Checkmates and Croissants: Amateur Chess On The French Riviera
Tallulah Roberts at the Cannes Festival des Jeux chess tournament. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

Checkmates and Croissants: Amateur Chess On The French Riviera

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Hi, my name is Lula. And I play chess... or at least I did, until I accidentally took an eight-month classical chess break and moved to Paris, France, to pursue my dreams as a chic cat mom.

But now I'm back, and I just played my first tournament of 2024 in the beautiful south of France. It’s the second year in a row that I’ve played in the chess event at the Festival International des Jeux, a yearly event held in Cannes, a city on the French Riviera better known for its film festival. 

A poster for the FIJ in Cannes. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

Last year I came with an Olympiad teammate and met up with my best friend (and now founder of the Women in Chess Foundation!), Emilia Castelao. This year, I was on my own. I never attended a classical chess tournament completely alone before, but it’s time to face the facts: I’m not a chess baby anymore. I’ve been playing for a whole three years now, and if chess years are anything like dog years, then it was about time I challenged myself to go and play an event on my own.

Returning to Cannes alone was bittersweet; it's a great event and a beautiful location, but drinking Aperol spritz alone after winning a chess game just doesn’t hit the same as it does with your best friend. And this time, I had no one to get matching tattoos with after a bad loss. But it was, as my “coach” Mr. Dodgy would say, a “character-building” experience. 

As someone who likes to think they have sufficient character already, I was hoping my return to classical chess would be simple and easy. I was playing the under-1600 section, which in theory shouldn't be too challenging. In theory.

Of course, tournaments have “regulars,” those players who return every year. I saw familiar faces, some of my opponents from 2023, and, just as last time, a slew of underrated kids just ready to farm my meager 1488 FIDE Elo (I don’t play that many tournaments, okay?!).

Pretty much every kid I played in this tournament pushed their f-pawn down the board at me, looking for a quick checkmate. Would you empathize with me if I told you 50% of my opponents were children? I don’t know who coaches the local chess club, but they teach these kids to attack like GM Mikhail Tal. Even in a French Defense: Exchange Variation, infamously the most insipid of French Defense variations, I had to defend like Stockfish very early just to avoid being checkmated on h7 by a queen-and-knight combination.

The best game I played this year is probably my win in round four, a French Defense: Winawer Variation. The Winawer is the kind of chess opening that makes me feel like I don't understand chess at all, and so you may be wondering why I play it. The fact is, two years ago I needed a solution to the 3.Nc3 French, and a friend gave me a five-minute introduction to the Winawer. I played it once over the board, got crushed, and then GM Irina Krush found this game in the database when she was preparing to coach me for the 2022 FIDE Olympiad.

Irina said to me, "So Lula, I see you play the Winawer," and then she taught me the Winawer. So now I play the Winawer. If Irina Krush gives you a two-hour lesson on the Winawer, you play the Winawer. There's no room for dispute.

Since then I've had it only a very few times over the board, but it's always led to interesting positions. I found in this event I got great positions against kids in the French Defense (both as White and Black), as they tended to mishandle the closed positions. This round-four game was decided by a nice Puzzle Rush tactic:

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a chess tournament for me without throwing away at least one winning position, and this time I did it twice. I'm not sure what's more frustrating: sitting through a miserable game the whole time knowing you're losing, or winning the whole time and then losing in the end anyway.

This tournament also made clear to me that I have some chess superstitions. For example, if I lose a chess game in an outfit, there is no way I’m re-wearing that outfit to a future round. Bad vibes. Also, I’m pretty sure every time I ate eggs before a round, I won. And the times I didn’t… I lost. Coincidence? I think not. Eggs = chess superfood confirmed.

lularobs Tallulah Roberts Lula Roberts chess
It's me, hi! Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

In round eight I played what is vying for the spot as “My Worst Ever Classical Game” (I mean, one of them has to be). I hung an entire piece, and then an exchange, meaning I was down a whole rook. Sounds pretty bad, right? Right. But then again, I once hung my queen in classical chess, so I’m not sure this one takes the top spot.

This tournament was the first time I’ve played a full run of games without taking a half-point bye midway through the event. I’d had to take one in round one because I was going to miss the game due to last-minute train strikes. Honestly, I have major respect for anyone who can play an entire nine-round tournament with no breaks, because the two double-round days really killed me. No one should have to play nine hours of chess in one day; I woke up the next morning feeling hungover (and I promise I wasn't). 

Also in round eight, I played against Juga, a chess musician from Chile.

