Stuart Conquest

photo: Ray Morris-Hill

Grandmaster Stuart Conquest (England, b.1967) won the World Under-16 title at the age of fourteen. In 1990 he shared first prize at the Lloyds Bank Masters in London and in 1995 and 2000 he shared first prize at Hastings. In 2008 he became British Champion. He has played for the England team in four Olympiads. For the last two years he has been the Director of the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival.

At our request, Conquest wrote a piece on his chess adventures in Holland:

I write these lines on my iPad, on a plane between Bilbao and London. In a few days I will be back in Holland, a country I have visited perhaps twenty times in my life, both as a “tourist” (there must be a better word) and as a chessplayer. Still, remembering the late nights and early mornings spent drinking red wine and playing blitz at the Gambit Cafe I might interpret each of my Dutch visits as a chess trip. From those nostalgic times I straight away recall my old friend Micha Leuw, a cheerful soul with whom I spent many happy hours. Of course there was Menashe, who was always delighted when a grandmaster walked through the door – I can picture his smile and outstretched hand – and who would offer me a glass of wine before I could even sit down. There was usually classical music playing. At the bar you might find Lydia or Marjolein serving, and I remember that a friendly cat, Prindi, had 24-hour Gambit residence. She was named in honour of the former women’s world champion, Nona Gaprindashvili!

I usually arrived at the Gambit in the company of my old pal Albert Blees. We would cycle from his house in the south, through the Vondelpark, then criss-cross our way towards the Jordaan, bumping over bridges, the bicycle frame shaking in protest – I would be sat on the back, Dutch-style, hanging on for dear life. How pleased and relieved I was when we reached Bloemgracht! Inside will be some of the usual crowd, playing, talking, laughing, while maybe a solitary but contented fellow sits quietly over a book or newspaper, lost in his own thoughts. On the walls: the same old photographs as last time I visited; at the back, on the left, the coats still hang on their pegs. High stools at the bar. Smoke everywhere of course, in those ancient days. At one table sit Menashe and Yochanan Afek, an endgame study on the board between them. At another table a small crowd has gathered; peeking between the elbows of this public viewing gallery I observe in the arena, like a boxer entertaining his fans, Manuel Bosboom playing blitz…

One of Menashe’s friends was a man called Michael Stoop. They met, I believe, at the Jersey chess congress. Michael only started playing chess when he was in his seventies, yet the friendships he made at the chessboard were some of the most rewarding of his life. Whenever I saw Michael (at his home in England, but also abroad: he loved travelling to tournaments) he never failed to ask after Menashe, and once I saw them together in the Gambit, two unlikely soul mates, brought close by chess. Michael led a life of high adventure: as a young boy he knew the future Queen of England, while in his twenties he was a  buddy of Ernest Hemingway, even going fishing with him in Cuba. For his life’s path to bring him to the Gambit chess cafe – well, perhaps he felt at home there too.

As well as playing in a few Dutch league matches (for the Panfox team), I have, over the years, participated in various chess events in Holland. One was a 10-player closed tournament in Dordrecht, a town twinned with Hastings (where I lived at the time). I remember, on my birthday (March 1st), declining a draw against Halifman and going on to lose. There was also the famous blitz tournament at Dordrecht where I once took part. At Groningen in the winter I have played the Open (at the tram stop in Amsterdam, on the way to the Centraal Station, I bent down to pick up my suitcase and without warning my back gave out…I had an agonising journey), and at least once I played the weekend tournament in Den Haag. From that city I went on to Scheveningen, where I met a Surinamese lady who, for a few years, sent me postcards…

But mostly I have been in Amsterdam. Often I would come here specially on my return journey to England from a German Bundesliga weekend, travelling by train from Aachen or maybe Hamburg. I played summer Opens here too, such as in the tournament organised in memory of Donner – whom I never met. Of course I never met Euwe, but I was always impressed that Donner Bridge led to Max Euwe Square! In England these things do not, could not happen. I do remember some of the older generation of Dutch players, people like Rob Hartoch and Enklaar. Timman I played once, and we have been friends a long time.

On my last visit to the city I spent days – weeks, in fact – researching the life and career of Johannes Zukertort at the Max Euwe Centre. I also spent many an evening at the Laurierboom, the cafe in the Jordaan which has taken up the Gambit’s old role. Many of the Gambit’s clientele go there, and the atmosphere is very pleasant. I even joined the Laurierboom chess team, and have so far played twice for them in local league matches. It seems that Amsterdam has not lost its old charms after all.