As a two-year-old toddler, Anna Cramling Bellon knew how each chess piece was moved on the 64 squares of the black and white board, and a year later she had grasped the rules of the game and had begun to play. A three-year-old infant prodigy? Perhaps. But something probably to be expected from a baby girl who, instead of a typical ring, chewed on a large ivory chessman as her first teeth came through…
Then, too, the fact that both of her parents were Grand Masters – her father a five times Spanish champion, and her mother a Swedish chess ace – may have contributed to Anna’s infant skills.
“It’s probably something in my genes,” Anna, now 17 and winner of a string of amateur championships, says with a remarkably diffident smile.
With parents Pia Cramling Bellon and Juan Bellon, Anna was a competitor in this year’s Gibraltar Chess Festival – an event she first ‘attended’ as a three-month-old babe in arms. “We couldn’t find a suitable baby-sitter so we brought Anna with us to Gibraltar,” Pia explains. The couple – both professionals of the game – have competed in every Gibraltar international chess tournament since its inauguration by Brian Callaghan 18 years ago.
They first met in 1984 at a Swiss invitation contest between 24 of the world’s leading players, where a glum Juan Bellon – although Spanish chess champion – told Pia that he was drawn to play against Russian Grand Master Viktor Korchnoi in the first match and expected to lose.
“Although Korchnoi had lost all three matches against GM and World Champion Anatoly Karpov, he had come close and was a ten-time candidate for the World Championship,” Pia explains.
“He was downcast about his expectations playing Korchnoi and I tried to reassure him about his chances – it was far from a romantic start to our relationship. As it turned out he won that match. We had a drink to celebrate his win, but that was that.”
For the next year, while travelling extensively to international chess tournaments the couple continued to “bump into each other,” Juan Bellon explains. “My home was in Spain, when I wasn’t travelling, and Pia’s was in Sweden.”
Surprisingly, though both were GMs and played professionally in a string of international tournaments, the couple seldom met across the chessboard.
“We still seldom play against each other, though we jointly analyse games that we have played… and, of course, when she was smaller and had not begun competing we played simple, straightforward games with Anna.”
“I can’t remember the first game I won – or, at least, that they let me ‘win’,” says Anna, smiling.
In 1985 Juan invited Pia to accompany him to a tournament in Cuba in which she wasn’t playing. “And that was it. We fell in love.” Pia grins, remembering. “Chess certainly brought us together – but as partners rather than competing opponents.” And though Juan is slightly higher up the ladder of international rankings than Pia, there’s probably less than a rung in difference, and the two vie with each other to claim that the other is a better player
And, in a quick-fire ‘game’ on the balcony of the Caleta Hotel – played for the couple to be photographed together – Pia forced Juan to resign after some ten moves. “But I had the advantage of playing white, and we weren’t playing against the clock,” she explains. White always makes the first move.
All three agree that anyone hoping to become a professional player, “the earlier one starts, the better”. But though, on that basis, Anna should be heading to become wold champion, she is not sure if becoming a chess professional is the route she wants to take.
Like many teenagers she is uncertain what she will do, or even what courses she will follow at university, her next step. “But I shall always play chess.”
“I started late and was already ten when I learnt how to play,” her mother admits.
Although chess has always been popular in Swedish schools – with as many as 1,000 boys and girls competing in any of several school tournaments – it was not until her older brother joined a chess club that Pia became interested. “But by the time I had learned how the pieces moved and began to grasp the strategies, I was hooked.”
“Spain, like Sweden, is very fortunate in having a strong presence in schools,” adds Juan. “There is great respect for the game.” And it’s a claim that attendance at this year’s Gibraltar tournament underscores, for the Rock’s neighbour provided 31 of the 250 of the world’s top professionals taking part – an impressive line-up among the 92 grandmasters competing in the ten-day event. (A 28-strong Indian contingent was second only to Spain in number.)
When they first got together, the couple made their home in Spain, but for the past five years have lived in Sweden – when they’re not travelling to far-flung tourneys and international competitions.
“A bit like gypsies – always on the move,” one of them quips. “But in some ways we’re very different,” Pia tells me as Juan lays the black king on its side, acknowledging defeat. “Other than chess, he likes to watch sport [a keen soccer fan] while Anna and I prefer to take part in a range of sporting activities.”
But after a brief return to Stockholm the three are off to international competitions again. And though none won a major prize this year, Pia – who last year took home the £15,000 that goes to the top woman player – Juan remain in the top professional echelon while Anna continues to make her mark among the amateurs.