Gruendfeld and Larsen and some 1960's history

Apr 1, 2016, 4:42 AM |

   When checking the database re a vote chess match I came across a game which was played between two players with famous names in chess who I didn't think it possible could have played each other. The game was played between Bent Larsen and Ernst Gruenfeld in the Netherlands in 1961. I didn't think they could have played as Gruenfeld is associated with the inter-war years, when he played at a high level against players such as Alekhine, and his name is now famous as he gave his name to the defence which is one of the most popular against 1.d4. In their book Oxford Companion to Chess (1984) Hooper and Whylde state that for a short period after The First World War Gruendfeld was one of the best eight or nine players in the World. Larsen often referred to as the Great Dane, was one of the best players in the world in the 60's and 70's. He is the only top player who regularly played the move 1.b3, Fischer played it very successfuly but only 2 or 3 times. Some sources describe 1.b3 as Larsen's Opening

I mentioned this game to a friend who had further information about the game. In the 1960's for a tournament to qualify to be eligible to award GM and IM norms there had to be a quota of titled foreign players taking part in that tournament. Apparently for some events those rules still apply. Organisers of tournaments were keen for their home players to qualify for norms and to this end often invited foreign titled players who were well past their best, they had the required titles but but no longer had a matching playing strength. This happened in a lot of countries, but this particular Dutch tournament probably took it further than most, it even being alleged that organisers scoured the retirement home of Europe in search of titled participants.

This appears to be how Gruenfeld found himself playing in what turned out to be his last tournament. In his game against Larsen Gruendfeld replied to 1.g3 with d5 and by transposition a the Reversed Dragon variation was reached, and to be fair he did not play at all badly, the game went to over 50 moves and went to a rook and pawn ending, so against such a strong opponent that was a respectable performance. However, in another game from the tournament against another strong player of the younger generation, Wolfgang Uhlmann, he lost in 21 moves as white and played really badly. Ironically Uhlmann was an expert in playing the Gruenfeld defence as black. There may be an explanation for this poor performance, could it be something to do with losing a leg on his way to the tournament hall ? Please follow the link for more details, there is a lot of other good stuff there as well.

Larsen again shared first place in the tournament as he had the previous year, on this occassion with the Yugoslav (now Serbian) GM Boris Ivkov the inaugral winner of the World Junior Championship ( Birmingham 1951).

Larsen and Ivkov were back in the Netherlands three years later when both qualified from the Amsterdam Interzonal in 1964 for the Candidates matches. This marked a change in the  non-soviet qualifiers, as neither had before and it was also the first qualification for the Hungarian Lajos Portisch, while previous regular qualifiers such as Svetozar Gligoric and Samuel Reshensky didn't make it. The other qualifiers were the Soviet players, Boris Spassky, Mikhail Tal and Vassily Smyslov, the latter two previous World Champions, while Spassky went on to become one in 1969. Portisch and Ivkov only qualified because of the rule restricting the number of qualifiers from one country, as both had finished behind two other Soviet players Leonid Stein and David Bronstein. The other two players who were qualified  for the Candidates Matches were Mikhail Botvinnik the previous champion who had lost the match to Tigran Perosian in 1963, and Paul Keres who was runner-up in the 1962 Candidates Tournament, Botvinnik didn't take up the option to play and his place was taken by another Soviet Efim Geller, third in the 1962 candidates. The Larsen Ivkov match was played in Bled so Ivkov had home advantage, depite this Larsen won 5.5 - 2.5. I don't think Ivkov ever made it to the Candidates again. Larsen then went on to play Tal in a very exciting quarter final match, which was neck and neck going into the last game, which was won by Tal with a brilliant sacrificial attack against a Scheveningen Sicilian. In the final Tal lost against Spassky who I think introduced the idea at GM level of using the Marshall Gambit in the Ruy Lopez ( aka Spanish opening) as a weapon to draw with black. This was the nearest Tal ever got to regaining the crown he briefly held from 1960-61.

The 1961 event was Gruenfeld's final tournament and he died the following year. Larsen died in 2010 in Argentina at the age of 75, a great fighter, one of his best games was his win as white against the reigning World Champion Tigran Perosian at the Piatigorsky Tournament in Los Angeles. Petrosian hardly ever lost in the crushing manner he did in this game. Well worth looking at.