For about two weeks a year in winter, for close to 80 years, a small, seaside community in the Netherlands, has been the center of the chess universe.

One of the world’s strongest and oldest tournaments and chess festivals is also in one of the least likely places: Wijk aan Zee, a small, seaside town in the Netherlands. That the festival, which will be held this year for the 79th time, starting Friday, is also in the dead of winter, when it is bitterly cold and most people would never think of going there for vacation, makes it even more unlikely.

But, like many things that have long traditions, there is a very good, but somewhat odd reason that Wijk aan Zee holds such an important place on the chess calendar: the proximity of the major local employer, a steel plant originally called Hoogovens. The festival was started in 1938 by a chess club in Beverwijk, another town next to the plant, and although the name of the event has changed over the years as the plant has changed ownership, the plant remains the raison d’être for the festival because its owner (which today is Tata Steel) has long been the primary sponsor.

The first tournament in Beverwijk, which was held over a weekend, was only for Dutch players and had 49 competitors. That weekend format continued to be a popular option for amateur entrants at least into the 1970s.

The third edition in 1940 not only had more players — 68 — it included its first star: Max Euwe, the ex-World Champion, who won all three of his games en route to first place in the top section.

In 1941, although the Netherlands was now under German occupation, the congress grew to 116 players. There were A and B top sections, but Euwe only came third. For the first time, there was also a women’s tournament, won by Fanny Heemskerk.

Despite the war, the tournament continued to grow, with six players in the top section in 1942 (when Euwe won again) and eight in 1943 and 1944.

In 1945, the war finally did catch up to the tournament as it was cancelled because the majority of the country, which was not yet liberated, was suffering grievously from cold and starvation.

In 1946, the tournament expanded to include international players. The top section was a 10-player round-robin featuring Alberic O’Kelly de Galway from Belgium and Gustav Stoltz from Sweden, who finished first and second, respectively.

Hans Kmoch, the strong international master and international arbiter, later wrote a book about the 1946 tournament – the first published about the festival. In the book, Kmoch noted that Stoltz had been a late replacement for one of three other international players who had been invited to compete: Stuart Milner-Barry and William Winter from England, and Henry Grob from Switzerland. When those players did not accept, two were replaced by Dutch ones, while Stoltz arrived only half an hour before play began. One of the Dutch players, Dr. A. D. de Groot (who later wrote the psychological study Thought and Choice in Chess), was the only contestant to defeat O’Kelly.

In addition to making the top section an international tournament, the amateur groups were also expanded and lengthened. There was one 10-player section, with competition over nine days, nine 8-player tournaments, seven 6-player tournaments and fifty weekend groups, which were held on the final weekend. The pattern for future years had been set.

The Hoogoven tournaments continued to be played in Beverwijk for twenty years and gradually expanded, attracting increasingly illustrious fields. In 1960, Bent Larsen of Denmark and Tigran Petrosian, the future World Champion from Armenia in the Soviet Union, tied for first. The following year, Larsen tied for first again, this time with Borislav Ivkov of Serbia (then Yugoslavia).

In 1963, there were 18 participants in the top section, but this settled at 16 in 1964 and for many years that was the standard size of international round-robin tournaments. The 1964 co-champions were two Estonians: Paul Keres and Iivo Nei.

In 1968 Hoogovens moved the congress to the windswept resort village of Wijk aan Zee, which is on the coast northwards of its headquarters, and a short bus journey west of Beverwijk. Viktor Korchnoi, then of the Soviet Union, won the inaugural tournament in its new location. He would be followed a year later by two other Soviets, Mikhail Botvinnik, the former World Champion, and Efim Geller. The Soviet hold on the top section continued in 1970 with a victory by Mark Taimanov followed by Korchnoi again in 1971.

When I first played there, in January 1972, all tournaments were held in the Kennermerduin Hotel.

The many round-robin tournaments for amateurs (10-player and 4-player) were played in the hotel’s basement. Players in those days were allowed to smoke and the atmosphere steadily became foggier during each session. After games were finished, players could go up to the restaurant on the ground floor where demonstration boards would show the current positions from the grandmaster and master tournaments. Commentary was usually provided by Lex Jongsma, a chess journalist and lawyer.

One of the traditions of Hoogovens was that visitors in the amateur sections were accommodated by local families who worked there, and for three years I stayed with the same family who were extremely hospitable.

The first year I was there, Lajos Portisch, the great Hungarian grandmaster, took top honors in the top section.

