Jan Hein Donner

I admire the late Jan Hein Donner (1927-1988) more for his writings than for his chess, although he won the Dutch championship three times (in 1954, 1957 and 1958) and had some international success (in Beverwijk 1963 first, ahead of Bronstein, and in Venice 1967 first, ahead of Petrosian).

Jan Hein Donner

The King

On August 24, 1983 Donner suffered a brain hemorrhage that ended his playing career at age 56 (“Just in time, because at age 56 your chess is not as good as at age 26” he sardonically put it). He died at 61, on November 27, 1988. His friends Tim Krabbe and Max Pam compiled his best writings into one volume: “The King: chess pieces”. That’s a book I can recommend to anyone, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Jeremy Silman starts his review of “The King” as follows: “I have long complained about the lack of good writing in chess circles. In fact, most of the chess rubbish that passes for prose reminds me of a Republican lecture on family values: rambling, boring, obvious, shallow and always (watch out! This is the part that really offends me!) politically correct. Then a light appeared at the end of the tunnel: a raving Dutch lunatic named Donner had written for years about chess, its big names, its political machinations, the psychology of winning and losing, and so much more.”

And this is what the publisher says: “This is the most outrageous chess book that money can buy! Dutch readers have followed the writing of the legendary, late J.H. Donner for decades. Witty, opinionated, sometimes cranky, he was never boring  – always fun to read. Here is a collection of his best essays  translated into English. We call it the Chess Book of the Century. Limited printing.

The King by J.H. Donner

Harry Mulisch

Jan Hein Donner and Harry Mulisch were close friends. Their friendship plays a major role in Mulisch’s magnum opus “The discovery  of Heaven“. In the two main characters, Max Delius and Onno Quist, the reader can recognise much of Harry Mulisch (Max) and Jan Hein Donner (Onno).

Some Donner data and facts

Johannes Hendrikus (Jan Hein) Donner was born on July 6, 1927 in The  Hague (by the way: Adolph Anderssen was born on July 6 too!). He  learnt to play chess on August 22, 1941. This exact date was  remembered because it was the same day his father was imprisoned by the Germans (remember it was World War 2). He had a special talent for chess, since one year later he played Euwe. In 1944 he joined DD (Discendo Discimus). He was a member of this famous Dutch chess club all his life. In 1945 he started his law studies at the University of Amsterdam, but spent most of his  time there studying and playing chess. He got international fame in the Hoogovens tournament in 1950. He took first place before Euwe and Rossolimo. In 1952 he became an IM and in 1959 an IGM. In 1954 he  wins the Dutch Championship and ends thus the 33 year (!) reign of Euwe. When asked to mention his best game, he said: “… very little remains of the hundreds of games I played. Maybe one. A short one, but one that shows some of the perfection I always sought for, but  almost never found …” This is that game:

Donner Quotes

* “The New Testament is the only detective who patently obviously points out the reader as the guilty.”

* “After I resigned this game with perfect self-control and solemnly shook hands with my opponent in the best of Anglo-Saxon traditions, I rushed home, where I threw myself onto my bed, howling and screaming, and pulled the blankets over my face. For three days and three nights the Erinnyes were after me. Then I got up, dressed, kissed my wife and considered my situation.”

 * “Love is: trying your whole life to teach your wife to play chess.”

 * “However painful it may be, we must not shrink from the truth: women cannot play chess.”

 * “An odor of sanctity began spreading through the tournament hall and outside too, as far as the blast furnaces spewing smoke in  the distance. A few Reformed brethren, correctly assuming that the *MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM* was present in me then and there, gathered around me and asked me if this overwhelming token of Grace was not a Sign for me to return to the service of the Lord of Hosts. He, of Whom we can only speak obliquely, is my Friend, the Helper, by Whom I leap over a wall.” (on salvaging a win from a lost position)

The term mysterium tremendum was used by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto in his book Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy; 1917) as description for “arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring“. Otto’s concept of the numinous (another term he used for mysterium tremendum) influenced thinkers including Carl Jung and C.S. Lewis. t has been applied to theology, psychology and descriptions of psychedelic experiences.

 * “A real chess game can only be experienced by two people.”

 * “Our game is just too difficult for ordinary intelligent people.”

 * “The chess player who has lost his game – who will describe him? I have seen him unable to move. The public was long gone, the lights were out, and still he sat rigidly in his chair staring at the emptied board, because he had overlooked Bg2. A case of complete petrification, with bystanders whispering and tiptoeing by. I have heard him begging for punishment in blasphemous language. He had forgotten Nh5, and in his dismay he called down annihilation upon himself. Derisively, he rejected our words of solace, demanding insults and chastisements. Standing afar and horror-stricken, I have witnessed him swearing in orgiastic fury to rip off his genitals, because he had played Qf6 instead of Qb6.”

 * “He plays a hideously crooked kind of chess. If correct play and judgment were what counted, he would never win a game. He hasn’t got a clue. He is the worst player in the whole wide world.”  (on Lodewijk Prins)

 * “Prins was in his element. Utter nonsense proved a complete success. It is a sad thing that a player of his level must rate officially as the strongest in Holland.” (on Lodewijk Prins winning the Dutch chess championship)

 * “When I can’t bang their heads together anymore, it is time for me to go.”

 * “My case happens to be less harrowing than it would have been if I had been totally dependent on the Dutch chess world, but not everyone gets the chance to marry a rich woman.” (quite sarcastic, since his wife was by no means rich)

 * “Men want to beat you up, but women want to take care of you. Personally I prefer a beating, because there’s an end of it.”

