Delightful Games and Clownish Commentary
Review by Michael McGuerty
Larsen: Move by Move, by Cyrus Lakdawala, Everyman Chess 2014, Paperback, Figurine Algebraic Notation, 488pp., $29.95 (ChessCafe Price $25.57)
Amazingly, this is Cyrus Lakdawala’s eighteenth book, at least if the list in the “Also by the Author” section is complete. It seems he is able to churn out the potboilers by the month.
The main content here is divided as follows:
- Larsen on the Attack
- Larsen on Defence and Counterattack
- Larsen on the Dynamic Element
- Larsen on Exploiting Imbalances
- Larsen on Accumulating Advantages
- Larsen in the Endgame
Lakdawala opens Larsen: Move by Move eloquently enough with the following statement:
“When a writer annotates a collection of games of a legendary player, he or she becomes by default a curator of the legacy. The book, like a portrait, should strive to encapsulate essential truths about its subject – in this case, the mind and chess games of Grandmaster Bent Larsen, one of the most creative, unorthodox and influential chess forces of the 20th century.”
However, his next two paragraphs closely resemble the Bent Larsen page on Wikipedia:
“Jørgen Bent Larsen was born on March 4th 1935, in Tilsted, Denmark. He was a sickly child and took up chess as a pastime for his sickbed (chess was a disease he caught young but could never shake). Larsen was the first Western player to seriously challenge the domination of the Soviet machine, who regarded the World Champion’s title as a national treasure, jealously guarded from the West. He was also the strongest Scandinavian player until current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, arrived on the scene.
“Larsen came to prominence in the late 1950s/early 1960s, collecting six Danish Championships. He qualified for the Candidates’ cycle for the World Championship no less than four times. Although I don’t believe Larsen was ever the strongest player in the world during his lifetime, he was one who on a given day could beat any world champion. He racked up multiple wins against every World Champion from 1948-1985. A list of his elite tournament victims included Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer and Karpov.”
While Wikipedia reads,
“Jørgen Bent Larsen (4 March 1935 – 9 September 2010) was a Danish chess Grandmaster and author. Larsen was known for his imaginative and unorthodox style of play, and he was the first Western player to pose a serious challenge to the Soviet Union’s dominance in chess. He is considered to be the strongest player born in Denmark and the strongest from Scandinavia until the emergence of Magnus Carlsen.
“Larsen was a six time Danish Champion and a Candidate for the World Chess Championship on four occasions, reaching the semifinal three times. He had multiple wins over all seven World Champions who held the title from 1948 to 1985: Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer, and Anatoly Karpov…”
Of course, when presenting biographical facts some similarity can be expected, but these passages border on being too close for comfort.
Lakdawala mentions that he does not believe Larsen was ever the strongest player in the world, but does refer to him as being “the unofficial ‘World Tournament Champion’” in the mid-sixties to early seventies.
Aside from this, Lakdawala picks his narrative and consistently sticks with it: Larsen’s play is described as irrational, bizarre, and eccentric. He was “a serial, fiendish violator of the lawful and the natural,” who “deliberately made ugly moves – even outright dubious ones – to provoke an opponent.” The conception behind Larsen’s moves were often brilliant. But they stemmed from a deep understanding of the position; and it was Larsen that frequently proved to understand it best.
The following four passages reinforce this theme, and we haven’t even left the introduction yet:
“Larsen was the precursor to and possible influence of Carlsen’s strategy, always quick to mongrelize an opening with themes from another. Larsen was never interested in a theoretical arms race in the opening, with each side striving to outspend and out-book the other. His motto: Open softly, then adulterate the position with some zany, contaminating idea.”
“He tended to avoid topical theoretical duels, lulling the opponent with restful tranquillity. Then, later in the game, he would always disturb the stillness by contaminating the position’s logic with some crazy, atonal idea, burdening the opponent with original problems (and also messing with his head!).”
“He refused to show iron-bound respect for authority or trend. Above all he was a lawless exhibitionist who delighted in shocking the establishment with unorthodoxy and then laughing about it by transforming the impossible in to a reality. So reality-altered were Larsen’s games, that to compare them with those of, say, Portisch or Spassky is like analysing an alien race by human standards.”
“His thoughts existed in a perpetual state of agitation and he longed to disturb the position’s peace. Larsen was inherently opposed to routine, the way the evangelistic fervour of a religious person opposes sin.”
Larsen is constantly being referred to as a trickster, or magician, or what have you. It is done to such an extent that the reader begins to feel Larsen got by on luck more than talent, resourcefulness, and fighting spirit. For sure, Larsen was a fighting player who delighted in irregular-looking moves that would challenge an opponent. His games are a delight; Lakdawala’s annotations not so much.
Lakdawala frequently uses a religious orientated vocabulary in this work. Words like gospel, atonal, and dogma arise often. He even manages to work in references to the Garden of Eden, Satan, Charles Manson, and Adolf Hitler. Lakdawala’s prose is so full of meaningless filler that much of the books content is devoid of substance. All too often flippant, off-the-cuff remarks are used as a substitute for anything of real consequence. Not to say that Larsen:Move by Move is completely devoid of value, just that the value could be greater.
The question becomes as to what input from the author makes the book worthwhile. Modern books should be evaluated on the criteria of how much an amateur with an engine and a database could possibly replicate the content. In this age of engines and databases it is easy to put together a book that years ago would have passed muster. Now we are back to needing deeper verbal explanations from authors rather than deep analysis. Many of the notes here, especially in the opening phase, devolve into branch after branch of stem games.
