Rik Keurentjes, talent coach at the Royal Netherlands Draughts Union (KNDB), needs a moment to think when asked whether it has ever happened before that three students at the world championship are from the same university. He does know that there are relatively many Dutch top players that are still at university. And RUG students Roel Boomstra (in the photo right) and Wouter Sipma (in the photo left) were both in the 2015 world championship.
But three players from the same university? ‘I don’t think so’, says Keurentjes. ‘It’s a unique situation.’
Starting Sunday, 1 October, eighty top draughts players from fifty countries will be battling each other in Tallinn. Fifteen of them are Dutch. The Netherlands have been one of the leading draughts countries for years (and has produced such champions as Harm Wiersma, Ton Sijbrands, and Jannes van der Wal), but even that number is exceptional, says Keurentjes. ‘A great feat. There are plenty of international Grandmasters who were unable to place for the tournament.’
Will the podium in Tallinn be draped in RUG red on October 16? Roel Boomstra (24 years old, physics student) became the world champion in twosomes last year and is one of the biggest favourites to win, says Keurentjes. Wouter Sipma is also an enthusiastic player, Keurentjes thinks, and although his namesake is making his debut at this year’s championship, he is considered an up-and-coming talent, and could be a dangerous outsider.
The first world championship draughts took place in the late nineteenth century. The tournament is held once every two years. Participants hail from approximately fifty different countries, with Russia supplying the largest number of players. Since 1984 (when Harm Wiersma won the title), the top spot was always claimed by a Russian, with one exception: in 1994, Guntis Valneris from Latvia beat them.
But, says the coach, it’s a hard tournament to predict. World championships demand a lot from people. Keurentjes explains: In the qualifying rounds, all participants play nine five-hour games over six days. The twelve finalists of these rounds then play each other in eleven matches. On day fifteen, they have been playing top-level draughts for approximately one hundred hours. Keurentjes: ‘No matter how good you are, you have to be alert and fit.’
Physics student Sipma knows this like no other. Anyone fighting to the end in the qualifying rounds arrives ‘broken’ at the next round, something that can particularly bother older players. Sipma: ‘This week I’m not leaving the couch, just taking it easy. I’m purposefully not playing any matches. The world championships are physically demanding. That’s why I think especially the younger players will do well.’ He grins: ‘I’m 24 years old. I’m one of the young ones.’
Wouter Wolff, a first-year student of applied mathematics and only eighteen years old, has his debut at this championship. He may have the least experience of all the players, but he sees it as an opportunity. ‘There are players at this championship that are fifty or older. There’s no way they will last. They might just make the finals, but they’ll be on their last legs. They’ve got no chance.’
Because, he says, the championship is ‘ridiculously hard’ on one’s brain and body. ‘Football players run around for ninety minutes. We play at least one five-hour game each day. You get up, play draughts, go to bed tired. There isn’t time for anything else. It’s just awful.’
While Sipma and Boomstra are taking it easy in the days leading up to the championship, Wolff actually went to classes this week (‘I did skip a few, though’). He also replayed several matches and analysed the players he will be facing in the qualifying rounds. Somewhat bizarrely, he’ll be facing off against Sipma and Boomstra. The three RUG players have, purely by chance, been placed in the same group.
It’s not going to be an easy few rounds for Sipma, he thinks. ‘Roel is the world champion, and he has a higher rating than I do. And I haven’t been able to beat Wouter Wolff yet. He just keeps getting better. He has a very clever style of playing.’
‘I just take it easy, that’s how I like it’, Wolff describes his strategy. ‘I don’t try to provoke Roel and Wouter, I’m gentle with them. If I manage to tie the matches against them, I’ll be hard to beat. I just have to make it through the qualifying rounds. In the finals, anything can happen.’
Sipma is counting on making it to the finals. ‘I’ll be really bummed out if I don’t.’ He managed two years ago, ending up in eighth place. How does he think he’ll do this year? ‘I’m counting on a top 8 spot.’
The Royal Netherlands Draughts Unions (team kndb) will be posting the Dutch players’ results on their website starting Sunday, 1 October.