Jeroen van den Berg: "Chess and the Internet are a perfect combination. The game will be safe in the next 10-20 years"

Thursday, 28.01.2016 20:51

On January 24, during the 8th round of the 78th Tata Steel Chess tournament, Chess-News interviewed the long-time director of the tournament, Jeroen van den Berg.

The interview took 40 minites and of course concerned the Tata Steel Chess Tournament itself but by far not only that. Jeroen van den Berg also told Andrey Deviatkin his thoughts about the future of the game, described his vision of how chess should develop, said a lot about many organizational issues and other curious things.

Andrey Deviatkin: Mr. van den Berg, could you please first tell us if it is already confirmed that Tata Steel Chess Festival will take place the next year?

Jeroen van den Berg: Well, officially we have not announced the dates yet, because we still have to control some small facts and talk with the company. We will not promote it actively, let's say, by press releases. But in general I can say - people do not have to worry. The 79th Tata Steel Chess tournament will come in 2017, probably around the same dates that we have this year.

Do you think that the formula will remain the same - the A-tournament, the B-tournament and many other activities?

Yes, that's my definite feeling. We are still happy with the concept which has been basically already existing for many-many years, although in 2014 we made some serious changes - for instance, now we play two rounds outside Wijk aan Zee. But we are quite happy with this format and for the moment I have, let's say, no clues to see that we will change this format. So, the answer is: yes, we will do the same. Most probably.

Many chess people agree that the Wijk aan Zee chess festival is the best chess event in the world. What do you think is the secret of your tournament being so popular, the secret of longevity of your tournament? Because, for example, Linares has already gone; many other events arise and disappear. What do you think makes it so steady and so good?

If you look at it from the view of the top player, it can be also different. For instance, Garry Kasparov played here three times and he also liked our tournament. But he especially liked Linares because the weather was better than in Wijk aan Zee and there were more things to do. So, it's also a bit different from one player to another.
But in general I believe people like our tournament so much because of first of all the long tradition. If we play a tournament for the 78th time already, it means something. So, many top players also feel: if I win Wijk aan Zee it's important for my curriculum vitae, that's a good achievement! This is definitely in our favour. Another thing which is quite special for Wijk aan Zee is the typical atmosphere we have - the amateur players and the professionals in the same room. This is not completely unique but you don't see it in most of the top events - there are always separate rooms. And one more thing is that we play in a small village with only two thousand inhabitants at the coast of North Holland in the Netherlands - normally it should be completely empty here in January. In this month, however, you see people everywhere: the restaurants are full, the bars are full, even the night bars are full - they are full with chess players and everybody is only talking about chess! And this makes the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, practically speaking, a unique event.

For me it's the first time here in Wijk aan Zee, as a reporter and altogether, and yes, I also noticed this unique chess atmosphere all over the - I don't know how we should refer to Wijk aan Zee - a village or a town?

It's a village.

Okay, all over the village. In Russia, a village is something different. But even on the highway leading to Wijk aan Zee, on the right side, I saw some chess pieces. It was really nice!

Yes. Some of the things that you see coming from Beverwijk to Wijk aan Zee are done by us, by our organization - Tata Steel. But some of them are also done by the people who live in the village, to show that they welcome the chess players. That's quite nice actually.

Is there any principle according to which the players are invited to Wijk aan Zee for the top round-robin events?

First I have to talk with my sponsor. To decide on the matter, I have an organization in which 4-5 people are sitting. And when it's March or April, first we have to decide about the budget: what we will do for the A-group next year. And then we have to decide what concept we can make that would fit in this budget. And well, one of the things that Tata Steel wants every year is a top level tournament, which means that you need at least a couple of players from the top 10.
Then, things can change from time to time: if you look now, for instance, you see many Chinese players in the main group. This is logical, in a way, because China is the World Champion and they won the Olympiad. Sometimes you see really new names, young names - it's also interesting. But the thing is that every year we try to find more or less new ideas, a new concept. But also the budget money is an important issue. It's kind of a puzzle, as I call it!

Do you mean the starting requirements by some top players are part of the budget?

Yes, we work with appearance fees. For instance, other top tournaments might do without appearance fees, like the Grand Chess Tour. They have prize money, very good prize money - and that's it. But we do it the other way round.

