Chess legend Bent Larsen turns 75

by ChessBase
3/3/2010 – An all-time great of chess, Bent Larsen, was born on March 4th, 1935. He is the greatest chess player of Denmark, and the strongest ever Scandinavian (before Magnus Carlsen). As a world top ten GM he beat many legendary world champions and was greatly feared by the Soviet chess hegemony. Today Bent turns 75. We have some remarkable contemporary and historical pictures.

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Bent Larsen turns 75

A picture of Bent Larsen, taken in January 2010 at his home in Martinez, Buenos Aires

Larsen in front of his birthday gift from the Danish Chess Federation – a computer

An analysis session in his study

Analysing a win against Suetin with his Danish friend GM Peter Heine Nielsen

Photos © Peter Heine Nielsen

A career in chess

Jørgen Bent Larsen was born in Thisted, Denmark, March 4th, 1935. He is the greatest chess player his country has ever produced, and was among the top ten in the world for fifteen years. He started slowly, but in 1954 at the age of 19 he won the Danish championship, and did it again every time he entered for the next ten years. He also became an International Master in 1954. He played for his country at the Olympiads and in 1956 got Gold for his +11 =6 –1 on board one. That earned him the title of International Grandmaster and the suspicion of the Soviet chess functionaries as the first Western player to present a serious challenge to their dominance. He was awarded the first Chess Oscar in 1967.

Larsen went on to win three Interzonal tournaments – 1964 in Amsterdam, where he shared first with two former and one future world champion, 1967 in Sousse and 1976 in Biel. He and Mikhail Tal were the only players to achieve this. In the 1965 Candidates matches he lost in the semi-final to Mikhail Tal, and in 1968 he lost the semi-final to Boris Spassky, who went on to win the title. In 1971 Larsen infamously lost the Candidates semi-final to Bobby Fischer with a devastating 0:6 score. Fischer went on to win the title in 1972. In 1988 Larsen lost a game to Deep Thought, becoming the highest FIDE ranked player (at 2560) and the first Grand Master to be defeated by a computer in tournament play.

Larsen was always an uncompromising, fighting player, and also famous for using unusual openings. He is one of the very few modern grandmasters to regularly play Bird's Opening (1. f4), and the opening move 1.b3 is called the Larsen Opening in his honour. A celebratory rapid chess match is planned in Denmark for his 75th birthday, between his compatriot Peter Heine Nielsen and Peter Svidler. Half the games must start 1.b3.

In the USSR vs Rest of the World match at Belgrade 1970, he played first board for the World side, ahead of Fischer, and scored 2.5/4 against Spassky and Leonid Stein.

Today Larsen lives in Buenos Aires with his Argentinean wife Marta. He continues to play occasionally in tournaments. In 1999 he finished 7th of 10 in the Danish Championship, and he was 4th in the 2002 Najdorf Memorial knock-out in Buenos Aires. His current Elo rating is 2415.

Bent and Laura Larsen in January 2010

Bent Larsen in Skakbladet

To celebrate Bent Larsen's 75th birthday the Danish Chess Federation has dedicated a special Edition of “Skakbladet” to the great master. You can download the magazine (in PDF format). But be aware: it is in Danish only.

In the evening of the 4th of March, Larsen will be celebrated both in Copenhagen, Aarhus and in Koege in various arrangements. Saturday a big rapid tournament is held in the center of Copenhagen, among the participants you will find GM Lars Bo Hansen, GM Jonny Hector and GM Sune Berg Hansen. All games in the first round must start with 1.b3!

In connection with the Strongest Chess Tournament in Denmark, the Politiken Cup, GM Peter Svidler, Russia, and the leading Danish player, GM Peter Heine Nielsen, will play a combined rapid and blitz-match in honor of Bent Larsen. The match takes place in Elsinore from the 2th to the 5th of August. In the autumn, from the 11th to 22th of October, ten grandmasters will play Bent Larsen’s 75th year birthday tournament in Koege. The players are still to be announced.

Stations of a chess life

All photos by courtesy of Skakbladet

1949: The Holstebro Chess Club at the station on the way to a Norwegian friendship match in Sarpsborg. The club's strongest player is the young man in short pants: Bent Larsen.

A training match between Bent Larsen and Jens Enevoldsen in 1953. It was called "the transparent match" because the players were interviewed during the game – individually and privately, on the current position and on their ideas and plans – by the organizer and interviewer Johs Christiansen (middle).

