Loek van Wely: “I do not believe in the innocence of top chess players. “

By Renzo Verwer (Translation from Dutch: Kaarlo Schepel)

“This has got to be hell. One hour and 33 minutes in the Dam-to-dam race ! It was horrid, I thought that one hour 06 minutes would be possible. It was very challenging, especially the idea that I was only capable of staying just ten minutes ahead of you. I had to stand still and rest a few times during the last six kilometres, and I was afraid that you would pass me … that would have been the ultimate humiliation ! I overrated myself once more. “

Loek van Wely and I ran Sunday 21 September the 10 miles between Amsterdam and Zaandam. In the company of almost 30,000 others, we ran in murderous heat, cheered on by a large crowd along the way. Over a few drinks afterwards in the branch office of temporary employment agency Randstad in Zaandam, we still found sufficient energy for an interview.
“I do not know if I overrated myself “. The Dutch champion contradicts himself in what he declared earlier. “It just is a bit more than sheer ambition. I just want to challenge myself to the maximum of my abilities; and then you have to set your standards high. That means you will bump your nose once in a while – but that is not so bad. In soccer, the worst thing that could happen to you is that goals are scored against you; I do not mind that much. A man got to be able to take it; that makes you tough.”

So one hour 33 minutes is therefore a good experience ?
“Yes. Unless there is no improvement … I really felt terrible during those last six kilometers. ”

Good. I felt terrible too. I had diarrhoea, otherwise I would have finished ahead of you. Do you suffer too from too high ambitions in chess ?
“I do not see it as a burden. I did so well in Wijk-aan-Zee 2003 that I wanted to win the tournament. I do not regret it, but the results were a bit less than if I had played it safe. Well, it averages out over a longer period: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose because of that mentality.
I notice that someone like Daniel Stellwagen (2nd in the last Dutch championship – RV) is mentally vulnerable. In a chess technical sense he is very good, better than I was at his age. I think he is a more promising talent than Radyabov. ”

You got to explain that. Those boys are of the same age, but Rayabov is rougfhly rated 150 Elo-points higher.
“I do not consider Radyabov that good, he is very skilful. Tactically he is pretty good. Mentally I consider him superior, but Stellwagen has more insight in the game, Besides, Radyabov is a gigantic cowardly coyote: all those fast draws with White against big names. ”

What do you exactly mean with talent ? Is that insight, about which Timman is talking all the time ?
“Something like that, yes. Radyabov is capable of something, but in particular because he is pushed hard. He messes about; Kramnik was much more developed at his age. Radyabov’s openings e.g. do not have much to do with chess. They cannot bear the scrutiny of daylight … ”

“His openings are very dubious and based on the poor chess abilities of his opponents. The way he plays the Stonewall, of which he does not have the slightest inkling. He gets into a bloody position, but his opponents give him second chances and he grabs them. ”

What is your score against him ?
“0.5 – 0.5. In the Corus event this year. He played the Stonewall and got into a bad position. Then I gave him all kind of chances, was with my own back against the wall at a certain moment, but his endgame technique was not sufficient. ”

“I consider him very much an all-rounder; in a chess technical sense he has few weaknesses. Someone like Jan Smeets has a very practical way of thinking, but is in a chess technical sense less developed than Stellwagen. Although he has a rating of 2,520. Smeets has less hang-ups than Stellwagen. ”

O yeah ?
“Well, if you are invited for the Dutch Championship and you are in doubt whether that is ethically responsible … you just got to take the invitation and send an e-mail to Van den Doel (who was bypassed in favour of Stellwagen – RV) : “Hey, thanks Erik ! ” The harder you are, the more perspective your future will have. ”

