January 26, 2011

Tata Steel Chess - Interview with the tournament director

 Jeroen van den Berg

Wijk aan Zee is now the center of the chess world, with the Tata Steel Chess Tournament being its heart. Why is this event so respected and who are the people behind it, making sure everything is perfectly arranged?
An insight into the tough scene of organizing a strong chess event will be kindly given as follows, by the tournament director: Jeroen van den Berg.
A few days ago, while the games were still in progress, he made time for me and my questions, which is clearly not an easy task and I thank him for that!

Jeroen van den Berg
Picture from: www.chessbase.com

What changed in the tournament since Tata Steel became the main sponsor?
Actually the change was more visible in 2000, when after 61 editions of the tournament being called "Hoogovens Schaaktoernooi", we got a new name:
"Corus Chess Tournament" and there was also a slogan, which was present in the campaign as well: "Same game, new name". Now is more or less the same,
after changing from Corus to Tata Steel:"The same game and a new name" but nothing else has changed, only the name and the colours. Everything is exactly the same as in the previous years.
It's also good for our sponsors that they can use the chess event for promoting a new name, because it was not so long ago when Corus has changed into Tata Steel. The chess tournament is a very good tool to promote your new name.

How many people are involved in the organization?
We have a team of 5 persons, who are working permanently for the tournament, during the entire year:

Organizing Committee:
Dolf Vos (Chairman)
Jeroen van den Berg (Tournament Director)
Arno Vrins (Treasurer)
Theo Hoogland (Commercial relations)
Hans Goossens (Tata Steel Representative)

The Organizing Committee last year, Corus 2010.
From left to right: 
Arno Vrins, Theo Hoogland,
Dolf Vos, Jeroen van den Berg and Hans Goossens.
Picture from: www.chessbase.com

This is the team which is active starting with February, March until December; now, in January, around 100 people are working for the tournament; but if you count the residents and all the volunteers from the village, you will have probably much more people. This is one of the advantages of organizing a strong chess tournament in a village like this one. To have the tournament here, in Wijk aan Zee, is a very good idea. If this tournament would have been held in Amsterdam or Rotterdam for example, it would be less popular than it is now in Wijk aan Zee.

Many tournaments are dissapearing from the chess calendars, could you give an advice for the organizers?
That's true but the organizers shouldn't be blamed for that, it's the fault of the economical situation. The fact that chess is not interesting for the big companies doesn't help much, I believe. On the other hand, you can see on internet that every week there are many chess events organized. But indeed, not so many strong tournaments anymore like this one or Linares; so, also in
Holland, serious tournaments like Interpolis, Tilburg and VSB tournament in Amsterdam dissapeared and nothing came instead.
But to give you an answer to your question, my advice for the organizers would be: to be patient, always bring the sponsor to your event, try to find some jobs into your organization for the people from inside the company - this will automatically bring you together; inform your sponsor about the costs and if the sponsor wants something, make sure you can discuss it easily: communication is clearly an important aspect, especially for the future of the tournament and for stability.

We know that the tournament is secured until the 75th edition. This year is the 73rd one, what should we expect after 2013?
That's correct, until 2013 the guarantee has been given. Afterwards, we don't know yet. But now that the name has changed, it means that more and new people have influence on the final decision and the continuation of the tournament. I expect that we will start our lobby this year, 2011, immediately after this tournament and...let's hope for the best. There is a long tradition, it will be cruel to stop after 75 editions, but we have to be realistic as well and we simply have to wait and see. But I know that the sponsor is very happy with this tournament, the local community is happy as well, so there are good signs that it will go on, but we are not sure yet, even if we would very much like to say yes.

And with whom exactly do you have to speak? With Tata Ijmuiden or Tata from India, how is the structure in the company?
We have one person in our organizing commitee who works for the sponsor, nearby the communication department. He can sometimes talk with the directors of the company, in Holland, and that's more or less the end. After that, the directors from Holland will communicate further with the important people from the company, but we cannot do it directly, our organizing commitee cannot. So, we can only wait. Of course, they know that we want to continue, but this doesn't automatically mean that we are safe, we have to be patient and hope for the best. Soon after the tournament will finish, we will start our lobby, we won't wait the year 2013 to come, when it will be too late.

With how much time in advance you start the preparations for the next edition?
The month of February is for me personally, a relatively quiet month; but than, already in March we make all kind of evaluations, we figure out the strong and the weak points of the tournament that just passed, in order to make the future event a better one. In April we start inviting the Grandmasters, because I know they are always happy to  have a clear image of their agenda and for the A-Group, in summer we already have the starting list completed. For the B and the C groups, it's decided a bit later.

