Dutch players IM Eline Roebers (16 years old, FIDE rating: 2356) and FM Machteld van Foreest (15 years old, FIDE rating: 2317) are number 10 and 15 in the FIDE girls rating list U20, respectively. As part of the Chessable science team’s mission to highlight talent development and gender issues in chess, Chessable Science Project Manager Karel van Delft sat down for an interview with the young prodigies to learn about their training, ambitions, successes, and more.
On a mission to become the #1 female chess player in the world
“So why aren’t you number one yet? Did you do something wrong?” I ask.
Laughing, Eline replies “The number one is 20 years old. That helps, with life experience and years of training. I am working hard to become number one. Later I want to become the best female player in the world.” Machteld has the same ambitions; on the family website, vanforeest.com, one can read that Machteld also wants to become the Women’s World Champion. “That maybe a bit optimistic, but you can always dream and I want to become as good as possible.”
Eline, who lives in Amsterdam, wants to become a professional chess player immediately after she finishes school. She does not plan to study at a university. “Traveling around, playing and making money. Should be possible. But only playing, I am not interested in, for example, coaching or giving chess lessons.”
Machteld, who lives in Groningen, isn’t sure yet. “I want to become good at chess, but I maybe also will go to university. As for becoming a chess trainer, I will probably only do it if everything else fails.”
Eline says her best performance was a silver medal at the first board in the Chennai 2022 Olympiad.
“Not your world title U14 from 2020?” I asked.
“No, I don’t see that as a big performance, it was online and rapid. Something quite different from classical chess.”
Machteld consider winning the Dutch Women’s Championship this year as her best result.
So what led these two young ladies to play chess in the first place? Not much to say here – “I just learned it and it was fun,” the two said. But both added that chess has brought a lot of benefit to their lives.
“A lot of traveling, and I think you learn to think differently, maybe more logical,” Machteld said. “That is useful also for your learning at school.” Eline agreed, and added the benefits of chess developing patience, and better self-development and self-management.
Machteld started playing chess at age 4, and Eline at age 6. Both grew up in families where people played chess and gave them support. Eline’s father Jan Roebers is a FIDE Master, and brothers Jorden and Lucas are both grandmasters.
“They can help of course if you have a question,” says Machteld. “For example, with openings, they just understand what I am doing.”
For Eline, it was an advantage she could train with her father. “Actually, he wasn’t active as a player at the time. But he started again because of me. It’s helpful that he knows what it is about.”
Besides chess technical issues like tactics and game analysis, there are also other issues. A lot of chess parents don’t know how to coach their children well. For example, they travel to a lot of tournaments with their kids, but don’t realize their kids need a good private trainer to analyze their games. Indeed, Eline and Machteld say, their parents know what chess is about and they got a lot of good practical advice at home. ‘Without the support of my parents, I would have only reached 2000 Elo”, Eline thinks.
When asked how they would advise young, ambitious chess players, Machteld replied “I think you can start when you are about five years old. But don’t start with openings, better middlegame and endgame.” Eline thinks that young children should just do what they like most. “If they like tactics, that is a good beginning. Later you can look at other aspects of the game, such as endgames and strategic ideas. For sure don’t start with openings. Tactics are the basis.” Both think it is very important for trainers to analyze the games of children with them. In your own games, all aspects come together.
Machteld started systematic training only at the age of 10. “Before I just did what I liked to do. At 9 I started playing tournaments regularly, before only incidentally. Sometimes I joined my brothers when they played a tournament.” Machteld trained a couple of years with GM Sergey Tiviakov and GM Sipke Ernst, who, like her, live in Groningen. “But a certain moment I stopped and now I have no regular trainer. I do national group training and recently an incidental training with GM Ivan Sokolov.
“I think Giri did a lot by himself. I don’t think it is decisive to have a trainer. The most you have to do is by yourself.” But improving her self-discipline is a point of attention, she adds.
For Eline, it is clear she has to improve “on everything.”
Both have a lot of chess books. And as for Chessable courses?
“I have a few, I think five,” Machteld says. “For example, Shankland has one on calculation and something about the Sicilian opening. But I make many Chessbase files with an engine myself.” Eline also has some Chessable courses on openings and tactics.
Eline started at age 9, training systematically with her father. “I also have a trainer, IM Robert Ris. We train many hours on all aspects of the game.”
Both think analyzing your own games is crucial, thereby finding your strong and weak points. And when it comes to the question of talent vs. hard work, they agree there as well – both are necessary!
About every six weeks, Eline and Machteld participate in group training facilitated by the national chess federation, KNSB. The group includes both of them, trained by GM Ivan Sokolov.
Asked whether or not the federation is doing enough, Eline said “Several countries and national federations start facilitating talented young players when they already have a decent level. But to become good is another question, then you see there often is no training for promising young children.” She sees, however, that it might be difficult to decide who is talented.
Both players also pay attention to the physical and mental aspects of chess as well. Both say physical health is important, but they are healthy, so it is not so much a point of attention. Mental aspects are another story, however. “Dealing with disappointments is a problem,” Eline says. “That I still can’t do. I think it has to do with your age and experience.” Machteld thinks that you get used to losing and eventually you can accept it and get better.
How much time do Eline and Machteld spend on chess in a week? Both of them are attending pre-university education, so there are also other obligations in their lives.
“If I have a free day, I can study eight hours a day,” says Eline. “But there are also days where you spend two, three hours a day.”
Machteld is now concentrating more on her school performance. “That is necessary too, but I study chess a couple of hours a day.
When asked about their playing style, both players said they do not have a specific playing style, and that she finds all styles interesting – but they prefer to attack.
When asked about their chess role models, Machteld said “Magnus, because he is such a great player – that’s what I want to be.” As for Eline: “Tal! I play through his games with enormous pleasure.”
Girls in Chess
“So how do we encourage more girls to play chess?” I asked.
Machteld thinks more girls in a club attract other girls – a snowball effect. “Girls like it when it is sociable. That happens with more girls.” But it also depends, she says. “It is important when we talk about chess as a hobby. But when it is really about ambitions and performance, then it doesn’t matter that much. Although I appreciate having contact regularly with Eline. That feels much better than only training with men.”
For Eline, it is not a big issue if there are many girls playing chess or not. “But if they choose to play, there should be a safe environment. And that is not always the case. Some chess players are weird. If that would be looked after, probably more girls would feel welcome at clubs. Being the only girl at a club is not nice.”
“Are the Polgar sisters inspiring to you?” I asked.
“Not especially, but it’s good they show women can reach the top,” Machteld says. In the Netherlands, the best female players are organized in the foundation Chess Queens, whose purpose is to promote women’s and girls’ chess.
But as they’ll tell you, Eline and Machteld are not queens yet.
“No, we are princesses,” explains Machteld. “They gave us that name and told us we should just focus on playing chess, not doing things for the foundation. But we participate in the monthly chess training of the chess queens.”
Final advice from both players: “Just do what you like to do.”
Eline Roebers – Erwin l’Ami, Wijk aan Zee 2023
Machteld van Foreest – Bhakti Kulkarni, Hoogeveen 2022
All photos used in this post are attributed to Lennart Ootes – for more information, please visit www.chessphotoshop.com.