A short history of NATO Chess (1989-2020)
Une brève histoire du jeu d´échecs à l´OTAN (1989-2020)
The NATO Chess Championships - A review of the last 25 years (1978 - 2003)
Polish Armed Forces at NATO Chess
Unofficial NATO Chess Tournaments had been held in Denmark every year since 1978.
In 1989, they were upgraded to an official NATO Championship, for countries and individuals, when the tournament was held in Hammelburg, Germany.
The tournaments from 1978 to 1988 provided a basic format for the successful championships we enjoy today. For a more in-depth historical background, we should consider the writings of several NATO Chess veterans. Firstly, from Wolfgang Berger of Germany, a national arbiter of the Deutsche Schach Bund. He has painstakingly compiled the results since the 1st tournament. In his booklet, published in 1994, he wrote....
The 15th anniversary of NATO chess competitions is an occasion worthy of a brief look back at the events that stood out during this period. I am well aware that, while striving for a maximum of objectivity, it is not possible to approach such an exercise without some degree of subjectivity.
Moreover, a detailed description would not fit the framework of this compilation. Several key figures were instrumental in the organisation of the early tournaments, namely:
Discerning readers of this article will know that these competitions have developed over the years into events geared towards a high level of achievement. Fortunately, however, the making of new contacts and the maintenance of old friendships have not suffered as a result.
General observations about the NATO chess tournaments and championships
Without exaggerating, it can be stated that the formation of the NATO Chess Championships was rather problematic.
When Ken Moore, (Danish Tourist Board Liaison Officer in the Federal Republic of Germany) invited participants to Aalborg, Denmark for a chess tournament for members of NATO's armed forces stationed in Germany in May 1978, he had no idea (as he admitted himself a few years later) just what he had started.
Staff Sergeant John Excell, member of the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) in Germany and an active member of the Army Chess Association, was particularly instrumental in creating this event.
Before each competition, team leaders engaged in long, animated debates on the rules of chess, as considerable differences between national competition rules existed, each trying to include as many of their own ideas as possible. It often happened that participants could only reach a compromise after long discussions. In spite of these heated discussions, however, the tournaments themselves were always conducted in a harmonious atmosphere.
An attempt by Major Don Nolte (US team-leader from 1980-1982), to set up a specific set of competition rules to which everyone agreed, ultimately failed. Despite attempts to unify the parties involved, his draft, in which he tried to supplement and spell out the FIDE rules in detail, found no consent. On the contrary, the team leaders continued their heated discussions on a number of points. Sadly, it took quite a while before the FIDE competition rules were accepted without reservation by all participating nations.
Since 1989 team leaders' discussions have only dealt with general points relating to the applications of the Laws of Chess. Meanwhile, contacts between the players developed in a way that could never have been foreseen, with many friendships being made during the competitions.
Tours of the local area where the competitions were held were annual highlights for which a free afternoon was always scheduled. The main attraction, however, was always the closing ceremony and banquet with the obligatory speeches and the awarding of cups, medals and certificates.
With regards to the technical development of the competition, the requirements for inclusion in national teams have undergone drastic changes. Several countries made participation conditional on qualification in their national military chess championships. Certain teams organised training camps with International Grandmasters and other strong players.
As a result of the increasing interest, which these events gained during the course of time, it was even possible to bring FIDE titleholders into action. As the number of participants increased, so did the logistical problems for the organisers (e.g. finding accommodation for 80-100 people). This was just one reason why, in 1986, the idea to organise the event in alternating countries was conceived. However, it was not until 1989 that this finally came about….
When the 1st Official NATO Chess Championship was held in Hammelburg, Germany in 1989, the NATO Secretary-General, Dr. Manfred Wörner, honoured the victors and became patron of the chess competitions.
On the occasion of the 3rd Official NATO Chess Championship, held at Cranwell, England in 1991, an International Military Chess committee was set up, in order to support NATO member-states interested in organising future competitions. To assist with planning and preparations, the committee was formed under the Chairman-ship of Brigadier General (rtd.) Hendrik Steffers, with Lieutenant Colonel Jan Ludden, also from the Netherlands, as Secretary.
Although the committee has no direct influence on national interests, it is hoped that it will always succeed in ensuring that these championships will continue in the future in their proven form. Apart from the sporting worth of these competitions, the invaluable aspect of maintaining contacts with participants from various nations' Services should not be underestimated.
Also in 1994, the following essay was composed....
The noble art of chess has always been viewed favourably and with great goodwill by our Headquarters of Defence. Military chess players have participated in every NATO chess tournament since 1981, representing the Norwegian Chief of Defence. As a matter of course, the players and team-leaders were granted extra leave, with all expenses paid by Headquarters.