The 1954 Easter tournament in Aarhus procured Bent Larsen the Danish Champion title for the first time. In the picture he is whispering to Aage Ingerslev about the position of Palle Nielsen.

Departure for Olympiad in Moscow in 1956. The players are Axel Nielsen, Eigil Pedersen, Jens Enevoldsen, Larsen (shaking hands with his sister), Harold Enevoldsen, Christian Poulsen and Aage Ingerslev.

At the Moscow Olympiad 1956, Denmark played the USSR in the A finals, and Bent Larsen gave world champion Mikhail Botvinnik a scare on board one. However the game ended in a draw, but Larsen was the top scorer and received the title of grandmaster.

Young chess masters at Kastrup Airport in 1957, on the way to the Students World
Championship: Mikhail Tal, Bent Larsen, Miroslav Filip and Boris Spassky.

Bent Larsen and Bobby Fischer enjoying themselves during the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup
in Santa Monica, in the garden of the patrons Jacqueline and Gregory Piatigorsky.

At the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup in Santa Monica Larsen won both his games against
World Champion Tigran Petrosian. Here is the one that has just started in the picture.

Larsen,Bent - Petrosian,Tigran V [B39]
Piatigorsky-Cup 2nd Santa Monica (7), 27.07.1966
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Be3 Bg7 6.c4 Nf6 7.Nc3 Ng4 8.Qxg4 Nxd4 9.Qd1 Ne6 10.Qd2 d6 11.Be2 Bd7 12.0-0 0-0 13.Rad1 Bc6 14.Nd5 Re8 15.f4 Nc7 16.f5 Na6 17.Bg4 Nc5 18.fxg6 hxg6 19.Qf2 Rf8 20.e5 Bxe5 21.Qh4 Bxd5 22.Rxd5 Ne6 23.Rf3 Bf6 24.Qh6 Bg7 25.Qxg6 Nf4 26.Rxf4 fxg6 27.Be6+ Rf7 28.Rxf7 Kh8 29.Rg5 b5 30.Rg3 1-0. [Click to replay]

The winners of the 1967 Palma de Mallorca tournament with their trophies:
Vassily Smyslov, Bent Larsen and Mikhail Botvinnik

A simultaneous exhibition against school children in 1968 – Larsen often had more
than 100 opponents in his simuls.

1970 in Leiden, Netherlands: Bent Larsen, Jan Hein Donner, Mikhail Botvinnik and Boris Spassky

The Match of the Century Belgrade 1970, between the Soviet Union and the Rest of the World. The top board was Bent Larsen, who scored 1.5:1.5 against World Champion Boris Spassky, plus a win in the fourth round against Leonid Stein.

Tilburg 1980: Anatoly Karpov and Bent Larsen analyse a game which the World
Champion has just lost [Click to replay]

In 1993 Larsen won a match against the super-computer Deep Blue in Copenhagen by 2.5:1.5. In the above pictured (by Erik Hvalsoe] he is being interviewed by Henrik Danielsen and Lars Bo Hansen. Larsen said: "We should not play against computers in tournaments, only in laboratories and circuses. This match is probably a little of both."

The following interview appeared on the web site in 1998

At first, I’d like to ask you a rather imprudent question: Do you feel sorry that you didn’t become the world champion?

No. I even don’t know what to tell you in this regard. [Long pause] Well, I don’t want to talk on this subject. Obviously, you expected that I would answer something like “it’s a tragedy of my whole life”, didn’t you? Now I understand that at that time there were some chess players who played better than me.

Nevertheless, you were in the top five in the late 1960s. And each time, there was something that prevented you from getting the chess crown.

It was not something, but somebody. To be objective, I fought against outstanding chess players!

When did you understand that you wouldn’t get the title?

Frankly, I don’t remember the date. Anyway, I didn’t think about it when Fischer defeated me. Maybe it happened in 1973, when I was taking part in an Interzonal tournament in Leningrad. I felt nervous before the tournament. The beginning of the competition turned out to be successful for me. However, then I lost my energy and the hunger for battle – I wanted to fight, but I couldn’t.

However, after this you won many strong tournaments!

Yes, three years later I won the Biel Interzonal tournament. Nevertheless, this time Portish immediately stopped me in the quarterfinals. I was 40 years old, and I didn’t want to go through this again. I retained my ambitions, I wanted to fight and to win but… Well, did you ask me about my inner feelings?!

What helped you to get so close to the top of chess pyramid?

