Bent Larsen (1935-2010)

Edward Winter




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Chess Review, February 1957, page 35

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Chess Life, August 1966, front cover

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Second Piatigorsky Cup (Los Angeles, 1968), page xv

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Chess Review, December 1967, page 355

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Chess Review, July 1968, page 195

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Schweizerische Schachzeitung, November-December 1968, page 227

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Palma de Mallorca, 1969 tournament book

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Palma de Mallorca, 1969 tournament book

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Fischer and Larsen, Chess Life & Review, July 1970, front cover

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Chess Life & Review, October 1970, front cover

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Ferdinand Marcos and Bent Larsen, Chess Life & Review, January 1974, front cover

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The letter below came in response to an enquiry from us about a published report on how many languages he spoke (see C.N. 4731):

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In an interview conducted by Jerry Hanken and published on pages 354-355 of the July 1978 Chess Life & Review Bent Larsen was asked about his first recollections of chess. His reply:

‘Well, I think I remember one of the first games I played against this boy who taught me ... I was six, almost seven, and I remember he taught me the rules and then we played. At the end he had two rooks and I had nothing, and he forced my king out to the edge of the board and mated ... I know which piece of chess news was the first one I saw in the newspapers. That was in ’46 but I’m already 11 at the time. The photo of the dead Alekhine in his cold hotel room, with his overcoat on and half-empty plate and head up ... Very famous photo, and it gave rise to a lot of speculations about how he died and maybe suicide, and so on.’

See also page 1 of Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess 1948-69 (London, 1970) and a brief interview in Kingpin.

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The interview with Hanken took place at Lone Pine, 1978, and regarding his performance in that tournament Larsen stated: ‘A very good game without any risk was my game against Stean in the penultimate round. That was a very good piece of work.’

A decade earlier, Chess Life (December 1968, pages 435-438) published interviews with Larsen by Ben Crane and Jude Acers. Larsen was particularly critical of the organization of his Semi-Final Candidates’ match against Spassky in Malmö earlier that year:

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Asked about his best game in the last year, Larsen replied: ‘...one of the best games I’ve played was my win against Gligorić in the Capablanca tournament. ... Another one was against Ivkov in Palma de Mallorca.’ As regards the best game of his career to date, he commented:

‘One of the best was against Geller in the Copenhagen tournament of 1960. Another was against Ivkov in Beverwijk, 1964. A third was in the Moscow Olympiad, 1956 against Gligorić. And of course there are the two games I won against Petrosian in the Piatigorsky Cup, and of these two games I rate the long one, without the queen sacrifice, as the better. But both games are very nice. ... if I should mention one, it would probably be either the game against Geller in 1960 or the one with Black against Petrosian in the Piatigorsky Cup.’

Larsen was also asked whether he had ‘any advice to aspiring masters’. His reply:

‘I think most of them study too much opening theory, and they should study more games by masters with annotations by masters.’

Regarding the best world zonal system, Larsen’s proposal was:

‘A panel of experts in FIDE would vote the eight strongest players into a tournament among themselves, preferably a double-round-robin. The selection of the eight would not be difficult at all. ... At present, Fischer, Spassky, Ivkov, Portisch, Petrosian, Korchnoi, Tal and myself. But don’t misunderstand, I greatly admire Botvinnik for remaining one of the world’s leading players.’

Another question was whether Larsen thought that the grandmaster title had been cheapened by the standards which FIDE set:

‘In the last ten years, yes. Many so-called grandmasters are not worthy of the title.’

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Some further quotes:

‘I don’t care very much for miniatures. I don’t try to beat my opponents quickly because if they are strong I think I should respect them. It’s too risky to play very sharply to beat them in 20 moves.’

‘Botvinnik has never had very high respect for my play. One of the reasons is that he thinks I play too many different openings, and that I don’t concentrate enough on one or two openings like he did himself when he was younger.’

‘It is certainly true that he [Petrosian] isn’t much of a world champion, but I think it is proper that the title is decided in a long match. I am sure others feel that they are the strongest in the world. I certainly feel this way, so does Fischer, Spassky certainly. But Petrosian is, perhaps, the best match player.’

‘As you know, I always have confidence and I always try to win. I never make deals and I always compete to the end. I have the impression that I am willing to work on theory more than my opponents, particularly in the openings, but in the endgame as well. At Sousse no-one was quite sure if Reshevsky could hold a bad queen and pawn ending. They all found it out later. It is learning from practice, something inactive masters cannot get.’

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The best and most detailed interview with Larsen that we have seen was presented by C.H.O’D. Alexander on pages 86-94 of A Book of Chess (London, 1973) under the heading ‘Profile of a Grandmaster’. It took place shortly before the last round of Hastings, 1972-73:

‘I said once that I got a third of my income from tournaments, a third from exhibitions and a third from writing, but that is a very rough average – it varies very much from year to year. I make over £5,000 in a year, less than £10,000.’

Alexander asked whether exhibitions and writing about chess affected his play:

‘Exhibitions do not matter; they have nothing to do with the chess you play in tournaments. But writing is much more dangerous. The worst case was when I wrote my 50 Selected Games. My wife brought the English MS to the post office just the day I left for Puerto Rico. At Puerto Rico, I had original ideas – that was not the trouble – but in some games I suddenly realized that I had played stupidly and my opponent had played stupidly and that this game should never be published – and then I lost all interest and played terribly. I became too much of a perfectionist. I lost many games because of this.’

