GM Larry Evans (1932-2010), American Chess Legend, Dies Print E-mail
By Larry Parr   
November 16, 2010
Larry300.jpg
Larry Evans in New York, 1977, Photo Nigel Eddis, copyright Burt Hochberg
On Monday, November 15, 2010, at approximately 3 p.m., five-time U.S. Champion Grandmaster Larry Evans died at Washoe Hospital in Reno, Nevada, from complications following a gall bladder operation.

GM Evans is arguably the most versatile figure in American chess history.  If Siegbert Tarrasch enjoyed the title, Praeceptor Germaniae, then Larry Evans was the Chess Teacher of America.  He did everything.

Five-time U.S. champion, distinguished author of MCO-10 - the famed "Chessplayer's Bible" - as well as the path-breaking New Ideas in Chess and some 25 other books; award-winning syndicated columnist; investigative journalist; chess ambassador for the U.S. State Department; magazine contributor to Time, Sports Illustrated and many other publications; television commentator for ABC's "Wide World of Sports"; founder and editor of the American Chess Quarterly; founder and chairman of the Friends of the USCF; crusader for the Players' Health and Benefit Fund; and self-described heck-raiser and muckraker - GM Larry Evans was all of the above and much, much more.

LARRY EVANS - THE PLAYER

Such was the fame of GM Larry Evans as a journalist and promoter of chess, he is occasionally under-estimated as a player.  I well remember a discussion with London Times chess columnist GM Ray Keene. 

CLLEvans.jpg "Evans was a world championship caliber player," he told this writer during the 1988 Watson, Farley & Williams International in London.  "When Evans was only a 19-year-old without any formal chess training, he won the 1951 U.S. Championship ahead of Sammy Reshevsky, whom many then regarded as the uncrowned world champion.  Evans made a decision in the mid-1950s to stake out a chess career ... away from the board as a journalist.  Conditions for Western players during that period made this move a virtual necessity.  Otherwise, I have little doubt that Evans would have become a world championship candidate.  I mean to say, this man was a superb natural talent."

Cold War-era boasting by a prominent member of the Western grandmasteriat? 

In 1989, GM Evans and I interviewed at great length Soviet chess guru GM Yuri Averbakh.  Averbakh speaking to our tape-recorder routinely noted that the former U.S. champion had the same natural talent as a David Bronstein or a Boris Spassky.  In a friendly way, though clearly dissenting from such favorable judgment, GM Evans told the famous Soviet teacher and commentator that he was full of apple sauce.

GM Averbakh was having none of it.  He pursued his praise of Evans.  He explained that Larry and other Western grandmasters had no conception of the theoretical study, physical training, and psychological sports preparation that the great Soviet teams of the 1950s received.  This writer will never forget Larry's response:  Chess is a game that one sits down to play; all of the preparation is unnecessary.

Evans first served notice that he was bursting with genius by winning the 1947 Marshall Chess Club Championship at age 15.  In 1950, at only 18 years of age, he scored 9 - 1 to win a board prize at that year's Olympiad in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.

But Larry Evans was most renowned as a performer in 15 U.S. Championships, tallying a plus score in 14 of these events and finishing in the top three nine times.  His five U.S. titles span three decades from 1951 to 1980; his total of 81 wins in these tournaments, which is well ahead of Robert Fischer's 61 victories, was second only to Sammy Reshevsky's 127 wins; and his overall percentage score of 63.5 (+81 -28 =86) put him fifth among 160 championship contestants by the early 1990s.

From 1950 to 1976, GM Evans was a member of eight U.S. Olympiad teams.  He often stated that his fondest memory was playing on the 1976 squad, which captured the gold medal at Haifa. 

In individual international competitions, his relatively few results gave evidence of world-class strength.  He finished fourth at the super-strong 1960 Buenos Aires International, ahead of Robert Fischer and numerous other top grandmasters; fourth at the 1964 Capablanca Memorial; second equal at Venice 1967, tying with then world champion Tigran Petrosian and prompting this chess immortal to wonder publicly why Evans did not compete more often; and clear first at the 1975 Portiman International in Lisbon.  His match victory over Soviet star GM Mark Taimanov in the 1954 U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R. match was one of the finest American performances of the 1950s. 

"What has this boy done to me," moaned a distraught Taimanov afterwards.

In 1957 Evans received the title of International Grandmaster.