You got to be a bit of an asshole ?
Yes. I don’t know if Daniel is too nice. He can be a killer behind the board; Corus B and the Dutch Championship proved that. If Daniel could simply be in a distant, foreign country, and all the other players would try to go and get him; I wonder how he would behave. ”
“Man, in those top events … when they really smell blood and you are the bitten dog, then they’ll go for your throat. Just look at what happened to Timman this year in the Corus event and to me the year before. Daniel got to be confronted with some real reverses, a top-heavy tournament where they really drag him through the mud. That is how I got toughened up. I once got just 1.5 points from 9 games. And in the Hoogovens (Corus) group B 2.5 from 11. Then your ego, your self-confidence is shattered.”
“Normally I do not think much about chess in my leisure time. I am glad that I can separate the two. But if something bothers me, then I do think about it. When I had a bad run in 2002, I was hating it. I do get worried: if things turn against me, I think at once that the end of the world is at hand. That is how I make my own life complicated. E.g. after a draw against Van der Wiel, I have a dip and think: ‘how is that possible ? How terrible.‘  You have to be as objective as possible in relation to your results; I think however quite often: ‘what a patzer ‘ or ‘what an idiot I have been, how stupid that I did not win.’ You got to be able to handle those negative emotions. And those top guys they are trying to take advantage of that. I indicated in an interview with the Volkskrant last year that Anand commits all kinds of dirty tricks to get you off balance: he makes clicking sounds with his pen when it is your move, and strange sounds with his throat and so on. ”

Does he do that also to other players ?
“He does try to, I believe. But that is hard for me to judge; anyway you should not allow yourself to be influenced by it. ”

But are you influenced by it ? I mean, the idea that you consider Anand a dirty dog could have a negative influence on your game. Or a positive one instead ?
“Unfortunately negative. It especially has an effect if you are under pressure or in a bad position., and that frequently happens against Anand. And when he starts with those tricks again, then it really gets to me. You got to understand, those guys are not naïve. They keep on learning. Anand probably learned a lot from Kasparov. ”

Who slammed doors during their World Championship match ?
“Yes, among other things. When I play against Kasparov, he is extremely correct. But when he knows that you are uncertain of yourself, he will make use of that knowledge. If you are uncertain of yourself, you start looking at your opponent in order to obtain information from his facial expression. Alternatively you only look at your opponent from a sense of superiority, with the idea:
‘what a patzer you are !’
Well, when Kasparov notices that you are uncertain of yourself, he will start to act. And he is quite good at it. A great actor was lost in Garry. ”

When Karpov blundered that exchange in a World Championship match, it looked as if Kasparov could not hide his surprise. Was he genuinely surprised ?
“No. What he does, is that he is playing with the future in mind. Just winning is not enough anymore; he wants to rub the blunder in as much as possible. He will see to it that Karpov feels like shit. That  will have its effect in the next meetings. I do not believe in the innocence of top chess players – they keep on learning. ”
“You do not have to be an absolute asshole to get to the top, but it does not hurt to be a bit tricky. You cannot afford to be naïve; you got to realise that you are out in the big bad world in which everyone is trying to screw you. You got to be suspicious. Do not show the back of your teeth, and operate a bit like a snake.  Alternative  … you got to be as tremendous as Kasparov, when it does not really matter. But he too has his tricks. ”

I understand that you have to win the game with more than 1 -0. Two years ago in the tiebreak of the Dutch Championship you were determined to crush Van den Doel 3 – 0, because ‘ something like that will have its effect later on. ‘ And you were in a position to win a game against Krasenkov quickly, but you decided to  first strangle him for another ten moves – because ‘that counts in later games. ‘
” In principle, Renzo, that kind of games are ALWAYS played. Even when players meet each other outside the game. During seemingly innocent tea-parties, a few blows are dealt out here and there.
You ALWAYS must be on your guard. However much you work together, they are always harassing you. I had that experience with Topalov and his manager Dainalov. In principle they should be your friends, but they try to pick your brains about how you think about certain variations – all of it under the pretence of friendship. Other example: they will come and stand next to me; Dainalov now does the dirty work: ‘Hey, why did you lose against that guy, how could you do that ? ‘  Or: ‘You should have asked for more money to take part in that tournament !’  They try and do their best to make you feel bad. But that is how it is in every sport: what do you think the catcher keeps shouting at the hitter all the time ? That he cannot hit a single decent ball, of course ! ”

