An Interview with Rob van Vuurde

In May 2017, Rob van Vuurde, who taught History and International Relations at the University of Utrecht, published Adoe toean blanda, u staat schaakmat! Een geschiedenis van het schaken in Nederlands-Indië (Oh Sir, you are checkmated! A History of Chess in the Dutch East Indies), a 329-page book published in Dutch by a Rotterdam publisher. An intriguing slice of the colonial era’s chess past, the book is an excellent study case of how chess evolved at the outskirts of the 1800-1900s chess civilization (then centered on Europe and America). In an email interview conducted throughout August-October 2018, the Dutch author kindly answered several questions regarding his project.

Why the interest in the Dutch East Indies? Is this connected to your academic work?

As a teacher in modern history at the Utrecht University I specialized in the history of international relations. The subject of my dissertation was the policy of Britain and the Netherlands in the Caribbean during the period 1895-1914, when this area became dominated by the United States. During my professional career I had never focused on the history of Indonesia. Everything changed when I retired, about ten years ago. I got interested in the history of chess. In 2010, my chess club in the Dutch village of Driebergen (Utrecht) celebrated its 75th anniversary and I wrote a book about its history. This work gave me a lot of pleasure and I looked for new research opportunities on chess history topics. Why chess in the Dutch East Indies? Firstly, my interest was raised by several interesting stories about the Batak chess player Si Narsar. Secondly, chess in Indonesia during the colonial period was a closed and concise period. Thirdly, hardly any research was done about that subject. Finally, there was a practical reason: the Dutch East Indies newspapers, my main source, could be consulted in digital databases via the Internet. 

In terms of sources, what was the biggest challenge?

Since I cannot read Indonesian texts, my book is based on only Dutch sources. The most important were the Dutch East Indian newspapers and the monthly journal of the Nederlandsch-Indischen Schaakbond (NISB; Dutch East Indies Chess Federation), 1916-1941. I had hoped that various chess clubs had preserved jubilee books, but it turned out that only the Surabayan Chess Club did so. Nevertheless, their 1936 jubilee book offered very interesting information and also many portraits of club members and other illustrations. 

Of course, this general lack of information was a disappointment, all the more because the relation between the three main ethnic groups in the colonial chess world, the Europeans, Indonesians, and the Chinese, is an important theme in my book. I hoped that my Dutch sources would also offer information about the non-European chess players and their organizations. They did, but only about Indonesian and Chinese players and clubs that were integrated in the organization of the NISB. About the non-European clubs that remained outside the NISB – their numbers were growing in the 1930s – I found little information. Therefore, inevitably, my book presents a Western view on colonial chess. That is a pity and therefore I advocated in the summary at the end of the book for further research on Indonesian sources (e.g. Malay newspapers). 

In addition to basic specialized chess publications, was there a possibility to reach private archives (either on the Dutch side - descendants of former colonials - or descendants of the Bataks)? 

I have interviewed a dozen descendants of colonial chess players. Maybe there are more people to be found. The persons interviewed helped me with some recollections and photographs. I found only one personal archive with some chess documents, the archive of Wim Wertheim. I did not do research in Indonesia, so I don’t know if there are archives about Batak chess. I do not think there are personal archives of them, since almost all of them were illiterate during the period under discussion.

The book offers a good selection of interesting illustrations and games. Have you recovered more games than the ones presented in the book? Do you have a larger database?

Many hundreds of games played in the Dutch East Indies are published in the Dutch sources I’ve consulted, especially in the Tijdschrift van den Nederlandsch-Indischen Schaakbond (1916-1941). I did not create a special database.

Who were the top three Batak players prior to 1940? Did any of them travel to Europe for chess play in a sort of Sultan Khan-like effort?

In the first quarter of the twentieth century rumors were circulating in Europe about miraculously strong Batak chess players on the Karo Plateau in the northern part of Sumatra. The Dutch authority in that region was established only at the beginning of the century. The illiterate natives still had their own religion, culture and customs. Various accounts by visiting Westerners stated how chess dominated the daily life of the male Bataks. The strongest of them were “professionals.” They played for high stakes against each other, surrounded by gambling fellow villagers. The Bataks mostly kept to playing according to their own rules that differed a lot from the modern Western game. 