So, are the appearance fees bigger than the prize money in Wijk aan Zee? If I might ask this.

Yes, you may. The first prize in our tournament is not a secret: it is 10000 Euros, it's already for many years like that. But for some players the appearance fee can be higher, while for other players it's lower. It varies from one player to another.

Are there any top players, let's say, that you wouldn't invite to Wijk aan Zee for one reason or another?

No. If you look at the current top 10 of the Live Rating list - I think everybody has played in Wijk aan Zee once, twice, or even more. There are no players that I do not want, and my feeling is that there are no players either who don't want to come here themselves! The only top player that I can think of, who never played in Wijk aan Zee, is Bobby Fischer - but all the other top players and world champions have played here.

Now I'd like to ask a bit about yourself. How long have you been the main organizer of the Wijk aan Zee chess tournament?

This is the 17th time that I'm the tournament director, but before I was also 16 times in the press service team, and I also was the press officer for one year. So in total I've been 33 consecutive years here, from which I've been the Director 17 times.

Impressive! I'm just 35, so for me...

Yeah. It's almost a human life, so to speak.

Are you also a chess player? Do you play chess?

Yes, I still play chess. I'm a reasonable amateur, nothing more and nothing less. My rating is about 2050, it's not so strong of course. When I was young, I used to have more but then my ambitions changed. So, first I became a journalist - as yourself - but not only a chess journalist, I dealt with many other sports as well. I interviewed many big stars in the football world, tennis world, and things like that. And due to my communication backgrounds I also became more important here, in the team of the Tata Steel Chess tournament (then it was still called Hoogoovens Tournoi).
So, first I became the press officer, and then, when Kasparov came to play here, I was, let's say, the one who was watching him so that he felt nice, because we are more or less of the same age. This worked out quite well, and then they approached me to be the tournament director, which I accepted.
When I became the director, I was only 36 years old which is quite young for a director - but it was also an offer that you cannot refuse! I happily accepted it, and I must say I still like it. It's still interesting to meet many people, different people, new people. There are many young players here, so I learn from them and their parents. And also this tournament is quite big - it's not only the top players that are important for me but also all the amateur players. We have many aspects and I like every aspect in the tournament. I also like what's happening in the village, it's also important for me. So, altogether, I think this tournament fits well with me.

The top chess players are usually referred as - I mean, in a broad public opinion - as the most intelligent people in the world, like this. But actually, I'd like to know your personal opinion as an organizer: is it more difficult to study chess, let's say, 12 hours a day and be a top chess player, or to run a very big event like Wijk aan Zee?

Well, I think it's both difficult, but it's about different skills. It's also not so easy to be central attacker of Real Madrid like Christiano Ronaldo and make forty goals in one season. It's also quite an achievement! You know, what chess players are doing - they are doing fine. It's really a very big achievement to study so hard for the game. Preparation, concentration, every day again and again to try to psych up, and if something goes wrong when you lose - to recover from it mentally. Phew, it's not an easy game! The players are much better in this than myself.
But what I'm doing here is also, let's say, an achievement. I work with a big team and have to control all the facets of the organization. Well, it's not that every day everything goes smoothly - either we make mistakes or we forget something, and then we try to rearrange it. But that's normal, and I like it. I feel well, but I don't think that the one achievement is better than the other. Every human being has their own skills, like it is also for you: it's also an achievement to make an article of the interview that we are having now. If you work hard for your goal, if you give everything for it and are 100% focused, all the achievements are the same for me - either you are an organizer or a player.

Thank you! The next question is regarding different chess activities of your festival. I've never noticed a Fischer Random tournament among the activities. Do you think you could include such an activity into the program? Because, well, there are some opinions that chess has become a bit overtheoretical in the openings... so, do you think you would ever organize a tournament like this?

