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Donner - Larsen Zonal Playoff Match

Bent Larsen3/4(+2 -0 =2)[games]
Jan Hein Donner1/4(+0 -2 =2)[games] Chess Event Description
Donner - Larsen Zonal Playoff (1958)

This was a four-game match to decide who would take the final Wageningen Zonal qualifying place and participate in the Portoroz Interzonal (1958) which would be held in August-September 1958. It arose as Larsen and Donner had tied for 3rd place at the Wageningen Zonal (1957). Despite the protests of the Dutch Chess Federation, a playoff match was announced at the closing ceremony of the Wageningen tournament. The match was scheduled to take place in April 1958 in the offices of the newspaper Het Binnenhof, at the Prinsegracht, in the Dutch city of The Hague. The match director would be Dr. Max Euwe, assisted by Mr. H. de Graaf. (1, 2, 3)

The players

Larsen was a 23 years old Danish student but was already a Grandmaster (1956). Donner was 30, the Dutch champion and an International Master. Larsen was 21st on Chessmetric’s January 1958 rating list and Donner 61st. (4) The two had played twice before, a draw (Larsen vs J H Donner, 1956) and a Donner win at Wageningen in a very sharp game (J H Donner vs Larsen, 1957). "(Wageningen) was strong and I just managed to share third place with Donner, whom I beat in the tie-break and thus I qualified for the Interzonal … but my games weren’t brilliant; I often got into trouble, although I managed to squeak through a number of times thanks to my reserves of energy and resourcefulness ..." (5)

The necessity for a playoff

The Dutch Chess Federation, led by the ex-world champion Euwe, did not want a playoff, especially as Donner would be disadvantaged by his inferior Sonneborn–Berger at the Zonal tournament. This meant he had to score 2.5 points to win the match whilst Larsen needed 2 points. (6) "It is not impossible that both Larsen and Donner who tied for the third qualifying place may be placed in the Interzonal Tournament. The FIDE has received a request to admit four, instead of three, from the Wageningen Tournament because the participation in the latter was so much stronger than that in Dublin and the Sofia Zonal tournament". (7)

Euwe's opinion is contentious. An examination of the three Zonal tournaments indicates that the Wageningen Zonal was of similar strength to that of Sofia, although both were significantly stronger than the Dublin Zonal. The players who had already qualified from the European zonal tournaments were: Fridrik Olafsson and Laszlo Szabo (Wageningen), Ludek Pachman, Pal Benko and Svetozar Gligoric (Dublin), and Aleksandar Matanovic, Oleg Neikirch and Miroslav Filip (Sofia). These were the highest rated in their respective zonals and they all had higher gradings than Donner (with the exception of Neikirch). FIDE rejected the Dutch Chess Federation's request.

Donner on Larsen

"Character, endurance, self-confidence and aggressiveness determine who will be the greatest among the grandmasters. Let me introduce Larsen who in this respect has a very happy disposition. He has one characteristic, which is particularly striking and rarer than one would think of chess players: he clearly enjoys chess ... One clearly understands that Larsen takes the game very seriously. He is obsessed with chess .." (8)

The progress of the match

"The match program is as follows: 14 April, first game; 15 April second game; 16 April playing out of adjourned games; 17 April third game; 18 April possible continuation of third game; 19 April fourth game." (9) "Because Larsen's result in Wageningen was somewhat more favourable than that of Donner according to the Sonneborn–Berger system, he only needs two points from the four games of the match to qualify. Donner will have to earn 2.5 points for that." (10)

1 2 3 4 Larsen ½ 1 1 ½ 3 Donner ½ 0 0 ½ 1

Progressive score:

1 2 3 4 Larsen ½ 1½ 2½ 3 Donner ½ ½ ½ 1

Donner was White in the odd-numbered games.