We looked forward to the yearly meetings not only due to our love of chess, but also because the tournaments involved a rare social gathering of friends and colleagues old and new. The tournaments in Denmark were good events, but some felt that official NATO approval was needed and the increasing deterioration of the standard of accommodation was unpopular amongst the competing nations.
Therefore, during the 1988 NATO tournament, the team-leaders decided it would be the last one to be held in Aalborg, directing the Arbiter to inform the Danish organiser of their decision. The first thing that happened was that the organiser ignored the Arbiter's greeting the next morning. But we are still friends! The decision also led to official approval, which was necessary for the growth of the event.
After a formal invitation from the German Chief of Staff, we met in Hammelburg in 1989 to play in the 1st NATO Championships. This was followed by further championships held annually in Norway, United Kingdom, Germany and Netherlands.
The official status of the tournaments has not diminished their social value. It is of course of some importance, but not absolutely vital how many points individual players or nations manage to get. Wounded chess-players need only a short time to recover!
The Norwegian participants and team-leaders want to say a great thank-you for the institution that is the NATO Chess Championships, and also for all the years we met in Denmark.
We unite in kindest regards.
Commander Otto Graf von Ibenfeldt
13 Jul 94
A Dutch viewpoint....
The Dutch chess team has participated in the NATO chess championships since 1989 when the 1st Official NATO championships were held in Hammelburg, Germany.
The invitation to this tournament had been sent not only to the Ministry of Defence, but also to the national chess federation requesting me to select a team to play in Germany. I contacted the Dutch Ministry of Defence and authorisation was subsequently granted for our participation.
The tournament in Hammelburg was well-organised and went ahead flawlessly. The NATO Secretary-General, Dr. Manfred Wörner, handed out the prizes himself and stated that the continuity of this event was to be safeguarded. The Dutch team consisted of eight players and was led by a Major A Kabel, who maintained contacts with the organising committee in an honorary capacity. Of the eight competing countries, the Netherlands finished in sixth place. Three Dutch players won prizes for elegant play during the tournament.
In 1990, the Netherlands sent a team of eight players to Oslo in Norway, where the 2nd NATO Championships had been organised. This time, the Dutch team was led by Brigadier General Steffers, a passionate and excellent chess player. The tournament was held in the city centre of Oslo in a magnificent concert hall. The Netherlands finished in fourth place, with nine countries competing. The stay in Oslo was greatly enjoyed. It is a beautiful city and the weather was excellent. At the same time, the city was hosting a football cup final, which drew large numbers of supporters on to the city streets.
The 3rd NATO Chess Tournament was organised in the United Kingdom in 1991 at Royal Air Force Cranwell. This event took place in August during the holidays, which allowed the players to be accommodated on the airbase. Eight countries participated in the tournament. The Netherlands finished behind Germany, taking second place in the ranking list of countries. Individually, two Dutch players finished in fifth and sixth places. In the third round, Brigadier General Steffers won the prize for his elegant play in a spectacular attacking game. On the rest day, English Grandmaster Jonathan Speelman gave a Simultaneous display. An indoor football tournament was organised during the week, which was won by the Netherlands - beating Germany on penalties in the Final.
During the Cranwell tournament, the decision was made to set up an International Chess Committee. Brigadier General H. Steffers (NL) was elected it's Chairman and Major G.J. Ludden (NL) it's Secretary. Lieutenant Colonel S Wölk (GER), Wing Commander R Kermeen (UK), Brigadier General P Scaramucci (ITA) and Commander Otto Graf von Ibenfeldt (NOR) were selected to serve as Committee Members. The purpose of this committee was to ensure the annual continuation of the event and to plan the tournaments for the forthcoming years.
In early 1992, the committee was faced with an important task. Italy, which had planned to organise the tournament, had to withdraw at the last moment for organisational reasons. Germany was the only country prepared to act as a substitute host. The International Chess Committee sent a letter to this effect to the German Minister of Defence. The request was granted and the tournament was organised in Germany for the second time in four years.
This time the tournament was held in the Lützow barracks in Münster, approximately 60 km from the Dutch border. The Netherlands once again finished second behind Germany, with ten countries competing. However, the question as to which country would come first remained an exciting debate up to the last round. Dutch Private F Krudde took a creditable third place in the individual listings.
The chess committee was once again called into action in 1993. The United States was to organise the tournament but had to rescind their offer in the middle of the year due to financial reasons. An alternative tournament was swiftly organised at the Royal Military Academy in Breda in the Netherlands. Unlike previous years, teams competing in this tournament consisted of only five players.
The next official chess championships will also be held in the Netherlands in 1994. It has already been determined that Norway will be the hosts in 1995.
