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Castling Long Around the World Print E-mail
By FM Mike Klein   
September 21, 2009
“To have a look at the world, at people's daily round — no matter what anyone says, it's like a living book, a second education.”
-Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

Last September, I took a year off from teaching chess to travel. Several past trans-oceanic flights and some credit-card points linkage netted me a free around-the-world airline ticket. Planning was simple and serendipitous: I picked a few airports, packed a few things, rented out my townhouse, and set out east. It has been said that FIDE, the world governing body of chess, has the second most members to FIFA, soccer’s ruling body. So while mine was a not a chess journey per se, I was sure there would be opportunities to play along the way. Sometimes I sought out the chess community; most often it found me.

On route from Newark to Amsterdam, my first chess encounter came from “Kasparov Chess,” which had replaced lesser in-flight gaming systems. It left me wondering if Aeroflot also uses the program, since the Ex-World Champion famously avoids the Russian airliner for security reasons. Once in Amsterdam, I found my way to the oversized plastic set at Max Euweplein, the square devoted to the most famous Dutch player of all time.

When it was my turn to play, I took Black and unconsciously channeled another former Dutch player, Jeroen Piket. On more than a half-dozen occasions, the now-retired Dutchman played a well-known queen sacrifice variation in the King’s Indian, Samisch Variation.

My opponent’s 8. g4 (in the above position), instead of 8. Qd2 Qh4+ 9. g3 Nxg3 10. Qf2 Nxf1, barred any fireworks, but I was relieved to walk away with a win in my first game overseas.

Local guy (possibly inebriated) – Klein
Max Euweplein, Netherlands 2008
1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 0-0 5 f3 d6 6 Be3 e5 7 d5 Nh5 8 g4 Nf4 9 Qd2 Qh4+ 10 Bf2 Qe7 11 h4 f5 12 gxf5 gxf5 13 Nh3 fxe4 14 fxe4 Bh6 15 Ng5 Bg4 16 Rg1 Bh5 17 Ne6+ Kh8 18 Nxf8 Ng2+ 19 Rxg2 Bxd2+ 20 Kxd2 Qxf8 21 Be2 Bxe2 22 Nxe2 Qf3 23 Rag1 Nd7 24 Ng3 Rg8 25 Be3 Nc5 26 Bg5 h6 27 Bxh6 Nxe4+ 0-1

After leaving Max Euweplein, I passed an engraved archway that read “Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum,” – “Man should not pee into the wind” – an apt description of the wistfulness of my choice of variation. Some fellow chess players invited me to a café for a few rounds of blitz, and a few days later I left for Belgium. With the aid of a college friend and a few pints of exotically named brews, Brussels proved charming but I did not engage anyone over the board.

From there I hopped a quick flight to Bergerac in southwest France to meet Anne-Marie, a friend from Cheltenham, England who I met in Vietnam several years ago. Back then, amidst the cacophony of puttering two-stroke engines, we sipped pho at a roadside stall as she improved her opening knowledge.

SEAsia-085clo.jpgNow at her parent’s rented villa on the banks of the Dordogne River, chess gave way to canoeing and cheese shopping. Later, we traveled to Bordeaux. Our plans for more lessons gave way to wine tasting and architecture browsing. After a few days we hopped a train to sleepy Pau in the Pyrenees, and when the hiking tired us, she resumed her chess studies during high tea. Anne-Marie returned the favor with French lessons, and before we parted I gave her the tournament-sized set I brought as a gift.

A medieval chess set at an abbey outside of Nîmes is rumored to originate from the year 1008, thus the history of chess in Europe may have turned 1000 years old last year. I consulted a map but decided that was too far east for me; I wanted to see the ancient castles in Carcassonne and Perpignan with my remaining time in France. Afterward, I continued down the coast to Barcelona, following a similar route to this year’s Tour de France. But again I rode the rails, and along the way gave a quick lesson to a Canadian couple traveling from Nice.

From Catalonia, I made a quick stop in Granada for tapas and the Alhambra on the way to one month in Morocco. In short, there is no easy access to chess there. Despite the Moors bringing the game from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea one millennium ago, the game seems to have disappeared. Aware that there was a grandmaster within Morocco’s border, I sought out chess clubs in Marrakech, Casablanca and Rabat, but the Arabic-language web sites were too convoluted and generally not translated into French. Rumors of the enigmatic presence of Moroccan chess may not be exaggerated – one month after my visit, their Olympiad team registered but failed to show up in Germany.

The souks did sell plenty of chess sets in addition to t-shirts, spices and silver jewelry. Curiously, nearly every country’s vendors proffered their own designs, regardless of whether the seller even knew the basic rules. In dozens of sets sold in markets around the world, I would estimate about 40 percent had incorrect starting positions.

