Bessel's Birthday – a Party in Prague

by ChessBase
3/16/2007 – Last December Bessel Kok, Dutch businessman and chess organiser, turned 65, and also married his partner Martina. All of this happened in strict privacy. Now, three months later, Bessel, who will soon be running the commercial branch of FIDE, celebrated the milestones in a party spectacular held in Prague, with former president Václav Havel acting as patron. A chess treat was included.

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Bessel's Birthday

Report from Prague by Frederic Friedel

Bessel Kok started as cofounder and President of the Belgian-based Banking communications company S.W.I.F.T., an International Banking Network that today provides payment services to 110,000 banks in 124 countries. From 1989 until 1995 Bessel was President and CEO of Belgacom (the Belgian National Telecom Operator, 26,000 staff), which he transformed and prepared for privatization.

From 1995 until February 2004 he was Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of the Czech Telecom and rotating Chairman of Eurotel (Czech mobile operator with 4.5 million customers). Bessel has also acted as an advisor for Morgan Stanley in the Czech Republic, for Cerberus Capital Management New York and as Chairman of the Scarlet Telecommunications group in Holland and Belgium.

Bessel Kok has always been passionately interested in chess and, as head of SWIFT, sponsored a number of major International chess events. From 1985 until 1991 he was Chairman of the World Chess Grandmaster Association, and helped to negotiate the 2002 Prague Agreement concerning the World Chess Championship. Bessel is also active in the arts; he was the producer of the Czech film Nicholas Winton, the Power of Good about British businessman Nicholas Winton who rescued children from the Nazis. The film won an Emmy Award in 2002.

Bessel ran a campaign for presidency of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) against the incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in 2006. The election was held in June, 2006 in Torino, Italy during the World Chess Olympiad and Kok lost 54-96 to Ilyumzhinov. But the FIDE president was so impressed with his challenger's programme that he asked Bessel Kok to run the commercial arm of FIDE, Global Chess.


For his birthday party Bessel had invited over 200 guests. The patron was his old friend and associate Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic and one of the best respected political figures in the world. Among the guests was the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Education, CEOs of the largest Czech Companies, the heads of UBS, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Oscar nominees for Czech Films and local actors and actresses. A number of grandmasters were present – Timman, Sosonko, Sokolov, Seirawan, Judit Polgar, Navara, Lobron were the ones we encountered amongst the guests from 15 different countries.

The city of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic

Prague Castle, with the St. Vitus Cathedral in the background.

The Castle is where the Czech kings, Holy Roman Emperors and presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have had their offices. The crown jewels of the Bohemian Kingdom are kept here. Prague Castle is one of the biggest castles in the world, at about 570 meters in length and an average of about 130 meters wide.

A restaurant in Prague (with a slightly disconcerting "prisoner" in a dungeon)

The wax figure below the restaurant window bears witness to the typical Czech humour

Another example: a poignant witch outside a puppet store

Bessel's party was held in the St. Anne Church (Zlatá Street) in the Old Town. This is a deconsecrated building which is currently being renovated and is now home to Václav Havel's Prague Crossroads cultural centre. Havel celebrated his 70th birthday in this church in 2006.

The partially restored St. Anne Church, where the party was held

Stage, lights, sound, projection – and chess motifs

The party is under way – with Václav Havel, GM David Navara

Patrons of the party Václav and first lady Dagmar Havel. Dagmar Veškrnová-
Havlová is a Czech actress with a large number of films to her credit.

Václav Havel, 70, is a Czech writer and dramatist who became the ninth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. He hails from a well-known intellectual family which did not meet the approval of the Czech communist government. Havel was not allowed to study formally and had to complete his secondary education in evening classes while working as a chemical laboratory assistant.

The intellectual tradition of his family led him to pursue the humanitarian values of Czech culture. He worked as a stagehand in Prague and studied drama by correspondence courses. Havel started writing plays, and his first publicly performed full-length play, The Garden Party (1963), won him international acclaim. It was soon followed by Memorandum, one of his best known plays.