You just cannot get there solely by thinking up brilliant moves.
“There are people who say: ‘you just got to make good moves ‘, but that is nonsense. Over the board one always suffers from negative emotions coming from the outside. As a top chess player, you got to make use of it: in principle you are not good enough – maybe not even Kasparov is – to make that much of a difference only over the board. Controlled emotions can be a strong weapon, just like being a controlled deranged person. I got wise through trial and error. I wished I had know this ten years earlier ! And also how you have to be work professionally as a chess player < to be successful>. If I had known all of that, it would have been a different story … “.

You worked some time ago with Ponomariov. How did that go ?
“Not easy. The cooperation was probably just for that one time. Pono really likes to bullshit, he likes to fuck you all the time. He wants to be treated like Ruslam the Great, but I did not comply. We had agreed on a rest day, but we did not get it. Really, many a prisoner of war has had it better ! I suffered a lot: seven long weeks seven hours of hard work every day. Yes, it is no fun if you want to be good. You have to make sacrifices – you won’t get there by talent alone. At the moment that you reach a certain level, then you have to carry the burden of that status. You then think that you can act being the celebrity, but it does not work that way ! You must first see to it that you retain your position, and it is in the character of top chess players that they always want more. I cannot attain much more here in the Netherlands, so I have to perform better internationally. ”

Is doing a lot of physical exercise good for your chess ?
“A lot of suffering is good for your mental endurance. Then you will not mind defending a bad position for hours on end; then you will do that with a lot of love. ”

The last 6 kms of today will carry you some day through a difficult game. Cyclists like Roger de Vlaeminck and Stephen Roche thought at tough moments during a race back to the time that they had to work in a factory. By magic they suddenly felt less pain.
“I had the same experience during the Dutch Championship in 2000, when I had a Cuban girlfriend. A nice and pretty girl, really, but she talked too much. A chess game was a point of rest; just for a while no bullshit that I had to listen to. I enjoyed my ‘freedom’ and the long games.”
Timman says that physical exercise is not necessary: ‘you only  sit behind the board.’
“Yes, but you see how that necks him, when he gets those blows in Wijk-aan-Zee. And then he still has to go another ten days ! Through hell. Every single player tries to beat him; he plays a much lesser game from the start of 5th hour and during the 2nd half of the tournament. That cannot be any coincidence; that has to do with energy. Timman may talk the hind leg off a donkey, but he is wrong. Kasparov exercises a lot, I think. He has a good condition, his appearance is quite energetic. All that turbo-energy is a bit suspect, me thinks. They talk about it in the top layer of chess players, whether he gets his energy out of a bottle. You expect that he will break down sooner or later; the effect of those substances got to become less.

Amphetamines only have a short-term effect and nasty side-effects. I now really feel like a sensation journalist, but eh …. I have to keep on asking. Would he be taking EPO ? Blood-doping ? That is a hot item again these days.

Your appearance tends to be rather energetic too:
” I am lazy in principle, unless I am forced to work. ”

Not physical exercise therefore.
” I seem to like mental rest better.”

And… is Loek van Wely getting enough of that ?
” Too little what ?  According to what he wants. ”

What negative emotions are bothering you the most ?
“Hard to say … stupidities, also my own, can irritate me no end. Short-sighted people too. This is even outside chess or so. But it is handy if you do not take too much unnecessary ballast into a game. As I said earlier, emotions have to accompany you, then they could help you.”
What are you going to do about it …
“Hope that it gets better.”

