Alexander Münninghoff: 1944-2020

by Stefan Löffler
5/8/2020 – The biographer of Max Euwe and Jan Hein Donner, employee of New in Chess and Schaakbulletin and the author of a bestseller about his family, died a few days ago. He was renowned for his reports as an award-winning political editor, Moscow correspondent and as a romantic attacking player in the game of chess. Stefan Löffler looks back on an eventful life.| Foto: Koninklijk 's-Gravenhaags Schaakgenootschap Discendo Discimus

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On the death of Alexander Münninghoff

He was still in high school when he became city champion of The Hague. Back then, Alexander Münninghoff sometimes dreamed of becoming world champion. But he soon understood that others had more talent, more perseverance and a love of chess that had no conditions. If it had been up to his grandfather Joannes Münninghoff, Alexander should have taken over the family empire one day, as the only male son and heir of Joannes. But the grandfather died long before Alexander came of age, and the fortune already torn apart by the war crumbled in the hands of the father and his brothers.

After the First World War, Alexander's grandfather had sought his fortune in Latvia, where he first worked as a merchant and then as a manufacturer, earning and swindling a fortune. He bailed out Latvian Prime Minister Karlis Ulmanis with money and was later rewarded with one business opportunity after another. His grandmother Erica was a Russian countess. She awakened his love for the Russian language and culture. Thanks to his knowledge of Russian, he began his professional life with the Dutch Secret Service MID.

When the Leiden Chess Society celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1970 with a high-ranking tournament, Münninghoff arrived at just the right time. They were looking for a chauffeur and companion for Mihail Botvinnik and Boris Spassky, someone good at speaking Russian. Spassky actually had no desire to play chess. It so happened that Münninghoff was a suitable tennis partner and managed to keep the world champion happy for two weeks. The then world champion won the tournament, in which Bent Larsen and Jan Hein Donner also participated.

Spassky studied journalism but never pursued the profession. Münninghoff studied Slavic studies and became an editor at the Haagse Courant. He would have liked to travel to the Soviet Union in the seventies, but he was not given a visa. Münninghoff had criticized the then unofficial Soviet magazine 64 too harshly. So he took on other foreign assignments abroad for his job at the daily newspaper. Part of his travels went to theatres of war in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq,El Salvador and Cambodia. For a series of reports on Turkey that he wrote in 1982, he was awarded the Prijs voor de Dagbladjournalistiek, the most prestigious journalism award in the Netherlands.

The respected journalist occasionally wrote about his childhood love, the chess game. This was due to the existence of an unusual chess magazine. Schaakbulletin had started well, unlike the chess association's sheet Schakend Nederland. Schaakbulletin analysed entire games and paid attention to the Hoofdklasse, the highest Dutch league. Soon, more and more chess authors with language expertise and creativity, gathered around the independent publication and wrote more original content. Hans Ree and Max Pam founded their careers as well renowned columnists in the Schaak bulletin. Jan Hein Donner, their teacher, who wrote for various news periodicals, joined them. Tim Krabbé found his niche in chess curiosities. Jan Timman ensured a high chess level.

Before Genna Sosonko immigrated to the Netherlands, Münninghoff was responsible for Russian news and building up new contacts. His perhaps best piece in Schaakbulletin was called "Perfume for Klara Shagenovna" and was about an interview with the then World Champion Candidate Garry Kasparov (Klara Shagenovna is his mother). In 1984 the magazine New in Chess emerged from Schaakbulletin. In both cases, the chief editor was Jan Timman. Münninghoff contributed a great interview with Botvinnik, whom he knew from the 1970 tournament, and edited a collection of the best articles from Schaakbulletin.

Alexander was very charming and could adapt to other people, better than anyone else in the chess scene.

New in Chess editor Allard Hoogland

In 1986 a dream came true. Münninghoff became a correspondent in Moscow. To cover the costs of his office, he reported not only for the Haagse Courant but also spoke on radio. He was the first Western correspondent to report on Gorbachev's reforms, Perestroika. He also gained fame when he reported the unilateral dismantling of the SS 20 missiles stationed in Europe. But it was also a difficult time for the Münninghoff family, who lost a newborn child in Russia at that time.

In 1991, he returned to The Hague and again became a member again of Discendo Discimus 1852, or DD for short, the oldest Dutch chess club. Now he was also invited every year to the human-computer tournament sponsored by the insurance company AEGON, where I met him. Computers were not yet superior, but they became noticeably stronger every year. The most promising strategy when playing against an engine was to avoid complicated positions, swap pieces and aim for an endgame. Another way was to close the position and slowly prepare an attack that the machine would underestimate. Both options were not made for the gambit player Münninghoff. His wildly romantic win against the Saitek RISC 1993 was much more to his taste and was the talk of the town that day at the AEGON tournament.


Münninghoff now also worked for television on the side and wrote books, including biographies of Max Euwe and Hein Donner. The latter is far more entertaining because Donner was not a bourgeois but a colourful bird, a Provo who, as a passionate non-conformist, did not join the Provo movement. Donner lived and spread his quirks publicly and staged many feuds, so he was able to write about them. This wonderful biography has recently been published in English and has been recommended in an interview by the writer Harry Mulisch, who was friends with Donner and who immortalized him as Onno Quint in his bestseller De ontdekking van de heme - The Discovery of Heaven.

Even when Münninghoff officially retired, he did not remain inactive. An old chess friend, Jan Nagel, incidentally the father-in-law of Yasser Seirawan, persuaded him to help with the foundation of the 50plus party that is dedicated to the interests of those over 50. Today, 50plus is represented by members in both chambers of the Dutch parliament and in the European Parliament. Münninghoff spent a year in St. Petersburg to set up a Dutch institute there, created a radio programme on contemporary history and spent many years researching and writing a family chronicle.   

The book De Stamhouder appeared in 2014 and was a huge hit. Münninghoff had suffered for a long time and told almost no one that his father had volunteered for the SS and that he had had to listen to his war experiences at home for years. In addition, the grandfather of Münninghoff was responsible for kidnapping him from his mother's flat in Germany, the day before his seventh birthday. He grew up with his traumatized, alcohol-dependent father and his father's second wife. Both were not interested in him. Münninghoff did not see his beloved biological mother again until decades later.

The book, however, was not an act of reckoning, but rather tells with restraint what happened in the years before and after he was born on April 13th - which is also Kasparov's birthday - in Posen, Polish Poznan, halfway between Latvia and the Netherlands. The unusual family chronicle became a bestseller and was awarded both the Libris Prize for Historiography and the Littéraire Witte Prijs.

Chess is only mentioned briefly twice. The game helped Münninghoff survive his strange childhood. And chess remained faithful to him in old age as well. In a team match a year ago he won in a pretty game: pawn sacrifice, attacking play and a queen capture in the middle of the board.


He was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago and it's treatment was no longer effective. The great journalist and author died last Tuesday at Leiden University Hospital.


Stefan Löffler writes the Friday chess column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and succeeds Arno Nickel as editor of the Chess Calendar. For ChessBase the International Master reports from his adopted country Portugal.


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