You might think that two boys from the Netherlands, born on exactly the same day and both reaching the upper echelons of chess, would have met even earlier. It took them about a decade, and by the time they did, they weren't equals.
"I think we met in the Dutch Championship, under 12," Death Match 22 competitor GM Erwin l'Ami recalled. "He was the big favorite while I was in my first championship. I remember I made 4.5 out of 9 and finished 27th. He indeed finished first."
That antecedent to l'Ami's story is of course GM Jan Smeets, who didn't recall the exact meeting. Chess players naturally remember the peak players at tournaments, and we can't expect the top-rated to remember the rest of the field.
Over time, the gap in skill would mitigate, and they go into Saturday's Death Match as near equals. The match will take place live March 22 on Chess.com/tv at 12:00 p.m. Eastern (New York time), 9 a.m. Pacific. They will play three hours of blitz and bullet, without any breaks.
Jan Smeets | Photo © Frans Peeters
They've played 28 rated games since that initial meeting (l'Ami has the score at +1 in his favor), so it may be hard to surprise the other at this point. They both claim to have played "hundreds" of blitz and training games against each other - so many that neither could give a more accurate estimate. They'll have lots to draw on in their preparation, unlike some recent Death Matches, where the two players had often never played one another.
One notable exception would be Death Match 11, which was also "Double Dutch" as IM Benjamin Bok beat GM Robin Van Kampen by one game.
l'Ami's personal favorite game against Smeets was their 2007 meeting on home soil in Wijk aan Zee. White makes 10 retreating moves before finally crashing through for good with the crunching finish.
Smeets can't capture twice as e7+ nets the queen. But if he takes once and slides the king to c8, then Qd7+ wins. If he heads for c8 right away, White can trade on c5 and do the same.
For Smeets, his most memorable head-to-head matchup was in 2010. He used a common tactic to win a pawn, then eventually delivered in a grueling endgame. At one point, the two players were more than half way to the 50-move rule before White made progress and got his majority going.
This win helped Smeets go undefeated in winning the Dutch Championship in 2010, ahead of such players as GM Anish Giri and GM Loek van Wely.
As for the Death Match, both players claim that the 1+1 segment will be their best and both have trepidations about the 5+1 portion. l'Ami said that it is a "bit slow for me."
These two children of the 80s (April 5, 1985 to be exact) were asked to see who remembered their opening decade better. The list of top movies that weekend was quite eclectic, as you can see here. "Maybe I'm a barbarian but out of this list I only saw Amadeus," l'Ami said. "I'm used to randomly watching movies and don't know the titles of most," Smeets said. Probably best - Police Academy 2 paled in comparison to the original.
But what about music? The top song on the day they were born was the collaborative mega-hit "We Are the World". l'Ami's list of favorite singers from that song include Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Bruce Springsteen.
Instead, Smeets said he was "never really into music." He was subjected to whatever his sister was playing loudly in the next room. "When she was about 10 there was a Spice Girls period, after that it was Robbie Williams."
So while l'Ami may be more into the culture of the 80s, Smeets was spending slightly more time on sports. He plays some soccer and table tennis and goes on a yearly mountain biking trip.
This is unlike l'Ami, who admitted in the February Master's Bulletin that he never likes to break a sweat. I wonder if sacricing a full queen qualifies? "16...Na6 is perhaps the coolest move I've ever made," l'Ami said.
Not to be outdone, Smeets' proudest game was also a Caro-Kann in which he moved his king to d7 early. Watch him slowly convert against a current World Champion Candidate:
Not appreciating physical exertion would be the opposite of some of the competitors' countrymen, who like to go to the Olympics and win all the speed skating medals for every event. "There's a lot of water over here so that's the basis," Smeets said, estimating that half of the Netherlands is below sea level. "We either have a very advanced doping program or have just made progress in training methods and material."
It's too bad that neither of them don the skin-tight orange skating suits. There could be a new type of "Nordic Combined Death Match" - skating while making a move every lap. Crazy you say? Then how come the Dutch word for chess is "schaken" and for skating is "schaatsen"? There's already one Dutchman who is combining chess and soccer - Ruben Schaken!
Moving on past the 80s and sports, let's see who represents his country well. l'Ami's favorite Dutch cheese is Gouda (the city is close to his hometown). Smeets prefers his cheese "old" but otherwise is "not a huge fan of traditional Dutch cuisine as I find boiled potatoes boring."
Neither player wishes for any Dutch terms to join the likes of other foreign chess phrases like "zwischenzug" or "j'adoube".
"Let's keep things simple," Smeets said. "Dutch is hard enough as it is - try to pronounce Scheveningen." l'Ami agrees - "No one would be able to pronounce our contributions."
Just for kicks, he offered the tongue-twister "Achtentachtig prachtige grachten". Let's hope in their live commentary IM Danny Rensch and GM Ben Finegold don't need to say that 88 pawns are beautiful. If we keep having two Dutchmen play every 11th Death Match, we would indeed have to learn to say "88 beautiful matches".
The best case for being a proper Dutchman must surely be to play the Dutch! "Neither of us has ever tried it, shame on us," l'Ami said. "Anish Giri showed his class when he received his Dutch passport last month. In his first game that he played as a Dutchman he managed to push his pawn to f5!" Smeets put the chance of him playing it in the Death Match at one percent.
When asked what the best part of their country was, l'Ami said "tolerance... I like to live in a free and open-minded society." Smeets chose the same answer by being more specific: "Just go to Amsterdam, it's all there."
Should the match finished tied like the previous Death Match, they'll have to play an additional bullet game. l'Ami won't be allowed to used his "lifetime tiebreaker". Both players are keenly aware that l'Ami is a solid three hours older than Smeets, exactly the length of a Death Match.
Watch all the action of Death Match 22 live at Chess.com/tv. Commentators Rensch and Finegold will cover all three hours, including pre- and post-game interviews. Coverage starts at 12:00 p.m. Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, -- GMT -8 -- Saturday, March 22.