Persistence and strong will. Perhaps, I worked a lot! When you achieve a success in something you always want to get more in future. After all, you can’t do without being self-confident…

Oh, yes. Bent Larsen and his self-confidence was a pet subject for facetious remarks in the Soviet press!

Yes, I guess so. Nevertheless, I have never put on a show of bravado. I always was a frank man.

Bent Larsen last year at the Magistral Ruibal 2008 de Ajedrez in Buenos Aires

Was it your ambition that pushed you when you asked for the first board at the “Match of the Century” in 1970, or did you really think that you played stronger than Fischer at the moment?

There is nothing to discuss! By that moment, I had won almost all tournaments, while Fischer kept staying at home and didn’t want to fight… Why did I have to yield to him in this respect? Generally, I was very much surprised when Euwe made this proposal. With all due respect to Fischer’s style of playing, I think that it was tactless to make such a proposal to me. Ambitions? No. It was a matter of principle!

Did this episode somehow affect your relations with Fischer?

I was on good terms with him. We respected each other and nothing more… We had no choice – we did one business, and took part in the same tournaments.

Did Fischer’s fine gesture have an effect on you one year later when he defeated you in that match?

Yes, it was an insufferable match… The organizers chose the wrong time for this match. I was languid with the heat and Fischer was better prepared for such exceptional circumstances... I saw chess pieces through a mist and, thus, my level of playing was not good. It was a nightmare that I will never forget! Fortune didn’t give me a single chance to win over him…

How did you take your loss?

At first, I wasn’t very much disappointed – things happen! However, it’s very difficult to forget this and to start everything from the very beginning. I think that I haven’t managed to do this.

Well, in this case let’s talk about your boyhood. Why did you choose chess?

I doubt whether we can knowingly choose something when in our boyhood. I was a sick boy, and in order to entertain myself I started to play chess. I learnt how to play chess at the age of 6, and when I was 12 I became a member of a local chess club…To my great surprise, I easily won over other children, and I liked it!

How did you manage to develop your skills of playing provided that you had never had a coach and the level of playing in Denmark was not so high?

I became a grandmaster when I was 21. Today, it’s a pension age for a grandmaster (he laughs). It happened at the Moscow Olympiad of 1956. Two years earlier, I had become the champion of Denmark. So, nobody could stand up to me. The point is that in 1956 I won a match over Olafsson and got the title of the strongest Scandinavian chess player!

How did you achieve such a great success?

I am a self-made man. I didn’t have an instructor, and I wasn’t engrossed in chess manuals except the books of Nimzovitch, I just worked a lot playing chess.

Was it your talent or your capacity for work that helped you to make a success?

Generally, I don’t know. Probably, it was a combination of the former and the latter.

It seems to me that the year of 1956 was a turning point in your chess career. At that time, you had to fight against very strong chess players. Nevertheless, you got the first place at the first board. How did you manage to do this?

I felt my power and understood that I had a grandmaster’s level of playing. However, many people didn’t know about this, and, thus, I managed to get so many “spare” points. I won over Gligoric and drew against Botvinnik – it was a pretty good result for “an unknown master”! When I returned home, they greeted me like a victor…

How did you become a candidate for the championship title?

Everything comes with experience. At some moment, you understand your advantages and disadvantages in chess and make a qualitative leap. Provided that I didn’t play in the strongest tournaments, I could experiment with my style. In two different tournaments I could play in two different ways. I became more experienced and I wasn’t afraid of making a mistake. On the contrary, I have spent a lot of time correcting my mistakes. Besides, I trained myself to become a real fighter…

You said that Nimzovitch, a positional chess player, was your teacher and, at the same time, you usually played very sharp chess. Did you look for the golden mean?

Yes, I did. Sometimes, in the beginning of a game I had to choose either to play the King’s Gambit or the Catalan System! It’s the Nimzovitch style – your play can be too complicated or too easy, but the main thing is that your opponent won’t discover your intentions!

In a game against Valerga Diego (left)

Tell me, who of modern chess players has a style of playing that is similar to yours?

It’s a difficult question. Certainly, I don’t keep up with modern chess, but I don’t see a congenial candidate.

Probably, any chess player of your generation had this style.

Maybe it was Petrosian. We had the same basis: “My System,” by Nimzovitch. We are so called foster-brothers. However, we had different feelings of a position – - and of danger. On the one hand, Petrosian hasn’t lost so many games as I, but, on the other hand, he hasn’t won so many of them.

Have you ever wanted to play like some other chess player?

