Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Interview with Silje Bjerke

Silje Bjerke
Silje Bjerke
Photograph from Rene Gralla

Wednesday, 27th November 2013

Following on last week's announcement that hnefatafl will be played at the "8th International Ladies Chess Gala", René Gralla has published in English his interview with Silje Bjerke, Norwegian International Master. As well as discussing chess, the interview turns its attention to hnefatafl.

RENE GRALLA: The great performance by your fellow-countryman Magnus Carlsen during the World Championship and his win of the title have triggered a real chess craze in Norway. Do you think that this boom will last longer - or will it be just a short-lived straw fire?

SILJE BJERKE: Yes, chess is the big thing in Norway right now, and all the games have been shown on national TV. Sometimes more people watched the chess championship than the biathlon on TV at the same time, which is quite remarkable, since winter sports are really huge in Norway. It seems that many people have realized that chess is real fun, so I think there will be a long term effect, and hopefully the interest will be there for the Tromsö Olympiad as well. Almost all chess sets are sold out in the Norwegian bookstores now, so I think people have started to play more!

RG: Have you ever met Magnus Carlsen before the world championship?

SB: I have met Magnus on many occasions. Actually we played in the same club when he was a child. He is really a nice person and a great role model for the younger kids in Norway. For instance he visited the Norwegian championship this year and played and analyzed with the kids, so he is extremely popular in Norway.

RG: There are rumours that Magnus Carlsen has not found a girlfriend yet. You focus on gender studies at the University of Oslo, maybe you have an idea why the new world champion is supposed to be unmated still?

SB: I don't know whether he has a girlfriend or not, and I don't have any particular opinion on that issue.

RG: Single or not, actually there are many girls who are mad about Magnus Carlsen. The now world-famous four "Pyjama Girls" from the Norwegian village Andebu have demonstrated their support for Magnus Carlsen by having written "CARLSEN" on their Femen-style naked backs and by posting that photo via Twitter. That is a kind of fan support that one would expect for a pop musician but not for a chess player. So one can safely say that Magnus Carlsen has become a pop star?

SB: Yes, Magnus has really become popular in Norway and he has got a lot of fans. The other day, the top story on the internet edition of the large Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet was “This is how you record chess moves”. So it is safe to say that chess is really popular right now, and not something just for “nerds”.

RG: Could you ever imagine to do a similar stunt like the one that has been twittered by the "Pyjama Girls"?

SB: I would definitely not do anything like that stunt myself!

RG: Next year there will be the Chess Olympiad at Tromsö in Norway. So that event will help that the chess craze that Magnus Carlsen has triggered will last even longer?

SB: Yes, I definitely hope so. Magnus will play in the Olympiad, so I think a lot of people will watch and it will be a great event in Norway.

RG: The chess federations of Norway and Germany have agreed upon a cooperation in order to jointly promote the Chess Olympiad 2014. Your assessment with regard to that project of cooperation? What do you expect from that?

SB: I think this is great for the Norwegian Chess Federation and the Tromsö Olympiad, and hopefully many Germans will also visit the Olympiad next year. Also, Germany has a lot of strong chess players and of course I am personally very grateful for opportunities like the Ladies Chess Gala which will really be a nice challenge for me. Events like that are great in order to improve as a chess player before the Olympiad.

RG: This year's International Ladies Chess Gala at Berlin will be under the banner of that very cooperation between Norway and Germany with regard to the Chess Olympiad - and therefore you will compete there as being the representative of Norway. Your personal feelings before that tournament?

SB: As I touched upon in the previous question, I am really happy to have been invited. It will be a great way to test my chess against stronger opponents, and at the same time it seems like a tournament with a real nice atmosphere, and I am looking forward to visiting Berlin. Since there will be a children’s simul tournament at the same time, so I do like that idea as well, as I have worked a lot with chess for children in Norway. It will be nice to see the German children in action.

RG: Magnus Carlsen has been the Elo-favorite before starting his match against Anand whereas all of your opponents at the Chess Gala have a higher Elo-rating than you. How do you assess your chances at the Chess Gala - by taking the fact into account that you are a kind of "outsider" with regard to your Elo-rating?!

SB: Of course the other three players are quite a lot higher rated than me, but hopefully I can play some interesting games and I will certainly do my best to challenge them! It can be nice to be the lowest rated player because there is no pressure, so I will have to try to benefit from that. The short time control can perhaps improve my chances, as more mistakes occur with so little time.

RG: There are many cases that a so-called "underdog" will become the "dark horse" of a tournament. Do you bet on that very factor that the so-called "outsider" will often be underestimated?

SB: Unfortunately for me, I think my opponents are too experienced to underestimate anyone. So I will just have to try to play my very best, and see what will happen.

RG: Many people assume that chess has been created in India. But there has been a long and proud tradition of strategic gaming in the north as well - namely by having invented and by having played the chess of the Vikings there, the game of "Hnefatafl". Therefore there will be a special interlude during this year's Chess Gala at Berlin: You will be asked to play a game of "Hnefatafl" against an amateur player from Germany. What has been your first reaction when you have been asked to play that game of "Hnefatafl" against an amateur player from Germany?

SB: I had never heard of this game before, so my first reaction was to google the game to see what it was. But it seems like fun! I am not sure how much my chess experience will help for this game, so I think the kids or whoever I will play will have a good chance to win.

RG: Do you think that this interlude of "Hnefatafl" will be a good way to promote the Scandinavian heritage with regard to strategic gaming?

SB: It has even made me, as a Norwegian, more aware of the Scandinavian chess history, so I think everybody at the tournament will learn more about Scandinavian chess now! I will have to tell my Norwegian chess friends about this game as well, because I don’t think it is very well known among Norwegian chess players.

RG: There will be a One-Day-Tournament of "Hnefatafl" during the Chess Olympiad 2014 at Tromsö as well. Once more again: Will that event be a good way to promote Norway's contribution to the world heritage of chess?

SB: Yes, I think a lot of Norwegians don’t know about this game, so it will be a new experience for both Norwegian and foreign chess players.

RG: How do you prepare for that game of "Hnefatafl" at Berlin?

SB: I have learned the rules, and I will play some training games on the internet before I go.


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