Four Botjes

A few times a year I have an appointment with Jeroen van den Berg, the director of the Tata Steel tournament, in a bar in Amsterdam, and unsurprisingly the talk will always be about chess. Usually Tom Bottema, chief of the press room at Tata, is also present and sometimes Yasser Seirawan, but at our last meeting these two were absent with leave.

In Dutch chess circles, Tom is universally known as Botje, which means Little Bone. It can also mean little flounder. In Dutch the sympathetic little fish, permanent companion of Disney’s Little Mermaid, is called Botje, which shows that our use of that word for Tom is a term of endearment.

Talking about our Botje, I mentioned to Jeroen that a few days earlier I had been present at an evening at the public library with Jolande Withuis. She is a prominent historian and the daughter of our late friend Berry Withuis, who for decades was an omnipresent chess organizer, the Great Helmsman of Dutch chess. Recently Jolande published a book, Raadselvader (Riddle Father), about her father, and that was the reason for her visit to the library.

Apart from being a chess journalist and organizer, Withuis was also a prominent member of the Dutch Communist Party. His good relations with the Soviet authorities were helpful in many chess activities. Jolande told us that when she was a young girl, many of the Soviet grandmasters used to visit her home and that Botvinnik was especially dear to her parents. Botvinnik was a staunch Communist like them, so her father could talk politics with him, which in general he wisely tended to avoid in chess circles. Jolande said that her parents affectionally used to refer to the great Patriarch of Soviet chess as “Botje.”

When I told this to Jeroen, he said that his son was known on his football team as Botje, because of his skinny bone structure. I realized that apart from the Disney character, we had met in our lives three human Botjes, something that not many people would be able to say.

As a director of the Tata tournament, Jeroen had visited the Asian Nations Cup in the Iranian city Hamadan at the end of July and the first days of August. He had been impressed with the young Iranian players, especially with the highest rated of them, Parham Maghsoodloo, who, during post mortems, would spout complicated variations that suggested that during play he had seen everything that could be seen.

I had the same experience when I watched a video in which Maghsoodloo explained one of his victories in the recent U20 World Junior championship in Turkey, which he had won. Jeroen had noticed that there was a big group of talented Iranian youngsters and that recently our compatriot Ivan Sokolov had become their coach.

Since 2014, Ivan had been living in Dubai, working with the players of the United Arab Emirates, but Jeroen told me that now he has returned to the Netherlands, working with the Iranians mainly by way of the internet and visiting Iran in person once every few months.

For the moment, Ivan is in Batumi at the Olympiad, acting as a commentator for the website chess24, but it stands to reason that he will also provide his services to the Iranian team.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Being a live commentator is hard work. I was reminded of the 1990 candidates’ match between Jan Timman and Anatoly Karpov in Kuala Lumpur. My colleague Gert Ligterink and I were there as journalists, but later I saw a report in a Russian magazine which maintained that our journalistic duties were only a cover for our services as seconds for Timman. This was untrue, as we didn’t help Timman at all, but I felt flattered.

Because of the Dutch connection, I followed the performance of the young Iranian team with increased interest. Young indeed; the average age of the five team members is an amazing 19 years. The youngest of them, GM Alizera Firouzja, is 15-years old.

I am writing this article during the sixth round, when Iran was playing China. How times have changed. I remember the years when chess was forbidden in both countries. China beat Iran 2½-1½, which meant that Iran after six rounds had scored a creditable 8 out of 12 possible match-points.

Naturally my main interest was the results of the Dutch teams. After six rounds, the men had lost one match (3-1 against the United States) and won the other five. Especially on first board, Anish Giri played very effectively with a score of 5½ out of 6 and according to my database, an impressive TPR of 2918.

The game in the viewer, from the match against Lithuania, is not by Giri, but by Loek van Wely. It is a triumph of straightforward strategy, simple but sweet. As Bobby Fischer said to me in 1968 at an Israeli kibbutz, about a game he had been looking at, “It’s self-explanatory, like Tomado.” I wonder how many of my readers will still know what the once famous Dutch brand Tomado stood for.

Click here to view van Wely-Pultinevicius, Batumi 2018.