"The immense depth of the game continues to fascinate me" - An interview with Erwin l'Ami

by Johannes Fischer
6/12/2017 – Erwin l'Ami is a strong grandmaster and a popular author. In an interview with ChessBase he talks about his fascination for chess, how he caught the chess virus, gambit play in modern chess, his favorite games, the Dutch Stonewall, how and why to study the opening and why playing blitz can improve your game.

The Dutch Stonewall - A fighting repertoire against 1.d4 The Dutch Stonewall - A fighting repertoire against 1.d4

In the Dutch Stonewall Black from the very first move fights for the initiative. Let Erwin l'Ami take you on a fascinating journey to the depth and attractions of this unique opening. At the end you will be rewarded with a new repertoire against 1.d4!


You are a chess professional – as a player, author and second. What fascinates you about chess?

I like every aspect of it; the fight behind the board but also the more scientific approach when you are at home analyzing opening variations or one's games. The immense depth of the game continues to fascinate me.

Do you still remember when the chess virus infected you?

Very well! I have three older brothers so when it came to football or other physical activities it would be hard to compete with them. However, I quickly discovered I could beat them at chess...

Currently you support Anish Giri as a second and in the past you also helped Veselin Topalov as a second. What does a second do?

A second tries to take away work that would otherwise lay on the shoulders of the player. The second prepares opening variations for the next game while the player can relax and unwind. 

How (and how much) do top players such as Topalov and Giri work for chess? And what do they do?

I worked with Topalov until 2011 so I don't know how hard he is working to date, but obviously he used to definitely put his hours in! Anish has an enormous work ethic and can literally work from early morning until late everything. Players typically work on all aspects of the game: endgames, solving positions, analyzing games but the emphasize is definitely on opening preparation.

Do you have a role-model, a chessplayer whose games or style you admire?

I was 13 when I saw the famous Kasparov-Topalov game (from Wijk aan Zee 1999) happening live in front of my eyes when I visited the tournament.


All Gary's games from those years carry great nostalgic feelings! The precision is breathtaking.

You published a number of popular DVDs that also got very positive reviews. People were particularly impressed by the amount of work you put into these DVDs. In two of your DVDs you offer readers a “Gambit Guide”. What fascinates you about gambits and how did you get the idea for this DVD?

That’s very easy; I had trouble meeting them! As a young child you are always taught to play 1.e4 and open games but I had no such education and always played 1.d4. That means the open games for a long time did not come natural to me and gambit play especially was completely out of my comfort zone!

Top players, however, seem to believe that you can no longer play gambits on top level. And when Adhiban Baskaran tried the King’s Gambit against Wesley So in the Tata Steel Tournament this year it was a big surprise and considered to be rather bold. What do you think – are top grandmasters too timid and should they try a gambit once in a while?

Adhiban later told me it was a good thing he hadn't seen my DVD before his game with So as the refutation of the line he played is right there! (smiles).

A Gambit Guide through the Open Game Vol.1 and 2

To avoid them or to play them, you have to know them. In two Volumes we see gambits such as Frankenstein-Dracula Gambit, the Cochrane Gambit, the Belgrade Gambit, the King's Gambit, Marshall Gambit, the Scotch Gambit, the Jänisch Gambit and many more.

Some gambits are better then others but the truth is that on top level most players know how to effectively deal with them. My DVD therefore is aimed at ambitious amateurs and beyond, but not the worlds very best (smiles).

What are Giri’s thoughts on this – he does not strike me as someone who is particularly keen to dare a gambit?

Anish has a very classical approach to the game and I doubt we will see him essay the King's Gambit any time soon!

After the Gambit Guide you published a DVD about the Stonewall Dutch. What are the advantages of the Stonewall?

In times when opening theory develops very, very fast it's nice to be able to fall back on an opening that is more or less solely based on ideas. There is no need to memorize long variation, here understanding the position is more of the essence. I can imagine that speaks to the imagination of many players and it may be the reason for why the Stonewall-DVD has been selling as well as it does.

Would you consider the Stonewall as a positional gambit – after all, Black decides to seriously weaken the central square e5?

Haha, interesting thought! I never thought about it that way. Officially though, I think “Gambit” only applies to real sacrifices, rather then lost squares. I think the Stonewall deserves a reappraisal, see also Carlsen's recent games in which he had great results!

Why should you study openings – to get an advantage in the opening or just to get a playable middlegame position – or for other reasons?

Each his own, I think! Some people love to spend hours delving into opening variations, trying to immediately take their opponent out in a sharp Najdorf while others would prefer to study an opening that gives them a playable game. At the very top, obviously the approach is very different. All the players are very well prepared there and the main emphasize is on trying to surprise your opponent and get a playable position in the process.

How important is it for amateurs to study openings?

Honestly, not much! Amateurs tend to spend most time in this area because results are immediately visible. It's all short-term though, and long-term one would do better to spend the time on analyzing one's games, endgames, solving etc.

But why study chess at all – would it not be easier and more fun to just play and simply enjoy the game?

We are walking a very philosophical path now! Personally, I like to broaden my horizons and deepen my understanding of the game. I can't imagine simply playing the game and not drawing any conclusions from it.

Erwin l'Ami after winning the strong Reykjavik Open 2015 with 8.5/10

You are a strong grandmaster and a strong blitz-player. In 2015 you won the Rabat Blitz Marathon and in 2016 you became Dutch Online Blitz Champion. Do you use blitz to try gambits or new opening ideas?

Since I am doing a lot of work for Anish these days, I tend to have less time to play myself. (Online) blitz is a way to keep 'in touch' with the board and that's my main goal behind it. Rabat blitz was a very fun event and I sure hope the tournament will resurrect in the near future!

Can blitz help to improve one’s game or is it just fun and entertainment?

If you take it serious, I think it can be a helpful tool to test new openings or play strong opponents. As a young player it was a great experience that I could just go online and play with grandmasters.

Last question: what is your favorite game, what is your favorite gambit gameand what is your favorite Stonewall game?

Favorite game

I think Kasparov-Topalov, Wijk aan Zee 1999 for the mere fact I was right there and it gave such a lasting impression. 

Favorite gambit game

Ekebjaerg-Timmerman, Correspondence 1991


Favorite Stonewall game

I think Anand-Carlsen, from Grenke 2015 was quite monumental for the line!



A ChessBase feature with Erwin l'Ami

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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