One Swiss open representative for many?

Preface: This article was initially published in German almost a year ago before the 2014 edition of this event in Maastricht – southeastern corner of the Netherlands, very close to Germany, Belgium and also northern France. But the story is rather timeless. The current version is edited and updated here and there – also a little bit on the tournament in 2014 and a preview on 2015. The idea, discussed with one of the organizers, is also to motivate people to play in Maastricht during the Whit Sunday weekend. When is the right moment to (re-)publish this story? Maybe now, with about two months to go and the top of the field probably largely defined. Most participants come from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, but anyone is welcome (titled players would need to contact the organizers on whether conditions are still available). And now … I copied the German text into the editor and will start to translate, change, delete, add, ….. .

It might be inappropriate or “at the limit” to put one open tournament into the spotlights – hence a disclaimer at the very start: this article is representative for many more or less comparable tournaments in many places. The idea developed in an unusual way:

René Coenjaerts from the organizing team had contacted Franz Jittenmeier (webmaster of chess-international.de) to say thank you for coverage in 2013 with the request to mention the event also in 2014. Then he wrote “I see that you have a staff member in the Netherlands, it would be easier if we can communicate in Dutch, German is a bit difficult for me” – and that’s why Franz forwarded the email to my account. My first reaction was “we (Schach-Ticker) have already enough info to write an ‘other news’ short report”, but I sent René a reply. His answer included “We are a small team of volunteers organizing the tournament in our spare time, without support from big companies as Tata Steel or by the Dutch chess federation. Each year it is a challenge to find (enough) sponsors. Any coverage of our event on the Internet, in print media, … is most welcome – to attract participants and also a bit to provide the sponsors with extra ‘exposure’.” Thus my idea to write something about the history of the Limburg Open, in the course of research stories/anecdotes also popped up.

I had written conceptually similar articles on German and Dutch clubs. In both cases, I already knew a lot and had to contact people only for confirmations and to fill in some details; this time I started from scratch. First stop was – already before the email to René Coenjaerts – the tournament webpage. I noticed two things, one immediately, one after some clicking around: 1) The page is available in four languages – not all but some texts are available not only in Dutch, but also in English, German and French (last year, there was even a little bit in Italian, this service is apparently discontinued). 2) Under “Organisation – Who is who” there are short biographies of all team members, only a few keywords: All have a regular job, many are also active in various clubs in the region Limburg as players and organizers or board members. Update: some changes on the team, for example the long-time tournament director Hans Ouwersloot wants to play himself this year and therefore “decided to step back” – but remains reponsible for logistics and a “major source of knowledge within the organization”. His successor Ferry Gerard adds a “semi-international” perspective: he played three Olympiads for the team of the Netherlands Antilles. René Coenjaerts joined the team in 2009, for “How did it all start in 2007?” he referred me to his colleague Ashraf Ibrahim, I talked to him on the phone for almost an hour.

Around September 2006 the three “founding fathers” Ashraf Ibrahim, Maarten van Laatum and Manuel Weeks met one evening to play chess, drink beer and chat together. The question arose: “Why is there no big tournament (with classical time control) in Limburg?“. Already at the age of 12, Ashraf Ibrahim accepted long trips to play tournaments for example in Amsterdam. He was fanatic and ambitious, though maybe not extremely talented – it didn’t suffice for a FM title or more, in the Limburg Open he plays in the B group (Elo below 2050). During the conversation he mentioned several times that the tournament(s) is/are for players of all levels. Manuel Weeks is an Australian, at the time living in the Maastricht region. He is ‘only’ FM but was coach of the Australian national team, with connections to chess professionals in many countries. At the time, the regional championship of the province Limburg suffered from decreasing numbers of participants, hence ideas existed to revive it by integrating it into an open tournament. Ibrahim, van Laatum and Weeks received financial support from the Limburg Chess Federation and could work on their plans – 2007 (and thereafter) the tournament is scheduled during the Whit Sunday weekend. A main sponsor was found only a few months before the first edition – otherwise the three organizers would have been obliged to contribute several thousand Euros each from their own pockets.

The first venue was actually too small immediately, registrations had to close early. Then they played in a school for two years, ever since in a sports hall – with space for a maximum of 500 participants (groups A, B, C and a rather small veteran group age 60+). I won’t name all results over the years, available at the homepage (at least last year, currently some links under ‘History’ seem broken), just a few participants of the first edition. Ian Rogers, countryman of Manuel Weeks, scored 5.5 points from 7 games, as among others Swedish GM Emanuel Berg (who played in all editions so far). The only player with half a point more was Leonid Kritz – federation-wise still German, but living in the USA for many years. Internationally known Dutch players like Nijboer and l’Ami had half a point less, together with internationally rather unknown players as Olaf Steffens (old chess friend and redaction colleague of mine, see also below).