The games

Game 1 was played in a first-floor room in Hef Binnenhof’s offices. Euwe and other notable personalities watched the proceeding through a glass partition wall. Hans Kolfschoten, the Mayor of The Hague and prominent Dutch politician, made the opening move for Donner. Photograph: (Larsen to the left and Donner to the right. Kolfschoten makes the first move whilst Euwe peers over Donner's shoulder). A newspaper report described Donner as being hyper-nervous. "Donner played the opening phase skilfully. He won the initiative and also played much faster than Larsen. Around the fifteenth move, Donner had spent half an hour less thinking time than his opponent. When Larsen left the glass room for a moment, he stated: "I like the playing area - but my position rather less." (11) During the analysis afterwards, "Larsen showed an affable objectivity. Larsen had not thought for a moment that he would achieve more than dividing the point. The investigations of the experts together with the players showed that Donner had missed the strongest continuation on the 21st move

click for larger view

21.Nc6 instead of 21.Nc4. Donner was quite right when, on immediately realising the consequence of his weaker continuation, he offered a draw." (11)

Game 2 was a vigorous game in which Larsen as White sacrificed a pawn for lasting pressure on the K-side in a King's Indian. Larsen klopt Donner:

"Donner has lowered his colours after Larsen’s sledgehammer blows. (From our chess editor, dr. M. Euwe). The second Larsen - Donner game was also characterized by an enterprising approach by both sides. This could only be pleasing for Donner, because the fiercer the battle, the greater the chance that his opponent could stumble. After all, our champion must win at least one of the remaining games to pave his way for the interzonal tournament in Portoroz. Of course, Donner also runs the risk of miscalculating when the game gets complicated, but he has to take this risk and it was nice to see that Larsen also fully accepts the risks of a fight. The chosen variation involved castling on opposing sides, which usually involves a hard battle for the initiative. Larsen had the open g-file, focused on the heart of the King’s position, Donner had the open c-file, which faced white’s castling on the Queen-side. Major operations were not undertaken until a number of minor pieces were placed in order to clearly define each other's area of influence. For a moment it seemed as if Larsen made a mistake in these preparatory measures. Donner was able to win a pawn, but rightly our champion saw through it, as this material gain would have been at a significant positional cost." (12)

"The consequence of this, however, was that Larsen had the initiative. He was already manoeuvring along the open g-file, whilst Donner had yet to initiate his counterplay on the other wing. Donner did not do this at all. He concentrated on defending his position. Now whilst Donner is a strong defender, this put very high demands on his defensive skill. Larsen sacrificed a pawn to get a Knight onto a strong square and Donner's position became completely constricted.

click for larger view

There was, however, no immediate winning line for the Dane. At one point, Donner saw the opportunity to free his position, and suddenly it looked much better for him. A far too optimistic pawn manoeuvre, however, then altogether spoiled his position.

click for larger view

(Donner played 36...e4 instead of 36...Kh7= and lost after 37.Qe8+ - e. d.) The situation was very tense as Larsen was extremely short of time and Donner seems to have sought to create tactical complications in his opponent's time pressure. Larsen managed to regain the initiative with a crushing blow, and he went on to wind matters up flawlessly. Donner lost some of his most critical pawns and had to strike his flag on the 38th move." (12)

Game 3. "(From our chess correspondent, dr. M. Euwe). The third match game has suddenly and for the Netherlands disappointingly brought an end to this short match. Larsen also won the third game and thus achieved a score of 2½ points, which Donner cannot now catch up. Even that would not have been enough, as mentioned earlier - Larsen would with a draw already had enough points to go through to the interzonal tournament. This was the big handicap for Donner from the start of the match. He had to win to retain his prospects. After our champion had lost the second game, how much more pressure was he under in the third. Initially, things did not go too badly for Donner. He came out of the opening using the standard variant of the Nimzo-Indian, which was not surprising since Donner has made a special study of this variant. The moves followed each other in quick succession and only Larsen was looking worried from time to time. For the first 21 moves the Dane had used a full hour, compared to Donner who had used only ten minutes. Larsen had accepted a doubled pawn to cope with the gradually growing difficulties and then it looked promising for Donner. He was practically a pawn up and only the presence of Bishops of the opposite colour reduced his chances of winning to some extent." (13)

"Larsen did not bother with his double pawn and concentrated on manoeuvring his pieces into good positions. With a few fine moves he was able to drive Donner into the corner and the best he had was then a draw due to repetition of moves. This was not attractive to our champion, because in that case, Larsen would have achieved the required two points and for Donner, the chance of playing at Portoroz would have disappeared. Donner, therefore, played on and this proved to be extremely risky.

click for larger view

(Donner blundered with 31.Nf1? allowing Larsen to create a mating net with 31...Rc1. 31.e6 would have at least kept Donner in the game - e. d.) Larsen skilfully constructed a mating net and Donner resigned on the 33rd move. The score is now 2½–½ in Larsen's favour. The fourth and last game, which is no longer of any importance to the match result, nevertheless begins Saturday afternoon at one o'clock." (13)

Game 4. Larsen with the White pieces played carefully in response to Donner's King's Indian Defence. All the minor pieces were exchanged off, leaving a drawn Queens and Rooks ending. The game was drawn in 24 moves, the match having been decided in the previous game.


