Gamesters & Tricksters

On May 3, at various locations in the Dutch town Hilversum, a prestigious battle was fought between IM Hans Böhm (68) and GM Loek van Wely (45) for a prize that they had baptized the Homo Ludens Trophy. It was a pentathlon consisting of pub games and regular sports; table tennis, billiards, tennis, table football and backgammon. Chess was not included because for all the elements of the program, it had to be unclear in advance who would win. Both players, or their backers, had put in a substantial amount of money as a bet; had they played chess, the pieces would have been loaded in favor of Van Wely.

“It had to happen one day,” Böhm said. Who is the greatest? They are both cheeky guys, always heavily profiling themselves, and they have good reason to be self-confident. Van Wely was champion of the Netherlands eight times. Böhm is known in the Netherlands as “Mr. Chess,” a tv-personality who was royally honored as a Knight of the Order of Oranje Nassau for his propagation of our game to the Dutch people.

They are also both fanatical and gifted players in other areas. And they have something else in common. Maybe because they are gamesters, they have been vulnerable to devious tricksters. Over the years Böhm was twice swindled out of a substantial amount of money. In each case it was done by fraudulent investment gurus who had operated a pyramid scheme. One of them gained national notoriety because he had been a popular tennis sponsor. Just before his downfall he had said to his assembled creditors that he was expecting a man from Yugoslavia with a suitcase full of money, but this man never came. That made it in the national newspapers because among the wide range of their victims was Hans Böhm.

Last year Loek van Wely was persuaded to appear on the electoral list of the Dutch political party “Forum for Democracy” at the elections for the Tweede Kamer (Second Chamber), our main political institution.

This Forum for Democracy is a party of the far Right, strongly opposed to immigrants from non-Western countries, the European Union and self-assured women. I have never noticed such sentiments with Van Wely, nor any political opinions at all, but I suppose that he was charmed by the leader of that Party, Thierry Baudet, whose great-grandfather was a strong chessplayer.

I think both Böhm and Van Wely recognized something of themselves in these financial and political tricksters.

They could have added other elements to their battle. Van Wely is an accomplished poker player and I suppose that Böhm isn’t a novice either. Böhm is also a gifted practitioner of magic tricks – cards, rabbits, mirrors, you name it.

Outsiders could place side bets on their competition, but as I couldn’t be present at the battlefield, I didn’t put in money. Otherwise I would have placed my bet on Böhm. Not only because he was the torch bearer of my generation. In my youth I had often observed him as a great gamesman. In recent years we both took part in an annual “writers’ tennis tournament.” Böhm is a fine tennis player, not as mobile as the youngsters, but with an excellent technique. I discussed this with Van Wely a few weeks before the great event. “I have to make him run,” he said pensively, and so he would do.

It was a close competition. All five parts of it were taken quite seriously. For instance, table tennis went over the best of three games, 21 points per game, and tennis went over two regular sets plus a super tiebreak (a ten-point tiebreak).

Van Wely won tennis and table football, and Böhm the other three parts, making him the Homo Ludens of 2018. “I have defended the honor of my generation,” he said.

I mentioned some resemblances between Böhm and Van Wely, but in their handling of practical chess, there is a big difference. Böhm was always a pragmatist who followed Groucho Marx’s dictum: “These are my principles. And if you don’t like them, well... I have others.” Van Wely stands for his principles, even if he has to bump into the wall. In this recent game from the Dutch club league, he reverts to an old love that had deceived him many times, but in which he apparently still believes.

His opponent IM Lucas van Foreest, 17-years old, is a member of a chess family of which GM Jorden van Foreest is – for the moment – the most prominent repesentative. Lucas plays for the club SISSA from his hometown Groningen. Van Wely plays for Kennemer Combinatie, which this year just missed winning the Dutch team competition.

Click here to view van Foreest-van Wely