The Most Beautiful Chess Book
It's a chess book like no other, a visual tribute to the royal game.
The book is 208 pages of Fedrigoni paper filled with tension in the eyes of silent protagonists. Club players, Olympic members, world champions. All focused, deep in thought, pondering their next move over the black and white board.
I met the author, the renowned chess photographer David Llada in Madrid to ask him about his journey toward chess photography and the publication that is now called the most beautiful chess book ever printed: The Thinkers.
The Thinkers in print | © David Llada.
AR: How did you turn from a professional journalist into the greatest chess photographer of our time?
DL: When I was a journalist it was a bit frustrating that for important interviews or reports, I would always need to bring a photographer with me. For instance, when in 2002 I went to Iraq as a freelance journalist, a professional photo reporter had to travel with me. I realized back then that in the future journalists would need to be the cameraman, the photographer, the writer...in short, “a one-man band.” And I think I was right: nowadays you need to do interviews, some photos, video editing...everything at once. So to begin with, I wanted to be able to take photos good enough to illustrate my own articles. That was my only ambition.
Did you start taking photos right then? Did you have a camera?
Yes, I did, but actually shortly after my experience in Iraq, I left journalism altogether. Too many emotions, too little pay!
Then somehow I had the chance to go to some tournaments and take a few photos. Little by little it became more serious. I liked that it was a flexible link I could keep with chess: I was not anymore a full time professional (I actually have a very demanding job aside from the game), but I could go to some events, take some pictures, and then come back to my daily life. So it worked well for me, and it was very stimulating to see that both activities could be compatible. I could choose a few events per year, travel to nice places and meet my old friends without having to devote myself to work full time on that.
Garry Kasparov in Valencia, 2009—one of Llada's first portraits.
Thanks to @LennartOotes for this amazing pic of me getting an autograph from the one and only @Kasparov63 at #GrandChessTour #ProBiz event at @GoogleUK yesterday! #TheThinkers of @davidllada nearly stole all the show 😍 @london_chess pic.twitter.com/zQ6msvSoR7— Miss Lova Lova ( @photochess) December 1, 2017
Did you realize that you have a special talent, a kind of a "photographer's eye" many of us wish we had?
I don't think I have a talent for photography, no. I think I have a talent perhaps for writing and for observing people. The latter is important for photography of course but I don't think I have a talent for photography itself. I'm not creative, for instance.
No?! Whenever I look at your photos I know it's your picture, you have your personal style of photography, and your work is always of an outstanding quality. Many consider you the world champion of chess photography, and yet I should believe you're not talented?
The thing is, we don't have so many professionals in chess. Not only in photography, but in many fields. We don't have so many professional organizers, we don't have many professional journalists, photographers...most of us, we are chess players who are learning on the go how to do things. And I have a very professional approach in everything I try: I seek for improvement; I pay attention to the guys who know their craft.
Back then, there was no one taking chess photography seriously. In 2012 I was offered to be the official photographer of the Chess Olympiad in Istanbul and I wasn't ready for it. But it's the kind of challenge I was ready to take on. I found it very stimulating. When I'm offered an opportunity I don't deserve, then I give the most. I wasn't ready for it but I prepared myself for a couple of months. I was observing chess pictures. There was this great Dutch photographer, Fred Lucas, and also Boris Dolmatovsky from Russia. I was looking at their work, going through all their photos, aiming to learn from what they do better than others and then trying to put it into practice.
Kenneth Odeh in Atlantic City, N.J. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
Julia Clementson from Guyana. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
So you taught yourself what to look for when you are at a chess event?
Yes. When somebody gives me the confidence and I have this little challenge, I can do my best. Gratitude, confidence, and a little bit of challenge is a powerful mix.
Impressive. So what is that you learned to look for, and how did your initial technique transform from that Chess Olympiad to the David Llada we know now?
More or less I had the ideas, I knew what I wanted to do, and now I know how to do it. I prefer to take close-up portraits, only the face of the players mainly, to avoid any distraction. In the playing hall you always have distracting things around the players—that's why I focus on the players' faces, very close shots, where you cannot see anything else. For the same reason, I often rely on black and white. Maybe there is someone with a colorful T-shirt in the background: by removing the colors you get rid of him and your focus will be drawn to what is important in the picture.