"... Donner had done so well in the Wageningen (Zonal) tournament and shortly thereafter in the Beverwijk tournament. That is not to say that Larsen's victory was undeserved. Far from that. The young Danish grandmaster demonstrated in the match that he clearly was the stronger player. Not for a moment was he in serious danger, and he utilised his chances excellently. Still, his match result, 3-1, is somewhat flattering and undoubtedly the result of the fact that Donner would be eliminated in the event of a tied score. Repeatedly, Donner was compelled to play for a win, which was not justified by his position. Moreover, Larsen had just returned from the Mar del Plata tournament and was in much better form than at Wageningen. Had the match taken place immediately after the latter, the result might have been different ... the second game was the most interesting. This game, in fact, decided the match. Thereafter, Larsen needed only half a point out of two games. In spite of time trouble, Larsen surprised Donner with a Queen manoeuvre, and won shortly thereafter." (14)

Larsen qualified for the Portoroz Interzonal (1958) but performed poorly there (+5 -8 =7). This drew a line after a succession of good performances such as winning the gold medal at the Moscow Olympiad. Larsen entered a period of a relative slump until the mid-1960's.

Donner became a Grandmaster in 1959. Wageningen was one of his greatest performances as a player. In the Madrid Zonal (1960) he came equal first, but came last in the playoff with Svetozar Gligoric, Lajos Portisch and Arturo Pomar Salamanca.


(1) De Tijd, 4th February 1958.
(2) Het Vrije Volk, 28th November 1957: "During the prize-giving ceremony after the end of the international round-table tournament in Wageningen yesterday it was announced that a match between Donner and Larsen is provisionally scheduled for next spring." Also see De Telegraaf 28th November 1957. Het Vrije Volk 27th November 1957: "Because Donner and Larsen are now tied in third place a tie-breaking match will be required, which according to the regulations must be of four games, unless FIDE agrees with the request of the Royal Dutch Chess Federation to also award four players places from this zonal tournament ...". Also see De Volkskrant 28th November 1957: "... pending the decision on the request to classify both chess masters for the interzonal."
(3) Het Vrije Volk, 25th February 1958.
(5) Bent Larsen's Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane, Bent Larsen, p. 52.
(6) Het Vrije Volk, 25th February 1958.
(7) Max Euwe in Chess Review, vol. 26, no. 3, March 1958, p. 72.
(8) Donner in De Tijd, 1st February 1958.
(9) De Telegraaf, 25th February 1958.
(10) Het Vrije Volk, 25th February 1958.
(11) De Telegraaf, 15th April 1958.
(12) Het Vrije Volk, 16th April 1958.
(13) Het Vrije Volk, 18th April 1958.
(14) Max Euwe in Chess Review, vol. 26, no. 7, July 1958, p. 200.

This text and original research by User: Chessical. Thanks to User: sneaky pete and User: OhioChessFan for their proof reading and suggestions now incorporated into the text.

 page 1 of 1; 4 games  PGN Download 
Game  ResultMoves YearEvent/LocaleOpening
1. J H Donner vs Larsen ½-½211958Donner - Larsen Zonal PlayoffE60 King's Indian Defense
2. Larsen vs J H Donner 1-0381958Donner - Larsen Zonal PlayoffE88 King's Indian, Samisch, Orthodox, 7.d5 c6
3. J H Donner vs Larsen 0-1331958Donner - Larsen Zonal PlayoffE59 Nimzo-Indian, 4.e3, Main line
4. Larsen vs J H Donner ½-½241958Donner - Larsen Zonal PlayoffE94 King's Indian, Orthodox
  REFINE SEARCH:   White wins (1-0) | Black wins (0-1) | Draws (1/2-1/2)  

Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  OhioChessFan: Strange that Euwe pushed so hard for Donner to go straight to the interzonal. He'd have been cannon fodder for that crowd. Larsen won this mini-match easily and then ended up 16th in the interzonal.
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