Well, I think never say never or never say "no"! That's first of all. But personally, it's not my ambition - let me very clear in this. I still like the game as it is - chess in the way we play it here and now. We have the most old-fashioned, the slowest time control among all the top tournaments that exist. But still we have nice games. There is no necessity for me to change it, to make it quicker. And as your question refers to Fischer Random chess, or "chess 960" - Hans-Walter Schmitt was a good friend of mine, he always did this in Mainz. He was really fighting to make this popular. I've been there many, many times, and he always challenged me when we had some beers together: "You shoiuld do the same in Wijk aan Zee, you must promote this!" But I said it honestly to him: "You know, Hans-Walter, I like what you are doing and I think it's a very nice experiment, but this is your thing. If it works that's fine, but we have our thing, and we still like the tradition and the classical chess".
And as long as to us it's not really necessary, and I'm in charge here, I think that we can stick to the game that we have now. But we have experimented sometimes, once even with the game of three players instead of 2 - but it was only for fun. To have an official competition in another game than classical chess - for the moment it is not in my schedule!

Okay, I see. And unfortunately, we don't have the Mainz chess tournament anymore.

Yes, that's a pity. It was a very nice event.

It was the only Fischer random event - the only large one.

Yes, but what I also liked is that they did both - they played one Fischer random event, and also a normal chess rapid. And then they combined the scores - it was an interesting system. I liked that concept.

And at the same time - as an organizer, professional organizer - what do you think of future of professional chess, or of chess future altogether in, let's say, 10 or 20 further years? What is your vision of what the direction of the game could be?

It's not an easy question... I don't know what will happen, for instance, in 50 years. That's very difficult to say, as probably I won't be around anymore then. But I still believe that chess has the future, at least for the next ten years, even though that some sponsors or big tournaments like Linares have disappeared. You know, the thing is we are also facing some economic crisis which is quite serious.

Do you mean the Europe or the world?

The world. I think many people have it. But you see, chess and the Internet are a perfect combination... There were not so many events 20 or 30 years ago as there are now. If I'm now at home I would look on the Internet if there's some event going on... Sometimes there are even 2 or 3 events going on at the same time. There are many of them, but there is not always a structure. You know, it should be more structured - with the calendar and things like that.
I also feel that a person like Magnus Carlsen is a very good World Champion for the game of chess because he promotes the game in a very good way and he finds his way even to the fashion by becoming a model of the super-star trademark for jeans. In my own country, I also see Anish Giri who gives interviews and promotes the game. And I think these things still popularize our game. Today we had a football player from Ajax, which is the most popular football team in our country.

Here in the playing hall?

Yeah, he is the captain of the team. Yesterday they won a match, and then he came here because his father works in the steel company, in our company. But he was here and he liked it! So, as long as we have such people who can be there and who will also like it, I still believe that the game has the future.
Only one thing that concerns me is that with the help of the computer the game can evolve so far that maybe all the moves for the top players in 20 or 30 years will be already known, and it will become very difficult to find new ideas...

All the good moves, probably?

Yes. But I'm not an expert here. This is for the geniuses, for the professors to find out. This is maybe what worries me a little. If you see how difficult the game now is to approach with the computer -  that's not so easy. On the other hand, I like also the approach of Magnus Carlsen that sometimes he just plays not even an opening, but very simple moves like 1.d4, 2.Nf3, 3.Bf4...

Oh yes, against Tomashevsky.

Yes, or when he plays 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3, 3.Bb5, then 4.d3 or a2-a3, a2-a4, something... But you know, out of the books we play a game where the best player wins. So, it's still possible to find new ideas - and as long as we have such players who find these new ideas, the game is still very much alive. That's my opinion. It was a difficult question, and I understand my answer is also not so easy, but for 10-20 years, I think it's still safe. For the longer terms I'm a little bit more worried.

You mentioned Anish Giri, by the way, comparing him to Magnus Carlsen. I often heard that Anish Giri is the ambassador for the Tata Steel Chess tournament. Maybe I also heard that he is also an ambassador for Dutch chess. Is the second opinion true or not, and could you please tell us what it exactly means - to be an ambassador?

Well, "ambassador" in our terms means that you promote the game of chess. Anish is now more or less the ambassador of our tournament. Not only he promotes our tournament, but through our tournament he promotes the game of chess - and our tournament. We were in a boat in Utrecht before the tournament started, to promote the round that we have on Wednesday. It was a very nice event, and Anish was also there. In October, he did the press conference in which we announced the players' field, so Anish was also there and the press talked with him. So, he is the ambassador for our tournament. But we also have an ambassador for the Dutch chess federation. That's a famous Dutch singer, he was here last week in the weekend. Nick Schilder is his name. He is extremely famous in Holland, and he has a huge passion for chess.

