News & Politics

The Chess Mismatch of the Century

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
January 4, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 1

Larsen-Whelton (1972): Mismatch of the century
by Shelby Lyman

Amongst readers of The Voice, the second best known American chessplayer may be Clark Whelton. One could not help reading his chronicle (Voice, December 28) of his win over Grandmaster Bent Larsen of Denmark, perhaps the best player in the West outside of Fischer, without wondering if this was the most publicized chess game, outside of Fischer-Spasski, in the last decade.

True, Clark was one of the 85 opponents faced by Larsen simultaneously. True, Larsen lavishly consumed only three seconds per move in facing him. Yet one wonders why the various wire services did not pick up the story.

For concealed beneath Whelton’s tongue-in-cheek account is one of the greatest Walter Mitty fantasies of all time. Or in Whelton’s own words: “You’re next, Bobby Fischer.”

I was at The Voice offices last week when I heard coming from an anteroom a burst and then a sustained flow of applause. “What’s that?” I wondered aloud. “Clark has arrived,” someone explained. I felt a little nervous, as several of us waited for Clark to make his way (through a crowd of admirers, I imagined) to the inner office where we expected him. When Clark appeared, he almost immediately launched into an account of his game with the Danish Grandmaster. His description was sober, substantially detached, and todl with professional flourishes. “I played the Accelerated Fianchetto Variation of the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense…After Larsen missed an early opportunity, I consolidated…”, etc. I was instantly reminded of Clark’s composure, when he appeared last summer on our Channel 13 WNET coverage of Fischer-Spasski. Clark was at our Albany studio to do an interview. We put him on camera as a journalist who played chess. He turned out to be more of a chessplayer than we imagined. He made a number of incisive, timely comments. In retrospect, he was one of our better panelists.

As Clark went on with his account, I began to wonder who was or wasn’t serious about what. There was a rapt but amused attention amongst his listeners to everything Whelton said. His own attitude was alternately objective, self-mocking, and self-aggrandizing. Suddenly I thought back to Joe Finn, who headed our WNET control center in New York City; to Kathleen Chase, the daughter of our producer, Mike Chase; to Robbie, our on-the-set mechanical wizard; and to thousands of others, many of whom didn’t know the moves of chess or had just learned them, but who knew what Fischer should or shouldn’t have done on move 32 of game 13 or knew that Bobby hadn’t moved his pawns right in game 10.

After all, I thought, Clark isn’t that good a player. But neither were those thousands of un-expert day-by-ay followers of the games, who anticipated an occasional move or less often an occasional error actually played. But they were there on the battlefield with Fischer and Spasski throughout. and they would have been ready, when the gladiators faltered, to jump into the battle themselves, if they could.

Ordinarily, the playing strength of one’s opponent is decisive. There is practically no luck in chess. In a series of games the better player will usually win, convincingly. Under normal playing conditions, a Grandmaster of Larsen’s strength will beat Clark Whelton, practically at will. Yet there is always the possibility of inattention, error, or carelessness. One inexact move and the overwhelmingly weaker player may triumph. In this respect, there is no more democratic game than chess. Even the Grandmaster can’t hide behind his status. He must struggle and perform each move of every game. He is always there to be taken and eventually he is. Top-notch chess achievement is probably 70 per cent attributable to character. Any player with even a modicum of ability “knows” that he too can play master chess, if only occasionally, if only for a moment.

Whelton proved that night to be Larsen’s conqueror. There were of course four others who beat Larsen in the same exhibition, but they remain anonymous. Did Whelton’s grim intent paralyze the Great Dane! Grandmasters too are prone to intimidation. At every simultaneous exhibition, the expert encounters opponents who mysteriously arouse his fears. Usually they blunder on the second move, but sometimes they persist to play nemesis.

At three seconds a move, it’s hard to explain what happened. Larsen made serious errors and Clark Whelton beat him. We have a brief glimpse into the more subterranean element of Clark’s consciousness and motivations from some of his own comments. For example, he referred to “cavernous accommodations at Chess City,” and “boards and pieces of losers held in the air like severed heads.” Clark and I have discussed the elemental and sometimes gory Icelandic Saga. Did he imagine himself to be doing battle in some enormous Viking hall? Did Clark’s bloodlust rattle Bent Larsen who thought he was merely playing chess with some amateur in New York City? Does Whelton himself know what happened?

Whatever the grim truth, Clark had better be warned. The word is out. When chessmaster and tv analyst Bruce Pandolfini makes his try at the world simultaneous record, 400 games and 36 hours, sometime this spring, he will probably pause, stare into the cavernous void, and wonder “which of these guys is Clark Whelton?”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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