Lennart Ootes: "Chess is a sport and sport is emotion"

by Johannes Fischer
10/15/2019 – Lennart Ootes is one of the most prolific and renowned chess photographers. Chess players from all over the world enjoy his images of top players and amateurs. Recently, the Dutch photographer launched his own website on which he presents about 30,000 (not a typo!) of his pictures. In an interview with ChessBase, Ootes talks about his passion for chess and photography, the right moments for taking a picture and his joys of travelling. | Photo: David Llada

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An interview with Lennart Ootes

All photos: Lennart Ootes

You are a renowned chess photographer who visits about 25 top tournaments a year to make pictures of top players and amateurs and to support the transmission of these tournaments. With your work you shape the image of chess and chess players. Moreover, as you write on your recently launched website lennartootes.com you are also a strong amateur chess player with a rating of 2217. How did you get interested in chess and in chess photography?

I played chess from a young age. My dad is a passionate chess player and drove my brother Lars and me to many chess tournaments in the Netherlands. Till the age of 23 I was playing a lot of chess, made it up to 2200, but also lost 100 points once I spent less time on studying and playing. 

My passion for chess photography is quite a coincidence. I have always been involved with chess tournaments in the Netherlands: I wrote tournament reports, organized events and operated DGT boards. Back in 2011, the Dutch chess website schaaksite.nl asked a friend and me to make video reports of youth tournaments. So we went to a camera shop and bought a Sony photo camera with video function. But it took another three years before I preferred the photo function over video. In 2014 I was hired to operate the DGT boards at the US Championships, but I also managed to take pictures as well, which ended up on websites like Chessbase, Chessvibes and Chess24. It motivated me to learn more about photography, I watched many hours of online tutorials and the rest is history. :) 

What is it that fascinates you about chess players and the world of chess?

Chess is a sport and sport is emotion. I love to witness the crucial moments in a chess tournament and to capture the moments that tell the story.

Garry Kasparov

Magnus Carlsen

I am very fortunate to get very close to the players, to see their hands shaking in time trouble and to hear their reaction after the game. I really have an amazing day at work when there are exciting games and some decisive results.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Magnus Carlsen

Besides that, the chess world is a big family that shares so many great memories in so many different places. 

How did you become a professional photographer? Did you take courses, did you teach yourself or did you learn by doing?

I have watched many hours of online photography and photo editing tutorials. Especially Lynda.com (which is now LinkedIn Learning) gave me a great basic understanding. But in the end I had to practice. To make many thousands of photos, edit the ones I like and throw away the ones that were not good enough. Chess is the only thing I do and it's easier to stand out in a niche market than to master the entire spectrum of photography.

Tell us a bit about the everyday life of a chess photographer when working at chess tournaments. Usually, at top tournaments photographers are only allowed to take pictures at the beginning of the game. What do you do to get the best pictures in that short period of time and what do you do the rest of the time to produce your pictures?

At classical events I take about 100-250 photos at the start of the round, then make a selection to reduce that to about 30 photos, edit them in the next 3 hours and come back to the playing hall when I expect some action: a potential tactical blow, time trouble, the end of a game or a player interview. I have to admit that I have the privilege to be house photographer at the Grand Chess Tour and some other tournaments, so I can get within the ropes and have more freedom to do my work compared to some colleagues.

Fabiano Caruana vs Magnus Carlsen

You seem to travel all year to take pictures from chess tournaments but I think officially you still live in Holland. Are you indeed living there or are you just travelling?

I am quite passionate about traveling, so I am happy you don't ask me about my CO2 footprint...

I live in Amsterdam together with some chess friends: Merijn van Delft, David Miedema and Nico Zwirs, who are all IMs and chess trainers. Amsterdam is an amazing city, but I am there only one week per month. I just came back from two days in Windhoek, Namibia, to join my girlfriend who flew there as a flight attendant. And after this I will go to the Isle of Man, three days at Hoogeveen, the Chess960 World Championships in Oslo and the Grand Chess Tour events in Romania, India and London — almost back-to-back. I won't be home in the next two months. It's a lifestyle that I really enjoy.

Travelling might be exciting but isn’t it boring to take pictures of chess players again and again — two players who hardly move sitting opposite each other, looking grim most of the time?

When a game lasts for six hours, timing is actually very important. As a photographer I am looking for emotions or something interesting.

I have to agree that I don't get too excited when a social media manager asks me to take a normal photo of two players behind the board. But I have to say that the real magic happens on my laptop: I can crop the photo in different ways, make it black and white or pump up the contrast in a creative way. Editing photos is not a puzzle with only one correct outcome and that gives me a lot of pleasure.

Vladimir Kramnik vs Vishy Anand

How do find the motifs for your pictures, your inspiration?

I've had a wonderful time working at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the largest Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in the Netherlands, for 14 months. Russian avant-garde artists like Malevich and Kandinsky have made a deep impression on me with their colours, shapes and movement. I can really appreciate stadiums or interesting stage designs. From David Llada's photos it looked like the Women's Grand Prix in Skolkovo had a great venue with interesting colours. I can only hope that more chess tournaments would learn from theatre and other sport events. 

Do you have any idols or role-models in photography?

I don't consider photography as the ultimate art and I am not obsessively studying the greatest photographers of all time. Like chess, photography is very technical and has been extremely influenced by the computer. But I tend to check David Llada's photos when I'm carving for some inspiration.

And in chess?

When I was young I really enjoyed the games of original players like Shirov, Morozevich and Volokitin. But it is the rise of Magnus Carlsen in 2010-2013 that convinced me to try to make a living in the chess world.