In 1973, I played in one of the reserve master groups and managed to score 50 percent. My group was won by Genna Sosonko who had recently arrived in Holland from Leningrad and as yet had no FIDE rating. (Sosonko would tie for first with Geller in the elite section in 1977.) That year was the first that reserve master groups and the other amateur sections played in the (then brand new) sports hall De Moriaan, a huge improvement in our playing conditions.

Probably for economic reasons, the top section was reduced to 12 players in 1976, but increased to 14 in 1980, and remained that way until 1992. Among the winners during those years were Lev Polugaevsky of the Soviet Union (1979); Walter Browne and Yasser Seirawan, both of the United States (1980); Sosonko and Jan Timman, both representing the home country, (1981); Nigel Short of England (1986); Short again along with Korchnoi (1987); Anatoly Karpov, the former World Champion from the Soviet Union (1988); and Viswanathan Anand of India, Predrag Nikolic, then of Yugoslavia, but later Bosnia, and Zoltan Ribli and Gyula Sax, both of Hungary (1989).

A financial crisis at the Hoogovens company nearly killed the tournament in 1993, but the congress was saved by the help of eight local sponsors. The international tournament took the form of knock-out mini-matches alongside an open. As players in the top group were eliminated, they joined the open with a predetermined score depending on how far they had reached in the matches.

In the second round of matches, Karpov suffered perhaps his worst defeat as an elite player as he blundered a piece on move 11 against grandmaster Larry Christiansen of the United States and had to resign. But Karpov recovered and eventually won the knock-out tournament, while Valery Salov of Russia, who was beaten in the semifinal, went on to win the open.

In 1994, the top tournament, a 10-player round-robin, was won by Nikolic. It was the secondary attraction, however, as it was held alongside seven first-round Candidates matches.

The 1995 congress went back to the same system that was used in 1993. Alexey Dreev of Russia won the knockout and Sergey Tiviakov, a Russian-born Dutch grandmaster, stormed to victory in the open after he was eliminated in the knockout by Short.

Traditional round-robins returned in 1996 and from then until 2002 the top event featured 14 players. The winners during this period included Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine (1996); Vladimir Kramnik of Russia along with Anand (1998); and Garry Kasparov of Russia, the reigning World Champion (1999, 2000 and 2001, by which time he had lost the title to Kramnik). It was in the 1999 tournament that Kasparov played what many consider his greatest game, and perhaps the greatest ever, against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria.

In 1999, Hoogovens merged with British Steel to form a new company: Corus. The festival was renamed after the new company, starting in 2000.

By 2003, there were two 14-player elite sections and also a 10-player master invitational. Anand won the top section and repeated the following year, when the number of elite 14-player sections expanded to three. It was in that year, 2004, in the third, or C group, that Magnus Carlsen, who was 13, electrified the world by winning the section with a score of 10.5 points.

The festival would continue to have three 14-player elite groups until 2013. In the meantime, Corus was acquired by Tata Steel, an Indian-based conglomerate, in 2007, and in 2011, the tournament was renamed after the new parent company. In the first year with a new name, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States registered his greatest victory to date by capturing first place.

The global economic crisis of 2008 gradually took a toll and in 2014 the elite sections were reduced to two: a 12-player elite section and a 14-player challengers group. Levon Aronian of Armenia won the top group that year.

Finally in 2015 and again last year, the elite group was expanded again to 14 players, with Carlsen, now the World Champion, winning both times.

There were 1518 entries for the amateur events in 2016, and unlike most congresses, where these would be Swiss tournaments, Tata Steel uniquely maintains the old round-robin traditions. So they had many 10-player tournaments last year (of which the top had an average rating of over 2360).

Though it has suffered some cutbacks in recent years, Tata Steel is now the only elite tournament to be run as a round-robin with more than 10 competitors. The field in this year’s top section includes Carlsen; Sergey Karjakin of Russia, whom Carlsen beat in the World Championship last year in New York to retain the title; Wesley So of the United States, who recently won the London Classic and the 2016 Grand Chess Tour; Aronian; Ian Nepomniachtchi and Dmitry Andreikin of Russia; Anish Giri and Loek van Wely of the host country; Pentala Harikrishna and Baskaran Adhiban of India; Richard Rapport of Hungary; Wei Yi of China; Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine; and Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland.

The field for the challengers section is headed by Markus Ragger of Austria and also includes eleven other grandmasters, among them Jeffery Xiong of the United States (the reigning World Junior Champion); England’s Gawain Jones; and rising Dutch stars Benjamin Bok and Jorden van Foreest. As is now traditional, two women complete the field: Lei Tingije of China, a woman grandmaster, and Sopiko Guramishvili, an international master who is also Giri’s wife. This will be her first tournament since giving birth to the couple’s first child last October.

It should be an outstanding tournament.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favorable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.