A Dutch immortal unearthed

In Dutch chess literature there has been, for the past 60 years, an enigmatic immortal game: De Ronde - NN; a crazy, unbelievable, 20-move long series of sacrifices, supposedly played in a team tournament in Holland in the thirties. You never saw the whole game, always just these 20 moves, and Black's name or the event were never given. Adding to the mystery, the White player, one of the least known to ever be on a Dutch national team, seemed to have vanished in Buenos Aires after the '39 Olympiad.

White to play
De Ronde - NN
Netherlands, 193?
1.Ng4 hxg4 2.hxg4 Ree8 3.Qh4 Kf8 4.Qh7 Nc5

5.Nd4 exd4 6.Qxg7+ Kxg7 7.Bxd4+ Re5 8.f4

8...Nxe4 9.fxe5 Nxg5 10.e6+ f6 11.Rf1 Rf8 12.exd7 Qb8

13.Rxf6 Rxf6 14.Rf2 Ne4 15.Rxf6 Qd8

16.g5 Nxg5 17.Rxd6+ Kf8 18.Bf6 cxd6 19.Bxd8 Nf7

20.Bf6 and Black resigned. The inauspicious Pf3 of the first diagram decides the game.

Not very much was known about the hero of this entrancing and flamboyant adventure, Chris De Ronde. He had been born, probably around 1915, near Rotterdam, and was champion of that city once or twice. He was not really a top player, but in 1939, he qualified for the Dutch 'Candidates Tournament', a ten-player affair the winner of which was to play a match against Euwe for the Dutch Championship. With 3½ out of 9, De Ronde shared 7th and 8th place (Landau won), but as quite a few strong players did not care to go to Buenos Aires for the Olympiad that August, De Ronde, at the last minute, was chosen to make his debut in the national team there. Playing in one hall with the likes of Alekhine, Capablanca, Keres and Tartacover, he didn't do badly at all, scoring 8½ in his 14 games, the second best result of the Dutch team, which came eighth among 27.
    I keep looking at the names of that team: Prins, Van Scheltinga, Cortlever, De Groot, De Ronde. All in their twenties, all destined to be prominent figures in Dutch chess for decades to come. And they were. Prins, columnist, writer, arbiter, player of  many more Olympiads, champion in 1965 at 53. Cortlever, Olympiad player, team captain, endgame composer, analyst, a strong master until well into the seventies. Van Scheltinga, player of innumerable national championships, Olympiads, Hoogoven Tournaments, trainer; qualifying for the Dutch Championship as late as 1983, at 69. De Groot, who stopped early, but whose name in chess might even outlive theirs as the author of  'Thought and Choice in Chess'; the internationally renowned standard work on the psychology of chess thinking.
    And De Ronde? After the tournament, during which the war had broken out in Europe, he stayed in Buenos Aires - as did some famous players like Eliskases, Stahlberg, Najdorf, Czerniak. And then, he disappeared. Nothing was ever heard of him again in the Dutch chess world.

Except of course, for this crazy half-of-a-game, which keeps popping up every so many years. Whenever Dutch chess lovers start tossing around obscure Dutch immortals, the way other people would remember jokes, somebody is bound to mention De Ronde-NN. But a few weeks ago, something special happened, when in a group of chess friends, the singer and actor (and Open Dutch Champion '57) Tabe Bas suddenly said to me: 'You know De Ronde - Kamstra, of course.'
    'De Ronde - Kamstra?' I said. 'You don't mean De Ronde - NN, by any chance? The crazy one that ends with Bishop f6?'
    Of course Tabe meant that one - and finally I knew the name of the loser in that game; a wellknown player of that period, too. Moreover, Tabe was sure he could find the whole game for me. And a few days later he sent me a photocopy of a newspaper clipping, with all the moves. Where and when the game had been played, however, wasn't mentioned, but the Max Euwe Center in Amsterdam unearthed that for me, too.


