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Larsen - Olafsson Match

Bent Larsen4.5/8(+4 -3 =1)[games]
Fridrik Olafsson3.5/8(+3 -4 =1)[games] Chess Event Description
Larsen - Olafsson (1956)

An eight-game playoff match for the Nordic Championship between Bent Larsen and Fridrik Olafsson, held in Reykjavik, Iceland from 17th January to 1st February 1956. The match was hosted by the Sjómannaskólanum (Seaman's School) in the Háteigsveig suburb of Reykjavík. (1)

The players

Larsen and Ólafsson had played four times previously, their first crossing of swords being at the World Junior Championship (1951) in Birmingham, England. Ólafsson had won three of these games, but had lost their last encounter in the Nordic Championship (1955) in Oslo in August. Both players were 20 years old at the start of the match.

Ólafsson celebrated his 21st birthday on the 26th January. Although still a law student, by 1956 he had already been Icelandic champion twice (in 1952 and in 1953), and he had come third in the World Junior Championship (1953) in Copenhagen where he had beaten Larsen (Larsen vs F Olafsson, 1953). Ólafsson's first international round-robin tournament was Hastings (1953/54), where he came fourth equal. In 1954, he played in the Marianske Lazne - Prague Zonal Tournament, coming sixth in a strong field, and then in September he played for Iceland in the Amsterdam Olympiad. During late November and early December 1955 he defeated world championship candidate Herman Pilnik 5-1 in a match in Reykjavik. Ólafsson then returned to Hastings (1955/56), this time to tie for first. These results augured well for this playoff, which came about due to his tie with Larsen in the Nordic Championship (1955).

According to Larsen, "The year 1955 started with a partial failure; I only managed to share first place in the Copenhagen Championship (with Axel Nielsen – e. d.) ... After that, I took part in the Danish Championship and scored 10 out of a possible 11. In August I played in the Scandinavian (Nordic – e. d.) Championship, which took place in Oslo, and although I didn’t play very well in all the games, I shared first place with Fridrik Olafsson who I beat in the last round .. I flew (in January 1956 – e. d.) to Reykjavik where the tier for the Scandinavian (Nordic – e. d.) Championship has to be decided by an eight-game match. In those days Olafsson was a national hero. He had beaten Herman Pilnik in a match and at Hastings (1955/56) shared first with Viktor Korchnoi. The enthusiasm on the island was fantastic; everyone followed our match with great interest. But what was wrong with Olafsson? I took the lead 3½-1½. But in the sixth game, I blundered in a position that was clearly drawn and I played very badly in the seventh. The situation was now 3½ points all with one game left and both of us were very nervous ...” (2)

Larsen arrived in Reykjavík on Sunday night (15th January), two days before the start of the match. Both players declared themselves optimistic about their chances to the Icelandic press. Ólafsson admitted that Larsen would be a difficult opponent who did well in complex positions and in defence. "Larsen stated that he was impressed by Ólafsson's achievements in Hastings. He had only seen the game against Taimanov (F Olafsson vs Taimanov, 1955), which had appeared in a Swedish newspaper, and it was very elegant. He said Friðrik's style was excellent, being both bold and imaginative." (3)

The match arrangements

The first games were on Tuesday (17th) and Wednesday, with Thursday reserved for adjourned games (Game 1). The third game would take place on Friday (20th), and if adjourned to continue on Sunday (22nd). The fourth on Monday (23rd). There was then a three-day break with the fifth and sixth games being played on consecutive days (26th and 27th). The seventh game was on 31st January, and the final game was on the 1st February. The games were played in the evening, starting at 19:30 hours. Due to popular interest, queues were anticipated and a special bus service was laid on for the 9-mile drive to the venue. (4) The match manager was Áki Pétursson, and the tournament director was Jón Einarsson. (5)

Progress of the match

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Larsen 1 0 1 ½ 1 0 0 1 4½ Ólafsson 0 1 0 ½ 0 1 1 0 3½

Progressive scores:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Larsen 1 1 2 2½ 3½ 3½ 3½ 4½ Ólafsson 0 1 1 1½ 1½ 2½ 3½ 3½

Larsen had white in the odd-numbered games. It was a hard-fought match with only one drawn game.

