Fischer 1970 | Photo: Norbert Rauch

Fischer relented, which came as a surprise to many, who knew the American's whims and uncompromising nature. But both Fischer and Larsen won their matches: Fischer beat Tigran Petrosian 3-1 and Larsen won on board one against the reigning world champion Boris Spassky and his substitute Leonid Stein 2.5-1.5. Larsen's mini-match against Spassky ended in a 1.5-1.5 draw, but with a win against Stein in game four, Larsen finally got the upper hand.

However, Larsen suffered a drastic defeat against Spassky in the second game, which he later called the worst of his career. After a spectacular rook sacrifice by Spassky, Larsen lost with White in just 17 moves.

 

Many players might have paused after such a disaster or at least tried not to take any risks in the next game, in order not to lose twice in a row, but Larsen was unimpressed and played for a win from the beginning in the third game against Spassky with Black - successfully. At some point, Spassky could no longer find the right answers to the problems Larsen was posing and suffered his first defeat as reigning world champion.

 

Boris Spassky (left) vs Bent Larsen | Photo: Archive

A game that is typical of Larsen's optimism, his fighting spirit and his dynamic and creative style, with which he forced his opponents to solve problems from the very beginning.

Half a year later, at the Interzonal Tournament in Palma de Mallorca in November 1970, Larsen and Fischer continued their debate about who really was the best player in the West. Fischer dominantly won the Interzonal tournament with a score of 18.5 out of 23 and thus finished 3.5 points ahead of Larsen, Efim Geller and Robert Hübner, who shared second to fourth place. But in the direct duel against Larsen, Fischer lost and was outplayed by the Dane.

 

However, in the semi-finals of the 1971 Candidates Matches in Denver, Larsen was less lucky against Fischer. Larsen always played for a win, but in this match against Fischer he lost six games in a row and suffered a devastating 0-6 defeat. Larsen's optimism and fighting spirit had turned against him.

One year later, Fischer became World Champion and had thus clearly answered the question who was the best player in the West and in the world. Nonetheless, Larsen scored a number of important successes after his crushing loss against Fischer. He won in Teesside 1972 ahead of Ljubojevic and Portisch, in Hastings 1972/73 ahead of Uhlmann and Hartston, in Manila 1973 ahead of Ljubojevic and Kavalek, in New York 1974 ahead of Browne, and in Orense 1975 ahead of Ljubojevic and Anderssen. In 1976 he won another Interzonal Tournament, in Biel, but then lost to the Hungarian Lajos Portisch in the Candidates Matches. After that, Larsen's dreams of becoming World Champion were practically over, but he was still a dangerous opponent for everyone, as Anatoly Karpov came to realize, for example at the "Tournament of the Stars" in Montreal in 1979.

 

In 1979 Larsen also won the 1st Clarin Tournament in Buenos Aires with a 3 point lead over Spassky, Najdorf, Miles and Andersson. Larsen also won the 2nd Clarin Tournament, which took place in 1980. This time he won ahead of Timman, Ljubojevic and Karpov.

However, with increasing age and decreasing playing strength, Larsen could no longer keep pace with the world leaders. However, he remained a popular author and was a welcome guest at simultaneous performances, as Peter Heine Nielsen, Dan H. Andersen and Thorbjörn Rosenlund describe in their memories of Larsen:

"Bent Larsen has always worked alone, but from the very beginning he has been willing to share. For many years he gave lectures and played innumerable simuls at the chess camps of Danish School Chess. His charisma and his energy are such that he has been able to fascinate and captivate all audiences, from school children to radio listeners or to high level managers. Garry Kasparov tried to persuade him to run for FIDE president. Two political parties have offered him safe constituencies to run for the Danish Parliament.

But Bent Larsen wanted to play chess, and write. His chess writing is among the best, combining analysis with humour and psychological understanding of the fight, [...] The first chess book that Magnus Carlsen read was Bent Larsen's Find Planen ('Find the plan')." (Peter Heine Nielsen, Dan H. Andersen, Thorbjörn Rosenlund, "The Will to Win", in Bent Larsen: Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane, New in Chess 2014, p. 19-20).