 * “What’s this? Are you teaching the poor boy to play chess? Fie, for shame! Why not have him drink hard liquor or take him off to a brothel, while you’re at it!” (on teaching a child to play chess)

 * “There is a conviction, deeply rooted in the Netherlands, that no Dutchman can ever achieve anything worthwhile. Euwe was so upset when he became world champion that he got rid of the title as soon as possible.”

 * “Kind, full of promises and guarantees before the contest but a blank amnesia afterwards. That’s the way these gentlemen are.”  (on Dutch tournament organizers)

 * “He probably has not overlooked me at all. No, he has omitted me on purpose. What is more, I have the distinct impression that he has only given his views in order not to mention me! How dare he, the little brat!” (on being omitted from Fischer’s list of the 10 greatest chess players of all time)

 * “I love all positions. Give me a difficult positional game, I will play it. Give me a bad position, I will defend it. Openings, endgames, complicated positions, dull draws, I love them and I will do my very best. But totally won positions, I cannot stand them.”

 * “He has contributed a few notorious drawing variations to chess theory and obviously holds to the firm belief that winning or losing is an abnormal end to a chess game.” (on Trifunovic)

 * “The torrent of rudeness, girlish sulking (‘I’m not speaking with you any longer’) and downright insults I have to put up with from youngsters who are as yet incapable of surpassing me on the chess board may have its psychological explanation, I still find the intensity of their aggression frightening at times. When Bohm avails himself of the publicity surrounding his excellent result in the recent IBM tournament to air his doubts about my sexual prowess and to brand me a malicious gossip, and then triumphantly declares that he has taken his ‘revenge,’ I don’t quite see why, though I suspect it concerns problems that he’ll have to thrash out for himself.”

 * “How could a Western Grandmaster lose to a Chinaman?” (after his loss to Liu Wenzhe in Buenos Aires, 1978). This is the game:

 * “Even in the world of chess there is at least one woman who rates as a world-class player. For inveterate masculinists and for those who must write jocular pieces to earn a living, this is a serious setback, which will naturally not prevent us in the least from continuing our struggle unabatedly.” (speaking of Nona Gaprindashvili)

 * “Women can do everything but they cannot think logically. They have no intuition.”

 * “Great writers must be dead. Their being alive is no good to us. On the contrary, because they are alive, there is something  unfinished about their work. … they may change their minds or  give further explanations, spoiling their work.”

Female chess – Jan Hein Donner

Women, for whatever reasons, have not truly attained an equal footing with the male chessplayers. Madame Chaudé de Silans, one of the better female players (in 1950 she was the first woman to play in an Olympic Chess Team (for France)), had this contemptuous remark on why her own sex didn’t do better: “Women can’t play chess because you have to keep quiet for five hours.

Chantal Chaudé de Silans

On the other hand Milunka Lazarevic, a top Yugoslav female player, notes: “No one asks me why I play better than 19 million Yugoslavs, but only why I play weaker than some 100 (male) Yugoslavs.

Milunka Lazarevic

Indeed, the question has been raised many times: “Why can”t women play chess on the same level as men?“. I”ve seen several answers. The best and funniest ones (in my opinion) were given by the late Jan Hein Donner (more about him soon elsewhere on this site!).


In 1968 he noted: “However painful it may be, we must not shrink from the truth: women cannot play chess. And, if you ask me, they will never learn to play chess. … And why can”t they play chess? After more than twenty-two years of pure scientific research, I think I have found an explanation. It is a well-known fact that a woman is superior to a man. Physically she is stronger. With her endless patience she will win, in the end, the everlasting battle of the sexes. She can think more logically… She has a far better memory… In everything a woman is superior to a man, but she misses one thing: intuition.

And: “I have studied Fraulein Jorger closely and attentively. In any aeroplane whatsoever, I would completely put myself in her hands, her piano playing is a delight, but chess… forget it, she is hopeless at it, just like any other woman.

A little bit later I hear the echo of a quote by Anna Garlin Spencer: “The failure of women to produce genius of the first rank in most of the supreme forms of human effort has been used to block the way of all women of talent and ambition for intellectual achievement in a manner that would be amusingly absurd were it not so monstrously unjust and socially harmful.

This is what Donner has to say about the subject, in 1972: “The difference between the sexes in chess is remarkably big, but in my opinion no bigger than in any other cultural activity. Women can not play chess, like they can not paint, nor write literature, nor compose music, nor be a philosopher. In fact, there is nothing thought or done by a woman, that is worth noticing. So chess is not to blame. But what is? First of all a woman is far more stupid than a man. And, a woman is not at all capable to amuse herself.”


A little bit later after he received some “fan” mail regarding his observation, he writes: “The authoress Hanny Michaelis protested against my assertion that women cannot write, citing a number of names as evidence to the contrary. What a ghastly list it was! The nastiest hags and frumps that ever wielded a pen!

To another woman who wrote: “Donner forgot to mention the blacks. It should have been: women and blacks can not play chess, because they are too stupid“, he answered: “She misses my point: black men can play chess, black women can not.


He adjusted his views a little bit in 1973: “The feeling of horror a real chessplayer gets when looking at women playing chess, should not make us blind for reality. They are not as silly as we like to think.”

And even more in 1977, after Nona Gaprindashvili won the Lone Pine tournament: “Even in the world of chess there is at least one woman who rates as a world-class player. For inveterate masculinists and for those who must write jocular pieces to earn a living, this is a serious setback, which will naturally not prevent us in the least … from continuing our struggle unabatedly.”

And then…

In 2002 Judith Polgar wins from Gary Kasparov (the World’s number one for many years). This was the game:

Judith Polgar – Garry Kasparov

Alas, Donner did not live to see this game…