Lakdawala is instructive when he’s discussing some real element of a position. Yet, too frequently he’s off on some fantastical verbal tangent without meaning or direction. Here is an example where he combines both:
Larsen,B – Kraidman,Y
Reversed King’s Indian Defence
Position after 31…Kf7
“White has two tempting ideas before him:
“a) 32 Nbd6+, followed by 33 exd6, advancing the passed pawn.
“b) 32 e6+, sacrificing the pawn to clear the e5-square for the knight.
“Exercise (combination alert/critical decision): There exists a key distinction between the choices. Although both lead to an advantage, one is clearly stronger than the other. Which would you play?
“The wrong combination! This looks like a case of the right plan implemented with the wrong tool. Larsen was a master of reaching into meaningless chaos and defining meaning from it – but not in this instance. His idea skirts the periphery and avoids the underlying issue.
“Answer: Clearance/Double attack/Knight fork. White’s advantage is much greater after 32.e6+! (a martyr craves a cause to die for – when we should sacrifice and still refuse, we’re like the miser who feels awkward when the collection plate is handed to him in Sunday church service: he is glad to hang on to his money, while at the same time feeling guilty for not having given anything) 32…Kxe6 33.Ne5 and Black must hand over the exchange, since 33…Rb7?! 34.Rxg7 leaves him hopelessly tied up. In fact things can go very wrong very quickly: 34…Bxh4?! 35.Nc7+ Kf6? (the king, born for domesticity, finds it difficult to adjust to the life of a vagabond) 36.Rh7 Nd6? 37.Nd7+ Kg6 38.Nf8+ Kf6 (Black’s king is gagged and bound, to be tossed casually into a closet, until the ransom is paid) 39.Nd5#. ‘I see that a single application of the whip was insufficient to mould your behaviour,’ says the knight to Black’s king.”
Unfortunately, if it can be said in ten words Lakdawala is going to use fifty. A little levity to lighten a monotonous subject is fine, but this is just clownish. It could be akin to watching a little slapstick entertainment, rather than being in the mood for high drama; or reaching for that romance novel, rather than a literary classic.
Of particular interest is Larsen’s games against world champions and title contenders and these are in abundance. One position that struck Lakdawala’s fancy makes no less than three appearances in the book. It is from Larsen-Bronstein, Moscow 1962, after 41…Qb1:The next few moves were 42.g4 Rxg4 43.c4+ bxc4 44.Ra3 Rxf4+.
In the introduction Lakdawala writes,
“Larsen would create a maze of confusion and abnormality across the board, which at times it feels futile to attempt to fathom. He pursued his objective – absconding with the full point – with the compulsive, Vertigo-like obsession of Jimmy Stewart with Kim Novak. Larsen, much like Dr. Frankenstein, seemed to delight in defying nature. There is something admirable, yet willingly dystopian about such defiance to the inexorable laws of authority. For a player who willing goes for 42 g4!?!? it is next to impossible to code and file away the obverse logic and bizarre motivations behind his moves.”
In the introductory remarks to the chapter “Larsen on Defence and Counterattack” he comments,
“Larsen, the ultimate risk-taker/provocateur, felt completely at home on the defence. His skill in this region is a river with many tributaries. In fact, after study of his games, I believe he actually preferred a slightly inferior but complex position to an equal one in a drably flat landscape.
“Some psychologists claim that lack of emotion doesn’t lead to Mr. Spock-like rational tranquillity, as some of us suppose. Brain researchers, labelling this the “Somatic Marker” hypothesis, claim that lack of emotion actually leads us to make foolish decisions and may be the driver behind most sociopathic behaviour. Larsen may have disagreed with this assessment, since his provocations, like Lasker’s and Korchnoi’s, were designed to provoke and even enrage opponents, the way Captain Kirk constantly provoked Spock, until he lost his Vulcan cool. In this chapter we find Larsen’s psychotic (I stick by this characterization) attempt to win what clearly appears to be a position of absolute stasis against Bronstein from their Moscow 1962 game (which we discussed at length in the introduction of this book). In case you skipped the intro, I’m bunging in the same diagram again, because you won’t want to miss this one: Larsen’s atonal inclinations rarely merged in harmony, and the ABCs of his ideas were nearly impossible to fathom (at least fathom rationally!). If I had White versus an 1800-level player, I would almost certainly offer a draw, not seeing any possibility for progress.
“Now I ask you once more: Who in his right mind plays for a win as White here, and against a man who tied a World Championship match? As related in Game 12 below, Larsen instigated a jaw-dropping triple pawn sac… after which Larsen’s pieces awakened as if suddenly sentient with an intelligence and will of their own. He went on to confuse, provoke and win with one of the most astounding counterattacks I have ever seen, after surviving multiple near-death experiences in the adventures ahead.”
During the game he states,
“White is utterly unable to make progress and if Black just shifts around, a draw seems inevitable. However, Larsen now gets what the Grinch who stole Christmas would describe as ‘a wonderful, terrible idea!’”
“Maybe the correct evaluation of this move is the rarely used ChessBase symbol “!!??”. As desperation (for a win) mounts, Larsen appears to grow more and more unbalanced, until he considers an idea which under normal circumstances would be unthinkable. This sac is similar to a man asking a woman he just met to marry him and then asking her if she would mind telling him her name.”
“Question: This looks insane, as if Larsen has gone mad and just gives away pawns for no reason. What is his ‘wonderful, terrible idea’?”
“Answer: This is the beginning of a triple (!) pawn sac. Larsen plans to activate his rook and go after Bronstein’s king. Please see White’s next move!”
If your not familiar with Larsen’s games or you are looking for light entertainment, then Larsen: Move by Move will serve you well. However, there are better collections of Larsen’s games, including Larsen’s own.
My assessment of this product:
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