(All photographs in this post are © Alina L’Ami)
Are you ready for some weekend reading? Our big interview this week is with Grandmaster Erwin L’Ami.
Erwin, a Grandmaster since 2005, kindly spent some time answering our questions and in this interview reflects on his chess life and career to date. We discussed many subjects, including Erwin’s duties as a second on the road to the world championship, representing The Netherlands in team events and his courses for Chessable.
How did your chess journey begin?
I have three older brothers so when we would play football or any such sports, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance. At some point I discovered that in chess I could actually beat my brothers. That was a major catalyst!
Did you have any particular chess heroes or role models to inspire you in the
Garry Kasparov. As a young kid I witnessed the famous game Kasparov-Topalov live in Wijk aan Zee. Such experiences leave a lasting impression.
Which chess books did you find most instructive or inspirational during your
The Test of Time by Garry Kasparov (Pergamon, 1986) is a book that always comes to mind when I think about my early years.
Were any established Grandmasters particularly helpful or kind when you
broke through to upper levels of chess?
The Dutch chess scene is very friendly and relaxed and I always felt that all my colleagues were very friendly and helpful.
Online elite chess events have been a major success over the Summer. Do you embrace the new era of digital chess or are you eager for real-life, over-the-board action to return?
I hope we can take the best of both worlds. When I see the final match between Nakamura and Carlsen that just finished, I think it would be a pity to throw that overboard. At the same time I am very eager to see a real-life top level event taking place.
Erwin L’Ami at the chess board.
When will this happen again?
You have recently indulged in a little Banter Blitz. How seriously do you take
such games? Is it ‘just for fun’?
Just for fun! It’s good fun though and I hope to do a lot more.
Chess24 described you as: ‘One of the world’s leading opening theory
specialists and is always up to date with new developments.’ Yet in the same
interview you said: ‘My favourite part of the game is the endgame.’ Where do you think is your true area of expertise?
Behind the board, it’s surely the endgame. I often lack the memory to be very dangerous in the opening, forgetting key ideas and having to play something ‘soft’ instead. The endgame has always appealed to me for its clarity, but I do really enjoy opening analysis and when I work for Anish it is good to know that he is able to remember the analysis and is able to put it all in practice!
UK vs. The Netherlands
We miss the Staunton Memorial tournaments, which took place at Simpsons-
in-the-Strand, London. The players always seemed relaxed and approachable
(and we recorded an interview for CHESS Magazine there, too). The last four of those events operated as a United Kingdom vs. Netherlands match, in addition to being an all-play-all event. The Netherlands won in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and the the UK won only in 2009.
What memories do you have of those tournaments?
They were top-notch. Jan Mol, the Dutch sponsor of the event made sure nothing was left to chance and we always had a great time there as players. For me, as a young grandmaster and having just started my professional chess career, the tournaments were a great fixture in the calendar.
The UK team was strong and often involved Michael Adams and Nigel Short. Yet your team was much more successful. Do you think chess in The Netherlands has been stronger than chess in the UK since then?
The UK team certainly outranks us I believe, with Gawain Jones and David Howell they have two great new exponents of the new generation, having both reached 2700. In the Netherlands all eyes are on Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest. It has been especially nice to see Jorden’s breakthrough over the past year. We were in real need of some fresh blood in the Netherlands and Jorden has been showing it lately.
Your team spirit always appeared to be strong. In some ways we were witnessing ‘the changing of the guard.’ How inspirational were Ivan Sokolov and Jan Timman to you and the other members of the team?
I would also add Loek van Wely to that list. I grew up playing them and that was great. My lifetime score with Ivan is just a disaster and with Loek I had many epic battles. My generation learned a lot from them, especially in terms of character. Both Loek and Ivan are huge fighters.
Jan is of course a legend and even though I mainly played him in the later stages of his career, I always had a tough time. His style of healthy positional play and great feel for dynamism has always been hard to deal with for me.
Chess Olympiads and The World Championship
At the Chess Olympiads, The Netherlands earned silver in 1976 and bronze in
1998. With Anish Giri on top board one might expect more medals should be
a distinct possibility. What needs to happen to bridge the gap?
This slightly adds to my reply up on Jorden van Foreest’s breakthrough. For us to win medals in team events we need to be strong on all four boards, and a bit of luck!
