‘O Muse, sing to me of the man full of resources, who wandered very much, after he had sacked [the] sacred fortress’ – the chess player as a wanderer from one tournament to another, hunting for appealing results, don’t we all recognize ourselves in him? Paul van der Sterren reported on this endless quest in his book Zwart op wit, verslag van een schakersleven (= ‘Black on White, an account of a chess player’s life’). An open and disconcerting account which, especially, gives testimony of the character traits you need to have to climb higher as a chess player. So now I know exactly what I missed…
It all started in the peaceful landscape of Mid-Limburg, a province in the ‘deep south’ of the Netherlands. Soon, Paul lorded it over the local heroes, and he also dominated youth chess in the entire Limburg province – until he stumbled upon Peter Scheeren. His first contacts with the national coach, Hans Bouwmeester, soon provided him with the desired structure to work – not that Paul himself wasn’t any good at that. At a national level, however, there was one opponent who was always ahead of him: Roy Dieks. Consequently, Paul’s roll of honour is not adorned with the title of national junior champion. But eventually he started beating his Nemesis, and that is also what Paul did when he achieved his greatest success as a youth player: third place in the European Junior Championship behind John Nunn.
The next step, of course, was the master title. It wasn’t an easy step. While everyone was convinced of Paul’s talent, certainly after his second place in the Hoogovens Master group in 1977 – where, en passant, he got to know his later wife, Hanneke van Parreren, better. That tournament went tremendously well, but on other occasions he suffered from something Donner once powerfully described as follows: ‘This Van der Sterren guy, he’s a good player, but he does make quite a lot of blunders, I believe.’
Anyway, Paul attained the master title in 1978. Shortly before that, he had made his first real mark by beating Viktor Kortchnoi. Then followed a long and winding road from IM to GM – it wasn’t as long as Hans Ree’s road, but still… In 1989, he finally made it. During a tournament in Munich, everything went smoothly at first, but later some sand was thrown into the engine. In the final round, our hero needed half a point. However, he had to play Attila Groszpeter with black, and the Hungarian was still in the race for a prize. Then, while Paul was reflecting on his sins during breakfast, ‘there Groszpeter comes in, sits down opposite me, smiles, and offers a draw. My friend Attila.’
Of course, the intervening period wasn’t all sorrow and gloom. Firstly, Paul became Dutch Champion in 1985, a feat he later repeated once (bear with me). Together with Genna Sosonko he became editor of the New in Chess Yearbooks, and in late 1982 he married Hanneke. His most dramatic moment was without doubt the final round of the Thessaloniki Olympiad in 1988. The young Dutch team – with the nestor, Genna Sosonko, as a playing captain – had been in the race for a medal throughout the event. In this final round, a strong opponent awaited him whom he still knew from his youth: John Nunn. Paul reached a winning position with black, but then, again, the world in his head outgrew the board… draw, and so much for his grandmaster result!
Then the miracle year 1993 arrived. First, Paul qualified for the Interzonal tournament by winning the zonal tournament together with Loek van Wely. And while all his worldly goods were being moved to a new accommodation, Paul won the Dutch Championship for the second time, no less than two points ahead of the field this time. There aren’t many players who can say this! Then came the Interzonal tournament in Biel. After a quiet start with two draws (one of which was quite hard-fought) suddenly he followed up with three victories, going into the shared lead. From then on he was only facing star players, of course, but he did well, holding his own admirably against, consecutively, Alexei Shirov, Boris Gelfand, Leonid Yudasin, Alexander Khalifman and Valery Salov. Then came the decisive game, with black against Evgeny Bareev. Initially, Paul feared he had been caught in some deeply prepared variation, as Bareev kept making his not so easy-to-find moves fast. At a point when he was already staring deep into the abyss, he suddenly found a fantastic move – at the same time it became clear that his opponent had missed that one… and Bareev, not prepared to settle for a draw, overbended the bow and lost in the endgame. Concluding with two draws (one quiet, one arranged) Paul managed to qualify for the Candidates Matches.
There he was awaited by his opponent from the final round in Biel: Gata Kamsky. In his first White games Paul managed to pose great problems for Kamsky… but he lost both games! This was somewhat compensated by a win with black in a Spanish Breyer with a creative piece sacrifice, but it was not enough. As a fully-fledged professional, Kamsky now immediately switched from 1.e4 to 1.d4. And, as Paul had already remarked once: ‘Through the years, the Exchange Variation has been my toughest and most stubborn opponent in the Queen’s Gambit – if only the White players really knew what they were doing.’ Kamsky clearly did, even though it took a blunder from Paul to lose with black. After that, he was too far behind to be able to catch up: Kamsky skilfully consolidated and won the match 4½-2½.
Paul described the subsequent phase in his chess career with the heading ‘The sun goes down’. That was a rather cheerless way of looking at it, of course, since in 1994 he did win the Lost Boys tournament in Antwerp, unshared, with 7½ out of 9, beating Kortchnoi along the way! But the holy fire started to go out, and Paul stopped as an active tournament player in 2001. Still, there was no need for the chess world to grieve, since now he started a new period as a chess author. Besides Fundamental Chess Openings, he wrote the above-mentioned book Zwart op wit, and after that a lot more – here I will only mention Koningen van het schaakbord (= ‘Kings of the chessboard’, about the world champions). And most recently, Paul made a step towards the higher echelons: in 2019 he became the chairman of the Max Euwe Centre!
I have played Paul only once: in a rapid game during the LIGA tournament in Roosendaal, organized by Jacques Goossens at the time. Paul won, of course… We also played in a tournament together twice, but these were not exactly peaks in our careers.
After the first round of the Dutch Open in Dieren, 1977, I had an adjourned game that looked drawish against the Yugoslav grandmaster Ivan Nemet. You know how it goes: the local press is already sending round positive reports, countless advisers gather around the board, touching pieces with their hands, when it’s much better to have some quiet in such a situation. Hanneke, who was my teammate at the Amstelveen chess club at the time, asked Paul to have a look, and he immediately hit the mark: ‘I don’t see the draw.’ Obviously, I went on to lose the game. And a little later in the tournament, Paul lost a game in thirteen moves – with white…
Paul described the Grandmaster A tournament of OHRA 1984 as an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ with his loss to Hans Ree as the absolute low: after the game ended, he burst into tears over what he had done to ‘his own’ Queen’s Gambit. As for me, after a good start I went on sliding ever further downhill, and my absolute low was an especially painful loss against the Australian Greg Hjorth. Later I read in Yasser Seirawan’s Chess Duels about something Anatoly Karpov had said to him – something which Hjorth could also have said to me: ‘How could you not win?’ And even though Hanneke and Paul tried to pep me up afterwards, this experience was enough to make me decide that the chess world – at least as a player – was not for me… (PvV)