Certainly, I have. When I was young, Tal was my idol! Fortunately, I have never tried to play in his style – I just liked to watch him playing. Tal was a fearless fighter. Nobody could successfully accomplish so many incorrect maneuvers! He simply smashed his opponents…

Did you really want to play “correct” chess, to make only correct evaluations?

Not so fast, mister! The point is that chess doesn’t have a strict criterion of correctness – chess is a multiform game!

When did you feel yourself strong enough to enter the elite group?

I think that it happened when in 1964 I shared the first place in Amsterdam with Tal, Spassky, and Smyslov! Moreover, at that time I thought that I would have taken the first place if I had played more accurately. Perhaps, this tournament was my heyday of mastery: that time I played with great pleasure.

By the way, whom do you call the greatest chess player in the history of chess?

The question is too abstract. However, I have the answer. Undoubtedly, it is Philidor. At the end of the 17th century he formulated the principles that we use even now.

And whom would you name from your former opponents? Is it, probably, Fischer?

I don’t know… Probably, it’s Korchnoi – his chess longevity is amazing! We all are on pensions, while he continues fighting. And he is successful.

Bent, can you tell us about your life today? I haven’t heard anything about you for the last few years.

Now I play chess very rarely. Generally, I spend a lot of time at home.

Do you still live in Denmark?

No, I live in Argentina. My wife is Argentinean, and we have lived there from the beginning of the 1970s. I like the way I live: I lead a quiet and measured life. This journey to Moscow is like a convulsion of nature for me – - I had to change everything in my life. However, I am very pleased that the world of chess didn’t forget about me.

Do you regret that you have devoted yourself to chess?

I don’t think that it’s useful to complain about your destiny, since you can’t return to the past. I don’t regret anything. Chess gave me many happy moments. Sure, professional chess is a severe and exhausting struggle. Nevertheless, I am not sorry.

Did you have any hobby that competed with chess?

Yes. At some moment, I was ready to go in for politics! I found it interesting to politicize. However, later on I decided to continue playing chess…

Why? You were so popular in our country. You could even have become a president, couldn’t you?

This point of view is a bit naive. Finally, I decided that a chess player has to play chess and a politician – to fight against his political opponents.

I know that you have written a perfect book, “50 Selected Games”. Do you have any other books?

Yes, I have. I have written a lot of books during my life. Now I am planning to write the continuation, “100 Selected Games”.

Bent, what do you think about modern chess? Does it impress you?

On one hand, many interesting chess players have appeared in chess lately. Formerly, chess players didn’t have such serious ambitions. Then Kasparov came into the world of chess, followed by a group of young grandmasters, and they showed us their hunger to fight and to win! Just look at Shirov, Ivanchuk, and Anand: they are amazing! On the other hand, these Kasparov-computer matches exasperate me. And as for advanced chess, it’s simply inadmissible! It’s a road to nowhere. Chess loses its mysticism. Nobody will consider chess as an art. It’s a pity that it’s the very champion who destroys chess.

Who do you think, will become Kasparov’s successor at the chess throne?

Do you consider Kasparov as the world champion?

It’s quite obvious – he is the strongest chess player in the world and nobody could defeat him in a match so far!

It doesn’t mean that he is the world champion!

Who is the champion then? Probably, Karpov?

Karpov is the FIDE champion. I think that there is no world champion today. Moreover, it seems to me that the world champion cannot be defined in the knockout tournament. Frankly, it’s a very complicated question.

What are the FIDE disadvantages?

Obviously, FIDE has its weak points. However, it’s the sole chess organization that is still held in respect in the world of chess. I think that Kasparov has to sign a peace treaty with it. I don’t like that every year he creates a new chess structure.

Who do you think is the strongest chess player now?

Yes, you are right. Today Kasparov is the strongest player. A few years ago, Vishy Anand had this title. However, nobody has the title of the world champion now.

Is there any sense in this title in general?

I think that it doesn’t have much sense. In chess we can use the tennis system when there is no champion. The first position in the rating list is quite enough!

By the way, what title does Fischer have nowadays, considering that in 1992 he played a return match against Spassky and was crowned with laurels?

Oh, yes. It was a “great” return match (he breaks into a smile). Perhaps, I should also play a return match against somebody?

What awaits chess in future?

I think that chess has a bright future. I like how they play chess now. Kasparov showed us very strong play this spring at Wijk aan Zee and Linares!

Well, who do you think would win if the strongest chess players of your generation at their heyday met today’s elite chess players?

It is a very difficult question. I think that we would win! However, I like Kasparov ’89 more than Fischer’72.

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