Friday 29 March 2019


It was my wife's birthday on Sunday, and as we were due to be working in Madrid in the coming week, we went up a day early, had lunch in a couple of bars near the Rastro and then had a walk round the Manzanares, beginning at the abandoned Vicente Calderón

dead football stadium

and spotting, to our surprise, some turtles on the way.

live turtles

As we were going to the pictures in the evening, we left the riverbank to go over up the hill that takes you to the area, just off the Plaza de España, where there are several cinemas, and just before we reached the railway bridge

we had a second surprise. By the side of the road, a small group of people had set up a homemade chessboard, with a set of plastic pieces.

So I did what you would have done, which was to wander up to the players in the hope - rewarded, as it happens - of being invited to play a game.

The board was the wrong way round. The dark squares were indicated by a round zig-zag pattern, the white squares left untouched, but although A to H and 1 to 8 had been added to the perimeter the piece were set up with A1 and H8 occupying the righthand squares, and the kings and queens each occupying the correct colour square, but the wrong side of the board. I wasn't sure I wanted to reset the whole board in the middle of a group of total strangers, but I did switch the kings and queens, which people seemed to be happy with.

One of the players suggested I should pay five euros if I lost, an offer I accepted, and then invited me to have a cigarette and a can of Heineken, two offers I turned down (being a lifetime non-smoker, and having already had a couple of vermouths at lunchtime).

So we began 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nc6 4 Bxc6 dxc6 and after a few more moves, for some reason that I didn't grasp at the time and haven't worked out since, the guy who was sitting at the board got up and left, and the chap who's squatting in the next photo

got up and took his place, setting up the pieces, as he did so, for a new game.

While this was going on my wife was talking to some of the other players, and learned that they were Romanian. They seemed to be workless, and homeless, and passed the time by playing chess together. (I didn't think of John Healy at the time - I was too busy thinking about my moves.)

The second game began 1 g3 d5 2 Bg2 c6 3 3 b3 Nf6 4 d3 and proceeded in that fashion for a while. The new guy, and the first one, were OK players. Not strong players, not average club players, but real players, not...h5 and ....Rh6 players, players who knew a little about how to open the game, players who could see a threat or set one up.

It wasn't as simple as that, though, since later in the game we had a discussion about whether you could have two queens at the same time, the guy believing (as some people apparently do) that you had to promote to a piece which you no longer had. (This would have been a knight or a bishop, since I still possessed both rooks, which meant neither one was available for upturned duty. A bottle top stood in as a makeshift queen instead.) There was also a short discussion about the true position on the board - after a sequence Nd5 Nxd5 couldn't be met with exd5 due to a rook on e8 pinning that pawn - but such things are not unknown for Sunday afternoon pub games, which to all intents and purposes this was.

So I won, kept my cinco pavos and said goodbye - a shame, as I'd like to have stayed, but the film was on soon. Nice to come across some casual chessplayers, it's something I'd like to happen more often. I hope they had a better place to live than where they were sitting - though Spain, like Britain, has people living in all sorts of places that aren't fit for human beings to live in.

So if you've been reading this, and thinking - on one level, perfectly naturally - that it's unusual to see homeless people playing chess, perhaps it would be better if that sentence were a little shorter, and we still found it unusual to see homeless people.


Mr Green said...

hello Justin. How are things? Long time since that County C'ship quarter final (1995, I think?).

ejh said...

Good Lord. You mean this one?

Vencejo said...

Tortoises, not turtles, methinks.