Update: Bent Larsen died in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the 9th September 2010, after a short illness. He was 75.
Now that Magnus Carlsen has, at the almost preposterous age of 19, become the world's highest-rated player, we must get accustomed to the unusual idea of Nordic chess supremacy. Yet there is a near-precedent for this phenomenon: 40 years ago another Scandinavian was winning tournament after tournament, until his designs on the world title were shattered by the simultaneous rise of Bobby Fischer.
That man — a Dane — was Bent Larsen. He is now 75 and not in the best of health, but still an inspiration to later generations of chess players from Scandinavia and indeed the world over because of his ferocious fighting spirit. He never in his career played what is called "a grandmaster draw" and had a remarkable originality of style.
The latter was probably a function of his cultural isolation as a chess player, entirely self-taught as he was, and never having had a trainer. This independence of spirit was most evident in his sometimes bizarre opening play. He developed entire systems of his own, quite outside the mainstream of opening theory, notably by beginning the game as white with 1.b3 — now generally known, quite rightly, as Larsen's Opening.
At the same time he delighted British players by rediscovering Bird's Opening, 1.f4, which had been played with mixed results in the late 19th century by its inventor, Henry Bird — and by no one else. In the world championship interzonal tournament of 1964, Larsen astonished the other competitors by springing Bird's opening on, among others, no less than Boris Spassky. Larsen's contemporary comments on that game are revealing about his character and methods: "I played Bird's Opening, of which most masters have no high opinion, but I chose it for the very reason that they do not play it and do not know it. I know it quite well, and have many original ideas. Now I challenge Spassky with it. Let us see what ideas he has to show." Larsen won that remarkable game; and you can see in those remarks his self-confidence, bordering on arrogance.
I spent a little time with Larsen in the late 1980s when he was a regular visitor to the annual Hastings Congress: he was the most opinionated man I had ever met — and his uninterruptible stream of argumentation was by no means just about chess. Indeed, he had considered a career in politics in his native Denmark — but his complete inability to compromise, on anything at all, made him much more suited to the lone life of the chess grandmaster.
When, in 1970, a match was arranged between the Rest of the World and the Soviet Union, his uncompromising nature came to the fore: Larsen amazed everyone by insisting that he, and not Fischer, should play top board for the Rest of the World. Even more amazingly, Fischer — who had never been known to yield to anyone — agreed to play on second board.
The American took a terrible revenge a year later, when he and Larsen met in a world championship semi-final match, in Denver. Although Fischer had a lifetime plus score against Larsen, he had been defeated by the Dane in their only recent tournament encounter and there were perennial doubts about the American's psychological robustness — not something that had ever been a problem for the eternally optimistic Larsen.