After the "Prague Spring" of 1968 Havel was banned from the theatre. He became politically active and published the famous Charter 77 manifesto. His political activities resulted in multiple stays in prison, the longest being four years, and also subjected him to constant government surveillance and harassment. In 1989, as leader of the Civic Forum, he was unanimously elected president of the Federal Assembly. After the free elections of 1990 he retained the presidency, and when the Czech Republic was founded he won the election as president of the new state. He left office after his second term as Czech president ended in 2003.

The birthday speech by Bessel (with wife Martina)

Martina and Bessel cut the birthday/wedding cake [photo Gustav Fonts]

Václav Havel speaks and congratulates Bessel and Martina

In his speech Havel said that as a child he had not liked chess, but became interested in the game while he was in prison. He also said that chess was the beginning of his friendship with Bessel Kok.

Chess at the Party

As a special treat chess lover Bessel Kok had arranged a blindfold chess display between two very strong grandmasters, Judit Polgar of Hungary and David Navara, the brightest young talent of Czech chess.

French magician Stefan Leyshon introduces the chess interlude

The two grandmasters are prepared for their blindfold game

Each player had a microphone, the moves they spoke were transferred to a sensor
board by Yasser Seirawan and displayed on a big screen for the audience

David kindly reconstructed the game for us and added notes to the moves. Remember that this was a five-minute blitz game, with the moves being called out by both players at high speed, which gave Yasser Seirawan trouble following them on the sensor board.

Polgar,Judit - Navara,David [C88]
blindfold blitz, 09.03.2007 [Navara,David]
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.h3 Bb7 9.d3 d6 10.a3 Qd7 11.Nc3 Rfe8 12.Bg5 Nd8 [12...h6!?] 13.d4 exd4 14.Nxd4 h6 15.Bf4 Ne6. I realised that this was risky, but I could not find out anything better in five seconds. 16.Nxe6 fxe6 17.e5

17...dxe5? As pointed out by the (Czech) Chess Weekly, 17...Qc6 was much stronger, as 18.Bxe6+ Kf8 leads to fully acceptable complications. 18.Qxd7 Nxd7 19.Bxe6+ Kf8 20.Bxd7 Red8

21.Bxe5. 21.Bxh6!? Rxd7 22.Be3± gives White good chances for the win. There might be two possible explanations why Mrs Polgar did not win this position: 1. Exhibition games usually end with a draw. 2. The playing rate was very quick, about five seconds per move. 21...Rxd7 22.Rad1 Rad8

23.Rxd7? I guess I noticed the line 23.Bxg7+ Kxg7 24.Rxe7+ Rxe7 25.Rxd8 Re1+ but forgot that the king had a vacant square on h2.

23...Rxd7 +/= 24.Rd1 Rxd1+ 25.Nxd1 Be4 26.Nc3 Bxc2 27.Bxc7 Bf6 28.f3 Bxc3 29.bxc3 Ke7 30.Kf2 Ke6 31.Ke3 Kd5 32.g4 g6 33.h4 h5 34.Kf4 [34.gxh5 gxh5 35.Kf4 Bd1] 34...hxg4 35.fxg4 Ke6 36.Kg5 Bb1 37.h5 ½-½. [Click to replay]

Judit Polgar with Václav Havel after the game [photo Gustav Fonts]

GM Yasser Seirawan, FIDE Vice President Geoffrey Borg, and GM David Navara
discuss the game after it is over

Yasser Seirawan with super-model Carmen Kass, who is president of the Estonian Chess Federation

Bessel's favourite: the Saskia van Orly Band from Amsterdam

Saskia and her band play soul and blues in a way we have not seen from white people

Bessel in his element – party guests pose with their host

As mentioned above Bessel Kok is the man who will take over the professional and commercial branch of the World Chess Federation. "Is he up to the job," people have asked me. My reply: "If Bessel can't do it, nobody can." We wish him a happy 65th birthday, a happy marriage and the greatest posssible success in rebuilding the chess world!

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