What is his musical style?

He is a pop singer who sings in a duo with another guy. He is very popular, especially among the youth. He has a big passion for chess, he's a very strong amateur player. And he is promoting the game of chess as an ambassador; sometimes, he appears, for instance, at junior championships. When such a mega-star arrives, you understand, it's very good for the organization, and also good for the game of chess because many pictures will be made, and so on. We have many other ambassadors, like Hans Bohm. An ambassador here means that you are a famous person and you promote the game of chess. Suchwise.

The next question I'd like to ask is the following: in Russia, for example, many people tend to think that chess should come to the television. At the same time, I see that the level of chess broadcasts is already, in my opinion, the television level - I mean chess.com or chess24.com... Do you think it's crucial for chess to get to some TV channels? The Internet will inevitably (I think) be developed so that more and more people get access to faster internet connection. So, do you think the future of chess lies with the television of with the Internet? How crucial is it to strive for appearing exactly on TV?

I think it's a very good and intelligent question which is not so easy to answer. But okay, I think you should go for the combination in which the importance of the Internet is to be higher. I think chess and the Internet is an excellent combination, for sponsorship as well. Let's say you have a very small budget for the tournament - for instance, a couple of thousand euros - but still you want to do something. Then you can find some small sponsorship, invite some grandmasters. You do something, you need some help with the accommodation... And you can say to all the people that you find for the help: "We have a website, we have so many followers on the website with the games - we can put your name there, and you get something back". And it works, even for smaller events. Television will never come there.
Even our tournament - you are not sure that the television will come. At a certain moment, they will probably come, but because of the Internet they also do not feel obliged to come because they know that they will be late anyway - it's already live in the Internet!
But now comes my true answer: look what Magnus Carlsen achieved. If he plays an important tournament (here as well) - everybody in Norway, of course, follows his games live. Not only in the Internet, but they also have live TV shows now, where grandmasters in a studio talk about this game that he's playing now. This is what I like very much - but it only works for him now because he is the World Champion.

And for Norway.

Yes, exactly. But I think this is excellent. If there is the new world champion, whatever his name will be, the same could be achieved. I think everybody can learn something from what Norway is doing nowadays. It's very good for chess. Last year I visited the tournament in Stavanger, and in the hotel itself where the tournament was being played, they had a complete studio for television! This is excellent, of course - and also the people were really watching it.
So, in general, I think that the Internet is more important, but the combination "Internet + TV" is very nice.

So, the television should not be neglected?

No, not at all. Because many people still watch TV. Here in Holland we have a couple of programs, and we have also good connections with them. You know, there are TV personalities who have million spectators watching it every day. And I know one of them, he is the presenter of the program, and he likes chess. We always try to get one of our players in that program which really helps. It's good for us but it's also nice for them. He likes it around our tournament.

It's the same thing as with the ambassadors, I guess.

Yes. If one million people suddenly see a famous chess player or a chess ambassador, this is very important for the game because people are confronted with chess at home. That's also my ambition with this tournament - that everybody talks about chess! Not only on the highest level, but also on the lowest level. You know, people learn that chess is good for the children, and also at the higher age - to decrease the chances for Altzgamer. I think chess is very good for your health.

It was exactly the question that I wanted to ask next - about chess in Dutch curriculum at schools. Do you have it in Dutch schools as part of the educational program? If so then how many schools have it? And a related question is: do you use similar mind games, apart from chess, officially in the schools - like checkers, scrabble, Rubik's cube, something like that - to help children's brains develop?

The second part of your question is not easy to answer because I don't know - sorry for that. But for the first part - chesswise - I think there is no official educational program, but inofficially it exists. Many schools give chess lessons during the school time, especially to children in the age area of 9 to 11. They teach them how to move the pieces; then, of course, the children become better and better, and when some children are really strong they also send them to a chess club so that they could improve much more. This is not part of the official education system, but I know that our government is definitely not against it - on the contrary, they even stimulate it.
Many schools do it, and there is cooperation between them and the government, and sometimes it's even subsidized. So, there is a strong connection. It's not official or obligatory - it's voluntary, but if you do it, there are always possibilities for the teachers to get some of their costs being paid by the government. Sometimes it's possible.