The supervisors of the Dutch team, Brigadier General H. Steffers and Lieutenant Colonel G.J. Ludden, look back upon the last five years with great satisfaction. In addition to the chess event, several social contacts have been established and many players now exchange letters, showing the emergence of a large international chess family. It is hoped that this event will continue on for many years. Perhaps one day it will even be possible to include the countries of Eastern Europe.
Lièutenant Colonel G.J. Ludden
Secretary, NATO Chess Committee
24 Feb 1994
Personal memories of Alec Toll (UK),
with acknowledgement to Wolfgang Berger (GER)
It may surprise a few people to learn that the tournament was conceived over two decades ago by an Englishman - Ken Moore. Whilst working as a Forces Liaison Officer for the Danish Tourist Board back in 1978, Ken came up with a bright idea. He invited chess-players from the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) and Germany's Armed Forces to participate in a team chess tournament in Northern Denmark. See the pictures and read more....
To start with, I shall stress that I am extremely honoured to write these words on NATO Chess from Polish perspective following good examples of Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. I think that 20 unbroken participations at the championships and the gathered experience present a good opportunity for reflection.
Poland made his chess debut on the allied stage at Brest 2002. The representation was organised and headed by then Cpt. Tomasz Malinowski. He paved the first and most difficult way for a steady participation in the future. The 6th Team place was not that disappointing considering first the strong opposition and second the accidental composition of our squad. Tomasz wanted a stronger representation for future competitions, so he organised in 2003 the first (after the political transformation) championship of Polish Armed Forces making much personal effort to gather chess players from all units in one place for one week. I consider this as a second milestone in developing military chess in Poland. Since then, we had almost each year the classical and blitz championships which also served as qualifying tournaments to NATO Chess - 3 top winners secure a spot on the representation, the criteria for other places include place at the current championship, Elo rating, results in other tournaments, etc. The team results surprisingly improved already the next year when Poland took team silver. Many young soldiers wanted to measure their strength at the allied level and therefore seriously trained to meet that end.
It was clear for Tomasz from the very beginning that Polish soldiers will always be willing to compete in that tournament. He took also the chance and challenge to host the event in Kołobrzeg already in 2005. This way the NATO Chess family could learn more about Poland and our MoD had the unique chance to see best allied chess players in action.
Moreover, it was important for Tomasz to make sure that his initiative will be continued, so he engaged me since 2009 to help him in organisational matters and take the post of the team captain. I eagerly grabbed at the chance and proposed some changes, first and foremost, enlarging our team. Namely, for a few years Poland usually had only 6 players. Since 2013 after finding some additional support and funding we are a so called full team, using 6 spots for the national team and 2 for NATO Chess. This way we give more opportunities to young players to participate at the event, and give a contribution to the NATO Team pool like some other nations. My another idea was to make more publicity by publishing chess articles after each competition and having military representations in some Polish team tournaments.
A new impulse (actually rather an era) in Polish engagement at NATO Chess began at Kaunas-2011 when gen. H. Steffers decided to hand over the leadership to younger officers and the IMCC chose Tomasz as its Chairman and me as Secretary. Polish Minister of Defence approved the choice, and promised by the way to support hosting a second NCC. It was held in 2013 in a military resort Rynia near Warsaw.
Why is NATO Chess so popular among Polish soldiers and civilian workers of MoD? First, it’s a great honour for us to compete with our allied colleagues, integrate together and learn other cultures. Second, the format of the competition is very attractive - 5 working days and no games among players of the same nationality. Third, the championships offer very good quality for the entry fee.
We are very proud of coming to each championship since 2002 and hope to hold the unbroken streak. To date 32 Polish chess players participated at NATO Chess (see the chessboard). We have won in the meantime many steady fans and supporters who encourage us to train. This all could not happen without approval and all sort support from the Polish Ministry of Defence. I am rather confident that there will be always a Polish representation. When ca. 50 players fight in the national championship for the NCC qualification then the lack of volunteers is rather not a problem. To date Polish Armed Forces have won three team competitions and several individual medals (though without the gold). The result is rather good when comparing the squads with, for example, such a powerful powerhouse as Germany.
Now, being chosen in 2021 the Chairman of the International Military Chess Committee I have more opportunities to introduce new ideas to our competitions. One of them is the NATO Chess coin for chess players with at least 12 participations at NATO Chess Championships or Tournaments. Using this opportunity I sincerely thank all Allies for a warm welcome and then fair competition for so many years. The organisational support and national contributions to all aspects of NATO Chess are highly appreciated as well.
LtCol Sławomir Kędzierski
Warsaw, 23 Dec 2022