Wouter Sipma Photo by Reyer Boxem

Wouter Sipma

Putting all his chips on draughts

Wouter Sipma Photo by Reyer Boxem
Top draughts player, former student (and former UKrant columnist) Wouter Sipma has left the UG. He’s decided to focus completely on draughts. But he won’t just be playing.
2 February om 13:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 February 2022
om 17:32 uur.
February 2 at 13:05 PM.
Last modified on February 7, 2022
at 17:32 PM.
Avatar photo

Door René Hoogschagen

2 February om 13:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 February 2022
om 17:32 uur.
Avatar photo

By René Hoogschagen

February 2 at 13:05 PM.
Last modified on February 7, 2022
at 17:32 PM.
Avatar photo

René Hoogschagen

Freelance journalist Volledig bio / Full bio.

2021. The middle of summer in Tallinn, Estonia. The eleventh round of the draughts world championship has just finished and Sipma is in a bad mood. Two rounds ago, he was trailing the top three by a single point. And they were set to face opponents that were much better players than they were. That means he could still beat them to become the world champion.

One of them does indeed lose, his good friend Roel Boomstra ends his game in a tie, but so does Sipma himself. Schwartsman wins. That means the Russian player is now world champion instead of Sipma. 

When it’s all over, he and his opponents go for a beer; they’re all friends and haven’t seen each much, if at all, due to the pandemic. They analyse the games and update each other on their lives. Sipma’s mood slowly brightens. He did manage to come in sixth place in the world championship. Not bad for someone who came in on a wild card.


It’s also slowly dawning on him that he now has an A status. That means he could focus only on draughts for an entire year, should he want to. 

The A status means he would get funding that would allow him to focus on his draughts career. At 140 percent of minimum wage, it’s not a bad income. ‘I don’t need much’, says Sipma. So that’s easy.

But he’d applied to a job at the UG before he left for Estonia and he had been hired. Starting January, he would be supporting research groups with data processing, after he’d finished a project at the CIT, where he’d been doing a traineeship.


He achieved A status once before, in 2016. Back then, he’d focused completely on playing draughts. But he didn’t enjoy it very much. ‘It was a little too one-dimensional for me. I play draughts because I like it, because I want to improve and discover new things.’ But it wasn’t working out for him.’ ‘It felt like an obligation.’

I’m just not that competitive

He’d rather just play, take risks. ‘I’m just not that competitive.’ Not like his good friend Roel Boomstra, his fellow physics student in Groningen who recently became world champion again in a nerve-racking battle against the Russian Aleksandr Shvartsman, where Sipma served as his second. Boomstra is much more focused on winning. ‘Back when we were little, he was already saying that he would be world champion one day. I never had that desire.’

‘The way Roel does it, that almost maniacal focus, playing every day; that’s just not my thing. Maybe for a while, but I can’t spend all day, every day, thinking about draughts.’ 


Nevertheless, Boomstra’s second thinks he might still beat him someday. Not in a direct match, but in a tournament. ‘Roel is great in a match, but in a tournament it’s all about how to beat your weaker opponents. You don’t make your best moves; you have to trick the other person into making mistakes. Because I’ve always taken a few more risks in my plays, I’m better at that than he is.’

Over the past few years, Sipma’s style has become ‘a bit more business-like, a little less frivolous.’ Alexander Baljakin, the national trainer, said during the last world championship: Wouter’s game has grown up. ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m older now’, says Sipma.

The last time he achieved A status, he was still a student, and he had a top-class sports arrangement with the UG. ‘It allowed me to determine my own tempo. The only person I was responsible for was myself. But as an employee, you also have a responsibility towards your employer.’


Sipma arranged for him to do the job in twelve hours a week. Just to keep his foot in the door at the UG. His part-time job wasn’t set to start until January, which is also when his A status would be activated. But he was already in the mood to play draughts. Why not start training? 

The UG has a lot of vacation days, but all of them would be spent on draughts

In November, he was forced to call in sick. ‘Overloaded.’ He talked to a UG social worker and wondered if it was smart to keep working. ‘What could I actually achieve in just a day and a half?’

Anyone who plays draughts professionally has to play in approximately eight tournaments a year, Sipma explains. Each tournament takes a few weeks to prepare. In the meantime, you’re also competing nationally, and you have to train at Papendal three days out of the month. ‘The UG has a lot of vacation days, but all of them would be spent on draughts. My schedule would be full for a whole year.’

He decided to quit working.


He is still focused on draughts. But on more than just the game. He has all sorts of plans. Paths, he calls them. A future path in which he engages in draughts professionally, whether he has an A status or not.

Like live-streaming matches, reporting on them on the internet. Some chess players do this, although not many. ‘The most well-known is Hikaru Nakamura. He has a few million followers and his live-streams are watched by ten or twenty thousand people.’ Nakamura has managed to make a living out of it, says Sipma.

But in the Netherlands, the business is still in its infancy. The draughts union is trying to figure out how they can make it work. And they should, says Sipma, who actually has experience live-streaming. ‘The draughts world is in need of digital revolution.’

National coach

Another path he might take is that leading towards a position of coach or trainer. As second to Boomstra, he’s proven to be capable of this. Perhaps he’ll even become national coach. ‘Or maybe I’ll go work for NOC*NSF.’ He also chairs draughts club Hijken, where he started playing when he was a kid. ‘There wasn’t anything to do in Hijken back then. There was a football club and a draughts club, and that was it.’ He’s working on a project on healthy ageing: keeping your brains fit by playing draughts.

I’m pretty sure I could return to the UG if I wanted to

Or maybe he’ll do a PhD study on draughts, using machine learning. ‘I talked to AI professor Niels Taatgen about it once, how draughts would work great in research on artificial intelligence.’

Draughts is very scalable, he says. ‘We play in on a ten-by-ten board, but there’s no reason you couldn’t play it on a smaller or bigger board.’ Or maybe he could create a program to teach people how to play draughts.
What if all these paths are dead ends? He’s not really worried. ‘I’m pretty sure that I could return to the UG if I wanted to. It’s reassuring to know there is something to fall back on.’