Larsen's successes are all the more astonishing, when one considers that, apart from his time as a beginner, he had no coach and, unlike many of his Soviet rivals, was never systematically supported.

Bent Larsen | Photo: Harry Pot/ Nationaal Archief NL

Larsen was born on 4 March 1935 in Tilsted, a place near the small town of Thisted in northwest Jutlang. How and when he learned chess is described by Larsen in his book Bent Larsen's Best Games:

"In January 1942, just after we moved to the city of Holstebro, I suffered some childhood illnesses and learnt how to play chess. I recovered from chickenpox and mumps and there were no after-effects, but with chess things were a little different." ("Beginnings", in Bent Larsen: Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane, New in Chess 2014, p. 25)

After graduating from high school, Larsen studied civil engineering, but never finished his studies. Instead he decided to pursue a career as a chess professional. Before that he had to join the military, "between autumn 1961 and autumn 1963 ... an experience about which I have few good things to say." (Bent Larsen's Best Games, p. 75)

After his military service, when he had time to devote himself entirely to chess, Larsen quickly became one of the best players in the world and impressed again and again with his original style and uncompromising fighting chess.

In 1982, Larsen moved from Denmark to Buenos Aires in Argentina to live with his wife Laura Benediz Benedini, a lawyer, whom he had met in Argentina in 1980.

Larsen stayed in Argentina until the end of his life. He died in Buenos Aires on September 9, 2010. Today is the 10th anniversary of his death.

Larsen's grave | Photo: Peter Heine Nielsen auf Facebook

Larsen had many friends and admirers. One of them is Yasser Seirawan, who dedicated his book Chess Duels to Larsen.

"Of all the masters I've ever known, I admire Bent the most. It is not just the strength of his character, his extraordinary mid, his gift for languages, his wonderful sense of humor, and his absolute fighting determination for victory at the board. It is that he has all of these qualities and much, much else besides: he is a man of character, of principle and most importantly, he is truly a kind, warm person as well.." (Yasser Seirawan, Chess Duels, Everyman Chess 2010, p. 46).

Translation from German: Arthur Paul

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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Poulsen Poulsen 9/11/2020 11:26
Most of the very strongest - and indeed most revered - chessmasters never become World Champions. And Larsen was one of them. Clearly he was in top 5 at the top of his career in the late 60'es and an obvious candidate. But then - and now - there is a difference between being top 5 - and being the number one. Both Spassky and Fischer were both slightly better.
Jarman Jarman 9/10/2020 08:16
There are several good sources on Larsen's life and chess career. The Danish chess magazine Skakbladet published a special issue to celebrate his 75° birthday back in February 2010 (see http://danhandersen.dk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Bent-Larsen-viljen-til-sejr.pdf).
Another good source is Edward Winter's page on him (https://www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/larsen.html) - you will find a short newspaper clip where he talks about what went wrong in Denver back in 1971 (search for "Unlucky Heat Wave").
Jens Kristiansen Jens Kristiansen 9/10/2020 12:14
Larsen moved from Denmark to live abroad already in 1974 (Las Palmas). He met Laura during the tournament in Mar del Plata, 1958 which he won. Many years later they rejoined and Laura became Bents second wife.
Among his many succeses in the lete 60es should also be mentioned victory in Mallaroca 69 and in the match against Tal (for 3.place in the candidates). There are more tournamnt victories that are omitted in the article. It is quite likely that Larsen was the strongest tournament player around until at least 1973.
For Larsen catastrofic result in the candidates match against Fischer in 71 there are many other explanations than hos "optimism".
In Clarin 79 there was also none less than Petrosian in the field.
It should also have been mentioned that Larsen in 56 became the at the time youngest GM in the world. He did made some decent results while he was also studying engineering, but his chess career first really took off after he decided to become u full timme chess professional in the start-60es. At that time he was in his late 20es, but he managed any how succesfully, you should say. THAT was his, in my opnion, over all greatest performance.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 9/10/2020 12:04
Jens, please elaborate.
Jens Kristiansen Jens Kristiansen 9/9/2020 10:36
What a pity piece of text on Bent Larsen. At least 4-5 factual errors, apart from quite af few total misconceptions on his career.
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