Leaving the snake charmers and mint tea behind, I boarded a flight to Bremen, Germany on my way to the Dresden Olympiad. With about ten days to spare, I stopped in Hamburg and Berlin, where the automated train announcements warned of the “zwischenzug,” or the step needed to cross from the platform onto the train. While in Hamburg, I stopped by unannounced to their two-story chess club on a weekday evening. Nearly as inconspicuous as the brownstone housing of New York’s Marshall Chess Club, the Hamburger Schachklub of 1830 is in a tree lined residential area of the city. More importantly for me, their home page could be translated by Google and I arrived just in time for a regular lecture by in-house trainer IM Merijn van Delft. The lecture was in German, but I found that after learning the names of the pieces and the numbers one through eight, I could follow most of what was being said. He showed a recent game of his and the beautiful maneuver Ne2-g1, with a devastating repositioning to g5 to follow.
Later that night, Merijn took me to Hamburg-native GM Jan Gustafsson’s apartment to watch the U.S. Presidential Election. While waiting until 4:00 a.m. for a winner to be announced, I got an insider’s look into the preparation of Germany’s third-board at the dawning Olympiad.
I also used Mariokart extensively as a study tool during my freshman year of college, getting adequate grades, albeit under much less pressure than Jan. In Jan’s defense, his performance rating just about matched his ELO at the Olympiad.

Later that week, I toured a moored Soviet-era submarine, which seemed to operate without time delay.
I also got a chance to sit in on a practice session for the Hamburg women’s Bundesliga squad, which Merijn coached at his house after a group dinner. As would become common across Europe, everyone eagerly spoke English to gain the practice. Chess is hard enough in one’s native tongue. For Merijn, who is Dutch but married to a German chess player, English is his third language but his generosity in showing me around went easily translated.

From there I skipped over to Dresden to report on the Olympiad for this web site and for Chess Life magazine.

The city of Dresden advertised the event well, with tram announcements, window displays, abundant signage and chess-themed performances and fashion displays. The Rathaus, or city hall, exhibited several offbeat artistic chess impressions.

IMG_1889clo.jpgThe first test of the tournament for the American men’s team was figuring out Euro coins.

Little did GM Yury Shulman know that this scene at a pre-tournament dinner would portend the pressure of his last-round rook-and-pawn endgame.

The opening ceremonies took place at a hockey arena, and the two American squads would create their own “Miracle on Ice” a fortnight later. The presentation featured the largest chess clock I had ever seen.

Maybe it was just coincidence, or maybe it was the 200,000 Germans that gathered for his speech outside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, but President Barack Obama’s victory, then barely one week old, gave the Stars and Stripes top-billing at the parade of nations.

The light-filled Dresden Convention Center appeared so serene prior to the commencement of the 38th Chess Olympiad.

Then the storms came, both on the board…

And off…

In the closest thing chess has to a scoreboard, the American men posted the largest rout of the Ukrainians in Olympiad history. Chess fans all know the final result.

At the closing ceremonies, both teams took the podium for flowers and medals.


At the close of the event, I said goodbye to several chess players and journalists I had met, except Macauley Peterson of the Internet Chess Club. We were both tired from two weeks of non-stop reporting on headlines and subplots, but we gathered our luggage and boarded a train for Prague and arrived on the night of Thanksgiving at an expat bar serving turkey and stuffing. My pilgrimage did not really parallel that of the Pilgrims, but the Czechs played the natives nicely in keeping the beer cold and the potatoes mashed.

Macauley left for another assignment and I continued my journey to Poland, where I skipped chess in favor of history and pierogis. This being early December, I heard of some decent snowboarding in the Tatra Mountains, so I took an ill-prescribed collection of public and bipedal transport across the Slovakian border, ending in a tiny hamlet called Zdiar. A Briton opened the curiously-named Ginger Monkey Hostel there (which is also beguiling in its decoration as a pseudo-shrine to the “A-Team”). The thin snowfall kept us inside, which meant only two things – B.A. Baracus fight scenes and chess games around the Christmas tree.

A hostel guest named Liam had just won some money on a British game show and was using his winnings to plop around Eastern Europe. He soaked up some lessons in Slovakia and rode the train with me to Budapest. He was on his way to Athens but before he left I gave him a magnetic travel set that had become superfluous after I won one at the journalists’ tournament in Dresden. Like many travelers, Liam embodied the eagerness to learn new things, and taking lessons in chess was no different than visiting an art museum or taking a cooking class.

While in Budapest, I skipped out on the First Saturday Tournament, instead choosing to take my game to the outdoor baths.

