I must have the most tolerant wife in the world for at least 73 reasons; one of them has to be the fact that she regularly caught me playing Internet chess but was remarkably sanguine about it given that I could/should have been doing some serious Nordic studies or writing this blog instead. I say ‘caught’ and ‘was’ because I hope I have shaken myself off this habit. For about six years, I spent far too much of my time staring in stupefied fashion at 64 virtual chequered squares on a virtual board and doing my best to incur repetitive strain injury by clicking a mouse far too often in a bid to shuffle virtual pieces across the virtual board in a bid to create a meaningful virtual ballet (albeit, of course, one in which there was an opponent lurking physically somewhere).
I sometimes wonder if blitz chess, where you have five minutes for all your moves, is the equivalent of eating monosodium glutamate-sodden Chinese food. No sooner than you’ve played a game, you’re struggling to remember what’s happened – unless you have the nigh-perfect recall that the late Bobby Fischer, world champion from 1972 to 1975 (’73 inclusive), seemed capable of at his terrifying prime.
In a bid to try and learn something, I saved a few of my favourite blitz games from over the years. I’ve been playing through them recently and I hoped that they would have some artistic merit. Instead they resemble exactly what they are: two reasonably talented players bashing out moves very quickly and making rather a lot of mistakes. Sometimes, given the time limit, I did play pretty solid positional chess or come up with some interesting tactical ideas.
But that’s the same as to say that a lot of the time I bluffed or grafted like hell and my opponent blinked first.
Or that a lot of the time I lost because I wasn’t good enough.
Over 3,000 games played in the quick format in half a dozen years and fewer than 73 games that seem plentiful and rewarding in content. Typically, the one game which I knew was a corker, and which I won at a personal low point in my life, I have not archived. And I thought I had.
(OK for those of you who can play: I was Black, it was a very cagey opening, White won a pawn after Black overlooked something, Black rallied and won an epic endgame with bishop against knight. We played a lot of moves in less than ten minutes. You might want to make up a game worthy of this description in order to salve some of my chess pain.)
What seems more chastening is that I (presumably) didn’t get to meet anyone I played in the course of my six-year long detour. Like any activity, chess can be extremely rewarding at the time and can also produce long-term professional and spiritual rewards. But like any activity, I wonder if it isn’t more than a little odd (and slightly esoteric) not to be seeing your partner or opponent in the flesh – even if the game itself might be for the duration of a standard television commercial break. It seems especially odd if you make a habit of this for six years.
By kicking the habit, I have freed up more time for writing this blog QED. But I remember a time just before my Blitz Chess Detour began and years before the Worldly Scandifriend blog began when a guy in a Reykjavík bar full of chess games and chess players once said to me: ‘Internet chess is great! It’s the way forward!’ He was the one guy in the room I was capable of beating regularly.
‘No’, said his colleague crisply and severely, as if loving Internet chess was as serious a transgression as making too many pawn moves in the opening. ‘You have to be able to see what your opponents look like in order to get better.’
When I returned a few years later, the chess players and the chess games were no longer at the bar, so I didn’t even have the chance of getting better – not only could I not see what the players looked like, there weren’t any there in the first place. It wasn’t the chess I missed per se. It was the company.
I’d been in that bar first time round for no more than two nights at that time of the year when there isn’t any night in Iceland. At the end of it, I wondered if I had entered some eternal single day where chess and beer and cadres of bar-stool philosophers were pre-eminent. They’d cajoled me into playing the piano and I’d interspersed that with beer and chess (though not in any formulaic pattern). They’d talked to me about Björk (‘I’m sure she’s an elfin! They do exist!’), about English football before cable TV (‘Liverpool is my team and I remember them winning the league in ’73’), about Bobby Fischer, then still alive and resident in Reykjavík (‘I see him walking the streets, he doesn’t look good’) and what to do when the bar closes down at 4 in the morning (‘you want to go somewhere else now?’)
No sooner than I’d seen that company, I’d been parted from it. I felt I’d like to see them again so that my life – not my chess – got better. But then I like to think that I am stoical and resourceful enough that I can come up with 73 alternative ways of improving my lot.
