25 years as a chess organiser: an interview with Hans-Walter Schmitt

by Hartmut Metz
10/5/2019 – The Chess Classic tournaments in Frankfurt and Mainz are legendary. Organiser and driving force behind these tournaments was Hans-Walter Schmitt (pictured in 2004 with supermodel Carmen Kass), a tireless chess promoter. But after 25 years of organising chess events he now invites to a last spectacular event: a double simul with Vishy Anand and Vincent Keymer who both play on 40 boards. | Photos: Hartmut Metz

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A fine ambassador for chess

Hello and goodbye with a simul by Anand: after 25 years of organising chess events Hans-Walter Schmitt leaves the stage.

For the last 25 years Hans-Walter Schmitt has shaped the German chess scene like no other organiser. Almost all top players followed his invitation to take part at the Chess Classic events in Frankfurt and in Mainz. The huge open tournaments that were played in parallel broke record after record and attracted large numbers of amateurs. On October 3, German Unification Day, Schmitt's long and successful career as an organiser came to an end. And the 67-year old finished his career as it started 25 years ago in Bad Soden: with a 40 board simul by his friend Vishy Anand. Shortly before the event, Hartmut Metz invited Schmitt to share memories of his life as an organiser.

Dear Mr. Schmitt, 25 years ago, your chess club, Frankfurt-West, organised a simul with Viswanathan Anand. How do you remember this event?

Hans-Walter Schmitt: In 1992, the SC Frankfurt-West, a merger of the founding clubs Main-Taunus-Vereinigung SK Unterliederbach and SC Sindlingen, made me their new president. We wanted to establish a new Frankfurt School of Chess and a rapid chess tournament extraordinaire to connect the extroverted chess world to the world at large.

In 1994, the club would celebrate its 70th birthday, and thus we had two years to organise a decent event. After reading a great article by the late journalist and author Wolfram Runkel in which he compared Vishy Anand to Capablanca, and described the young Indian grandmaster as the most charismatic chess star of our time, I had an idea: that was the player I had been looking for, a fine ambassador for chess! But it was hard to get hold of him: he was too far away, not yet known enough, too busy.

Chess Classic, stage

But after dead-ends, I managed to establish contact to Anand through Frederic Friedel, co-founder of ChessBase. Back then I was the new kid on the block in the chess scene and that was, of course, not always easy.

However, I carried some magic potion with me, and during talks and negotiations, I liked to mention my employer, Siemens, in passing — in fact, the big Siemens company was paving the way for my ideas to promote chess, not little boy Schmitt himself. At that time my team at Siemens was already good for 180 million in sales. In 1992 I made to the top of the winner's podium of the world's best sales strategists in Hong Kong. Which impressed even the chess people a bit.

I thought Viswanathan Anand was a good ambassador for my ideas. Later, we also had a spiritual kinship in regard to music, with Freddy Mercury, Queen, and their legendary songs "The Show must go on", "We are the Champions", and "Go West" by the Pet Shop Boys.

No wonder that these became the title songs of the Chess Classic tournaments. Anand and you became friends, and later he even became your neighbour, living next door to you in Bad Soden.

Anand during a simul

Schmitt: Yes, but our first event was a simul, on Friday, July 8, 1994, which 162 players wanted to join. We then quickly decided to improvise and to play another simul on the next day, on July 9. Each simul had 40 participants, both simuls were sold out, and 40 players, no more, no less, became the default for Frankfurt Chess Classic simuls. So far, we have celebrated 20 of these events. The debut in 1994 was really something but in 1995 and 1996 Vishy gave me a pass — for good reasons: in 1995 he played a World Championship match in the New York Trade Center against Kasparov, and 1996 was the year of his wedding with Aruna.

But the long break also had a positive side: in 1995 Eric Lobron and Vladimir Kramnik came to play a match. And in 1996 Kramnik, Alexei Shirov, Robert Hübner, and Peter Leko were great replacements — they played a double-round-robin which was won by Shirov. In 1997 Anand, Karpov, Topalov, and Lobron ran the show. This was followed by Anand's unforgettable match against Karpov in Lausanne. After surviving seven knock-out matches at the FIDE World Championship in Groningen Anand had to face Karpov in the finals. The match went over six classical games, Karpov had been seeded for the final, and he was well rested, but Anand made it to the tiebreak. Which he then lost. Almost incredible — after all, a short while before, at the Main-Taunus-Zentrum, he had just steamrollered Karpov 3–1 in a rapid match.

