‘We shall never surrender — British Forever,’ reads the sign outside the gift shop, but here at the Caleta Hotel British sovereignty is the last thing on anybody’s mind. Perched above a sandy beach in a quiet corner of Gibraltar, this quaint hotel is a great place to escape the winter blues. But nobody is outside by the pool. They’re all indoors, playing chess.
The Tradewise Gibraltar Open is regarded, quite rightly, as the world’s best chess tournament. With several hundred players from 61 countries holed up for a fortnight, it’s like a gigantic mind gym, full of some of the smartest folk on earth. Outside, in the real world, every TV channel is ablaze with news of Donald Trump’s latest pronouncement, but none of that matters here. The big screens in the lobby are tuned to the chess matches upstairs. Trump could start a nuclear war and none of these geek gladiators would notice. Whether they’re hunched over the chessboard or unwinding in the bar, the only thing they think or talk about is chess.
Why do they keep coming back, year after year — even those poor sods who never win? Because for them, this daft, infuriating game is far more interesting than real life.
They say it takes ten minutes to learn the rules of chess and a lifetime to master them. Actually, that’s not true. You could spend a lifetime playing chess and still not know much about the game. After two moves each there are 72,000 permutations; after three moves, nine million; after four, 288 billion. Apparently, after 40 moves (about average for a grandmaster game) there are more potential outcomes than the number of atoms in the known universe. (I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds pretty impressive.) That’s why chess is so addictive: 64 squares, 16 pieces each — it ought to be so simple. Yet this useless, pointless pastime is considered the most complex brain game of all time.
Professional chess players tour the world playing international tournaments; like professional golfers but with a lot less cash or kudos. Amateur players usually stick to local tournaments with the odd weekend away as a brief respite from the day job. Here in Gibraltar, these two worlds collide and that’s what makes this tournament so special. It attracts many of the top pros, but club players are just as welcome. It’s the FA Cup of chess.
As in football, the big guns usually struggle through in the end, but there are always shocks along the way. Even if you’re not playing, it’s a fascinating spectacle. No other sport allows you such close contact with the leading players. You can stand over a chess board and watch two grandmasters go toe-to-toe, then go to the analysis room downstairs and watch two other grandmasters pick the game apart, as it happens. After the game, the players come in and talk you through their moves. It’s like sitting in the dug-out at a cup final, with access to each dressing room.
The Gibraltar Open is the brainchild of a debonair Englishman called Brian Callaghan, who runs the Caleta Hotel. His father-in-law built the place, and when Brian took it on he was confronted with a common problem: how to fill the rooms in winter when it’s too chilly to sunbathe? A chess tournament seemed like a good idea (most grandmasters aren’t big sunbathers) so Brian went to some British tournaments to see how it was done. They all seemed rather dowdy, so he decided that his would have a bit more glamour, a bit more fun.
He wasn’t the first person to realise that British chess has an image problem. Players have been moaning about it for years. Half a billion people play the game worldwide and the internet has brought them all together. You can go online at any time and play against people from all around the world, and it won’t cost you a penny. In China and India, chess is booming. So why does chess in the UK still have such a dreary reputation? Why do most Brits think it’s nerdy — if they think about it at all?
Brian saw that tournaments were terribly blokey. It’s true that most players are men, but the women’s game is growing, and to make his event more female-friendly he introduced positive discrimination of the best sort: financial, not ideological. There’s no separate female competition, but there is a specific prize for the best woman player, and this attracts the world’s finest women competitors. They are still a minority, but no longer a rarity. In Gibraltar, chess is no longer a ghetto for badly dressed men.
The location is another big plus. Not just the Rock, the sea views and the sunshine, but the people. Everyone knows everyone here and there’s a great sense of community. Local entrepreneurs and politicians are keen to muck in. This year’s total prize money was about £200,000 — peanuts compared with big sports, but a substantial sum for a cash-strapped game like chess. Big money attracts big players, so the first Gibraltar Open 14 years ago featured 24 grandmasters. I was at this year’s tournament in late January, and there were 72.
American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura was this year’s winner, for the third year running. (China’s Ju Wenjun won the women’s prize.) But for me the real drama came further down the field: an amazing game between the former world champion Veselin Topalov (from Bulgaria) and Romanian prodigy Bogdan-Daniel Deac. Topalov was 41, Deac 15, but chess is a young man’s game and the Bulgarian was up against it, until he made a crazy rook sacrifice which somehow won the match.
If I’d been watching on my own, the game would have been way over my head, but thanks to British grandmaster Simon Williams and British women’s champ Jovanka Houska, who were following the action in the analysis room, I could actually understand some of it — not half as much as any half-decent player, but enough to relish its beauty as a battle between two brilliant minds. It was like listening to a perfect translation of an unfamiliar foreign language. They made it seem so straightforward. If only I were half as smart. But it’s not only the grandmasters who put on a good show in Gibraltar. I hooked up with two club players I’d met before (a South African called Neil Savage and a Scot called Paul Haddock) and had a great time following them. Amateur games can be just as thrilling, especially if you know the players and are rooting for them. They’re capable of stunning moves and horrendous howlers, often in the same game.
Neil’s game against the youngest player in the tournament (a local eight-year-old) was a perfect example. Neil was a piece up, in a good position, when he made an unforced error and lost to a fortuitous checkmate. On any other day he would have made the right move and won, but it’s easy to be smart when you’re watching from the sidelines. Head to head, with the clock ticking, it’s a different story, as my friend Paul also found out.
Paul had the opposite problem. Against a stronger opponent, he emerged a piece up in the end game — a position any competent player ought to see out safely. Yet having started with nothing to lose, now all the pressure was on him. To make matters worse, he was in big time trouble, with only a few minutes left to play. I could see he was sweating, worried he might blow it. Luckily, his opponent didn’t know him. He couldn’t read him like I could. He resigned, prematurely, and Paul breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Paul was elated afterwards and Neil was gutted — but it could so easily have been the other way around. They’re both good players, but countless others here are far better than they’ll ever be.
So why do they put themselves through it? Why spend their spare time huddled over a checkered board, racking their brains for hours on end? For the same reason people run marathons, I suppose — to stretch themselves, to test their limits. It’s the ultimate workout for the mind.
‘You learn how to lose in this game. It’s a lesson in life,’ said Brian, when I told him what had happened to Neil. Yet the next day Neil won and Paul lost, and when I met up with them for a drink that afternoon they both seemed fine.
‘In the chess world, you become part of a community — it’s like a family,’ Paul told me. And, in the end, that’s the most important thing of all. Playing chess on the internet is so convenient. Just switch on your laptop and away you go. But it’s awfully anonymous. When you play someone face to face, you go through the game together afterwards, talk about it, laugh about it — and make friends who remain friends for life.