Did the fire from a few weeks ago, in Ijmuiden, influenced in any way the organization of the tournament?
For the chess tournament it had no influence at all. It was a serious fire, luckily nobody died or got injured, which was the most important thing. But the company suffered a big loss of course.

Did you have any problems during the organization of this edition?
When you organize such a big tournament, sometimes things might go wrong. I remember when I've just started my career as a Director here in Wijk aan Zee, I had to face unexpected withdrawals, with only one week in advance, before the tournament was supposed to start. Once it was Kasparov in 2002 and the second time was Morozevich. Somehow we managed to find a replacement, but it was unpleasant of course. 
This year everything went fine so far, only one thing: our hostesses, who were here every year, couldn't come, which was unexpected. But we are Dutch, we never panick, we find solutions:) There are always problems, sometimes big, sometimes smaller ones, but in a way or another we always solve them.

What was the weirdest thing you ever experienced as an organizer? If you can share it of course:)
Well...this year was a stable year. You know, sometimes chess players are..."special" persons, if we can put it that way. Also being at the top in such a difficult game, brings a lot of tension and strange things might appear:) But I must say that nowadays, chess players are mannered, they are normal people, so I don't see so many special situations. In the chess history, in the 60's and 70's it happened that a chess player showed himself with a rather high percentage of alcohol in his blood. But now, the GM's are disciplined, they go to bed early, they prepare their games extremely hard. The modern chess changed the attitude of the chess players and, if in the past some of them would have gone to sleep around 4 o'clock in the morning, now is not possible anymore, you need to take chess as serious as possible. Otherwise no results will follow.

What is your opinion on the Dutch chess scene?
In general the Dutch people like to organize many events, we have a rich chess culture and legends: Max Euwe, Jan Timman - they both drew attention of sponsors, media, they stimulated the organization of many tournaments; now we have strong GM's as well, plus Anish Giri, who is literally new, because he came from a different country. But he was warmly welcomed by all the other players and chess lovers, he is a very nice kid and a great player. So, I believe Holland is doing very well now, chesswise; we have Jan Smeets, your husband, even Daniel Stellwagen, if he could be more active with playing tournaments. They proved they can reach a high level in chess, the world top. 
If it will lead to new sponsors, this will have to wait, but if Anish continues in this rythm, he has a big chance to reach the absolute top and to generate new tournaments on the chess calendars.

When exactly did you start to be involved in the organization of this tournament?
The tournament exists for 73 years. I started to take part in the organization in 1984 and as a tournament director, in 1999. Back in 1984 I was coming here as well, but I was working in the press room, which means I am here for 28 years already:)

Are you still keeping track of the tournaments you are organizing?
I am taking part in four tournaments in Holland: this one, Hoogeveen, Batavia in Amsterdam and the one here in Wijk aan Zee, the cultural village tournament, which is related with the stronger groups, because the winner gets qualified for the C-Group for the next year. But I worked a lot for different chess events, abroad as well. Now I am based in Holland and the number of the tournaments I have is ok for me. A lot of energy, time and resources are needed to organize well a tournament. Luckily, I am not doing it alone, it would be impossible. And of course, this is a very pleasant event to work for, because of the attention it gets, you can see and feel that the players are happy to be part of it.

Picture from www.chesstoday.net

Batavia Tournament in Amsterdam.

Hoogeveen Tournament.

Do you have a favourite edition, from the history of this tournament or everytime is special?
Probably the most special one, that I can think of right now, is the one from 1984. It was my first time to be that close to the top Grandmasters, I was a "board boy", the one to move the pieces on the wooden boards for the audience, so I was always close to them. And the tournament itself was very interesting to watch: there were two players to score 10 points out of 13 games, very unusual for such a strong field. One was Viktor Korchnoi and the other one was Alexander Beliavsky; an interesting fact was that Viktor Korchnoi played here his first tournament where players from the Soviet Union were present. As we all know, he was boycotted in the Soviet Union, but now the boycott was over and it was very interesting for the media as well. For these two reasons, the 1984 edition is special to me.

Korchnoi and Beliavsky - shared first in 1984,
with 10 points out of 13 games!

Thank you very much for your time and we all hope to celebrate in 2038, the 100 years anniversary!
For the Dutch version, visit Schaaksite.nl


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