Stuart Conquest

Jan 17, 2005 at 7:11pm

GM Stuart Conquest is an honorary life member of the chess club.

By Stuart Conquest

Do No Adjust Your Chess Set

When one’s surname is Conquest, and when one spends ten years of one’s life in the town of Hastings, then the line: ‘Is your middle name Norman?’ (or similar witticisms) does tend to crop up with alarming frequency. I hold my parents entirely responsible, for it was their decision to move away from the rustic charms of Braunton, North Devon, and cross instead to the historically vulnerable town of Hastings, East Sussex, an area officially designated as ‘1066 Country’ by the local tourist board. In Braunton no-one had even heard of the Norman Conquest.

After I’d been up to the castle, and jumped off the pier a few times, and been blown off my bike by Force 10 gales whilst cycling along the sea-front, I started thinking that I’d exhausted all the possible leisure activities that the town had to offer, and so I informed my parents that I was completely and utterly bored with life. That’s when my father took me to the Hastings and St Leonards Chess Club for the first time.

I was nine years old. I was already keen on chess – my father had taught me the game when I was five or six – and I suppose that I had some sort of talent for it: I could beat my mother blindfolded (me, not her). But I had never been to a proper chess club before, so I imagined that I would meet other children of my own age, like at school chess club, except that was full of kids who thought that ‘pawn’ was a rude word. I wanted serious opposition.

The sun was high up in the clear, blue sky, and a refreshing summer breeze glided up from the calm sea, gently stirring the golden sand. An attractive young girl had stretched out on a beach-towel; she motioned to a tanned, muscle-flexing hunk down by the water’s edge, and he slowly walked over to her and started to rub coconut oil into her shoulders. ‘For the last time, will you turn that TV off, and get into the car,’ my father was saying. Outside it was pouring with rain. I hit the on/off switch, and the ‘Bounty bar’ girl disappeared from the screen.

The chess club is in the centre of town, just around the corner from the railway station; it is a tall, terraced building, with huge red lettering outside that says: ‘CHESS CLUB’, and yet were you to poll Hastings residents and ask them: (i) For which game is the town most famous?, and (ii) Where can one go to play this game?, then the most popular responses would almost certainly be: (i) crazy golf, and (ii) down on the sea-front by the trampolines. Perhaps we should have formed a combined ‘Chess and Crazy Golf Association.’ I once played crazy golf in the pouring rain with two chess club colleagues, and on the last hole one of them won a free game by fluking a hole-in-one, so the three of us went around again. Life was never dull in Hastings.

On the front door it says: ‘Hastings and St Leonards Chess Club. Founded in 1882.’ There was a notice of the opening hours, and a sign which read: ‘Open every day of the year except Christmas Day.’ Next to that was a piece of paper that said: ‘Please do not leave bicycles in the hallway.’ Clive Chamberlain once had his old bike pinched from there while he was upstairs playing a match game, so the following week he came on a brand new ten-speed racer (indexed gears, cantilever brakes, Reg Harris frame) and lashed it up to the outside railings with all manner of chains and padlocks. When he came downstairs again four hours later the thing had been nicked. After that some joker put up a new sign: ‘Please do not leave bicycles tied to the railings.’

Inside was a notice board with all kinds of information, and on a small table there was a musty old envelope addressed to some Club member whom nobody had ever heard of, and who had probably pushed his last pawn circa 1900. Along the walls were black and white photographs from past Hastings Congresses, with captions like ‘Fine plays Tartakower; Alexander looks on’, or, my favourite, ‘The Russians at Dinner.’ (I often thought of swapping all the captions around to see if anyone would actually notice the difference.) Halfway up the stairs was the toilet, from the window of which you could just glimpse the trains coming into the railway station. As you reached the landing there was a door marked ‘Kitchen’ to your left; the other door said ‘Club Room’. My father pushed the door open, and in we went …

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