As a stylist, Evans was reputed to be a dour defensive artist, a materialist of the chess dialectic, who enjoyed nothing more than grabbing a suspicious pawn and holding on to score a full point.  He once told this writer that the great Reshevsky taught him the value of being a pawn up rather than a pawn down.  Yet he also played numerous brilliancies.  Perhaps Evans can best be described as a flinty pragmatist who did not attempt to impose personal whims on a given position.

LARRY EVANS - THE CHESS JOURNALIST

In a sentence, GM Evans was for several decades the most widely read chess writer in the world.  Bar none.  His syndicated column reached a minimum of six million people weekly, appearing in this country and in foreign lands ranging from Pakistan to South Africa.  A perennial winner of the Chess Journalists of America award for "Best Regular Newspaper Column," GM Evans was admired for producing tightly penned essays on topical questions.

Like any great journalist who does his job, Larry Evans made rabid enemies along the way.  If the editor of one of Evans' major newspapers regarded his columnist as a man who performed "the miracle of actually making chess interesting," then several well-known chess politicians thought that the word, "interesting," ought to be applied to his work only in the sense that it is used in the ancient Chinese curse about living in "interesting times."  

Although GM Evans never backed down, he also exhibited no personal animosity toward adversaries.  Indeed, he could spend pleasant evenings with men, though he disagreed strongly with them.  He was ever the solicitous host and the accommodating guest.  "The Sage of Reno," as he became known, was a gentleman. 

As a magazine writer, Evans was best known in the chess community for his stewardship for nearly 40 years of a question-and-answer column in Chess Life and still remains easily the longest-serving contributing editor of the magazine.  Earlier, during the 1950s, he conducted the well-received "Odds & Evans" column for Al Horowitz's fabled Chess Review as well as a regular feature in the old Chess Life newspaper.

But GM Evans was more than a scribbler of newspaper columns and magazine articles.  He was a pioneer in high-quality, independent chess publishing.  In his American Chess Quarterly (1961 - 65), he published such classic articles as Bobby Fischer's "A Bust to the King's Gambit" and Edward Lasker's path-breaking "Automatic Electronic Chess-Playing Machines."  Which, of course, are the ravening beasts that we today call chess computers.    

To sample Evans at his journalistic best, this writer recommends his eight-page "Chessgate" expose in New in Chess (No. 5, 1987).  The article concerned a war that was waged against GM Lev Alburt in some Western circles and contains the ratiocinative sparkle of a Poe detective story.  Or for those of you with old copies of Chess Life, turn the years back to November 1992 and read Larry's rollicking "Bobby's Back," on Fischer-Spassky II.  The prose crackles.

LARRY EVANS - THE CHESS AUTHOR

Where to begin?  A generation of American and British players grew from matutinal aspirations to chess maturity while suckling wisdom from Larry Evans' celebrated 10h edition of Modern Chess Openings.  For almost two decades, it was impossible to attend a tournament without seeing a copy of "MCO-10" lying around somewhere.  Too, his collaboration with Bobby Fischer on the latter's classic work, My 60 Memorable Games, is celebrated by all chess lovers.  Much of that book's style and easy erudition comes from GM Evans' contribution to one of the two or three great chess works of the last half century.  This gift for authoritative yet undogmatic reflection can also be found in Evans' Modern Chess Brilliancies, which Bobby proofed by eye for analytical accuracy, and the perennial hardy, New Ideas in Chess.  And let us not forget his Chess World Championship 1972 (co-authored with Ken Smith), a work on the Fischer - Spassky match that is commonly judged as the finest book on the greatest match of the 20th century.

GM Evans' legacy as a chess instructor is to be found in such works as Chess in Ten Lessons, Chess:  Beginner to Expert, The Chess Opening for You, What's the Best Move?, and the much-admired How to Open a Chess Game, which was co-authored with Bent Larsen, Tigran Petrosian, Lajoa Portisch et al.  His recent This Crazy World of Chess has gone through multiple editions.

As a book writer, Evans' hallmark was lucid exposition by which he untangled the difficult without oversimplifying the elementary.  His books are virtually free of jargon because of a conscious effort to express chess ideas in language understood by all literate readers.

Larry Evans' career possessed a Dickensian sweep - a largeness of compass that makes it impossible to chart all of the directions through which he practiced what used to be called "the humane endeavour."  But most importantly, perhaps to Larry himself, was that he did all his way.

*Larry Parr, a former editor of Chess Life, lives and works in Malaysia. Along with Dato' Tan Chin Nam, he is co-author of the memoir, Never Say I Assume! (MPH, 2006).
 
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November - Chess Life Online 2010

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