Juga performed her biggest song, "Oh Capablanca," at the 2018 FIDE Olympiad in Batumi, and is known across the chess world for her music. In a 2020 interview with, Juga even agreed to make a chess song with IM Danny Rensch, a crossover we are all still waiting for.

This game against Juga was my worst game of the tournament, and I was exhausted and tilted. Throughout the tournament, I got increasingly sleep-deprived due to my not-so-excellent Airbnb choice. It turns out there was construction going on above, next to, and across the street from my apartment, as well as a daily 4:30 a.m. wake-up call in the way of a delivery truck, and to top it all off, a late-night bar that played music loud enough that I was guaranteed to hear some Akon songs to help me drift off to sleep. 

As the tournament went on, the actual Festival des Jeux began. From Friday to Sunday, board-game stands populated the Palais des Festivals, showcasing the 2024 As d'Or (game of the year) winner, Trio, as well as prior winners like Azul, and well-known classics like Magic the Gathering.

Festival-goers trying out new board games. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

This year I found time to actually explore the festival, and it turns out the Palais is HUGE. I got lost in a labyrinth of trading-card games, nearly missing the start of round seven because I couldn’t find my way back to the foyer.

Two years in a row, my biggest regret of the tournament is that I still didn’t find out where people were getting the free paper Pikachu hats that I’d seen last year. I really wanted one of those.

One habit I’ve picked up from playing more and more chess tournaments is, whenever I’m defending a miserable position and want to get up to walk around the room, I try to find someone who has an even worse position than me. It doesn’t make me feel good about my chess, but it reminds me that this game humbles all of us. I saw one of my opponents from last year trying to save a middlegame position with his king on h5. I don’t know how it got there, and I don’t ever want to find out.

Round one. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

When I go to tournaments as a streamer, I usually ask if they can set me up with a DGT board so that I can broadcast my games to my followers. In Cannes, this means playing on the stage with the top boards... totally not intimidating at all. There were definitely a few times in the first few rounds when people came to look at the top games, saw whatever mess was going on on my board, and left very confused.

Last year, I felt a lot of pressure playing on the stage, and it is a little stressful when people come and stand and watch your games. Funnily enough, it's them I find distracting, rather than the thought of hundreds of people seeing my blunders live on

As for the main tournament, GM Bharath Subramaniyam, a 16-year-old Indian, took home first place and an €1,800 prize! Bharath scored 7.5/9, half a point above second-placed IM Kazybek Nogerbek from Kazakhstan, and third-placed GM Li Di from China, both on 7/9.

GM Bharath Subramaniyam playing round one of the Cannes Open. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

One of the best things about the venue of the Cannes tournament is that it’s on the top floor of the Palais, so you can go out onto the balcony whenever you need a little bit of fresh air, perspective, or you just want to look at seagulls. 

The view from the playing hall. Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

I only made one draw this year, in a game I “should have won,” if you subscribe to that way of thinking. By which I mean, Stockfish was totally on my side until I made the wrong king move in a knight endgame and went from winning to drawing. Endgames are so clinically cruel.

In the whole tournament, only one of my opponents wanted to analyze with me after the game ended. I was excited about it until he immediately input the game into a chess engine. I think we had different ideas of what a post-mortem game analysis could be, and should be. I always think it’s better to talk about the game on a human level first, explain why you made certain choices, and consult the engine later. I love picking my opponent’s brain post-game, especially if they made some weird moves.

Sunny Cannes! Photo: Tallulah Roberts.

In the end, I scored 5/9 compared to last year's 6/9. Despite this slightly disappointing overall result, I still enjoyed the chess tournament, and my main complaint is that eating truffle pizza on your own just doesn’t taste as good.

Coming to this event alone, I challenged myself in a lot of ways, and I didn’t even cry once, even when I blundered away an amazing position and watched in real time as my 13-year-old opponent crushed my hopes and dreams of winning.

This tournament was a return to classical chess that I'll follow up next month with the famous Reykjavik Open, where I’ll reunite with friends and other streamers, and hopefully play some decent chess. I can't wait to tell you all about it!

The Cannes Open tournament was a nine-round Swiss with a time control of 90 minutes for the first 40 moves plus 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with a 30-second increment from the first move. It was held from February 19-25, 2024. 

WCM Lula Roberts

Hi! I'm Lula. I started playing chess in December 2020 and now I'm a streamer! I stream chess Mon - Fri on Twitch.

Please don't send me random challenges, I won't accept them. If you want to play a game VS me, check out my Twitch stream where I often play against viewers. If we got matched up together in a game, please don't check out my stream until after the game ends, so that we both have equal chances to win.

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