Review of Hein Donner by Alexander Munninghoff

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Hein Donner: The Biography Alexander Munninghoff New in Chess 2020 272pp

A few weeks ago I checked my mail and was quite delighted to find a copy of Alexander Munninghoff’s biography on legendary Dutch,  um, chess personality (?!) Jan Hein Donner.

I say chess personality because in many ways it’s hard to categorize the man. He was a GM, and as such in some ways was the successor to the former Dutch  world champion Max Euwe. (I qualify that with “in some ways” because for a time Lodewijk Prins was included in that discussion.) However, he wasn’t nearly as strong a GM as his predecessor Euwe, nor his successor Timman. Mostly, though, Donner was a journalist.

Like many I mostly know Donner from the amazing collection of his essays The King which were pieces written by Hein over the years. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I sat down to learn about the man himself.

Before embarking on the main journey of this review, I would like to state for the record that this biography is indeed about the man himself much more than it is about any one facet of his chess career. If you are looking for a volume on how a chess player developed his skills to the point that he was ready to earn the grandmaster title and win major events, then you will not find that which you are seeking. If you would like to know the inner workings of the day to day life of a professional chess journalist then again you may leave feeling a bit empty. However, if you want to know about Hein Donner, the man who happened to be a GM and chess journalist then you will not be disappointed.

Born in 1927 to a well-off family, Donner spent much of his youth annoying his father to no end by challenging his authority. This changed abruptly during the early part of WWII when Donner saw his father hauled off to prison by the occupying Nazi’s on more than one occasion. The final time this happened, Father Donner was in prison for well over a year.

It was during this period of his life that young Hein discovered what would become his life long obsession…chess. Like most budding chess players, the first battles fought were mainly with friends. While not much is known about how Donner was improving early on, one thing that is known is that the first book read by him was a book of Euwe’s called Uncle Jan Teaches His Nephew to Play Chess.

After the war Hein did attend university, but it seems clear that by this time he was so fully in the grip of the chess bug that there was little chance he would make a career out of anything else.

Here Munninghoff does a good job of capturing the dance between a budding Western chess professional and society as a whole. The emphasis on Western is quite important since during this time in history most chess professionals were from the USSR, where there was ample state support. There was nowhere near enough financial remuneration from someone to hope to make an honest living from the game.

Donner had the good fortune to be from a well-off family where such considerations were not needed. Thus, he was able to ignore the financial implications of choosing chess as a career.

It would be wrong to be completely dismissive of Hein as a player. Not only did he win Hoogovens (now Tata Steel) three times, he also won the Dutch Championship three times, along with playing on 11 Olympiad Teams. Munninghoff captures the essence of the player, along with the inner battle that many chess player fight to accept the limits of their own abilities.

This is done in a manner that also doesn’t fail to point out that while, yes, Donner won Hoogovens, it was at a point in time when it was not nearly so strong a tournament as we think of now.

The author also hints at the complexity  of Donner’s home life. Donner the husband. Donner the father. Donner the absent husband. Donner the absent father. Not much appears to be known about this aspect of Hein’s life, but what little there is, Munninghoff captures.

The latter part of Donner’s life was marred by ill health, eventually leading him to be moved into a nursing home. His health continued to fade until November 27th, 1988, when the staff found him dead in his bed. Munninghoff succeeds in taking the reader along for the journey of Donner’s descent from declining health to untimely death.

While reading about this portion of Donner’s life I could almost feel the walls psychologically closing around Donner. As his health worsened, his world shrunk until at the end the aftereffects of  declining health stole his ability to walk and needing to re-learn to speak. I’ve read elsewhere that towards the very end Hein could type with only one finger, and in reading Munninghoff’s pages on this period it was not difficult for me to imagine Hein fighting back the darkness with his lone finger slowly, methodically, pecking out the next word; and the next; and the next. Until finally even that lone remaining finger deserted him.

As this book is the translation of a volume that was published in Dutch in 1994 the author was able include additional material which was not in the original version of the book.

Among those inclusions is a 2008 interview between New in Chess editor Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam and Hein’s friend Harry Mulisch. This interview spans the time frame from the beginning of their friendship in 1957 and takes us through the end of Donner’s life and beyond.

Lastly, the games included in the “Games and Annotations” section of the book have been computer checked and a couple of additional games were added. While I wasn’t all that interested in Hein the player, I of course enjoyed to playing through his win over Fischer from the Varna 1962 Olympiad.

All in all I highly recommend this book. I found it interesting to read a book written by an author who seemed determined to uncover the man who happened to be a chess player rather than the approach many take which is to uncover the chess player who happened to be a man.

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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