Supposedly extinct chess players

CM ArnieChipmunk
0 | Chess Event Coverage
The game of chess attracts many different people. In Amsterdam chess cafes you will see artists, tramps, intellectuals and experienced hustlers. Many have written about them, usually in painful stereotypes, sometimes in amiable poetry.

By Arne Moll

At clubs and tournaments, you mostly see players practicing the game in a serious, sporting way, even if the level of play isn't very high: they play with a clock, scoresheets, and in silence. After the game, there is the post-mortem analysis. Most of the players are male, some may seem to be loners and a bit alienated from the world. Then there's chess players of the 'new generation'. These days, they grew up with the Internet - but their kind has, of course, existed since the invention of chess. They prefer blitz chess - 1, 2 or 5 minutes per game. Sometimes they play bughouse. They're loud and savvy.

A different type of chess player can be found in Dutch hash bars, also called 'coffeeshops'. Here physics students play against clever foreigners enjoying a joint and a cup of tea, on a board where a missing white rook has been replaced by a draughts piece. Without a clock, without opening knowledge, but still in silence. Sometimes, there's even a bit of post-mortem analysis, too. "Yeah, I didn't see your plan coming." I thought I knew just about all sorts of chess practice by now, but recently a friend and me went to this place that had seemingly nothing to do with chess. Still, around nine o'clock, some chess boards were put on a long table, and various people joined to play a game of chess. These weren't artists or students, nor alienated nerds either.

The party reminded me most of the time when my grandfather took me to his local chess club, on a Sunday morning. The club members were, without exception, quite old - there was even a man of a hundred years old. Now, I realise he must have been of the same generation as Capablanca. My granddad's companions played without a clock, like people used to do in the 19th century, and although in general there was silence around us, sometimes remarks were heard: "Ah!", to which another man replied: "... laughed the count in native Spanish, while he flapped his earlobes." These men no doubt had known about Euwe and Alekhine, but even then I wondered whether they had heard of Karpov and Kasparov. They experienced chess in a completely different way than I did. They even didn't seem to care if they lost.

I had assumed these kind of oldtimers, like my grandpa, had become extinct a long time ago. But here they were, in a bar just outside the city center. Our proposal to play with a clock (a pre-WW II model) was dismissed casually as 'too quick for us'. Remarks like 'the position is not developed very well' and 'there's a lot of shuffling going on' were made frequently. It's true there was an alcoholic watching the games, which for a moment made us think we were in a real chess cafe, but he was sent away. Now, the only spectactor was a math teacher with a glass of wine in her hand.

There was chess, kiebitzing, sometimes a famous quotation was heard - but there was never pain over a loss. People were drinking and smoking. Here, chess was primarily fun and interesting. This is what it must once have been like in the Marshall Chess Club, the Caf?ɬ© de la R?ɬ©gence, cafe De Kring. The atmosphere seemed the same as between the now almost forgotten Dutch novelists and chess lovers Godfriend Bomans and Alberdingk Thijm (better known as Lodewijk Van Deyssel). Bomans describes how his opponent had "put his king down for the umpteenth time":
Then he spoke, in a slow and expressive manner, as if carving his words in a tomb stone: 'You might as well play chess with a dog.' I was silent. What could be said to that? To affirm it would be inappropriate, to contradict it would be childish. Besides, from a chess point of view it was true, and it was a fitting summary of our difference in strength. So I said nothing. A minute went by. Then, with a soft smile, guessing my internal conflict, and without raising his eyes, Thijm said: 'One is supposed to deny such a thing.'
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