Should the initiative come from the teachers, or school directors, or whom?

The chess teachers too. Normally, I think, it comes from schools, but if a school is not involved in such a project while one of the teachers plays chess, then he tries to arrange it. As far as I know, in practice - various schools in the Netherlands, in all parts of the Netherlands (not only here but in the North, South, East, West of it) - there is chess in schools. But not obligatory.
And the other thing that you asked - I don't know but I think it's chess, mainly chess that they do.

I mean, checkers was very popular till it was calculated to the end by a computer. It was very popular in the Netherlands...

Do you mean draughts or checkers? With 100-square board?

I mean both. Okay, the game which Tony Seibrands played...

He is here on Friday! He is a friend of mine and he comes on Friday, but then you'll have already left, eh?

Yes.

But this game is also still very much alive, as I understood.

Oh yes, I remember Vassily Ivanchuk played a draughts tournament in the Netherlands.

It's not calculated yet, I think it's still a difficult game with many options.

On the 100-square board - yes, it is not. Checkers is. It's on the 64-square board and there is also some difference in the rules, some restriction... I'm not sure about the other versions on 64-square board, but okay.
Now maybe the final question I'd like to ask: it always interested me if chess could actually get better promotion if is goes together with similar activities which I mentioned: like checkers, or draugths, or scrabble, sudoku. There is also a computer mind game of which I'm a big fan - minesweeper, by the way.


I know it!

Because, I mean, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov - he always wanted to, or he declared that he wanted to include chess into the Olympic program. But I'm not sure that chess fits very well there because it's not a physical activity. If we unite all similar kinds of mind sports, if there's some kind of united Mind Sports Federation - a really working one - do you think it could help? Because I see so many enthusiastic people, and I also see many enthusiastic people from other similar activities, and somehow... Maybe it would be better if they go united?

Between all the mind sports that you mentioned, for me the main mind sports are draughts with 100 squares, chess - but also bridge, and maybe go.

Shogi too?

Shogi too - yes, definitely. But backgammon is not, because it's played with dices and there's some gambling element, although it's a difficult game. I think the other things like sudoku or crosswords are different. They definitely help your mind in some way but I think it's not a game, it's just to train your mind in another way. In the other games mentioned, you have also the competitive element - to beat your opponent. Other things that we mentioned is to do it with yourself - for relaxation and things like that.
Chess as an Olympic game? Frankly speaking, I never saw it so much. I know they tried it in the Winter Games (or they did it in the Summer Games). Of course, it will be a big boost for the sport itself, but I like very much the Chess Olympiad as it is now. You know, it's like one big family: thousands of chess players, journalists, spectators, even businessmen and businesswomen who want to do something. Every Olympiad that I have visited - and I have visited several Olympiads...

As a journalist, I guess?

First as a journalist, then as an organizer - to talk with the players and to keep my contacts around, even to approach players if they wanted to play in our next tournament. It's always good to meet people there, and such an atmosphere that you have in the Olympiad - it's very useful to maintain your contacts. It only works in an Olympiad itself. If we were part of the Olympics, then, okay, it would defenitely be a big boost for the game of chess, but it'd be very difficult to come there because you need accreditation and all kind of things...
I think the Chess Olympiad - in chess - it's a beautiful thing as it it! You also have visited it, I assume?

I'm not sure, maybe once a twice. The Olympiad in Moscow, 1994. I remember I was a young boy and wasn't let in the playing hall by the security officers.

But that's a nice event! I hope it will stay. Besides, it's a sportive event: it's a big achievement to win the Olympiad, it's also a long tradition. The players find it very important to win it.

And so, if there is no separate chess Olympiad but an Olympiad of, let's say, 5 similar kinds of mind sports - do you think it would ruin some traditions, or, on the contrary, it would be better? I know there are Mind Games in China - probably each year, but they are not promoted very well, as far as I know.

Well, I've never visited the Mind Games in China but it's interesting. All other experiments and ideas for me are interesting, but the Chess Olympiad itself, as it is now - every two years - I think it's very nice that we have it only for chess.

Thank you very much, and good luck with your tournament!

Thank you!

 


  


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