The games

Game 1 - Tuesday 17th January 1956. (6) The hall was packed by an audience estimated to number 1,700 which spilled out into the corridors of the Sjómannaskólanum. The venue was intended to cater for 700-800 people. As the result, half an hour after the start of the first game the doors had to be barred. Outside, there was a traffic jam and late-comers had to resort to peering through the windows at the spectacle. Gudmundur Arnlaugsson made a welcoming speech and then as Bent Larsen had white, the Danish Ambassador and famous women's rights activist Mrs. Bodil Begtrup ceremonially played his first move. The game was adjourned at 00:30 hours on move 41 with Ólafsson having to play his last moves quickly to make the time control. He told the press that the result would probably be a draw. (7) Ólafsson's prediction proved wide of the mark. Shortly after the resumption of play, he blundered and Larsen took full advantage:

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49...Rxd4?, to which Larsen replied 50.Qxf7+ Kh8 51.a5! Despite his significant advantage, Larsen had difficulties in transforming it into a victory. It is probable that both players were growing more nervous as the game proceeded. Larsen made several inferior moves, while Ólafsson could not take advantage of these various opportunities to improve his prospects to secure a draw.

Game 2 - 18th January 1956. Ólafsson leveled the score with his first taste of the White pieces scoring a win in 31 moves. Larsen played

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25...Bb6?, fatally ignoring the imminent threats to his King.

Game 3 - 20th January 1956. Once again the playing hall was packed out. The local hero had just won a crushing victory. The game was adjourned at move 40 with the general opinion being that Larsen's had a spatial advantage but that the position was also very complex. The game resumed on Sunday night. With

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57.b6!, Ólafsson's position finally disintegrated. (8, 9)

Game 4 - 23rd January 1956. After three decisive games, this was the first drawn game. Ólafsson played cautiously and failed to obtain any advantage against the Sicilian Defence. Material was exchanged without altering the balance, and at move 32 the draw was agreed in an equal Rook and Pawns endgame. "Our guest has clearly been in excellent form ... Larsen loves the fight, he plays quickly so that he rarely comes into time-trouble, uncompromisingly he creates problems for his opponent. Fridrik has in turn shown signs fatigue and hesitation. He has shown some good spells, but not the magnificent play we have been accustomed to. Whilst all the nervous tension and the interest surrounding the match has affected him, it has filled Bent Larsen with fighting spirit." (10)

Game 5 - 26th January 1956. As in Game 1, Ólafsson blundered in a near equal position. As Black in the Queen's Indian, he erred by swapping off pieces too quickly in trying to release Larsen's pressure on his position. Ólafsson played

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23...c5?, but this lost the exchange to a long but straight-forward combination: 24.Bxe5 Bxe5 25.Bxb7 Rxb7 26.Rde1 Rbe7 27.Nd5 Re6 28.Nc7.

Game 6 - 27th January 1956. Ólafsson had to win with the White pieces to have any chance of staying in the match. Larsen, two points up with only three games to play, seemed to be happily placed. Yet, it appears that the nervous toll of the match suddenly affected him. This game was the first of two consecutive losses destroying his lead. Ólafsson's English opening had not given him an advantage and the game seemed destined to be drawn at the adjournment. Suddenly, Larsen grabbed a pawn only to find that his Knight had no escape route. After

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36...Nxe2? and the simple reply 37.Bf1, Larsen could only sacrifice the piece for a second pawn. Ólafsson soon won the pawn back and Larsen played on in a hopeless position before resigning on move 51.

Game 7 - 31st January 1956. Ólafsson had clawed back to a point behind in the match, but he had Black. He had lost with the Black pieces in every game so far. Ólafsson did not play for safety-first, but instead employed the aggressive Dutch Defence. This was not part of his normal repertoire and could be expected to be a surprise for his opponent. Ólafsson built up an attack supported by two powerful Bishops which raked Larsen's King-side. Having compromised the dark squares around his King, Larsen was defeated by a decisive Bishop sacrifice:

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24...Bh3+!! 25.Kxh3 Qh5+ 26.Kg2 Qxh2 mate. Many years later, Ólafsson played a pendant to this game, another artistic King Side attack but this time exploiting the White squares around his opponent's King: O Rodriguez Vargas vs F Olafsson, 1978.

Game 8 - 1st February 1956. Larsen chose this game for inclusion in his "Selected Games". The match score was tied, so the final game was also the deciding one. The game followed an earlier Larsen victory from the Amsterdam Olympiad (E Paoli vs Larsen, 1954). Larsen employed the sharp, uncompromising, and newly popular Sicilian, Najdorf, 6...e6 (B95). This counter-attacking variation had become popular with leading Soviet players in 1953-1954, and usually led to a decisive result. On the 13th move, Ólafsson deviated from Paoli and the game proceeded sharply as an attack on the respective Kings on opposite flanks. On move 22, Ólafsson made a subtle error. Playing

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22.g5 he allowed his opponent to play 22...e5! with advantage. Larsen's play from then on was very energetic, whilst Ólafsson lost the thread and weakened his King's position. Larsen temporarily sacrificed his Queen, his active pieces winning the exchange, and soon after the game.