Seven rounds are played, on four days Friday evening until Whit Monday. This obviously means double rounds, not to everyone’s taste but the way to hold the tournament on one long weekend. It was apparently considered to play nine rounds in order to allow title norms – but for the time being, this suggestion was dismissed so that amateurs (including members of the organization) don’t have to take a day off from work. It is possible in this (and some other) events to take a ‘bye’, i.e. skip a round and get half a point for not playing. Generally mostly an option for amateurs, not for professionals with a keen interest in prize money – but in one edition GM Sipke Ernst also took a bye to visit Pinkpop (a big open air music festival in Limburg).

This is what Peter Doggers wrote in Chessvibes about the 2009 edition: “Swedish GM Emanuel Berg likes the city of Maastricht a lot, and therefore he played in all three editions of the Limburg Open Championship. … Like Berg, your editor-in-chief enjoys the capital of the Limburg province and the beautiful weather (and the many local draughts) and so I decided to play my first FIDE rated tournament in almost two years. I also spent the Whitsun weekend in Maastricht and, well, all I can say is that Donner was right: mixing journalism and playing isn’t a very good idea. From now on the focus will be on ChessVibes again, despite the fact that I improved upon a personal record: on the final day I managed to quintuple my score! [he started with 0.5/5 to finish with 2.5/7]. … remember for next year: even when you’re having a dreadful tournament you will enjoy your long weekend in Maastricht!” The first, but not the last quote in such a style.

Sponsors are needed – responsibility of Ashraf Ibrahim due to his professional background as consultant and interim manager with connections to local companies. For six years ENCI (part of the Heidelberg Cement Group) was main sponsor, then they faced major budget cuts. Ibrahim’s own company was apparently a temporary solution for one year, since 2014 BPB (Bruls Prefab Beton) is main sponsor. According to Ibrahim these sponsors (or members of the management) are themselves active chess players and therefore willing to contribute major sums (several thousand Euros). He expects that the “BPB Limburg Open” will last for several to many years “even though they don’t sell a single kilogram concrete more from sponsoring the event”. Other companies contribute smaller sums because they cannot or do not want to say no when asked – they are also needed to close the budget.

How do they currently find or select their grandmasters? Different from other weekend events, the Limburg Open offers conditions in addition to prize money, hence they have certain control over the field. Primarily GMs from Eastern Europe express interest themselves, and they can say yes or no. Criteria are attractive playing style (rather not players who somehow beat amateurs, draw quickly against fellow GMs and collect prize money) as well as “social and accessible”. Last year, this description fit for Emanuel Berg as well as Alexandr Fier “No fear” from Brazil. They also want strong players from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – these players expect to be contacted/invited. Half-kidding I asked “Giri is a level too high?”. Ibrahim’s answer: “We contacted him several times, it never fit in his schedule. Hence there were no financial negotiations, where we probably couldn’t meet his expectations [even before he became a top10 player] anyway.”

So far mainly from the organizer’s perspective. When I said ‘thank you’ at the end of the phone call, Ashraf Ibrahim replied “You are welcome, I like to talk about the tournament!”. Now two participants who received two to three questions: 1) Why did you play the Limburg Open? 2) What is special about this event? If applicable, 3) Why are you a regular participant? The third question was for Emanuel Berg, contacted via the organizers.

Berg’s answer, slightly shortened: “The first time I participated I was contacted by Manuel Weeks, a friend of mine from Australia. He was living in Maastricht at that time and was also running the Tournament that year asking me to play. I had a great time there getting to know new friends and the chess results were not bad either being undefeated and winning four games I ended up on 5,5 point and ended up on one of the top places. … [He then mentions that he also scored 5.5/7 in 2008 and 2009, the third time it was enough for first place on tiebreak] Having played the Tournament since it started and enjoying it every time no matter of the results it has become a habit to come back playing and I have also invited friends who joined me traveling to Maastricht several times. During the Tournaments I have tried different types of accommodation including apartment, B & B and Hotel which have enriched my visits and got me know the city of Maastricht well. I’ve also enjoyed some days off after the Tournaments visiting Belgium by Bike. One time going back downhill from Belgium towards Maastricht without brakes was quite an adventurous experience! … What I find special with the Limburg Open Tournament is a great team of organizers always doing an excellent job and giving their outermost to secure a successful event. Having played in the Tournament for seven years so far I got to know them all very well and I’m really impressed with the development of the Tournament over the years attracting many strong GMs from around the globe. Having live transmission and a commentary room is another great thing which is very seldom seen in weekend Tournaments.