In 1904, a German plantation owner, Armin von Oefele, who lived near the town of Medan, published a booklet titled Das Schachspiel der Bataker. In it he explained the rules of Batak chess and illustrated them with some games. A real interest was raised a few years later when Si Narsar, their champion, received invitations from the European chess club in Medan and he proved to be a talented player in modern Western chess as well. In 1914, after a successful tour of Java playing about a hundred of simultaneous games, he was nicknamed “Bataksche Capablanca.” Many people in the colony and in the Netherlands could not understand how this illiterate man, who had little experience with modern chess, could beat so many Dutch club players. A rumor circulated that Si Narsar was invited to travel to Europe in order to pit his strength against international chess masters. That never happened.

In 1916, Si Narsar made a second, less successful, exhibition tour of Java. Newspapers mentioned that for several reasons he did not play much chess. At the yearly Batak championship tournaments, where they played according to their own rules, he was overtaken by new talents like Si Prang, Si Toemboek and Si Hoekoem (the last one also spelled as Si Ngoekoem). They would dominate Batak chess for the next two decades.

The myths around Batak chess in the West persisted for many years. European masters who made a tour through the Dutch East Indies, Boris Kostić in 1925 and Max Euwe in 1930, visited Medan and the Karo Plateau in order to play chess against Bataks. Both were impressed by what they called their “intuitive play,” all the more so because they kept playing against each other according to their own rules. But Euwe, who had learned those “obsolete” rules from Si Hoekoem, advised to replace them completely with the modern ones. He predicted that only then a first class chess master like Sultan Khan in British India could arise in the Dutch East Indies.

The developments in the 1930s and 1940s confirmed Euwe’s opinion in so far that the strongest Batak players in those years did not live on the Karo Plateau but in Batavia (Jakarta) in Java. By then many members of the Batak community in the capital had a Western education and were integrated in the colonial society. Their chess club Satoer Batak was one of the strongest in the colony and their champion, Hisar Sormin, played an important role in the yearly Java Championship tournaments, which he won in 1936. 

How would you describe the Bataks' playing style? 

Naturally, the illiterate Bataks lacked any knowledge of chess theory in terms of openings. They opened their games often with the h-pawn (as White) or a-pawn (as Black). By neglecting the importance of the central squares, they fell behind in development in games against European opponents. The reason why they played the opening this way is probably the different starting position of the two queens in Batak chess. At the start of the game, the queen did not reside on the same file with the opponent’s queen but on the same file with the opponent’s king and that invited castling on different sides and aggressive king attacks with swift pawn storms.

If the Bataks emerged from the opening stage not too badly damaged, they became tough opponents. After several games with them, Euwe concluded that it was difficult to outplay them positionally. But he was even more impressed by the way they played the endgame; he called them “masters of the endgame.” This surprised him even more so because they used to play rather fast, placing more trust in their intuition than in calculation. 

What are the biggest myths about the Bataks? 

The myth about Batak chess lived mainly in the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. In the rest of Europe chess magazines showed some interest in the phenomenon but limited and short-lived. The myth arose during the first Java tour of Si Narsar who became the personification of Batak chess. People overestimated his results in the simultaneous exhibitions, ignoring the relative weakness of most of his opponents. Nevertheless his play was remarkable indeed for Si Narsar was illiterate and had very little experience with both simultaneous exhibitions and the Westernized rules. It was for these reasons that contemporaries concluded that Bataks had a “natural” talent for chess, which became an important part of the myth around them. 

Various other social-cultural explanations circulated. Visitors of the region remarked that the male residents in the villages could play chess the whole day because their wives did all the work on the land. Moreover, chess could be an important source of income, even more so since the Dutch authorities decided to forbid cockfighting, which made chess games more popular for gambling.

Are the Bataks unique in world history for their interest in chess anthropologically or culturally? 

I don’t know if the Bataks were or are unique in world history in that respect. Perhaps a cultural-anthropologist with an interest in chess can answer that question. I can only say that in the Dutch East Indies various accounts mentioned that chess players from the sultanate of Bandjermasin (South Kalimantan) were also remarkably talented. Max Euwe confirmed that when he faced them over the board during his tour. He praised them for abandoning their old rules several decades earlier. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much information about them in my sources.

Will we see an English translation of this work at some point?

I do hope that there will be an English or Indonesian translation of my book, but at this moment no concrete steps are being made in that direction. To reduce the costs I am prepared to put together a shorter edition that is less focused on Dutch readers. The President of the Indonesian Chess Federation, grandmaster Utut Adianto, has recently received a copy of my book, presented to him by Dr. Michael Rauner from the Dutch embassy in Jakarta. During that ceremony, Adianto emphasized the importance of chess history, which did not get the attention it deserved in Indonesia. 

Acknowledgement: The 1920 drawing of Si Narsar is given here courtesy of the Memory of the Netherlands.