One of them is a refined take on the beer + bars + chess + philosophy + company = happiness equation. Take away chess, add restaurant food. I’m not a big home drinker simply because I like bars and I want to see what people look like. I’m a far bigger home chef, but once in a while I want to see what food done by other people looks (and tastes) like. It’s my regret that I didn’t have one of the excellent-looking burgers at 73 Restaurant on the main shopping street in Reykjavík, Laugavegur, when we were there in March. But I enjoyed the fish tagliatelle, the waffles, and a good glass of Einstök White Ale – and yes, the company.
As some of you might remember, we were anxious to try and source Einstök after reading about it elsewhere. We’re doubly glad we both got to drink it and experienced friendly, efficient service throughout the course of our meal (same can be said for our visit there in August 2011, although we didn’t drink beer then).
A bottle of Einstök came in at around ISK950 (about GBP4.75?) whilst we were there. For British tourists, that might be proof that beer in Iceland is pricey – but then as far as we were concerned, this was no fizzy glass of meaningless fizz with all the alcohol sucked out of it during fermentation process. It’s made with orange peel and coriander and those two components really do wind themselves up to provide a one-two punch: if there is such a thing as sipping whisky, there is such a thing as sipping beer. A single Einstök White Ale feels very much like a fist-sized Jack Daniels in terms of ethanol potency – it’s also got the taste to boot. We’d prefer one of those to 73 glasses of pap – or indeed, 73 badly-played games of blitz chess.
The chess bar I went to is no longer there (we think it’s been replaced by a new, but similarly excellent, dinery), but chess is still a pretty formidable part of Iceland’s cultural and intellectual landscape. Last year we stumbled across a tournament in the Reykjavík City Hall in which junior competitors did their best to evoke my past as a chess-playing kid (fidgeting, chattering, full of what you might call innocent intrigue) but hopefully with rather more talent.
On our most recent visit, we got to see the giant chessboard in the library section of the excellent Hafnarhús site of the Reykjavík art gallery. Two guys in earnest conversation were making their opening sallies with the oversized pieces, surrounded by books and with the serene and beautiful backdrop of the city waterfront behind them. Nowhere else in the world does small-scale cerebral, calm, cosmopolitan and cosy like Reykjavík. It’s what will surely hoist us back in the very near future.
By the same token, we’re sure we’re going to return to the theme of chess in Iceland in this blog at some point (we’ve got more than 73 words to say about it). But, I hear you cry, what about the excellent dinery that has replaced the chess bar?
Well, do you know what? We’re 99pc certain (or 73pc + 26pc certain) that it’s 73 Laugavegur. In which case, chess in 2005 has been replaced by guitars in 2012 – two of them hanging on the wall. And, as we said, very good food and company. Get there hence.
A couple of enquiries to round off with. We might be 99pc certain there was a chess bar here in 2005 – but we’d like to relieve ourselves of that 1pc of uncertainty. Can anyone help us on this one? Thanks a lot.
Also, where do people gravitate in great numbers to play chess in Reykjavik nowadays? Is there an equivalent of the 2005 hang-out (as opposed to a tournament venue or somewhere where the odd game takes place)? We’d love to know. Takk a einhver fjöldi.
PS Thanks a million to the lovely owners of 73 for giving us some intriguing feedback into the history of the premises at 73 Laugavegur: ‘ It’s had quite a few names in the past before we started. It was called Punkturinn, Café Bistro, Miðbar, Lystin, O’Brians, Blús Barinn and a couple of more in the past 10 years.When it was a chess bar it was probably Punkturinn or Miðbar.’ Anyone got good memories of one of those incarnations? We’d really love to hear from you.
PPS A chess game I dug up from the archives that I’m not too embarrassed about displaying. This one with me as White (with Black appropriately playing the Scandinavian Defence) on flyordie.com in November 2007:
1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nc3 Qa5 4. d4 c6 5. Bd2 Bf5 6. Bc4 e6 7. Nge2 Bb4 8.
Ng3 Bg6 9. h4 h5 10. a3 Bd6 11. Nce4 Qc7 12. Nxd6+ Qxd6 13. Bb4 Qd7 14. Qd2 Ne7 15. O-O-O b5 16. Ba2 Na6 17. Bc3 O-O 18. Rhe1 Nf5 19. Ne4 Nxh4? (very silly. White should have done better with the opening. Black shouldn’t be taking a very obvious piece of bait.) 20. Rh1 Nf5 21.g4 hxg4 22. d5 cxd5 23. Nf6+ gxf6 24. Bxf6 Bh7 25. Rxh7 Kxh7 26. Rh1+ Kg6 27.Qg5# 1-0