You have worked as a second at the highest levels of chess. First, with
Veselin Topalov in matches for the World Championship and now with Anish
Giri, a current Candidate.
Anish Giri with Erwin L’Ami
How much has the role of being a second changed over the last decade?
Not much at all I think, the big changes happened the 20 years before that. Before computers entered the scene seconds would help with adjourned positions, and do all the work on the board. Nowadays of course adjournments are gone and everything is done digitally.
A Second’s Duties
What are your main duties?
I think actually the main one is to be a good companion to the player. Make sure the person feels good, is ready for the game and such. Then there are of course the obvious duties of helping in opening preparation and sometimes losing some sleep over that.
How has being in the role of a second impacted on your own game?
I think the main impact it had is that I discovered it is a role that I enjoy. I quite quickly realized that I would not become World Champion, and so this is really the next best thing.
These days with Anish, and before that with Veselin I travel to top events, help prepare these players when they meet the best players in the world, for such big events like the candidates tournament and world championship. I still cherish the Topalov-Anand 2010 match as one of the most interesting periods in my chess career.
The 2020 Candidates Tournament
The 2020 Candidates tournament took an enforced break due to the current
emergency. Should the tournament have even started under the circumstances, and how do you feel about continuing a tournament many months after it
We do start the event exactly in the second half so in that sense it’s a ‘natural’ split.
Other than that it is of course very unfortunate. The whole dynamic of the first half of the event is gone, which is good for some, bad for others.
Would you be happy if the second half of the tournament was played
I am pretty sure that is not under consideration. Classical chess I think is not made
for online and never will.
Erwin L’Ami on The Caro-Kann
Your Chessable course on the Caro-Kann Defense is very popular. Did you enjoy creating the course?
Absolutely. After returning from the Candidates I suddenly saw my entire calendar
clearing up. One by one all events I was supposed to be going to got cancelled.
Luckily I had already spoken with Geert about making a Lifetime Repertoire. I suddenly had three full months to work on it and I can honestly say I am very proud of how it turned out.
Will the Caro-Kann remain a major part of your opening repertoire?
It always has, and always will. I never stick to one line, but instead like to mix it up. I played the French, all different Spanish lines in 1….e5, Najdorf etc. Caro-Kann is surely
part of that mix.
If so, does it concern you that future opponents have an easy guide to your
Caro-Kann ‘secrets,’ making it easier to prepare to play against you?
I didn’t think about that yet, but now that you say it, that does sound scary.
Chessable: What Next for Erwin L’Ami?
Are you planning any more courses for Chessable?
Absolutely! My next big project is making videos for Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s something I very much look forward too as it’s simply an iconic book. I feel it’s an honour to be asked to do the videos.
How do you cope with the pain of defeat?
I always have done so, pretty easily. I am not very competitive.
Club players are always interested in ways to improve their game. What
advice would you offer to them?
To study chess in the way you feel like. Be it openings, tactics, endgames, you name it. I don’t believe there is one single way to improve your game.
Do you have a favourite game from chess history, and one from your own experience?
It’s always so hard to answer these questions! There it too much choose, especially for the second question! I’m going to go with my win against Mamedyarov in Reykjavik 2015 both because of the opponent and because it was a big step for me towards winning that event.
Erwin L’Ami – Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
Reykjavik Open, 2015
There are lots of active minor pieces here and perhaps this distracted Mamedyarov from considering rook moves.
White played 18 Rxd4! After the moves 18 …Nxd4 19 Nf4 Ng5 20 Nxh3 Nxh3+ this position was reached.
White needed to play just one more move – 21 Kf1 – and then Black resigned. This may look a shade premature, but White’s threats include 22 Nd5 and 22 Bxb7. If 21 …c6 then 22 Ne4, threatening both 23 Bxd4 and 23 Nf6+
Garry Kasparov – Veselin Topalov at Wijk aan Zee, 1999 is the other one for me. Having seen it as a child up close that made a huge impact. (Anish Giri chose the same game; a key position is included in our interview.
Thank you very much, Grandmaster Erwin L’Ami!
The Chessable course of Erwin L’Ami’s Lifetime Repertoires: The Caro Kann can be found here.