De Ronde - Kamstra, Preliminaries, Dutch ch 1938

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. e4 d6 4. d4 Bg7 5. f3 Nbd7 6. Be3 e5 7. d5 a5 8. Qd2 b6 9. g4 Nc5 10. Nge2 h5 11. g5 Nfd7 12. Qc2 Nb8 13. O-O-O Nba6 14. a3 Bd7 15. Kb1 O-O 16. Nc1 Qe7 17. Be2 Rfe8 18. Rdg1 Qd8 19. h3 Qc8 20. Bf1 Re7 21. Rh2 Qb7 22. Bd3 Nxd3 23. Nxd3 Nc5 24. a4 Qc8 25. Nf2 Na6 26. Qd1 Nb4 27. Nb5 Qb7 28. Bd2 Na6 29. Qe1 Nc5 30. Be3 Nxa4 31. Ng4 hxg4 32. hxg4 Ree8 33. Qh4 Kf8 34. Qh7 Nc5 35. Nd4 exd4 36. Qxg7+ Kxg7 37. Bxd4+ Re5 38. f4 Nxe4 39. fxe5 Nxg5 40. e6+ f6 41. Rf1 Rf8 42. exd7 Qb8 43. Rxf6 Rxf6 44. Rf2 Ne4 45. Rxf6 Qd8 46. g5 Nxg5 47. Rxd6+ Kf8 48. Bf6 cxd6 49. Bxd8 Nf7 50. Bf6 1-0

So the first 30 moves had been forgotten for reason - how boring! And then, when White drops a pawn, a frenzy suddenly seems to come over him. And over his opponent - over the whole board. Maybe better let it come over us too - subjecting a game like this to the scrutiny of Rebel would be sacrilege. After 31.Ng4, White always plays the best move, or at least the move that gives the best chances, but Black... The game is so full of holes it probably shouldn't be called an immortal. There are many moves that would have stopped the adventure short; 32...Bxb5, 33...Bxb5, 34...Bxb5, 38...Ne6, 39...c5, 40...Kf8 and 45...Kh6, to mention but a few. But then again, I vaguely recall one publication saying that White had to play his last 20 moves in 1 minute. Maybe Black too, then. But if not being the result of thinking would seem to diminish the value of these moves, look at those first 30 - they are the result of thinking.

These discoveries revived my interest in the game and in De Ronde. There are databases now, and in mine I found a partial solution of his vanishing: aside from his 14 Olympiad games, there were 13 other games by him; one played in Buenos Aires in 1940, and twelve from a strong Buenos Aires tournament in 1945, with Stahlberg, Czerniak and Najdorf. De Ronde scored 1 out of 12 there.
    So he had stayed in Buenos Aires at least for a while. But after that: nothing.
    What could have become of him? He hadn't returned to Holland - he would have played chess here, or at least have met chessplayers. I would have met him. Maybe he had died young. Or he had given up chess to marry and raise a family. Or maybe the South American dream, the Najdorf dream, had come true for him too - the chessplayer-turned-businessman, lighting huge cigars with peso bills beside a pool, surrounded by beautiful women... Or maybe he had gone out into the world, in the swashbuckling style of that game, and he had become a rodeo rider in Arizona, or a soldier monk in Tibet...

I knew of a rumour that at the Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1978, some of the players of the Dutch team had discovered De Ronde was still living there, had visited him, and had learned he was not interested in chess anymore. Investigating this, I found out this was not true - but a Dutch journalist, Frans van Schoonderwalt of the Volkskrant, had looked for De Ronde, and had found him. He had even written a story about that encounter which, because I was abroad at the time, I had missed.
    Van Schoonderwalt heard De Ronde's name mentioned by his old teammates Prins and Van Scheltinga, and by Euwe, who were in Buenos Aires then too. Euwe vaguely remembered De Ronde as a leftist, almost communist idealist and presumed he had died; Van Scheltinga thought that De Ronde, opposed to war as something capitalistic, had been a conscientious objector. To find him, Van Schoonderwalt had the stroke of genius to simply look in the telephone book, and the luck that someone gave him an old one. Had he used the current one, he wouldn't have found De Ronde who, as it turned out, hadn't had a telephone connection in years. The number was out of order, so Van Schoonderwalt just went to the address.

