Bent Larsen: Chess player who with Bobby Fischer was one of only two players the Soviets feared in the 1960s and '70s

Jon Speelman
Monday 20 September 2010 00:00

In the mid-1960s, at a time of extreme Soviet chess domination, the "Great Dane" Bent Larsen was, along with Bobby Fischer, one of the only two western players whom the Soviets truly respected and sometimes feared.

Fischer famously went on to become world champion, defeating Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972. And along the way he handed out a terrible beating to Larsen. In Denver in 1971, at altitude and in extremely hot weather, neither of which Larsen liked, he was trounced 6-0 after Fischer won two very close battles in the first two games and then cleaned up when the magnificently combative Larsen – in this case, perhaps, foolishly combative – refused utterly to attempt any form of damage-limitation.

For all that, Larsen was the greater tournament player, especially in the mid-'60s, when he won five major tournaments in a row in Havana, Winnipeg, Palma de Mallorca, the Sousse Interzonal in 1967 and Monte Carlo in 1968. And perhaps the best measure of Larsen's stature at the time was afforded by the USSR v Rest of The World match in Belgrade in 1970 when he demanded top board above Fischer. Although he was already rated more than Larsen, Fischer was persuaded to accede to the request.

Jørgen Bent Larsen was born in 1935 in Tilsted, a small town in Jutland. In January 1942, soon after the family had moved to another town, Holstebro, he was laid low with several childhood diseases, and while none of them did any lasting harm, in the interim he had contracted a considerably more long lasting joy and affliction – chess.

By no means a prodigy, especially by today's standards (the current world No 1, Magnus Carlsen from Norway, is still only 19) he nevertheless progressed steadily enough and was the best player around by the time the family moved in 1950 to the city of Aalborg. Two years later, when he finished high school (at the Aalborg Cathedral School) he had already established his superiority there, too, and he went to Copenhagen, where he planned to become a civil engineer – though chess intervened and he never completed his studies.

With top-class games available instantly over the internet, the best young chess players today progress at a prodigious speed. Then it was very different, and Larsen was only at the beginning of his career – though in 1951, as the Danish representative at the inaugural World Junior Championship in Birmingham, he had already shown great promise by coming fourth-equal. He won the Danish Championship in 1954, and subsquently every time he contested it over the next decade; the same year he became an International Master after registering a good result as Denmark's top board at the biennial Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires. Two years later, at the Moscow Olympiad of 1956, he was to enter what was then an elite group of grandmasters after taking the gold medal on top board with a superb score of 11 wins, six draws and a single loss.

By the end of the 1950s Larsen was becoming a truly world class grandmaster but he had a disaster at the World Championship Interzonal in Portoroz 1958, and, having failed to qualify himself, ended up working as Fischer's second at the Candidate's Tournament (held in three different cities in Yugoslavia) in 1959.

From autumn 1961 to autumn 1963 Larsen did his military service, which severely curtailed his chess activities and was "an experience about which I have few good things to say". But at least it did leave him extremely fit at a time when chess tournaments were much longer, and so arguably even more physically exacting than today. Certainly during the 1960s he soared to great heights, and even after the 6-0 defeat by Fischer in 1971 he remained a serious force, winning some major tournaments. After the Leningrad Interzonal of 1973, however, when he finished 3.5 points behind the joint winners Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov, he apparently abandoned any real ambition of trying to become world champion.

Over the years I played about a dozen hard games with Larsen, with about an even score; indeed, jet-lagged in the first round of a tournament in Lone Pine in California he was my first grandmaster victim. After the games, I sometimes had the pleasure of having dinner with him and would be regaled by his fine stock of anecdotes. He had a chess column for many years and I can well remember him at a public phone in the crumbling Queen's Hotel in Hastings attempting to transmit his column, word by painful word, move by painful move.

A witty and gregarious man, Larsen was a superb linguist and from the early 1970s he divided his time between two Spanish-speaking locations, Las Palmas and Buenos Aires – where in 1972 he married his second wife, Laura Beatriz Benedini, a lawyer, who survives him. They had no children together but there are two daughters from a previous marriage.

Jørgen Bent Larsen, chess player: born Tilsted, Jutland, Denmark 4 March 1935; married firstly (two daughters), 1972 Laura Beatriz Benedini; died Buenos Aires 9 September 2010.

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