My Chess

Hans Ree

Reviewer: Donald K. McKim
Russell Enterprises
240 pages

The Dutch Grandmaster, chess writer, and columnist has provided us with a delightful inside look at chess through his experiences with players, writers, and personalities. In approximately forty short vignettes, Ree reflects on aspects of his chess world which have amused, challenged, and stimulated him for many years. The great masters and champions of chess are represented here: Botvinnik, Smyslov, Euwe, Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov, and Tartakower. A host of lesser players— Ree’s friends appear, as do his reflections on such topics as alcohol, the wrong-colored corner square, the sin of pride, the nose, Venice, and a pleasant closing piece, “A Sunny Existence”.”

To catch a flavor of Ree, consider his comments about Botvinnik: “I believe I have only ever spoken two words to Mikhair Moiseyevich Botvinnik in my life: ‘I resign.’” This was in 1969 at the Hoogoven tournament in Wijk aan Zee, where Botvinnik went on to share first place with Geller. Ree recognizes from reviewing his game against the great master that his position was hopeless from early on in the game. He said, “If someone had annotated the game, he could have written the well-known phrase ‘The rest is a matter of technique’ as early as move 15. When I replayed our game, I was reminded of a statement about Botvinnik ascribed to the Englishman C.H. O’D. Alexander: ‘When he wrote down his move 1.c2-c4, I felt like resigning.’ Botvinnik’s pen as the executioner’s sword. That Botvinnik has never in reality played 1.c2-c4 against Alexander, doesn’t really matter here.”

Ree writes so engagingly that those of whom one has never heard, we wish we had known. Consider Johan Barendregt (1924-1982), a friend of Ree’s, who was a chess master, a psychologist, and Professor of Personality Theory at Amsterdam University. Johan was able to hypnotize people. After a number of sessions in which he tried to hypnotize Ree—who was hard to hypnotize—they abandoned the enterprise, with Ree writing: “As far as chess is concerned, hypnosis was no great success, but the relaxation techniques he taught me are still useful when I find it hard to go to sleep at night.” Johann also had his fun with Ree. In a 1978 magazine article, he wrote of his envy of chessplayers as well as what irritated him about them: “Ree, who doesn’t leave his bed before noon, pushes a few pieces for another draw within 20 moves and spends the rest of the day reading a nice book. And that, to him, is a working day.”

Who can forget Tabe Bas (1927-2009), a professional actor and singer, who was also a chessplayer and won the “Bondswedstrijden” in Alkmaar in 1954. He was, in effect, the Dutch Open Champion. Tabe was also a character. Among other things, says Ree, “where there was a chessboard, there you would find Tabe. He played blitz, analyzed positions and recited from classics like Tarrasch’s Dreihundert Schachpartien (Three Hundred Chess Games). You had to stop him in order to prevent him reeling off the entire perky first page in flawless German.”

But Tabe was bigger than life, his personality pervading all things; his friends and acquaintances regarding him as “a wise neighborhood elder.” “You also often saw,” says Ree, “that it was more than just a matter of knowing him. They loved Tabe, and when they warmly embraced him, you could see something of his zest for life and amiability leaping to their faces—as if they had become a little bit like him.” In commenting on Tabe’s death, Ree writes: “There seems to be an African proverb to the effect that each time a person dies, a library burns down. Tabe was an immense library of anecdotes, stories, songs and poems. Is there anyone left in the world now able to recite the first page of Dreihundert Schachpartien the way he could? I wouldn’t think so.”

Ree has a close up account of his fellow countryman, Max Euwe, of whom he says, “What William the Silent is to the Netherlands, Euwe is to the Dutch chess world: its Pater Patriae.” Reuben Fine called Euwe “an efficient man-eating tiger.” Ree indicates Euwe had an adventuresome streak: “One time, in the car, he told me that in his youth he used to walk from his house to the chess club and back. It was a long walk but, said Euwe, ‘fortunately I always had a pistol with me.’”

Yet, Ree recounts that before his serious heart operation, at the end of his life, Euwe said, “My greatest wish now is to sit under an apple tree and do nothing. Nothing, just sitting under an apple tree….”” Then, Ree concludes: “To all the great deeds for which Euwe was honored during his life, something can be added: if someone needed help and called on Euwe, his appeal never fell on deaf ears.” A fine tribute to Max Euwe!”

Ree knew Bobby Fischer and even spent time with him in a kibbutz, an odd thought to contemplate. Ree writes that Fischer “knew a lot about American popular music and knew nearly all Aretha Franklin’s songs by heart. On one occasion he did an amusing imitation of the Four Tops, a popular Motown group in those days—to the delight of the few people still out and about.”

To Fischer, Ree once mentioned a comment by the first chess champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, “who was supposed to have said that he would be able to give God odds of a pawn as Black. ‘That is nonsense, of course,’ said Bobby, ‘but I think I would hold God to a draw with white. I play the Ruy Lopez, and then I cannot lose. Maybe if He were to play the Sicilian… But no, then I go bishop c4 and I am better, so what could He do? Unless He were to play tricks, for example dull your mind.’ This was a joke. God was used here as a metaphor for perfect play. But it was already pretty drastic in itself to say that as White he would not lose against perfect play, and he was deadly serious.”

Ree’s book is a highly entertaining collection of short stories and anecdotes. It is a perfect book to dip into here and there as well as to read through when our interest is piqued and we are drawn into Ree’s accounts. Here we experience “chess beyond chess” as we are opened to human dimensions that transcend the chessboard. We can appreciate Ree’s quotation from Garry Kasparov: “The main thing that must be remembered is that chess requires rules which do not reduce it to the level only of a competitive spectacle, but, on the contrary, defend its status of a high and noble art form, aimed at giving people pleasure and enjoyment.”

Thank you, Hans Ree, for your life in chess and for providing us with this pleasure and enjoyment!

Donald K. McKim, Germantown, Tennessee