The weird and wonderful world of underground chess

The world of underground chess

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

Most people have a set list to tick off when visiting a new country. The national museum, the famous bridge, the legendary music venue. For me, no holiday is complete until I’ve checked out the local chess scene.

The habit started on a solo trip to Paris a few years ago. As a keen chess player — no master, but a competent amateur — I made sure to visit Jardin du Luxembourg, where chess enthusiasts famously congregate for games.

After enjoying some matches before dusk fell and the regulars packed up, I offhandedly asked my opponent where else was good to play. In the manner of a John le Carré character, he gave me a time, a name and an address. Intrigued, I followed his instructions and found myself in an empty bar, about to close, in the 11th arrondissement. No chess in sight, but when I said the name I’d been given, the barman shouted with delight and pulled out a board.

As we played, more people arrived. I had joined Paris’s underground chess community, and was welcomed in as ‘L’Anglais’. Our group moved on and visited two more bars, playing increasingly frenzied and drunken games of three-minute ‘blitz’ chess. We ended up at a nightclub, where punters dancing on tables made further games impossible.

When I woke the next morning, I was unsure if I’d dreamt the whole thing. But I had exchanged contacts with one of my new friends, and on my return to Paris four years later I messaged him asking for more chess recommendations. Within minutes, I was sent the name of a new spot — ‘Blitz Society’, south of the Seine.

To an amateur enthusiast like myself, it is heaven: a bar consisting purely of tables with chessboards built into them, each with pieces and clocks provided. People turn up throughout the evening, with friends or by themselves, and are paired off for games by the bar staff.

I found myself matched with a young Parisian who worked for the civil service. While our two governments were involved in a war of words over fishing rights, we took the fight to the chessboard. Throwing friendly, good-natured insults at each other about our respective nations’ stereotypes and deficiencies, we built a friendship over the board. I introduced him to some chess variants — where the rules are changed and the games are wild. He particularly liked Bughouse, played with four players across two boards. Captured pieces are passed to your teammate for them to place on their board where they wish.

Paris is not the only city to offer much to a chess-loving traveller. I’ve had many memorable experiences — at Budapest spas, in Porto bars, on the Great Wall of China, in an Iraqi desert, and even on top of a 10,000ft Swiss mountain. Chess is a universal religion. Its devotees are weird and wonderful people. Sometimes eccentric, often obsessive, always interesting, they also tend to know far more about their cities than most. Spontaneous opponents have become city guides, emergency contacts, lifelong friends.

New York must hold the crown for the king of casual street chess. Go to Union Square or Washington Square park and you’ll find Wall Street bankers and homeless ex-cons sitting across tables from each other, pieces flying. They come from completely separate walks of life but here they are equals. A chessboard is a level playing field, where social status, economic power and racial identity have no bearing on the outcome. All that matters is ability.

If you’re feeling lucky, you can always find a hustler to wager against. When cash is involved, I’d caution against taking on the shabby-looking men in the park. They have been playing for decades and know all the tricks. The sharp-suited yet less experienced guys from Wall Street are much easier to profit from.

On one of my own travels in New York, too much time in the Downtown shops and bars had left me out of dollars on my final day. A successful session at Union Square supplied me with enough to get a taxi to JFK airport.

But you don’t have to rely on an existing culture of street chess to find a game when abroad. My foldable silicone chessboard and pouch of pieces — less than £20 from the Chess and Bridge shop on Baker Street —have been trusty companions on countless overseas adventures. Armed with your own set, you’d be surprised how easy it is to find an opponent in a foreign country.

During a solitary trip to Copenhagen, I set up my board at the youth hostel where I was staying. I was given a few curious looks, but within minutes a local approached and gestured enquiringly. He sat down to play and we quickly got into the rhythm of fast-paced blitz games. Soon, a dozen backpackers were crowded round the board. Many confessed to not knowing how the pieces move, yet were fascinated nonetheless. My opponent spoke no English and I no Danish, but it didn’t matter. The exchange across the chessboard was more stimulating and compelling than any conversation I’d had during the trip.

This is the beauty of chess. It is a debate without words, a silent conversation (although ‘trash talking’ is a common and entertaining feature of street chess). You must put yourself in your opponent’s shoes, read them and understand them. You must assess their style, identify their strengths, learn their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, discern their strategy, predict their moves. These techniques aren’t just relevant to chess — they are life skills too. The ability to look ahead and see round corners is just as valuable in the worlds of business and politics as it is on a chessboard.

Chess is not always risk-free. Most pieces have lead discs in their bases to give them weight and stop them from tipping over. I learned to my cost on a trip to Beirut that having 32 lead-weighted chess pieces in your bag carries significant danger when going through airport security. With the baggage scanner alarm going ballistic and airport security staff shouting about what were either concealed bullets or some kind of bomb in my bag, I found myself confronted by heavily armed security forces.

The situation only worsened when they opened up my bag to find my digital chess clock, which had been left on, ticking, flashing and counting down towards zero like a nuclear device in a spy movie. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so serious. Fortunately, one security guard recognised the clock for what it was and I escaped intact. I can only assume he must have been a chess player himself. I should have asked if he fancied a game.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments