Pia Cramling to miss Olympiad 40 years after her first

by André Schulz
6/22/2018 – Pia Cramling was born in 1963, the same year as Garry Kasparov, and she is also a chess legend. 40 years ago, when she was 15, she played in her first Olympiad. But this year she won't in play the Olympiad in Batumi 2018. In an extensive interview, the Swedish grandmaster reveals what drove her decision and reflects on her long career. | Pictured: Juan Bellon, Anna Cramling, Pia Cramling; Photo: Swedish Chess Federation

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"I hope I can play for many more years"

An interview with Pia Cramling

Dear Pia, this year, on April 23rd, you celebrated your 55th birthday. Congratulations! It is incredible — you do look so much younger, like a member of the young generation of female players. Does chess make one younger?

I am not so sure I look that young but I feel good. However, I do not know whether chess makes one younger. Chess can definitely be dangerous for your heart but if you can stand the stress of the game even when you get older and you manage to keep the energy up then I believe it is good to let your mind work intensively.

When and how did you start to play chess and when did you start to play tournament chess?

I was ten when I went with my brother to the chess club ”Passanten” that had just opened in the suburb of Stockholm where my family lived. I did not even know how to move the pieces. From the very first day I loved chess and in the club I learned the rules. First, I played in club competitions but when I was 12 I started to compete in other events and won a number of small tournaments. When I was 13 I became School Champion of my age group. I started the tournament as an underdog, and when I got my prize, a chess clock, I knew that this was what I wanted to do in my life.

Young Pia Cramling | Photo: Bill Hook

In 1978, when you were 15 years old, you played for the Swedish national women’s team at the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires. A steep career. How did you become so good in a relatively short time — did you work on your own, did you have trainers to help you, or did you train in a group of other players?

A huge part of my training was playing. I played whenever I could and was a member of three clubs. I always played with the boys, that’s just how it was and still is in Sweden. My brother helped me and gave me ideas and inspiration. I tried to work the same way he did but he was more persistent, he could spend the whole day sitting in the garden with a chess book. I also trained occasionally with a guy named Gunnar Johansson. He gave me material to work with but it was no regular training. He also was my second in some tournaments abroad.

Did you have any idols, role-models, players who influenced you?

My older brother Dan was my big hero. I did most of the things he did, like playing football. I even played for a team. So, of course, when I took up chess and became stronger, he influenced me and I tried to follow in his footsteps. I played his openings, and we went to many tournaments together. Sometimes, he also worked as my second. But for a long time, there was a great difference in our playing strength. However, at a tournament in Gausdal in 1983 I managed to beat him, a game I still remember because it was great to win against him. It was not the first time I won a game against my brother but in that game I felt that he was no longer stronger than me. Someone said after that game — though with a smile — that losing to your younger sister is the worst thing that can happen.

Another role model was Viktor Korchnoi. I read the book about his match against Spassky 1977 in the semifinals of the Candidates and started to play the French. Korchnoi was a fighter and I admired that.

Some years later I got to play him in the Lloyds Bank tournament 1982. We were playing on one of the top boards and we were playing on the podium. It was one of my most fantastic moments. At that time Kortchnoi was number two in the world.

During the postmortem, a big crowd surrounded our board, with many well-known players among them. It felt like a dream.

After that the biggest influence has been Juan (Bellon), my husband. We have been living together since 1988. Juan is a grandmaster and he convinced me to switch from 1.e4 to 1.d4, and he prepared many of my openings. Thanks to him, my play in the opening became much better. He is a very creative player who comes up with fascinating ideas, and some of them found their way into my games.

Teaming up with Juan

30 years ago you were one of the very few female players who regularly took part in open events and tournaments. How did you feel in these tournaments — like an alien in a chess world dominated by men?

In one way it was natural for me to play in tournaments where I was the only woman. After all, I was used to that and grew up with it. But of course I missed other women in the tournaments I played. I could only do this for such a long time because of Juan. Most of the time we were travelling together, and back then Spain was a fantastic country for a chess professional. On my own, I would have stopped a long time ago. Without Juan, I would have done something else and chess would have become a hobby, as it is for most Swedish players.

Pia Cramling

Pia nowadays | Photo: Swedish Chess Federation

Occasionally, I played in women’s tournaments, but not often. I have always preferred — and still do — to be the underdog. But when I played in women events in my youth I was the absolute favourite and thus I felt much more stress and pressure when playing against women. But this changed when our daughter Anna was born. Due to some problems during pregnancy, I had to stop playing for ten months, and never before (or after!) in my life did I take such a long break from chess. But I was very eager to start playing again and did so when Anna was just three months old.

The year after Anna was born I played my first European Women’s Championship. Juan was my second. I knew the names of my opponents but not their faces. After all, I had not played in many women’s tournaments and a lot of young girls took part.

I tied for first with Viktoria Cmilyte and beat her in the play-off. I was overwhelmed. For the first time, I had managed to get a good result in a Women’s Championship. From then on I started to play more women’s events and realized that I enjoyed them a lot.

As a teenager, you were already a very tough opponent, even for strong grandmasters. How did they react when they unexpectedly drew or lost to a young girl? Did they feel uncomfortable to play against you?

Some did, but I could understand them. After all, for a long time I also felt uncomfortable playing against women. At that time it was so unusual to see women playing in open tournaments, and the few women who played were seldom competing at a higher level. 

Any nice or not so nice experiences you do remember?

Once after I had won against a player who was nominally stronger than me he pushed all the pieces to the floor. I was very happy about my win and more surprised than anything. At that time we were both juniors and many, many years afterwards he apologized. I appreciated that — it was a nice gesture.

A nice memory is my game against Mihail Tal, played 1990 at a round-robin tournament in Tel Aviv. We played on March 8, and when I came to the board I saw a chocolate bar on my side of the table. Tal had not forgotten that it was International Women's day.

When did you decide to become a chess professional?

At the end of 1987. I had taken a year off from chess to study in Malmö, and the last three months of studies required us to do practical work. I was working at a company that constructed submarines, and this place was completely wrong for me. It was one of the toughest times in my life. But it was good because I had to take a decision what to do with my life. After that experience, I had no doubt at all that I wanted to play chess. In February 1988 I packed a suitcase and went to Alicante, Spain. Since then I have been travelling around with Juan, playing chess.

Olympiad history

You started your Olympic career by playing for Sweden’s national women’s team but later you also played for Sweden’s national team in the open group of the Olympiad. When did you play your first Olympiad in the open section? And how often did you play in Olympiads — in the open section and on the women’s team?

I indeed played my first Olympiad 40 years ago in Buenos Aires. All in all, I have played twelve times in the Olympiad: 1978, 1982, 1984, and 1988 on the women’s team, 1990, 1992, 1996, and 2000 on the open team. 2004, 2008, 2014, and 2016 I was back on the women’s team.

Which Chess Olympiad do you remember as the nicest, and which as the worst?

The nicest was the last one in Baku. Since she was born we had always brought Anna with us to the Olympiads. But in Baku, there was no need for that as she was strong enough to make it to the women’s team. She was 14 at that time, the youngest player ever on the Swedish national team. She was so happy and beat my and Siv Bengtsson’s record. I was very proud but also nervous — I prefer not to watch when she is playing. The team had an excellent result, and we had a great time together. To see all three of us — Anna and me playing, and Juan as a captain — was fantastic and I will keep this beautiful memory forever.

The family in Baku (click or tap to enlarge) | Photo: Swedish Chess Federation

The Olympiad which was the worst for me was Istanbul 2000, the last one I played in the open section. I was not happy there and my result was not good. It is the only time I played when Juan did not go.

A lot of players, professionals and amateurs alike, remember the Chess Olympiads as a very special tournament — what are your most special Olympic moments?

I have played in twelve Olympiads and enjoyed most of them, so there are many special moments. Things the team did together, people I met, results, and, of course, the games.

Just to go to the Olympiad, 1978 in Buenos, for the very first time, was great. Siv Bengtsson and I were friends and two young girls, 15 years of age. Siv was stronger than me and I was the reserve player. I lost in the first round against Poland but after that, I scored well (11/13 in total), and won silver for best individual performance on my board. We won the B-final and finished ninth. I remember vaguely that even then a Bermuda party took place, but it was a small one.

In 1982 in Luzerne we finished seventh, which I believe is the best result the Swedish women’s team has ever achieved, and we played against all top teams. Unfortunately, I lost in the final round, had I won we would have been fifth. My opponent Nava Schterenberg from Canada even missed her flight home because she was so keen to play against me. Fortunately, the other two players on our team, Borislava Borisova and Margareta Aatolainen, won their games so we won the match.

Pia Cramling 1984 | Photo: Gerhard Hund

During the Olympiad Alois Nagler, the famous Swiss tournament director, invited me to the jubilee tournament of the Schachgesellschaft Zurich with which the Schachgesellschaft celebrated its 175th jubilee in Zurich 1984. It was a very strong tournament, in which 24 players took part, and Viktor Korchnoi was number one seed. In Zurich, I met Juan and my life took an unexpected turn.

The Olympiad 1988 in Thessaloniki was very dramatic, in regard to chess but also otherwise. Sweden finished only on place 24 but I was indirectly involved in the race for the gold-medal because in the last round we had to play against the Hungarian team where Susan Polgar, Judit Polgar, and Ildiko Madl started. Hungary had already played all the top teams and they beat us 2-1 to win gold, just half a game point ahead of the Soviet Union.

1990 was the first Olympiad in which I played in the open section. On the first day, we had to play against Poland. It was chaotic as it sometimes is in the first round. 15 minutes before the start of the game I came to the board and realized that I was going to play against GM Wlodzimierz Schmidt and not against Robert Kuzynski whom I had prepared for. Now I no longer wanted to play the Wedberg System which I had prepared — not against Schmidt.

After consulting with Juan we decided that I should play ...Na6 in the King's Indian, something we had looked at but which I had never played before. It was a tough game but I finally won and the team also won. Wow, what a start!

I had a good result in this Olympiad although I was very disappointed when I lost in the second to last round against Bulgaria. I was sad for the team and I was also sad because now I could no longer play for a GM-norm. But the next day somehow compensated for the loss against Bulgaria. We played against East Germany, and I believe this was the last match East Germany ever played in an Olympiad, a historical moment. We won 3-1, and Sweden finished in 11th place, a fine result.

1996 was the Olympiad in which I had my best performance in the open section. At first, I was worried because I had to play on board two behind Ulf Andersson. In Novi Sad and in Manila I had played on board four. But we had a good tournament and finished 11th.

In 2004 I was back with the women’s team, and the Olympiad took place on Mallorca, and as I was living in Costa del Sol at that time it was almost home. For Juan, who as a young boy had lived in Palma for many years, it was very much home.

For the first time Anna came with us, she was just two years old. I remember that I had to find a Kindergarten where I could leave her during the day but I found one and it did work well.

The Swedish women’s team had a very good result — 15th. We only lost two matches, against Ukraine and Georgia.

Dresden 2008 was also nice. We stayed just a short walk away from the playing hall. Every day Anna came with us to the playing hall. First, Elizabeta Polihroniade let Anna stay with her at the arbiter’s table. Anna sat there and was painting. Soon we got help from Rosa Durao, the wife of the Portuguese legend Joaquim Durao. Rosa took care of Anna while we were playing.

Pia and Anna

Pia and six-year-old Anna Cramling Bellon in Dresden | Photo: Macauley Peterson

2014 is one of the Olympiads I enjoyed most. Thanks to Magnus, Norway has become an enthusiastic chess country. In my youth I have played there so many times, and no Olympiad will ever be closer to my home country. We stayed just a few minutes walk away from the playing hall and I loved Tromsö. We played according to our ratings but I was very happy to see Ellior Frisk, one of the Swedish girls, winning a medal. I also won a medal, my first one since 1988!

And here is a curious fact: in the past Siv Bengtsson and Svetlana Agrest were my teammates at Olympiads, and later I played on the same team as their daughters, Jessica Bengtsson and Inna Agrest.

In Baku 2016 I finally played on the same team as my daughter Anna.

40 years is a long time.

Skipping Batumi

You are a veteran of Chess Olympiads. But now there are rumours that you will not play for Sweden at the next Olympiad in Batumi 2018. Is that true and if so, can you tell us a bit more about the reason?

Yes, it is true. I will not go to Batumi. I have decided to stay home. Earlier this year, the homepage of the Swedish Chess Federation announced that Evgenij Agrest will be the coach for both teams at the Olympiad. I told the manager, Anders Wengholm, who picks the teams and decides who will play, that I would not play if the women do not have their own captain. The organizer invites each country to bring two coaches and one head of the delegation and it makes no sense to bring just one coach. I wanted Juan to come as a captain for the ladies. In all four Olympiads I have played on the women’s team since 2004 he has been the captain. At the Olympiad in Turin 2006, in which I did not play, he was also captain. And with him as captain the team has made good results. In 2004 we finished in 15th place, and in Baku 2016 we also had a great performance: we finished 23rd, far better than our ratings suggested.

Pia at the board

Photo: Swedish Chess Federation

It took a long time before the manager came back to me. He told me that my wish to have Juan as the coach of the women’s team was out of the question. He told me that he was going to be the coach of the women’s team and that the other coach would mainly would work with the men. He made it clear that they were the only two coaches for the teams. There was no suggestion of any other solution. The communication between the manager and me was very sad, there was no understanding at all between us. I realized that I cannot play the Olympiad under these circumstances.

Juan is the Spanish Grandmaster Juan Manuel Bellon and Anna (Cramling Bellon) is your daughter. She seems to have inherited the chess talent from her parents and seems to be well on her way to become a strong player herself — she is a Women FIDE Master and at the last Olympiad, she was part of the Swedish Women’s team. But is chess a good sport for young girls? And does chess indeed help to make young people smarter?

I always say that chess is good for everyone, it is such a great game, but of course you have to enjoy it. And it is a marvellous sport for youngsters, no matter if you are a boy or a girl. Anna was still very young when she learnt how to move the pieces. Since she was just a little baby she has been going with us almost all the time when we were playing. One evening during the European Team Championship 2005 in Gothenburg where she saw me playing every day, Anna showed me how to castle properly. When she was young I had always castled by playing Ke2, Re1, Kf1-g1 against her. Now she told me, “No, no, not like that, this is the way to do it,” she said and castled.

Anna has always found it very easy to learn at school and to achieve good marks although she is often away on chess tournaments. I am convinced that chess helped her in many ways. And travelling when you are young, meeting people from all over the world, is maybe the best school you can get.

Will your daughter play at the Chess Olympiad in Batumi?

No, she won´t play either. Anna wanted very much to go if school allowed. But when it became clear that I would not go she said that she won´t go without me.

"A film about chess" (2017) directed by Jonatan Permert

Chess then and now

If you compare today’s chess, the way people train chess today or the chess scene in general with the chess scene when you started your career — what are the main differences, especially for women players? What do think about the role of the computer in modern chess? Do you work with computers — and how often?

The chess scene has changed a lot. There are so many tournaments and different championships now. Which is lovely because you can always find something you like to play. Sweden sometimes has five to six veteran teams that go to the European Team or the World Team Championship. It is very social.

I also see much more women events than in my youth. I have played in women leagues in China, France, Germany, Montenegro, and in Romania but also in the European Club Cup, something I could never imagine in my youth. The prizes are much higher, there are rapids and blitz championships that last only a few days which helps women — with a family it is more difficult for a woman to be away from home for a long time. I remember the Candidates Tournaments we played in the old times, like '97 in Groningen. We were eleven players and played for three weeks. The winner, Alisa Galliamova, had the right to challenge the reigning Women’s World Champion and could play for the title. But the prize-fund, in general, was small and the tournament was too long.

I love to play in the Women’s World Chess Championship, it is one of my absolute favourite tournaments. I love the knock-out matches. There is so much drama and it is very exciting — for the spectators and for me as a player. And if things go badly I do not have to stay until the end.

Open tournaments are now also more attractive for women. Gibraltar, which offers a huge prize fund for women, has set an example and other open tournaments also support women players in different ways. But I like the idea to support women to compete with men in all kinds of competitions.

Some countries have the rule that there has to be at least one woman-player on the team in their national team competition and I think this is a very good way to make the women needed.

But although there have been big changes there is still a long way to go. It is not easy for women who try to make a living from chess. You have to be among the best in the world or get good support from your federation or your club. 

Of course, computers and the internet have changed chess life enormously but for most players it is now much more fun to work on chess. Not to mention the young players who grow up with computers. Before the time of databases, we took a lot of books and notes with us to the tournaments. A Swedish grandmaster even used to bring a suitcase full of Informators. Which is not a very practical way to travel.

I also had to adjust and now I use the computer in my daily chess work. But it is better for me if I have a chessboard on the side and not only use the board on the screen.

Your husband is Spanish and for a long time you lived in Spain. But recently, you went back to Sweden. Why?

I always knew that one day I would like to return to Stockholm. Now it happened earlier than I expected. I was homesick and Spain suffered from an economic crisis. Which also affected chess: tournaments were cancelled, clubs ceased to exist. We had just sold our apartment and it was a good moment to move if we wanted. I asked my family and they agreed.

And how does your Spanish husband like the weather in Sweden?

Not so much (but nobody does!) He enjoys being at home, it is always warm and cosy inside, even if it is minus 15 degrees outside. He misses the sun, the good food and the wine and of course the friends he has in Spain. But Juan is a very flexible person and is happy here too.

We knew of course that it would most difficult for Anna to leave Spain where she was born but now I believe that we all are fine with the change we made.

  What are your plans for the future? Will you continue to stay a professional and play a lot of tournaments, or will you found a chess school and/or work as a chess teacher?

A signed photo of Pia Cramling | Photo: Pinterest

Chess is a big passion and I keep spending a lot of time on it. As long as I enjoy it and can keep my energy I will continue to play.

Juan is teaching and you can see that he likes it. I also like to give lessons sometimes but I am not a devoted teacher or commentator. If I do not play myself there is something missing.

In the European Woman Rapid Championship in March I was paired against Nona Gaprindashvili. It was the first time in many years that we played each other again. She is 20 years older than me and for once I felt young. Nona is a living legend. I Iike to see her to continue to play. There are very few women players who were born in the 60-ties or who are even older who have not stopped. Nona still has her fighting spirit and love for the game. Our game was the last one to finish. Afterwards, we analyzed the rook ending that occurred in the game. Nona did not want to stop and only ended the analysis when the next round was announced.

I hope I can follow in her footsteps and continue to play for many years to come.

Will you watch the football World Cup? Sweden is in the same group as Germany. What do you expect?

I like to watch with family or friends, but when I am on my own I prefer to do something else. In the qualification for the World Cup 2012 Sweden was trailing Germany 0-4 at half-time but drew the game 4-4. So anything might happen. I keep my fingers crossed for Sweden but I believe that Germany and Mexico are the favourites to qualify.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Questions by André Schulz and Johannes Fischer


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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