Levon Aronian, Hans-Walter Schmitt, Vishy Anand

The event at the Main-Taunus-Zentrum later turned into something greater: you organised rapid chess events for your friend which year after year became bigger and bigger.

Schmitt: Yes, that's true. Finally, Garry had us on his radar. The big Siemens Company made everything possible — and we used the time we had to bring Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, and Ivanchuk to play. Karpov, however, chickened out: we had a legally binding contract but on May 23, 1998 he called in "sick" on short notice. But we replaced him with Ivanchuk. I contacted Ivanchuk and told him who was playing, and after hearing the name Kasparov, he immediately agreed to come. When I reprimanded him that we had not at all talked about money and his fee yet, he quickly replied that he would not care, that he was sure it would be okay.

Thus, I had a supertournament which Anand won ahead of Kramnik. Kasparov and Ivanchuk played for third place. After a well-timed note with which we threatened to sue Karpov for 250.000 as compensation for damages, we also had a supertournament in 1999. This time with Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, and Anand. I liked these developments — as did our sponsors and chess fans.

The tournaments became more and more popular, and books were written about them. The Frankfurt Chess Classic became legendary. You are the first organiser in the history of chess who had managed to bring all top ten players together in one tournament.

Schmitt: In 1999 we first had the "Big Four", Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand and Karpov. We really let it rip. 1,392 paying spectators at one evening. 13 minutes in one of Germany's most popular sports shows on TV, in which Vishy Anand and Box Champion Vitali Klitschko shot on the gaol wall: 1-0 for Vishy. We also made the national news on TV.

Hard to imagine today!

Schmitt: Yes, there was a chess hype in Germany! Unfortunately, back then no German chess star was in sight. Which we want to change now. At that time we went the extra mile and tried to organise the impossible: the Premiere of the Top Ten — and we succeeded. We managed to connect the chess elite with the general public. Siemens Giants, Frankfurt-West Masters, the Ordix Open with 424 participants, the computer matches "Fritz on Primergy" against the world's best player. The future of Chess960 began with two games in which Artur Jussupow played against "Fritz on Primergy".

Then you moved to Mainz.

Schmitt: We knew that the Chess Classic in Frankfurt would come to an end because our promoter, Sylvia Schenk, the head of the department for culture and sport, changed her metier. She became president of the Association of German Cyclists. But the white knight from Mainz, mayor Jens Beutel, was already on his way — he saw the enormous potential of chess for Mainz and tried everything to get the big rapid chess event, in which FIDE World Champion Vishy Anand would face Braingames World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, to his town. It was a great start. Nine more fantastic years with lots of highlights would follow. Anand won the Chess Classic title no less than eleven times. He was already the world's best rapid player before he got hold of the crown in classical chess and won the reunification World Championship tournament in Mexico City in 2007, and, one year later, in Bonn 2008, also the World Championship match against Kramnik — by then we had become very close friends.

What was the bigger surprise for you: the rise or the abrupt end of the Chess Classic?

Schmitt: The rise because we had an ambitious ten-year project plan and managed to be four years quicker than thought. The end after 17 years was also very well organised. We did not cause too much damage for the Chess Tigers. At that time our new project, the chess school with the Chess Tigers and Artur Jussupow, was already five years old and alive and kicking. The Chess Tigers University is the foundation on which our success in scholastic chess is based.

How are they doing now?

Schmitt: Nine international schools with 46 chess groups offer one- or two-hour long intensive training units. Week after week more than 400 students sit down to play. We need tournaments for these young players, and Hans-Dieter Post organises them for the Chess Tigers.

You have known and you have supported Vishy Anand for half of his life. December 2019 he will turn 50 — and he is the only senior player who is able to keep up with the absolute elite. Do you have an explanation for this? Or did Vishy explain this phenomenom to you?