… Go to the psychiatrist, meditate ?
” …. My problem is that I do not accept things quickly; I have to respect someone first. I will not do that quickly with a psychologist or so who is a complete stranger; I am rather sceptical. I could try though, but yeah, I only go to a doctor when I am half-dead. I once had an inflammation of the gums.
I postponed fetching antibiotics for so long that I finally shouted with pain during the tournament. ”
And something like meditation.
“I am capable of slowing down, really, sit at home all by myself.”

When you have sex, does that relax you ?
“Sex relaxes, but sex normally does not come all by itself. ”
To be alone is nice, but at a certain moment you really want that woman, Loek. And then you have less freedom.
“You got to make choices. Life is not always simple. I do not complain. I am a perfectionist and it is at times frustrating if you do not succeed in attaining the maximum.

Can you name a goal that you would like to attain outside chess ?
“The goal of many men is to have as much sex with as many women as possible. But I do not have so much time, because you have to invest a lot for that. I want to have ‘the top of the bill’ too – I am very selective.”

Is your girlfriend pretty ?
“Marion is pretty, yes, she gets a lot of attention from men. When I walk through the street with her, a lot of people are looking.”

Are you quickly jealous ?
“No … I try to let go of that, otherwise I would not have a life anymore.”

When are you going to be a better runner, man ? Marion won’t be impressed by a time of 1:33 …
” I once ran 20 kms in one hour and 25 minutes, I am telling you. I do not do a lot of endurance training, but I want to do these kind of runs on a more regular basis. I get a lot of my running condition out of soccer training, twice a week. I have a reasonable basic condition: I play tennis, I ride a bicycle, I have a girl-friend.”

Tell me a bit more. I just cannot get enough of it.
“A women has pros and cons. The advantages are that you live a more regular life, eat better, and have a rich social life. You also go to bed together at midnight, one o’clock. No way you are on ICC all night. And she insists that you eat well. Disadvantages ? Women are known for it; they are good at harping on and on. You have to take another person into account; you have a lot less freedom.”
This is the other side of the medal of more discipline.
“But you always want to have what suits you best at that moment. I have to see to it that I do not get hen-pecked too much – like many men who were previously known as freebooters, who would stop at nothing. Now they have a wife they do not do naughty things anymore. When you call them to do something, they say they have to ‘discuss it’ or ‘Jantien has to go to ballet’.”

But they can call you for something naughty.
“But of course.”

A day after the Dam-run, I receive an email from Van Wely who is still upset: “I saw that my exact time was 1:33:42, and my interim time after 10 kilometers 54 minutes 27 seconds. Your final time was 1:44; interim time after 10 km. 1:03. My stumbling over the last 6 km. was still faster than your final sprint. But this tastes after more. I demand a return match !”


Renzo Verwer was born in 1972, the year of the Fischer-Spassky match. Quickly he discovered that he had little chess talent – but writing about chess seemed like a second nature. Until recently Verwer was a freelance journalist. In september of this year his short biografy on Bobby Fischer will come out, titled “Bobby Fischer for beginners”. It will be published by Aspekt (www.uitgeverijaspekt.nl). Verwer also has a weblog: www.renzoverwer.web-log.nl (Dutch)


  1. SonofPearl September 28, 2008

    A remarkably frank and unguarded interview! I must say I have little respect for people who publicly denigrate their competitors and peers…it’s just so rude, regardless of whether any of it is true or not.

  2. logis September 29, 2008

    I also think many players have tricks up their sleeve. Even if it’s just clearing their throat when you are thinking over that complex position that if played wrong is lost. Or like Loek says in the interview, clicking with a pen, or tapping with fingers or foot or … .

  3. Renzo October 17, 2008

    Yeah, Sonofpearl, it was a remarkable interview for me to do. and Loek autorizes=d it, o it’s his opinion… It’s part of the chess game, these kind of interviews, too.
    and yeah, I think look was very honest in this interview, although he did not say everything

  4. Martin November 5, 2013

    ha ha ha i love devil-may-care, public candour like that; pure, honest-to-goodness, bullshit-free, candour, Bravo Loek!

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