IMG_3063clo.jpgIt is hard to focus when your hair has icicles forming, so you have to remember to dunk yourself every few minutes. Budapest was easily the most concentrated chess city. In addition to the baths, chess sets were sold on the street, men set up boards at the train station, and GM Judit Polgar even hosted a chess television show. After I won a few forints from a man on the street, he retorted with the only English he spoke: “You master?”

After Hungary, I had about one month before my next scheduled flight, which left from Slovenia. I took a circuitous path around the Balkans, passing through Novi Sad and stopping in another chess-crazed city, Belgrade. I met up with a fellow chess journalist named Josip that I met in Dresden. Josip took me all over the city throughout the week, including an evening blitz tournament at one of the city’s chess clubs, past frequented by several World Champions.

I should have known I would be in for a tough event. The organizers announced that an FM was visiting from the United States and nary a soul looked over to see who. Only during the announcement each round of the pairings did I stick out. Each of the 15 rounds began something like this, “Karlovic – Mistic, Ivanisevic – Popovic, Vukic – Klein.” I won the first four rounds, then lost to a GM and struggled to finish above 50 percent.

The following day, Josip invited members of the Serbian and Montenegrin women’s teams for coffee. Serbians are not used to Americans visiting Belgrade for pleasure, and they were excited to talk about their city. I was happy to share some photos – the U.S. women played Montenegro in the first round of the Olympiad, so I had some “accidental” pictures of their friends.

After Serbia, my travels took me to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Another oversized chess set, similar to Amsterdam, was in use in a public park, but with two problems. No one spoke English, unlike the polyglots in the Netherlands, and it was the middle of winter. Local players all used the Vodka Gambit, but I preferred the mulled wine of the Christmas markets. I then made my way to the Dalmatian Coast for some bearable temperatures and fresh seafood. My remaining time in Croatia and Slovenia soon expired, and I flew to South Africa in January for their summer.

A few days into Cape Town, after enjoying warm-weather activities like mountain biking and shark diving, I contacted a local outfit call Chess for Peace. The program brings together Blacks, Coloreds and Whites of all economic strata through the game of chess.  Though the children were on summer break, I was able to guest instruct at a weekly class attended by eager children who viewed me as a bit of a curiosity. In return, they taught me a few Afrikaans words. Later in the week, the program’s director graciously took me all over the cape on a wine and sightseeing tour.

Namibia is one of the least-densely populate countries in the world, and dozens of hours of desert driving yielded picturesque but chessless adventures. At the dawning of an overnight bus ride to Zambia, passengers disembarked at the border crossing to find pushy hordes of money changers and two chess players under the shade. Later I would quiz locals and many had heard of fellow countryman GM Amon Simutowe, Africa’s first sub-Saharan grandmaster. After a quick trip through Botswana back to South Africa, I flew to Uganda. Inside the world’s largest grass hut, which doubles as a mausoleum to Uganda’s deceased kings (all before Idi Amin’s reign), I was taught a bean-and-tray game dubbed “African Chess.”

IMG_3684clo.jpgI then passed by Obama’s grandmother’s village in Kenya en route to Tanzania. Like Morocco, I found no chess players, but handcrafted sets were sold in abundance. I wanted to trade with the Massai tribesman – chess for spear-chucking lessons – but I found no takers.

After a safari and a beach week in Zanzibar, my path returned north of the equator to Egypt, where a former roommate and friend came to visit. National Master Ben Johnson flew to Cairo, and after some pyramids and temples, we headed to the Sinai and the Red Sea resort of Dahab. Though we are both semi-retired from serious play, we could not let two weeks pass without a game or two between us.
When I crossed the border into Israel, I met a man named Aaron and his family on the bus ride to Jerusalem. He moved from South Africa to Israel many years ago and he was eager to speak English on our ride. After we arrived, Aaron invited me to his house for the Jewish Sabbath, and while there, I gave a few pointers to the eldest of his three daughters, a cute seven-year-old named Miriam. Francis Bacon said, “He that travels into a country before he has some entrance into the language, goeth to school and not to travel.” Accordingly, language lessons were offered in trade, as I learned the pieces and numbers from Miriam, this time in Hebrew.
Aaron’s wife is a journalist originally from Armenia, and she proved her native country’s chess fandom by naming nearly all of the members of the gold-medal Olympiad team.

During a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old Town, I met two Americans from Seattle who were traveling west around the world, and we decided to caravan together to Petra, Jordan, in what would prove to be the most beautiful site of my trip. After a few days of wandering around the canyons and gazing at the grand facades etched on mountain faces, we raced to Amman for St. Patrick’s Day, in search of our own Holy Grail, the country’s only Irish bar. During our taxi ride along the East Bank of the Dead Sea, my traveling companions asked for a group lesson; their chess competitiveness proved to be the one activity that created friction in their otherwise seamless year-long adventure.