Photographs of the players


On the 5th February at the Sjálfstæðishúsinu (Independence House, a conference hall and restaurant) in front of the Nordic Ambassadors, Larsen as the Nordic Champion was presented with a cup from King Håkon VII of Norway. Ólafsson as the runner-up received a 'silver shell' from the City of Oslo. Both players also received a cash prize from the Chess League of Iceland. (11)

Larsen then stunned the chess world by becoming a grandmaster at the age of 20. He did this through his top score on Board One (14/18 = 77.8%) at the 12th Chess Olympiad in Moscow, September 1956. The two rivals played at Hastings (1956/57), where Larsen shared first place with Svetozar Gligoric, half a point ahead of Ólafsson who had the consolation of winning their individual game (Larsen vs F Olafsson, 1956). At Dallas (1957), Larsen took 4th place, finishing a point ahead of Ólafsson (6th place), and they each won one game against the other in this double round robin event.

Ólafsson qualified directly for the Portoroz Interzonal (1958) from the Wageningen Zonal (1957), coming second by half a point to Laszlo Szabo. Despite defeating Ólafsson (F Olafsson vs Larsen, 1957), Larsen finished half a point behind his Icelandic rival, and he had to play a match against Jan Hein Donner (Donner - Larsen Zonal Playoff (1958)) for the final qualifying place. At the Portoroz Interzonal (1958) Larsen finished a disappointing 16th, but Ólafsson came 5th-6th and advanced to the Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates (1959), so gaining the Grandmaster title. The Interzonal marked the beginning of a long fallow period for Larsen which lasted until the mid-1960s, whilst Ólafsson's activity subsided after 1959 as his legal work took precedence.


(1) Tíminn (Icelandic newspaper), 14th January 1956, p. 1
(2) Bent Larsen's Best Games: Fighting Chess with the Great Dane, Bent Larsen, p. 34
(3) Tíminn, 17th January 1956, p. 7
(4) Details about the match arrangements: Alþýðublaðið (Icelandic newspaper), 14th January 1956, p. 1; Vísir (Icelandic newspaper), 16th January 1956, pp. 1 and 12
(5) Alþýðublaðið, 16th January 1956, p. 8
(6) Alþýðublaðið, 14th January 1956, p. 1
(7) Alþýðublaðið, 18th January 1956, p. 1; Þjóðviljinn (Icelandic newspaper), 8th January 1956, p. 12; Vísir, 18th January 1956, p. 12
(8) Tíminn, 21st January 1956, p. 1
(9) Morgunblaðið (Icelandic newspaper), 21st January 1956, p. 16.
(10) Gudmundur Arnlaugsson (Icelandic champion in 1949) in Þjóðviljinn, 29th January 1956, p. 6
(11) Tíminn, 5th February 1956, p. 7

 page 1 of 1; 8 games  PGN Download 
Game  ResultMoves YearEvent/LocaleOpening
1. Larsen vs F Olafsson 1-0951956Larsen - OlafssonA05 Reti Opening
2. F Olafsson vs Larsen 1-0311956Larsen - OlafssonB90 Sicilian, Najdorf
3. Larsen vs F Olafsson 1-0591956Larsen - OlafssonE63 King's Indian, Fianchetto, Panno Variation
4. F Olafsson vs Larsen ½-½321956Larsen - OlafssonB53 Sicilian
5. Larsen vs F Olafsson 1-0451956Larsen - OlafssonE18 Queen's Indian, Old Main line, 7.Nc3
6. F Olafsson vs Larsen 1-0511956Larsen - OlafssonA16 English
7. Larsen vs F Olafsson 0-1241956Larsen - OlafssonA99 Dutch, Ilyin-Genevsky Variation with b3
8. F Olafsson vs Larsen 0-1401956Larsen - OlafssonB95 Sicilian, Najdorf, 6...e6
  REFINE SEARCH:   White wins (1-0) | Black wins (0-1) | Draws (1/2-1/2)  

Kibitzer's Corner
Feb-20-19  adalthor23: "Ólafsson's first international tournament was Hastings (1953/54), where he came fourth equal." Wasn´t the World Junior Championship in Birmingham 1951 an international tournament!?
Premium Chessgames Member
  Sally Simpson: ***

Hi adalthor23,

Although a minor admission is does seem you are correct.

The actual statement is: "Ólafsson's first international round-robin tournament was Hastings (1953/54)"

...and the 1951 junior world championship was a round robin.

Ólafsson also played in the 1952 Helsinki Olympiad. P8. W1. D2. L6.

10 years later at the Varna Olympiad Ólafsson won the board one gold medal. P18. W10. D8. L0.

The 1962 Olympiad is famous for hosting the only Botvinnik - Fischer game. Neither of these two figured in the top three board one prizes, Botvinnik came 6th and Fischer 8th.


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