Alexandra Nicolau was born on July 22, 1940 in Bucharest and died this year on October 14 in the Dutch city Haarlem. In the Netherlands, where she had lived since 1974, she had come to use the name of her Dutch husband, Kees van der Mije, who died in 2002. Of her informal first name I have seen at least four slightly different versions. I will call her Katy, the way she signed her emails.
She often wondered if people had not forgotten her chess accomplishments. Certainly in Romania they have not. After her death, on a Romanian website she was called the queen of Romanian chess and there was a proposal to erect a monument for her.
She became Romanian women’s champion six times and at that time she was one of the strongest woman players outside the Soviet Union. No big deal, she used to say. Among her contemporaries, the only one she held in great respect was her good friend Nona Gaprindashvili. Of course, she was well aware that nowadays women’s chess had progressed a great deal.
After her defection to the Netherlands, she became Dutch champion five times. Just as in Romania, she had no real competition there.
I played blitz with Katy once every two weeks. Sometimes our schedule was interrupted because I was on holiday or she was too tired to come to Amsterdam, but these were exceptions. I don't know exactly for how long we had been doing this. Many, many years.
At first we played at my apartment. She used to combine it with visits to the antique shops nearby, above all, those who specialized in Asian art. In Romania she had graduated as a sinologist, even while skipping the compulsory lectures on Marxism. Attending one Marxist lecture a year was considered enough for a prominent chessplayer who was also a bit recalcitrant.
After some time, she wasn't able to climb my high and steep stairs anymore. Stop smoking, I said. Everybody had said that to her for many years.
From then on, we played in a spacious and quiet café nearby. When, after a few sessions, Katy had somehow found out that it was a gay café, she giggled and said that Kees, her late husband, would never have allowed that.
Sometimes Genna Sosonko came along to watch us play, always keeping a straight face and saying, “Oh, no, I have no criticism, on the contrary, I'm full of admiration.” You could see that he found it difficult to refrain from laughing, and indeed, our play was quite a lot weaker than when we still had an active career, but we still enjoyed it.
As she liked to say, Katy had a strict sense of hierarchy and therefore she always stressed the ludicrous idea that for me, as the better player, it was a sacrifice to play with her.
This was complete nonsense. I liked our games, especially because she had a hyper-aggressive style that always led to adventure. “One idea, but fixed,” she liked to say, and in chess this meant: always aiming straight at the enemy king.
It was not only for chess that I liked our meetings. I liked to talk to her, about current chess events, literature and art, and about politics, about which we never quite agreed, but that didn't matter.
One of our political differences was that she had a much higher opinion of the Netherlands and its governance than I had. I stood by my opinions, but in fact, I rather liked it when I heard from an immigrant that my country was better than I thought.
Katy liked to give presents; a small collection in my apartment of highly refined - but broken and repaired, as she couldn't afford objects in perfect condition - Chinese pottery bears witness to her generosity.
On the other hand, she was very bad at accepting things from others. Even the smallest request, such as delivering a magazine she wanted to give to the Max Euwe Center, a five-minute walk from my place, was wrapped in a thousand apologies, as if she was saddling me with an unbearable burden. It was in her character, but I also often thought that it had something to do with being an immigrant, to whom the idea that she might receive more than give to her adopted country was anathema.
Sometimes we talked about death, as Katy found that her life, which had never been easy, had become too difficult to bear. I could understand that, but I said that she didn't live for herself alone, but also for others, for her family, friends, for me. She laughed then and said that these others would manage very well without her.
Once I told her about a Dutch artist who, while playing cards, had been dealt such an unbelievably good hand that he burst out laughing and stayed dead in his chair. “What a wonderful death,” she said. I said: “When you think about it like that, you might want to die while delivering mate to me?” “That wouldn't be bad,” she said, smiling.
As a chessplayer you remain competitive, so I said: “You'd better watch out who will be mated now,” and we went on playing another game.
On the day of her death I had phoned her in the morning. I had been on holiday, and after my return I had e-mailed her to ask if we would resume our chess sessions on the usual day. She had replied that she wouldn't be able to come, as she was in too bad a state.
On the phone she said that her horrible breathing trouble had worsened even more and that her weight was now 39 kilograms, “as in that photo of the camp that everybody knows.”
But she sounded lively and even jolly, as usual. We made jokes about corruption in Italy, Romania and the Netherlands. With her indomitable love of the Netherlands, Katy said, “But here, they are at least punished for it.”
She died of sudden cardiac arrest. Had it been told to her beforehand, I am sure she would have been fully reconciled to this abrupt end, but I find it difficult to say that the same applies to me. As for me, I am not reconciled to her sudden passing; I will miss her too much.
Click to play through the annotated game.
Vrnjacka Banja 1961