To many people, Hastings is the place where an historic clash of arms occurred in 1066.
For chess players the world over, it is the place where many other famous battles have been fought
- over the chessboard.
The best club in the town is the legendary Hastings Chess & St Leonards Chess Club. Inhabiting its own building, it is itself populated by the friendliest players in the country. Its one hundred strong membership maintains the vibrancy of the world’s longest standing chess competition, which attracts players from all around the globe. They’re rightly proud of their fine heritage, which they shared with me when I turned up on their doorstep a couple of days ago, announced. Paul Kelly opened the door and together with the other players assembled for their afternoon’s indulgences, gave me the welcome which is the envy of the chess world.
Let’s do a little reality check here (no pun intended). Chess clubs are full of weirdos. There’s no argument about this. Although these days we’re all much more forgiving of the socially clumsy, the chronically inept and those requiring almost constant crisis management, nonetheless us normals do not generally want to join clubs dominated by them to obtain our social connections. No-one can cope with having too many friends who are too weird. Even the weirdos in the chess clubs cannot cope with it, which leads to all sorts of problems, such as the correct angle to open a door to a match room, the precise place a boiling kettle should be placed in a darkened corner through which people will pass and so on. Hastings is having none of that carry on. Their much loved club is well organised and very well appointed. That’s why their senior membership is regarded throughout England as chess royalty.
I’ve got a room in my house which I self-indulgently call a library. That’s because when I was a lad with my head in books, I decided, probably whilst reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that if I was ever able to, I would create my own library, into which none could enter bar me. Obviously I knew that I’d never have the spare resources to set that kind of thing up and as I matured, I realised it was counterproductive to seal books away. Then the internet came along and I found almost all knowledge leapt off the printed page onto the screen. I still fantasised about having a library but by then my mental image of it contained only the few books which had trailed me thus far. Now that my wife and I have set up to live The Good Life, yes, I have a room to write it, which I call my library. I’m sitting in it now, writing this and occasionally turning to a chess board for distraction. My library doesn’t look anything like Bradbury’s vision. Whatever was in his mind, he passed the imagination to me and then I threw it away. However, I often found myself thinking how wonderful such a room would be. Books warm a room and round off its hard edges. Old school libraries, with their quietitude and space for calm contemplation provided a sanctuary from the frenzy outside. The form of my private heaven is very different from its first conception. It’s got a giant Swiss Ball in it, instead of a large and ancient globe. There’s a wardrobe rather than an chaise longue. I could go on but you get the point. Luckily a moderner such as me can easily step back into his original dreams, thanks to people like the chess players of Hastings.
Founded on 28th June 1882, the club soon started a festival of chess which was quickly regarded as the world championship of the great game, attracting players such as Emanuel Lasker, Gunsberg, Bird, Janowski and Teichmann. These days the festival has morphed into a huge International Congress. In 2007 the club celebrated its 125th birthday. It continues to attract the very best players in the world and those of us who, erm, are really little more than beginners, like me! We play on the bottom boards but can wander up through the ranks in the playing hall and stand right next to the strongest competitors whilst they agonise over their own boards. The walls of the club are festooned with photographs of the great players who have competed in Hastings over the years.
Sitting under the gaze of these chaps was very conducive to the four games I played. I lost them all, of course, though I think I made a reasonably good fist of two of them. Of course we all want to win but the trick to understanding chess is not to see it as a battle but as a competition of puzzles. Each player throws the other a puzzle to deal with. Or several puzzles at a time!
Victor Korchnoi is now the oldest active grandmaster on the circuit, just weeks away from his 83rd birthday.
The club is open every day from 1:00pm at Pelton House, 2 Cornwallis Terrace, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 1EB. Anyone seeking their salvation over the glorious board of ancient battle may find a willing opponent. Although I just turned up, the club asks prospective visitors to contact it first to ensure that they will definitely get a game (club members may have already agreed pairings for their tournament games on your preferred day to visit). Membership, which entitles a player to enter the club’s internal tournaments, costs £31 for your first year and £55 thereafter, with various concessionary rates also available. What better way is there to improve your mind, to retreat from the ever more hectic world and to enjoy intellectual companionship?