In late March, I flew to New Delhi, India, just days after Kasparov’s first-ever visit. I found no shortage of people who could recall names of top players like Harikrishna and Koneru. As for the World Champion, though from the South, he enjoyed 100 percent name recognition. In Uganda and Kenya, I found many businesses renamed themselves “Obama,” and Indian shops have followed suit with their favorite sportsman. 

By this point a seasoned negotiator, I bargained a travel set down to 200 rupees (4 USD).

In the North, I found the Nepalese and Tibetan communities played chess everywhere on the streets of Dharamshala. It made me wonder – since FIDE recognizes the non-sovereign federation from Palestine, would they ever consider giving Tibet institutional autonomy? Imagine the sight of orange-robed monks at a future Olympiad or at the Bermuda Party! This I would pay to see.

While in the mountainous northern Pradesh, I gave a few lessons to my favorite Americans I met on my travels, a couple with an insatiable thirst for learning new things. In turn, Emily and Simon taught me about enlightenment and they became engaged shortly after I left – seems Kashmir exports majestic sapphires from within its disputed borders. A few hundred meters from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple, and amidst the backdrop of jagged snow-covered peaks, I lost myself in a complicated rook-and-pawn endgame.

During a bike ride in Pokhara, Nepal, at the footsteps of the Annapurna Mountains, more chess players were spotted outside a small market. I gifted a chess magazine from my pack after futilely trying to explain that I am chess teacher (by this point in my trip I had become very lazy in learning language).

The backpacker area in Katmandu sold fake North Face jackets, knock-off Rolex watches, and this version of chess, which can only be described as indescribable.

The first of my three overnight layovers in South Korea allowed me to take day-trips into Seoul. In another sign that I have no explanation for, this tour company emblazoned our favorite pastime onto its buses.

After a few crazy days in Bangkok, which included a city-wide water-gun fight for the Thai New Year festival of Songkran, followed by mounting a tank commandeered by anti-government protesters, I sought out serenity with a return visit to the Bangkok Chess Club. I profiled the club in a prior Chess Life article, and I was received warmly upon my second visit. Amazingly, my first-round opponent in their nightly blitz tournament, Leo,  also hails from North Carolina.

With my sabbatical coming to a close, I took a short flight in April to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. In a multi-cultural country that borrows from Thailand, China, India and Indonesia, nothing can truly surprise, except perhaps a look at the magazine section of a mall bookstore – a real bargain at 17.9 Malaysian Ringets (5 USD).

I knew I wanted something fun to read during my final country, a two-week stop in Fiji. So while at the mall, I picked up a copy of John Nunn’s game and puzzle collection, Grandmaster Chess Move by Move. Before the South Pacific, I spent one week in Siem Reap, Cambodia, touring the ruins of Angkor Wat. Cambodian craft markets produced ornate sets with diminutive queens.

Angkor’s crumbling infrastructure extended to the chess board, as outside one temple, bottle caps were ersatz pawns and guards were too preoccupied to enforce any rules for visitors.

When volleyball and snorkeling zapped my energy in Fiji, I sunned in the sand while reading Nunn’s impossible puzzles to end my indulgent ennui. Surely a coconut fell on the grandmaster’s head to envisage such a mind-boggling construction.

Helpmate in 4 ½ (White moves first and mates on White’s fifth move, with Black’s help)

Show Solution

My apologies for the ridiculous solution. You may feel better by knowing that one month later, I showed the problem to several top grandmasters. Most gave up after a few minutes, but I returned two hours later to see one GM incredibly still staring at the board (he came very close to the answer).

My circumambulation was not without its difficulties. Periods of isolation, bewilderment and sickness dotted my tour. But I learned much. I learned the Bedouins of the Sahara Desert do not cook food sanitarily. I learned how lonely the darkened bridge walk is between Poland and Slovakia, and how corrupt the Uganda-Kenya crossing is on foot. I learned sunsets beat the much-overrated sunrises. I learned a lot of British-isms like Paracetamol (Tylenol), plaster (bandage), and aubergine (eggplant).  I learned that when a bus stops in Nepal, you should get out and force yourself to use the toilet. I learned that toilets around the world come in all shapes and smells. I learned you can tell a lot about a country by the price and availability of water, wine and Internet access. But I also learned the generosity of locals and the travelers’ community.

What will I take away most from my trip? When you speak English and play chess, you know two of the most widely spoken languages in the world. You will never grow lonely, but it would not hurt if you play soccer.

For more from Michael Klein's overseas adventures, check out his travel blog, his Best of CLO articles on Fischer and the Olympiad and his February 2009 Chess Life cover story. Also see
Mike Klein's video from his trip, "Mike Walks East."


December - Chess Life Online 2009

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