I've never thought of black and white this way, it makes a lot of sense.
I'm going to show you my environment [points at the photo below]. This is a mess. So many people, so many colors, so many things. Sometimes you need to simplify. The less you put in a picture the more impact it makes in general. So I take this mess and I focus on only one element at a time, that's what I try to do.
Bilbao 2014. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
And mainly it's the faces of the players.
Yes. Not even the position on the board.
Do people complain sometimes, why can't they see the pieces as well?
Yeah, they do—but they've got databases for that!
You are right! Speaking of faces, what kind of faces you look for? Do you focus on the eyes, or facial expressions?
Yes, especially the eyes and hands—they are the most expressive parts of the body. The hands can tell a story as well. For instance, when you look at this picture of Nakamura (see below), you can see that he is enjoying himself, he is pleased with the opening. The book's cover picture shows a very tense moment, a critical decision perhaps—you can tell that by the pose.
Hikaru Nakamura. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
The cover of The Thinkers. | © David Llada.
For this book, you had to choose from many photos, the work of over five years. How did you select the 177 pictures presented in the book? Even to make that cut must have been difficult.
I made a preliminary selection with Jacob Aagaard (creative director of Quality Chess), we picked around 250 photos, and then I gave everything to the designer and let him make the final decision, only with aesthetic criteria; that was it.
Weren't you heartbroken for some of the photos that didn't make it to the book?
Yes, I was.
Are you planning a second volume so that those pictures can also be in print?
Could be, but I think that some special book like this, in a luxury edition, you will have one every five or 10 years, no more than that. The market is not so big for a publication like this. I know that some people will never buy this book—many chess people only buy opening books for instance—but the ones who buy this like it very much.
Asha Kondo in Mombasa, Kenya. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
Chess.com's main man also made it to the collection | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
What was your inspiration for creating this book?
I think it was a very natural idea, after a couple of years taking photos. Already in 2014 I conceived The Thinkers as a photographic project, consisting of both a book and a photo exhibition.
With the exhibitions, I would like to give chess organizers something visual that they can use to charm sponsors, something that is going to give very much-needed visibility to chess.
These photos already have some artistic value which, added to the cultural heritage of chess itself, can open new horizons for the promotion of the game: They can provide us with the opportunity to be in an art gallery, a museum…and my main goal is also to make exhibitions in public places. Not in the playing hall or in a chess club—the whole point is that, if you get a good location that gives you exposure, instead of an extra expense these exhibitions would be a way to get sponsors on board, or to strengthen your relationship with your existing ones. I got some professional experience in that field so I know what I am talking about. Now I just need to convince some organizers, but I am already in discussion with potential venues, in some prime locations.
Ljubomir Ljubojevic. | © David Llada: The Thinkers.
What are your plans for the photo exhibition, and how large will the images be?
They will be pretty large, approximately 1.5 meter x 1 meter, printed on aluminum plates—that is weather-proof and waterproof, so you can place it on the streets, and it requires no framing. You can also transport it easily: My idea is to have a traveling exhibition from one city to another.
Very nice idea. You said that for you it was natural to make a book like this and the exhibitions, yet I can't recall any initiative similar to yours.
There are many things that haven't been done in chess yet, because, as I said before, we lack true professionals, especially in the marketing and PR departments. For instance, only now has FIDE established a marketing commission. They don't have any budget, but still, it is one step in the right direction.
What is your hope with this book? What would you like people to feel when they look at it?
It may sound superficial, but I think it is the most beautiful book ever printed about chess. For people who appreciate arts and photography, it is a gem, something they would put on the table and have a look at it from time to time. Also, it's often being bought as a gift—somebody would get a copy for his parents, for the president of the chess club, to a former chess mentor. It's very nice when your work is used as a present. And to children...I think it's a very nice book to give to children, as a gift or as a prize at a kids' tournament. Children need somebody to imitate, somebody to look up to. These photos of top players can inspire them and serve as role models. They need to see idols other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
The back cover of The Thinkers with Magnus Carlsen. | © David Llada.
I must admit David's "selfie" is somewhat above my own selfies' level. | © David Llada.
The Thinkers is available with worldwide shipping on Quality Chess.