Fier-Berg

Photo: GM Fier – GM Berg, Maastricht 2014 [photo sources tournament page] I will briefly summarize this tournament later, suffice it to say for the moment that this GM duel took place only in the final round, and only on the third table. Berg won with a sacrifical attack to reach his ‘usual’ score of 5.5/7 and shared second to fifth place.

As already mentioned at the very beginning: I certainly could write a similar article about other open tournaments. Good to know that it all exists, certainly not only in Maastricht: motivated and competent organizers, sponsors with a warm heart for the game of chess and also “social and accessible GMs”. At the board, Emanuel Berg can be brutal, but this article doesn’t include chess games.

So far the original article – slightly edited and a bit updated (of course the photo of Fier-Berg wasn’t yet available before the tournament). I also visited (that is, the final rounds) and reported on the Limburg Open 2014 but won’t reproduce the entire article, only a few bits and pieces starting with the subtitle “Rising Stars vs. Experience”: “Some years ago, Erwin l’Ami took part in the “Rising Stars vs. Experience” events; now he is 29 years old or still young – at the Limburg Open he and other grandmasters had to face many young players. … Only Erwin l’Ami experienced little if any damage, confirmed his role as favorite and finished in sole first place.” Other results included Fier-Dijkhuis 0-1 and Berg-Van Foreest 0-1. Compared to Tata Steel, the other chess event I visited as a reporter, it was quite a different experience. In Wijk aan Zee, one has to apply for press access in advance, I was one of many reporters, and there were dedicated press facilities. In Maastricht, I was apparently the only reporter – applying to or being invited by the organizers mainly because I needed a place to sleep, provided by one of them (Ashraf Ibrahim). Players, GMs and amateurs alike, seemed rather surprised that they were approached for interviews – but (almost) everyone was happy to answer my questions and all quotes were exclusive ones. And this was also part of my experience: “After the tournament: cleaning up with about 20 people. 400 participants means 400 chairs and 100 tables, all had to be put away into a container – the next day the venue has to be ready again for other sports. Tournament participants aren’t necessarily aware of such logistics – I also didn’t really know about it. Then one beer together in the canteen – the end, the next day many people again have to work normally.” I took one day off from my regular job, whom I could have reached by noon at the earliest anyway, and took a stroll through Maastricht. Just a few keywords: old town, situated (seen from the train station) on the other bank of the river Maas, mostly pedestrian area, cobbled roads, several big and small squares with cafes, remnants of the old city walls. Photo below: one impression (St Amorsplein) taken from Wikipedia.

StAmorsplein05 Kleon 3 Wikipedia

And now a small preview on 2015: While Erwin l’Ami had declared his intention to defend his title at the venue, for a while it seemed unclear whether he will do so. At the Reykjavik Open, the surprise winner Erwin l’Ami said “my next event is the Dutch championship in July, with maybe something in between”. Then he apparently reached an agreement with the Limburg organizers: since March 18th, the top/most recent news on the Dutch homepage is “Erwin l’Ami defends his title” (sections in other languages aren’t yet updated). Or at least he will try to achieve what nobody ever managed since 2007: win the event for a second time.

l'Ami-Ducarmon

Another photo from 2014: GM l’Ami – IM Ducarmon and GM Ernst – Beerdsen. L’Ami could beat his young opponent, Ernst had to (grudgingly?) accept a draw.

2015 top seed is, as per today, French GM Christian Bauer – even if l’Ami could narrow down the rating gap with his victory at the Reykjavik Open. Other registered GMs are Leif Erlend Johannessen from Norway, locals Benjamin Bok and Sipke Ernst and the very local Martijn Dambacher from Limburg. I can mention a few more participants: the entire Dutch women team will be present at the Limburg Open 2015, Zhaoqin Peng as youth coach – Dutch and also foreign young players can analyze their games with her – the others as participants. This is certainly related to René Coenjaerts’ keen interest for women chess – among other things, he is webmaster of their team site chessqueens.nl. FM Pedro Ramon Martinez Reyes has not only the most complicated name, but will also travel all the way from Venezuela. From the young players, I only mention 16-year old Jorden Van Foreest, last year FM, in the meantime IM (one of seven registered at the moment) – well, Benjamin Bok, age 20, isn’t that old either … . Journalist Peter Doggers (now for chess.com) is also playing – it remains to be seen whether he will mix it with journalism. In total, so far 152 players have registered (49 in the A group), so there is still space available.

November 2017
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