Bent Larsen dies at 75

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Bent Larsen dies at 75Yesterday chess legend Bent Larsen passed away in Buenos Aires, only six months after his 75th birthday. We received the sad news from Thomas Hauge Vestergård, press officer of the Danish Chess Federation. Update: reactions by Peter Heine Nielsen and Yasser Seirawan added; profile added; his victories against World Champions added. The Danish Chess Federation published a press release which you can read in English via Google Translate here. We also spoke to Mr Vestergård on the phone, who told us that about 14 days ago Mr Larsen suffered from a cerebral haemorrhage, after which he was taken into hospital for an operation. He never really recovered. "It is especially sad that this happened in the year in which we have so much celebrations for his 75th birthday. There would be another event, a GM tournament, later this year but this will probably be cancelled. Naturally we will have a memorial," said Vestergård.


Peter Heine Nielsen

Peter Heine Nielsen | Photo © NH Chess Tournament

Peter Heine Nielsen, currently Denmark's number one player, told us: "This is big in Denmark, big everywhere, so it gets a lot of media attention, it's a very sad day for chess in general and for Danish chess especially, and for the people knew him personally."

"It is incredibly sad, but at the same time it is fantastic for Denmark that we had someone like Larsen. His influence cannot be overestimated. For a long time Denmark was the strongest chess country in Scandinavia, because of him."

"Personally I have learnt a lot from him by his writings and we have met several times, the last time in January this year. He talked about chess constantly, he loved chess. He still followed top chess, yes. Not like you and me, who need to see games five minutes after they finished, but in his own way he still followed it."

Peter Heine Nielsen

Yasser Seirawan | Photo © James F. Perry, Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 license

Yasser Seirawan, who has known Larsen for decades, reacted: "Very bad news. Bent was and is a great personal hero of mine. My initial reaction to the news was a bit selfish: I was very happy that Chess Duels was dedicated to him and came in time for him to see it."

"For chess this is really a big loss. He was a giant in the chess world; certainly in the years I played him. He was a colourful personality, a story telly, and a man of burning ambition at the board. Let me share two small stories."

"A tournament in '81/'82 in Morón, Argentina. In the last round Bent played with Black against Ulf Andersson on first board. The two were leading by half a point, and I was in the trailing group, playing on board 2, and hoping they would draw. By the way, Ulf at that time was the world's number three, behind Karpov and Kasparov. He played Nf3, g3, Bg2, c4, castles and offered a draw. I was sitting next to them and was watching the whole thing. Bent instantly, without hesitation, said: "No!" Fortunately for me the game did end in a (hard-fought) draw. But this story sums up his chess career. He was a fighter at the chess board by definition."

"I reach out to his wife who stood at his site for 30 years. I was there when they met, in Mar del Plata. I was at a terras drinking a cappuccino when Bent and his future bride literally rushed by me, almost jumping. I thought: this is eternal love."

"Bent was a bridge to out past and to our future."


Jørgen Bent Larsen was born on the March 4th, 1935 in Thisted, Denmark, and graduated from Aalborg Cathedral School as a 17-year-old after having skipped two grades. After engineering studies in Copenhagen and the military service, Bent Larsen devoted himself exclusively to chess, which was his life forever.

He was national champion six times, a figure that could have been much higher if his engineering studies and his international career had not prevented him from playing more. Larsen became an International Grandmaster in 1956 with his gold-medal performance on board one at the Moscow Olympiad. Over the next 45 years Larsen won numerous international competitions, including three Interzonal tournaments: Amsterdam 1964, Sousse 1967 and Biel 1976. For many years it was generally agreed that he was the world's best tournament player.

Clare-Benedict tournament, Copenhagen 1977, teammate IM Svend Hamann is looking on | Photo Thorbjørn Rosenlund

In 1967 Larsen received the very first chess Oscar and in the period 1969-1972 he was repeatedly number three in the world. He never became world champion, but three times he played candidates semi-finals. All three times lost Larsen either to a past or to a future world champion.

In the early 60s Larsen diversified his style, switching over to risky and unusual openings in some of his games, to try to throw his opponents off balance; this led to the recovery of his form and further development of his chess.

He experimented with e.g. Bird’s Opening (1. f4) and 1.b3, which is called the Larsen Opening or the Nimzo-Larsen Attack. This year several celebrating events took place in Denmark where the first move 1.b3 was obligatory.

Larsen defeated the seven World Champions who held the title from 1948 to 1985. He won games against Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer, and Anatoly Karpov.

Larsen reached his top rank in the Elo rating system at the start of 1971, equal third in the world (with Korchnoi, behind Fischer and Spassky) with a rating of 2660. In the same year he famously lost the Candidates semi-final match in Denver 0-6 to Fischer, who went on to win the title.

Holding a Chess Informant at a lecture, appr. 1980 | Photo Thorbjørn Rosenlund

Larsen later claimed in a interview (1998) that his one-sided loss to Fischer was due in part to his condition during the match: “The organizers chose the wrong time for this match. I was languid with the heat and Fischer was better prepared for such exceptional circumstances… I saw chess pieces through a mist and, thus, my level of playing was not good.”

Together with Fischer, Larsen was clearly the strongest tournament player from the West in the years 1965-1973. Victories include Le Havre 1966, Havana 1967, Winnipeg 1967, Palma de Mallorca 1967, Monte Carlo 1968, Palma de Mallorca 1969, Lugano 1970 and Teesside 1972. In the USSR vs Rest of the World match at Belgrade 1970, he played first board for the World side, ahead of Fischer, and scored 2.5/4 against Spassky and Leonid Stein.

Since the early 1970s, he lived for part of the year in Las Palmas and in Buenos Aires, with his Argentinian-born wife.

Larsen has continued to play occasionally in tournaments to the present day. In 1999 he finished 7th of 10 in the Danish Championship, but in the 2000 event he was forced to withdraw when he became seriously ill with an edema, requiring brain surgery. He has played in only a few tournaments in Buenos Aires since then. In 2008 he playes his first tournament in four years, and avoiding theory in every game, the famous Dane only played very exotic openings and scored 0 out of 9.

For his 75th birthday the Danish Chess Federation produced a beautiful 64 page account of his career in Danish in PDF format which you can download here.

In Buenos Aires, January 2010 | Photo Peter Heine Nielsen

Larsen's victories against World Champions

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