The first time Swedish grandmaster Pia Cramling Bellon took her daughter Anna to a chess tournament was when she was about three months old. She had not competed throughout her pregnancy and as soon as she recovered she returned to the familiar tunes of the chess circus. “Those were my active days and I really wanted to get back on the race track,” Pia remembers.
There was no one to babysit except her father who had to come from Sweden while they lived in Spain. “So I would take them to tournaments. She was a nice girl and mostly slept during my games,” she recalls.
As she got older, she sat on her lap while Pia sat and thought about her moves. Anna would look at the pieces curiously. In the next stage, she would be running around the venue with her cartoon books. The years have flown by and Anna is now 21 but still accompanies her mother, albeit now as a teammate.
Having Pia win a gold medal on board 1 made the Olympics a memorable family outing. It was a fate Anna couldn’t escape, not when her parents are both grandmasters. Her father Juan Manuel Bellon Lopez, now Sweden team captain, was one of the best players in Spain with a peak of 2510. Adding that to Pia’s peak of 2550 and Anna’s 2065, the Bellon household has a combined ELO rating of 7125 points. Only the Polgar household might come close.
You can imagine what their house might be like – game sheets flying around, thick chess books splattering, the parents and daughter discussing the possibilities of a tea-time opening, dissecting games at lunchtime, conversing in pure chess diction and sleeping next to a chessboard on their pillow .
Anna bursts out laughing: “No, no, I know how you imagine it, how most imagine it. But it is not like that. We’re just like any other normal family and we do things that a normal family would do. At home we rarely discuss chess or our games. Not that we don’t speak chess at all, but mostly it’s other things, the everyday household talks,” she says, still laughing.
However, the game is the center of the universe. When she was young, Anna tried to escape from chess but just couldn’t. “I never wanted to be a chess player. I learned the game when I was quite young, of course, but I had no intention of becoming a competitive chess player at the time. Everything flowed organically. My parents never pressured me. They just let me be alone,” she says.
But the outside world saw her as the wannabe grandmaster of a grandmaster couple. Sometimes she would be stopped by complete strangers and asked if she had become a grandmaster or not. “There were more people on the outside who thought I should be a grandmaster because my parents were too. I get that, doctor kids are expected to be doctors.” She says.
Even if Anna tried to escape from chess, chess would not escape Anna. She often traveled with them during tournaments because she didn’t like being alone at home, moving around in the close chess community and talking to chess players, most of whom were friends of her parents or like extended family. “Most of my childhood memories are just about chess, cities, hotels, venues, chess players,” Anna chimes in.
But the more she played and watched, the more she began to love the game. And she passed it on to her parents. “She made all the decisions herself, although we were very happy when she developed the same passion as we do. All we did was lead them like the older teammates would with a youngster. We didn’t put any pressure on her at all, but somehow we knew that she would become a chess player. We could see that she was really enjoying the game and we were really excited,” says Pia.
She didn’t have to look for chess clubs or coaches. Whatever care she needed, all she had to do was call Papa or Mama. Her style, says Pia, is closer to her father. Free spirited and aggressive. The openings are closer to her mother who is more of a positional player. “She’s not that tactical, but she can be extremely good in terms of position,” says Pia.
Although they are traveling together today, they are in their own world. Anna has built a parallel career as a chess streamer with millions of fans while her parents are more involved in coaching and guiding. They rarely go bundled together at one venue. But their universe still revolves around chess.