The Great Dane

This review has been printed in the December 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Larsen, Bent. Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. Translated from Todas Las Piezas Atacan (volumes 1 and 2) by Freddie Poggio and John Saunders. ISBN 978-9056914684. 336pp. PB $34.95; currently (12/2) $25ish on Amazon.

The name Bent Larsen is, for many Americans, inextricably linked with that of Bobby Fischer. It was Larsen, not Fischer, who played first board in the 1970 USSR vs the World match, with Bobby – returning to chess after a three year absence – graciously giving way to the Dane. And it was Larsen who was Fischer’s second victim in his miraculous march to the World Championship, the score of the Candidates Semi-Final in Denver standing 6-0 in the American’s favor.

Such myopia is perhaps understandable, given the Fischer-colored lens that colors American understanding of chess history. It is also lamentable. Bent Larsen was not merely a bit player in the great Fischer drama. He was, for at least a decade, the only Western player (besides Fischer) to seriously trouble the Soviets, the winner of dozens of tournaments and three Interzonals, and a prolific writer to boot.

For years the English-speaking world has had to make due with just one games collection from Larsen: his 1970 Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess 1948-1969, now out of print and relatively hard to find. New in Chess has seized upon this fact and published Bent Larsen’s Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane. And not a moment too soon.

Bent Larsen’s Best Games is a translation of two recent Spanish collections. Games #1-74 are an extended and revised version of the material in Larsen’s Selected Games, with games through 1973. Games #75-124 come from Larsen’s 1973-77 journalistic efforts, so the notes have a slightly breezier feel than the earlier ones.

Larsen is not quite in the class of Botvinnik or Smyslov as an annotator, but he is very close. His notes are deeply instructive, judiciously mixing variations with prose. We get a real sense of Larsen the player and strategist in these pages, and the influence of his hero Aron Nimzowitsch is clearly felt.

Here is Larsen’s account of a ‘mysterious rook move’ that would have pleased the Stormy Petrel. White is to play.

image

18.Rb2!!

… the advantages of 18.Rb2 can be summarized as follows: (1) it leads to a direct threat, with a gain of tempo; (2) it prepares for a doubling of rooks on the d-file; for example, 18…Qc7 19.Na4, with the idea of 20.Qc4 and 21.Rbd2; (3) it is important to retain the c-pawn to support the knight on a4. That is to say, with the c-pawn solidly protected and the a-file blocked, White can concentrate his forces on exploiting the open d-file. Then White will be able to strengthen his position with Nd2 and Nc4, Bf1 and Bc4, or h3–h4 and Bh3. (43)

Here we see the profundity of Larsen’s play as well as his explanatory prowess. Modern engines may prefer the ‘dogmatic’ (Kmoch) 18.b4, but they do not contradict the validity of Larsen’s move. If we look at the text a bit closer, we might also see something else.

The same game – Larsen-Perez, Gijon 1956 – appears in Larsen’s Selected Games. There Larsen says that “it is really important to keep the pawn on QKt3, to protect the knight on QR4. With the pawn on QB5 solidly protected and the QR file blocked, White is able to concentrate upon the exploitation of the Queen’s file.” This earlier rendering makes more sense, and I suspect – although I cannot say definitively – that the new translation is mistaken.

There are other small errors sprinkled through the text. Impossible moves are given (11…Kf5, 153). Openings are incorrectly named (35) and evaluations are flipped (287). It may seem pedantic to note such issues, but Larsen’s writing deserves much better.

Still, this is a fantastic book. Bent Larsen was a world-class player and writer. His games remain vital, entertaining and educational. So do yourself a favor: put down that opening book for a few days and let Houdini rest for a while. Get out your set and pieces and spend some time with Bent Larsen’s Best Games. You might just remember why you started playing chess in the first place.

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