A further selection of quotes:

‘The main thing is not to be afraid of losing. Why should I be afraid? Although chess is my profession and a very important part of my life, if I lose I know two things: first, it is only a game, and second, by taking the risks I do I will win more than I lose. For some masters losing at chess is almost like dying; for me this is absolutely not so.’

‘... although I am famous for taking risks, I don’t usually take very much of a risk; unlike Tal – who doesn’t care whether his position is good or bad if only it is complicated enough – I don’t like bad positions.’

‘Tal and Korchnoi were probably born with a greater gift for analysis than I was, and I was born with a greater gift than Smyslov or Petrosian; and in positional insight it is the other way round. Korchnoi is fantastic at calculating complex variations, especially when he is hard pressed; but he must analyse because his judgment when he doesn’t calculate is very bad – he has to get through a lot of variations before he knows what’s happening.’

‘Bronstein has influenced me – maybe Keres, but not so much; I like Keres’ book but I do not admire Keres as a chess artist. Keres is not an artist, he is a practical player. As a young player he was practical in a different way; his brilliancies were all rather conventional. I doubt that he has ever tried to be an artist and if he has he gave it up in the Second World War – and also gave up the hope of becoming world champion. I mean the following: Keres said to me once: “Sometimes I sit for 20 minutes and I know that some spectators are thinking that now there is something very deep coming: you know what’s happening? I can’t find any ideas and I am taking a nap – except for snoring and closing my eyes.” A player like Bronstein would never do that; he would be trying all the time.’

‘If there is time enough for both adjournment analysis and sleep, I find seconds only useful as life guards (keeping disturbances away), shoe shiners and errand boys. I would not like to rely on analysis by somebody else.’

‘If I were put back in the early 1920s, it would be easy, very easy, to be world champion. There would be many draws, but in enough of the games I would get opponents into positions they didn’t understand. Most people find this arrogant – but now we know so much more. If we take positions they understand, we are not better; but we know more types of position. It is a matter of selecting the right openings. Of course, the 1920s was a period of breakthrough in ideas; it would be much easier still if you went back to the early 1900s. The first real uncertainty is with Alekhine; he didn’t want to play the new openings – he didn’t like them – but he worked hard at them and he developed. Alekhine was not basically creative – he was a practical player, but he learnt from others. Not Capablanca – he had difficulty with the new openings in his later years.’

‘The Fischer/Spassky match was not a bad match – although these title matches are never good. People forget that because they remember the best games.’

‘In spite of my 6-0 defeat at Denver [against Fischer in 1971], I think that I would have a better chance than Spassky. It is true that I am a better tournament than match player, but I think that I am learning to play matches. At Denver it was very hot and dry, and this climate did not suit me. Yes, I think that I would have a chance in another match with Fischer; I do not think he is technically superior. After all, he is only 3-2 up against me in other games.’

‘I think that it would be very easy to have a world championship and a Candidates’ tournament every second year. One could use Elo ratings for selection, or, better, a committee which used the Elo ratings when there was nothing special against them. Select 16 players – four will be surprised and pleased that they are considered as world championship candidates and nearly all the others will certainly be the right choices; everyone will be satisfied – except the little countries which want a system which will include their players in a world championship. In the Olympiads I did not play this year because I am in principle against individual Elo ratings for games in international team tournaments. It does not hurt me personally, but they should not count because the situation is different in team events; you must play for the team score. But these little countries whose players never go abroad like their players to have a rating – so they love it.’

‘The trouble is that FIDE is a very weak organization. It has no money – and therefore makes no money.’

‘At Hastings about a quarter of all male spectators seem to rattle coins in their pockets – even if they sit in the first row. In Yugoslavia they will applaud if Tal sacrifices his queen – that is different.’

‘In England chess writing is a special thing; English players write when they are 20 – it is too young. It is very bad for their chess. In other countries they do not become writers so early.’

‘Being a professional you are very much your own boss and that is very important for me. If you feel you are playing interesting, creative and original chess then – why ask what you get out of it? No-one asks a painter or a violinist – it is accepted; why ask the chessplayer?’

‘Do I worry about my play when I’m 50? I think about it – but it doesn’t worry me very much. I shall probably be the strongest 50-year-old ever. Yes, that is a typical piece of optimism and it may not come true – that is largely a health problem. But I shall be one of the strongest – and I think that I shall win more tournaments than anyone else has done at 50.’

‘Advice? I would not advise someone whether to become a professional or not – I don’t give people that kind of advice; a man must make up his own mind. But if he had decided to become one, then I would certainly tell him that the most essential thing is to fight – and treat the first five years as training. Don’t accept a draw when Petrosian offers it – and don’t worry if you lose afterwards. It is a worse defeat to accept a draw prematurely than to lose – that they must get used to. Writing? That is a difficult problem, because it will help him to earn a living, but too much is bad for play. But don’t take a premature draw. Never.’


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Latest update: 8 October 2011.



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