Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three-time Interzonal Winner Bent Larsen Passes Away

Bent Larsen, the six-time Danish chess champion (1954-56, 1959, 1963-64) who is the only person other than Mikhail Tal to win three Interzonal tournaments (1964, 1967, 1976), passed away on September 9 at the age of 75. Larsen earned the Grandmaster title in 1956 after scoring 11 wins, six draws and just one loss while representing Denmark on board one at the Chess Olympiad. Larsen was a serious World Championship contender from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s but he never quite reached the summit; however, Larsen won a total of 26 games against the seven players who reigned as World Champion from 1948-85: Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov (you can find all of those games at the bottom of this page; be sure to scroll all the way through, as only the first 20 games are initially visible).

Larsen won numerous strong tournaments--particularly during his prime years in the 1960s--and in 1967 he was awarded the inaugural Chess Oscar, a prestigious honor bestowed on the chess player of the year (as voted on by Grandmasters and chess journalists); Larsen and Viktor Korchnoi (1978) are the only Chess Oscar winners who never became World Champion. For many years, Fischer and Larsen were the two strongest non-Soviet players in the world. Although Fischer infamously quit playing chess in public from 1972-92, many people forget (or don't realize) that even during his prime he had several extended absences from serious competition, including 1968-70 when he only played in two relatively minor events plus one game in the New York Metropolitan Chess League. When Bobby Fischer returned to serious competition in the 1970 USSR versus the World match he showed great respect for Larsen by playing on board two even though he had a higher rating than Larsen; Larsen scored 2.5/4 versus World Champion Boris Spassky and Grandmaster Leonid Stein and Fischer tallied 3/4 versus former World Champion Tigran Petrosian but the USSR won the match 20.5-19.5.

Larsen finished tied for second behind Fischer in the 1970 Interzonal, though Larsen did win their head to head encounter in that event despite having the black pieces; this was Fischer's only defeat in 23 rounds. Here is a lightly annotated version of that game:

Fischer-Larsen, 1970 Palma de Mallorca Interzonal

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 Be7 8.Be3 O-O 9. Qe2 a6 10. O-O-O Qc7 11. g4 Nd7 12. h4!? In his book Bobby Fischer GM Karsten Muller criticizes this move and says that the main line starts with 12. g5. In Modern Chess Openings (15th Edition), this opening is classified as Sicilian Defense/Velimirovic Attack (pp. 330-331) and 11...Nd7 is critiqued for giving White the flexibility to choose among h4, Rhg1 and even the speculative Nf5 (played by current World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a 1997 game). MCO 15 suggests that Black should have traded Ns on d4. The chess engine Fritz assesses the position to be equal after ...Nd7 or ...Nxd4 but gives Black a slight edge after ...Na5. As for Fischer's 12th move in the actual game, Fritz prefers a3 (presumably to preserve the KB), though I doubt that any top level human player would play that move in this kind of position for fear of weakening his K. 12... Nc5 13. g5 b5 14. f3 Bd7 15. Qg2 b4 16. Nce2 Nxb3+ 17. axb3 a5 18. g6 fxg6 19. h5 Nxd4 20. Nxd4 g5 21. Bxg5 Bxg5+ 22. Qxg5 h6 23. Qg4 Rf7 Black has deftly rebuffed Fischer's K-side attack and now can operate with impunity in the center and on the Q-side. 24. Rhg1 a4 25. bxa4 e5 26. Ne6 Qc4 27. b3 Qxe6 28. Qxe6 Bxe6 29. Rxd6 Re8 The smoke has cleared. Fischer halted Black's looming attack by trading off Qs but at the price of sacrificing a piece for two pawns, which should not be quite sufficient compensation here because White's pawns are not yet very dangerous. 30. Rb6 Rxf3 31. Rxb4 Rc8 32. Kb2 Although GM Muller does not say anything about this move, it appears to be a serious mistake because now Black can seize the seventh rank with great effect. Instead of the text, Fritz recommends 32. c4 Bf7 33. Rb7 Rh3 34. a5. 32... Rf2 33. Rc1 Bf7 34. a5 Ra8 35. Rb5 Bxh5 36. Rxe5 Be2 37. Rc5 h5 38. e5?? GM Muller says that this is the fatal error. Fischer had to try to slow down the h pawn by playing 38. Rh1. 38... Bf3 Larsen seizes control of the promotion squares of his h pawn and Fischer's a pawn. 39. Kc3 h4 40. Kd3 Re2 41. Rf1 Rd8+ 42. Kc3 Be4 43. Kb4 Rb8+ 44. Ka3 h3 45. e6 Bxc2 46. b4 Re3+ 47. Kb2 Bd3 48. Ra1 Ba6 49. Rc6 Rxb4+ 50. Kc2 Bb7 51.Rc3 Re2+ 52. Kd1 Rg2 0-1

Larsen later faced Fischer in the 1971 Candidates semifinals but Fischer blanked him 6-0 (Fischer was in the midst of an amazing streak of 20 straight wins versus elite Grandmasters en route to taking the title from Spassky). It has been suggested that Larsen never quite recovered from that setback--at least in terms of contending for the World Championship--but that is perhaps an unfair and unfounded contention: by the time the next World Championship cycle began Larsen was already pushing 40--i.e., he was at or near the end of what are typically the prime years for a world class chess player--and a young generation of Grandmasters was emerging, led by Karpov, who became World Champion after Fischer forfeited the crown. Karpov reigned from 1975 until Garry Kasparov defeated him in 1985; regardless of what happened in Larsen's 1971 match with Fischer it is unlikely that Larsen could have dethroned Karpov even if he had battled his way to a World Championship match in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Larsen so often played b3 as his first move with White that this opening is most commonly referred to by his name. Although superficially that is not a very aggressive way to begin a game Larsen was in fact a courageous attacking player who fearlessly would take risks to win and who was notorious for declining draw offers (a trait he shared with Fischer).

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