Can you give us a very short crash course for budding chess photographers and reveal what mistakes one should avoid at all costs when taking pictures of chess players?

Chess photography is extremely hard. We work in low light conditions, our subjects do sit there for hours and we can only get close to them in the first few minutes. On my website you can find an article on how to get bright photos in a dark environment. Camera gear is important, but the biggest win can be made in editing photos.

The biggest mistake I see in chess photography is when the photo is not framed well. I see a lot of photos that are taken from a standing position, so you see more board than player. Cropping is also very important: what to you pick as your horizontal line, what part of the chess board to include. I tend to crop parts of the head to make a photo more intense, but that's a creative choice that depends per person. 

If I had to review my own photos, I would say that I have trouble with the white balance (colour temperature) and that I publish too many photos that are just above average and nothing special. My biggest strength is to be at the right moment at the right time. That is something that comes with experience and some decent passion for the game.

(From left to right) Sergey Karjakin, Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Fabiano Caruana, Magnus Carlsen

Girl with curious hair

And what are the three most important rules or guidelines to follow?

Don't distract a player. And be nice to arbiters and security — they can't make your day, only break it. 

Hunt for the player's eyes. It's our primary way to get into the chess player's brain. Without eyes, it is hard to find the emotion of a player.

Tatev Abrahamyan

The Indian talent Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu

Try to build a special feeling with the moments/persons you take a photo of. A photo is more special when someone plays an amazing game, or when something memorable happens.

You started your career as chess photographer in 2012. What are the most memorable moments of the last seven years — chess wise and in regard to travelling?

The world championship in Chennai was my first memorable event. I was there on my own cost (like more events in 2012-2014) but experienced chess history and was really impressed by the Indian culture with its colours and smells. On the rest days we visited, for example, Anand's former high school and a place for disabled children that was supported by Vishy's donations.

The passion for the game in India is amazing. That also strikes me in countries like Croatia, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands. At the Grand Chess Tour in Zagreb, the spectators stayed in the playing hall for five straight hours and gave the players a huge applause at the end of every round. 

Another amazing adventure was Timur Gareyev's world record blindfold chess in Las Vegas. The simul lasted for 19 hours, including a fire alarm caused by "raw food master" Joe who preferred to prepare some sausages for himself. Timur's opponents were exhausted after such a long game, while Timur was slowly peddling on his stationary bike. The next morning Timur was so hyperactive that he ran through a glass door of our apartment.

Timur Gareyev on his way to his record in blindfold chess

Are there any chess players that are particularly easy or particularly difficult to photograph?

It is hard to capture the eyes of Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand and Carlsen. Guess what they have in common (smiles).

But it is also satisfactory to take a good photo of these guys. Emotional players like Nepomniachtchi, Nakamura and Jobava usually deliver in front of the camera. Grischuk is a mystery. But maybe the most remarkable player is Daniel Naroditsky who pushed suffering to a next level.

Daniel Naroditsky (right) in despair as Hikaru Nakamura watches

On your website you publish about 30,000 of your photos. How does one navigate through such an enormous number of pictures and do you have any favourites — pictures that you like particularly well?

For me it was quite a job to go through all these photos, to tag players and to rate them. In the "Highlights" section you can find a selection of my favourite photo by theme. But you can also just search for a player. 

In your work you are close to the top players. Did you form any friendships or do the players and you keep a professional distance?

The top players are incredibly friendly, especially when you take into account that they are sportsmen. There is no player I have daily contact with, but I created some special connection with Wesley So. We mainly do some silly trash talking, but its origin might come from the Chess960 blitz game that we played last year. I have to admit that Wesley played with time odds.

Wesley So

How does travelling to these top tournaments affect your chess: do you get better by watching all these top players analyse and play or are you too saturated with chess to play well yourself?

These top guys are beasts. I have nothing but respect for the games that they play, the amazing moves they make and the mistakes they have to allow in time trouble. I do feel inspired when I play an incidental league game after a top event, but it's not that I gain chess knowledge during these game. Honestly, it's easier to follow the games at home than in the playing hall.  

As you write on your website you also co-produce live-transmissions from chess events and you are on the team of app developers who work for New in Chess. As you say, you are “quite advanced with the latest tech developments and always looking for new ways to improve chess broadcasting”. Now, if you had the necessary resources how would your ideal transmission of a chess tournament look like?

I think that there are too many round robin tournaments. Most sport events end with a big final, but in chess we keep on playing against the same players all the time.

In terms of broadcasting, there are many things to try. For example live commentary for chess fans rated under 1400 — that works well in Norway and there are many chess fans that have never played a tournament game in their life. Or a well-produced 20-minute recap of the most interesting game of the day, where the two players tell the narrative through personal interviews before and after the game. 

Another idea is to get more practical information from computer engines. Right now, the engines' only output is to criticize the top player with its evaluation and a long variation. I would love to get more human-like explanation from the engine: what is the essence of the position, how difficult is it to calculate or assess the top engine line for a human, are there possible tricks in a variation?  I wish it could become a tool to understand and appreciate chess more than it does now.  

To conclude: what are your plans for the future — in regard to your own chess and in regard to chess photography and chess transmissions?

In am working on a small photo exhibition at the Max Euwe Centre in Amsterdam, so that's exciting. There are a lot of chess events in the rest of the year, so you will definitely see a lot of new photos in the next months. But first I will co-produce the live commentary for the Isle of Man tournament — I am not sure if I will bring my camera...


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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