Bent’s Beautiful Mistress

The Magnus Carlsen phenomenon has a precedent: that of the marauding Viking, Bent Larsen

Dominic Lawson

Update: Bent Larsen died in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the 9th September 2010, after a short illness. He was 75. 

Now that Magnus Carlsen has, at the almost preposterous age of 19, become the world’s highest-rated player, we must get accustomed to the unusual idea of Nordic chess supremacy. Yet there is a near-precedent for this phenomenon: 40 years ago another Scandinavian was winning tournament after tournament, until his designs on the world title were shattered by the simultaneous rise of Bobby Fischer.

That man — a Dane — was Bent Larsen. He is now 75 and not in the best of health, but still an inspiration to later generations of chess players from Scandinavia and indeed the world over because of his ferocious fighting spirit. He never in his career played what is called “a grandmaster draw” and had a remarkable originality of style. 

The latter was probably a function of his cultural isolation as a chess player, entirely self-taught as he was, and never having had a trainer. This independence of spirit was most evident in his sometimes bizarre opening play. He developed entire systems of his own, quite outside the mainstream of opening theory, notably by beginning the game as white with 1.b3 — now generally known, quite rightly, as Larsen’s Opening.

At the same time he delighted British players by rediscovering Bird’s Opening, 1.f4, which had been played with mixed results in the late 19th century by its inventor, Henry Bird — and by no one else. In the world championship interzonal tournament of 1964, Larsen astonished the other competitors by springing Bird’s opening on, among others, no less than Boris Spassky. Larsen’s contemporary comments on that game are revealing about his character and methods: “I played Bird’s Opening, of which most masters have no high opinion, but I chose it for the very reason that they do not play it and do not know it. I know it quite well, and have many original ideas. Now I challenge Spassky with it. Let us see what ideas he has to show.” Larsen won that remarkable game; and you can see in those remarks his self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. 

I spent a little time with Larsen in the late 1980s when he was a regular visitor to the annual Hastings Congress: he was the most opinionated man I had ever met — and his uninterruptible stream of argumentation was by no means just about chess. Indeed, he had considered a career in politics in his native Denmark — but his complete inability to compromise, on anything at all, made him much more suited to the lone life of the chess grandmaster.

When, in 1970, a match was arranged between the Rest of the World and the Soviet Union, his uncompromising nature came to the fore: Larsen amazed everyone by insisting that he, and not Fischer, should play top board for the Rest of the World. Even more amazingly, Fischer — who had never been known to yield to anyone — agreed to play on second board.

The American took a terrible revenge a year later, when he and Larsen met in a world championship semi-final match, in Denver. Although Fischer had a lifetime plus score against Larsen, he had been defeated by the Dane in their only recent tournament encounter and there were perennial doubts about the American’s psychological robustness — not something that had ever been a problem for the eternally optimistic Larsen.

What happened was a massacre: Fischer won the long-awaited showdown between the Western world’s two best players by six wins to zero, conceding not even a solitary draw. Even 30 years later, it was clear that Larsen was still traumatised by the experience. In a 1998 interview, he described the match as “insufferable…it was a nightmare…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.”

Admirably, however, Larsen continued to play in the same optimistic spirit against all other grandmasters. While he might have been shattered by the ending of his undoubted ambition to be world champion, he continued to play to win every game in every tournament he entered, scorning the short draws that others rely on to conserve their energies. In his last tournament, two years ago, the now frail Larsen rejected a number of draw offers from much younger men, and persisted in doing so, even as his defeats piled up. 

Part of that might be put down to Larsen’s marauding Viking spirit. Yet it was also a testament to his insatiable and undimmed love for the game: he could never be cynical about it, no matter how bitter his disappointment at failing to reach a match for the ultimate title. He once expressed this idealism in romantic terms: “Chess is a beautiful mistress to whom we keep coming back, no matter how many times she rejects us.”

Few games in chess history illustrate that beauty more than Larsen’s spectacular victory against Tigran Petrosian in the 1966 Piatgorsky Cup. Petrosian was then world champion — and yet Larsen won both their games in the double-round event: no wonder he believed he would be champion himself, one day. Here, playing white, is his first victory over the immensely tough Armenian, a game which will be celebrated for as long as chess itself is played.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 (A variation which Larsen liked to play himself with the Black pieces. This month’s puzzle shows how dynamically he handled such positions from the other side of the board) 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!! (An extraordinary sacrifice to gain a single tempo) Bxe5 21.Qh4 Bxd5 22.Rxd5 Ne6 23.Rf3 Bf6 24.Qh6 Bg7 25.Qxg6! (The stunningly beautiful point of Larsen’s play — he sacrifices his Queen against the world champion.) Nf4 (A desperate attempt to break the co-ordination of White’s pieces) 26.Rxf4 fxg6 27.Be6+ Rf7 (If 27…Kh7 then 28.Rh4+ Bh6 29.Bxh6 Rf5 30.Rxf5 gxf5 31.Bf7!! e5 32.Rh3 Qb6+ 33.Kh1 and there is no practical defence against Bf8 mate) 28.Rxf7 Kh8 29.Rg5! (As Larsen observed at the time: “Really unanswerable. It is a struggle now between two rooks and two bishops on one side and one king and one bishop on the other. There can only be one possible end.”)…b5 (Larsen, again: “Grim humour. The Queen has accomplished nothing and now gets the square a5”) 30.Rg3 and the world champion resigned, being unable to face the inevitable execution with 30…Qa5 31.Rh3+ Bh6 32.Rxh6+ Kg8 33.Rxg6+ Kh8 34.Bd4 checkmate.

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