Bent Larsen's Monster

Bent Larsen's Monster

| 29 | Opening Theory

Today we will be taking a look at what is, on the surface, a grotesque combination of Bird's Opening and the Orangutang. Combining these two obscure openings might seem to create a monster worthy of Dr. Moreau -- or perhaps Dixon Bainbridge of The Mighty Boosh -- but in fact, this opening has its value.

1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 g6 4.b4!?

The move 4.b4!? was an idea of the creative Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen. The idea is simple enough: White would like to fianchetto the queen's bishop by 4.b3, but this would allow Black to play 4...c5, followed eventually by ...Nc6 and ...d4. Therefore, the move 4.b4 allows White more control over the central dark squares, while also creating the possibility of future queenside pressure. The downside, of course, is that this move might lead to long-term weaknesses of the queenside. Ultimately, there is a danger of White taking on too many commitments on different parts of the board.

Bent Larsen via Wikipedia

There is a fine line between the outrageous and the creative, and this opening straddles that line. The move 4.b4 does have its points and certainly leads to an interesting and non-theoretical battle. Play takes place over the whole board -- quite often the dark-squared bishops are exchanged, which allows White some chances of attack on the kingside, in particular in conjunction with the move f4-f5 or the use of the e5 square. And of course White's queenside space and the likely opening of the b-file leads to a battle there. In general, Larsen's results with his opening were pretty good, although there have been few followers.

Larsen appears to have first played the move 4.b4 in a game with Vladimir Simagin in 1959. In this first game we can already see some of the themes that became common in the resulting positions: White's play on the dark squares, the opening of the b-file, and the knight's typical development to a3. Larsen obtained a decisive advantage, although surprisingly he failed to win.

Larsen played it several more times in the 1960s, culminating with using it in a critical game against Boris Spassky in the Amsterdam 1964 interzonal. This was a fascinating and rich battle, full of beautiful positions and various intrigues.

After this game, for whatever reason, Larsen did not play this opening again. Of course, this does not mean that he lost faith in it -- Larsen liked to experiment widely in the opening, and obviously did not play Bird's Opening in every game. And when he did, his opponents tended to use various move orders which avoided 4.b4 -- such as an immediate fianchetto of the black bishop.

Despite the fact that this line is essentially sound and also interesting, few have followed the Danish grandmaster's footsteps. In the 1960s the Yugoslav grandmaster Borislav Ivkov tried it out on a couple of occasions, but since then few have played 4.b4. Another specialist in obscure opening lines, GM Sarunas Sulskis, used it once, as did GM Leonid Kritz.

Kritz via Wikipedia

In recent years, GM Andrei Deviatkin used it once, but against massively weaker opposition -- and was probably far from satisfied with the game despite winning. In truth, the general increase of chess understanding means that you see many such games when there is a huge difference in rating.

The grandmaster cannot as much rely on understanding typical positions better to destroy the opponent in the opening and early middlegame, and must instead often win in a long game by out-calculating the opponent in the endgame. The languor which comes about when you play with someone rated much lower is also a factor -- quite often, you simply cannot force yourself to put in a full effort.

Ultimately, while this opening is hardly a critical approach to using White's first-move advantage, it leads to a rich and interesting struggle. However, it might be suspected that only for Bent Larsen, with his specific talents, was this opening at all a sharp weapon.

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