Nothing of what I had imagined was true. De Ronde hadn't died, hadn't prospered, hadn't married, he didn't have six children one of whom played chess quite well. He had stayed in Buenos Aires after the '39 Olympiad, and he was still staying there. That was really all. The forties had come, the fifties, the sixties and then the seventies, and nothing had changed. His life had been like the first 30 moves of his game, not like the last 20. The only thing that had changed was that he didn't like chess anymore.
    De Ronde, a well-preserved 65, lived in two small blinded rooms, filled with books and papers, in a run-down apartment building. He did not speak Dutch, 'that clumsy language', anymore - Van Schoonderwalt was the first Dutchman he'd spoken to in 39 years. He was not going to visit the chess Olympiad or Prins and Van Scheltinga - he had given up chess long ago, it had made him too nervous. He gave private lessons in English and mathematics, not because he liked it, but in order to survive.
    In his old life in Holland, in the 'Black Thirties' (he had been born in 1912 in Schiedam), he had studied mathematics in Leyden, but had not graduated. He had written poetry - one poem, just before he went away, had been published. He had also studied in Paris, but there, he had spent most of his time reading, writing, and playing chess for money in the café's, ten francs a game. He had always been leftist, and when Hitler came to power in '33, he had felt terribly dejected, and had said to himself: 'Better to be dropped naked in Patagonia than this.' He did not want to be in the war that seemed inevitable, and as he was not recognized as an official conscientious objector, and could see mobilization coming, he desperately tried to find a way to get away, even if that would make him a deserter technically. The invitation to play in the Buenos Aires Olympiad was a godsend - he may have been the only player there who knew beforehand he was going to stay.
    And so he did. Even if Argentine politics disgusted him. But where should he go? He could never live in Holland, with its silly parasitic monarchy, almost as bad as fascism. So he'd stayed, lecturing math for a while, working for Philips, but short of having bars over the windows, that had been jail. When they found out he was some sort of a deserter, they had fired him anyway. He had continued writing, in English now, his diary and poetry, but publications were not mentioned. He had never been back to Holland, he wasn't sure he was still a Dutch citizen. Didn't have a passport. What did he need a passport for? - he was too poor to travel anyway. He had never thought of marrying - making someone share your poverty wouldn't be fair. He didn't pay taxes, didn't build a pension, wasn't registered anywhere. Nobody knew about him, and that was the way he wanted it. He was an outcast by choice, preferring that to being a slave in an office. And even so, he thought he was better off than most people. But now, at 65, maybe he wanted to go away. But where?

Trying to find some information on his later years, I called all the De Ronde's in his former home town, Schiedam. There were quite a few, but most had never heard of a strong chess player De Ronde who had emigrated to Argentina long ago. One however, a distant relative, knew about him. He even had a photograph. He wasn't sure, but he thought De Ronde had died in Buenos Aires, six or seven years ago.

I can see the Hollywoodization of his life:
BIRD'S EYE PAN over big city, ZOOM IN on slums. OLD MAN leaves corrugated iron shack, walks into the buzz of the city. CUT TO: Chess shop. Old man looks, hesitates, stops. A great emotion comes over him. Hesitates more, goes inside. CUT TO: old man in front of bookshelves, looking for book. Finds it, browses it, looks at diagrams. Suddenly stops browsing. INSERT: diagram. CLOSE UP: Old man looks at diagram very intently. His hands tremble. His lips tremble. His eyes become moist. He trembles all over, drops to the floor, book in his hand, opened at diagram. CUT TO: SHOP OWNER sees something is wrong, comes over, feels old man's pulse. CUT TO: Ambulance stops in front of chess shop, TWO MEN IN WHITE jump out, hurry inside. CUT TO: Man in white hunched over old man, shakes head, places sheet over face. Stretcher with body carried out of chess shop. PAN TO chess book on floor, still opened at diagram. ZOOM IN on diagram. Diagram FADES into same position on real chess board. Playing hall. DASHING YOUNG MAN thinking hard, picks up knight, plays move. SPECTATORS crowd around board. Admiring sounds hushed away. More spectators. CLOSE UP: Clock ticking, hand nearing twelve. BEAUTIFUL GIRL holding breath. Moves hammered out on board, admiring sounds no longer hushed away. OPPONENT is crushed. Overturns king. Wild applause. OFFICIAL-LOOKING MAN comes up to dashing young man. 'You are invited to play for our country.'
© Tim Krabbé, 1999
With many thanks to Tabe Bas, the Max Euwe Center, Frans van Schoonderwalt, and L.F. de Ronde.

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