Schmitt: For me, Viswanathan Anand is the most versatile and best player of all times, and he also managed to remain human, someone who deserves the highest respect. He is a genius who remained human and he is a hard worker. No matter whether it's blitz, rapid or slow chess, no matter the mode, knock-out, matches or round robins, he plays them equally well. Though in open and Chess960 he still has room for improvement (laughs).

Though he does not (yet) share your passion for Chess960 he now plays an open on the Isle of Man … Do you think that Anand will remain active for a long time? Maybe even become a new Viktor Kortschnoi?

Hans-Walter Schmitt and Viktor Kortschnoi

Schmitt: Definitely not. I hope he will realise when the game is no longer play for him but turning into drudgery. Then it's time for him to help us in Germany to bring a young guy to the very top.

Vincent Keymer! He is 14 years old, and you also support him. How much, do you think, can he achieve? Can he follow in Anand's footsteps?

Schmitt: I think the sky is the limit for him but he will never be able to become a Vishy. The times have changed enormously. The competition at the top has become much tougher. You have to work hard, day and night, and you have to love chess passionately, almost fanatically. People like Anand are needed to pass on the torch, the knowledge.

Vincent Keymer

Let's talk about your jubilee on October 3: you celebrate your friendship with Anand with a double simul: following the tradition it is a 40-board simul. Even Garry Kasparov had to bow to that rule.

Schmitt: That's just how the Chess Tigers do it, we want to organise competitions you can compare with each other, we want to organise competitions of the best. We never want "run-of-the-mill"!

Who are the opponents of the former World Champion at the simul?

Schmitt: A lot of friends from the last 25 years want to play against Anand. The average rating is 1728.

What else is on offer? Vincent Keymer also plays against 40 opponents.

Schmitt: Last year Vincent played a small simul on 23 boards in Bad Nauheim. He scored 100% even though a player like Alexander Krastev who has a rating of 2345 took part.

Rumour has it that this double simul would be your goodbye after 25 years of organising chess events? Is that true?

Schmitt: That's how it should be. The new president of the Chess Tigers is Prof. Dr. Ralph Neininger. I will be honorary president without a vote in the presidential meetings. I will also continue our Chess Tigers Training Center GmbH. I would be very happy if the Youth Chess Classic became what the Chess Classic have always been for everyone. But my dream still is: a new German World Champion, for that I would be willing to give "everything".

What will you give the 15th World Champion as present on his 50th birthday? People say it will be a book.

Chess Stars meeting at the Chess Classic

Schmitt: I do not want to use the 50th birthday of my best friend for a marketing bargain. My idea is to make a decent work that presents 25 games from Frankfurt, Mainz, and Bad Soden, and 25 World Championship games. In both cases what he and I consider to be the most interesting games. This will be garnered with 50 little well-known or not so well-known stories. We have the ideas, we know the direction but on October 3, we will close the last chapter — then competent companions and I will take care of "25 Years With Vishy Anand".

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Hartmut is an editor at Badischer Tagblatt, headquartered in Baden-Baden. He also writes for chess and table tennis among others for the Frankfurt Rundschau and the Munich Merkur. In addition, the FM of the Rochade Kuppenheim regularly writes articles for the chess magazine 64, Chess Active (Austria) and Chessbase.de.
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genem genem 10/8/2019 10:24
The chess960-FRC annual tournaments that ChessTigers ran in Mainz during the 2000's, until the Great Recession hit, have had a lasting impact on chess. Chess960-FRC was made physical, actual, and legitimate by those tournaments. Interesting is the continuing imbalance between the enthusiasm the chess public has for grandmaster level chess960-FRC games, versus how rarely organizers hold chess960-FRC tournaments. I wish Mr. Metz had asked Mr.Schmitt why ChessTigers never tried to again hold a chess960-FRC tournament after the world economy recovered from the Great Recession of 2008? In any case, thank you Hans-Walter.
vounaros vounaros 10/6/2019 06:11
Who is this truly beautiful lady in the first picture?
hansj hansj 10/6/2019 10:53
In former, long forgotten times by all but old timers, die Frankfurter Schule was something quite different.
nitinrav12 nitinrav12 10/6/2019 12:21
very nice...great stories of last 25 years with vishy and schmitt..
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 10/5/2019 12:33
a great article! kudos to Hans-Walter Schmitt ... for more chess!