Paul van der Sterren on Max Euwe

Of course I am not getting any younger and certainly after having withdrawn from the chess world completely for years, to many chess players I must be a name from the long and distant past. To give an idea how much older Max Euwe was than me, it may be good to remember that the difference between me and Max Euwe is 55 years (1901 versus 1956) and that is the same interval between me and little chess players being born right this minute (1956 and 2011).

This statistical fact perhaps can make today’s reader understand how Euwe to me mainly was a figure of the past. Certainly, he was around when I was playing, for more than 10 years even, and I met him on several occasions and came to know him in his official functions. Still, he was someone who was considerably older than me. Between us there was the natural distance of not just a world champion and a young whippersnapper, but also that of the wide age divide. And yet. There was also this equality, that very specific equality between all chess players. In the end we were also just two members of the same chess club.

I met him for the first time at a simul which he gave in 1972 in Roermond. At the age of 71 he wasn’t afraid of large simul sessions, exertions which took up many hours and which often presented him with damned tricky opponents. I was one of them. Now, almost 40 years later, I recognize it was the typical simul game of the elderly champion versus a young talented kid. In a reversed set of parts I have played quite a few simuls in the same way when I was about forty and therefore about thirty years younger than Euwe at the time. He avoided a sharp opening battle, played soundly and straightforwardly, but still I soon managed to get a slight edge with black. He had to content himself with defending. He didn’t do badly but slowly the position crumbled and after 70 moves he resigned. Although he predictably remained very sporting and polite I did notice clearly he didn’t like to lose and he had tried his utmost until the end to throw a spoke in the wheels. Funnily enough, right because of this vigorous opposition, that all too clear reluctance to bend his head, the refusal to adopt the “well, it’s only a game, of course you may beat me” attitude, made me feel a strong sense of kinship. He “still” was one, and I “already” was: real chess players who do not want to be the lesser party. Gladiators fighting harder when the opposition gets tougher.

Again in 1975 I felt that kinship when I was playing in the Youth World Championship in the former Yugoslav Tjentiste and met Max who was visiting for a few days as FIDE president. He exuded neutrality, but still showed a lot of interest in that Dutch participant. And he clearly saw that I had a real chance of winning the tournament but that I wasn’t the only favourite and could fall by the wayside. A positive, but realistic attitude which I felt and appreciated. Again, I felt that we understood one another – despite the big age gap.

In 1979, when I already knew for certain I wanted a professional life in chess he asked me to take care of the new edition of the three volumes on the Queen’s Gambit from his famous series Theory of Chess Openings, one of the standard works which already in the thirties had set the tone and which due to a continuous stream of new generations of collaborators remained authoritative into the eighties. An honoured assignment, but also – at least that’s how I felt it – an admonition to finally seriously, scientifically precise and thorough work on my opening theory. He –apparently – knew I could do it and that gave me the confidence to do it.

Our relationship was in a way of speaking that of a grandfather and his grandchild. Not the intimacy, but then again also not the burden of the direct parent-child bond. We shared the kinship and in a relaxed detached way kept an eye out for one another. In my dreams and whenever I am lost in thoughts I also tend to interchange him with my real grandfather who was about the same age. They also looked a bit alike, albeit in the perception of a boy for whom older people all look alike. And now I am thinking: will there be someone in 55 years time who will recall me in the same way?