by Ian Rogers
In the last century, the path to mastery for a talented young European player often ran through a chess cafe.
Chess cafes were places where the chess professionals, the retired and the unemployed could while away the hours playing and analysing games, while up-and-coming players could challenge the regulars for a suitable stake.
The cafes would provide chess sets and sometimes clocks, with the presence of a house master attracting interest, if not always income.
Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic enjoyed a long tradition of popular chess cafes, the most famous of which was U Novaku just off Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
U Novaku is the only cafe to have hosted a Chess Olympiad – the fourth Olympiad, held in 1931 – and U Novaku also witnessed an epic 20 board simultaneous exhibition in 1960 by new World Champion Mikhail Tal. (Tal remained undefeated despite extremely difficult opposition including future Grandmasters Hort, Jansa and Smejkal.)
U Novaku survived until shortly after the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, later becoming a casino.
The Czech capital was without a chess cafe until last December when Pavel Matocha (pictured below, right), the instigator of the Chess Train, decided to bring back the good old days.
Utilising the same building on Wenceslas Square where U Novaku’s main rival used to lure chess-mad students after school in the 1950 and 60s, Matocha sought to recreate the ambiance of a century ago with chess tables, armchairs and photos of chess greats in Prague.
At first take-up was slow but gradually word spread that the cafe hidden away on the second floor of a small hotel was an oasis of calm in the bustle of Prague; like a true old-fashioned chess cafe, there was no pressure to buy drinks if one wished to concentrate on playing chess. (Nonetheless, I strongly recommend the home-made ginger lemonade served at the chess cafe.)
Chess teachers can bring students for lessons, with a modest but useful library available to all.
Whether a chess cafe can survive in the centre of a modern city is a question which has usually been answered in the negative, with most new ventures barely surviving.
However Matocha has prepared well and is aiming to restore a Prague tradition which many regret losing. Plus of course the hope is that the Chess Café Šachový Václavák will one day see spectacular games such as the following coffee-house attack.
Opening: Pirc Defence
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3 c6
Nowadays considered too slow, with 6…Na6!? the modern main line and 6…Nc6 also playable. (6…Bg4 was put out of business by a famous Fischer-Benko game half a century ago and has never recovered.)
7.0-0 Qb6 8.Kh1 Bg4 9.e5 Ne8 10.Ne2!
Now White can answer 10…c5 with 11.c3 and maintain his centre.
10…Nd7 11.Qe1 f6?! 12.e6!?
Spectacular play, though 12.Qh4 was also strong.
12…Bxe6 13.f5! Bf7?
13…Bxf5 14.Bxf5 gxf5 15.Ng3 f4 was ugly but necessary.
14…g5 15.Ne6 d5 was the last chance.
15.fxg6 hxg6 16.Nxg6 Rfe8 17.Qg3 Ne6 18.Ngh4 Bh5 19.Nf5 Kf7 20.Re1 Ndf8
History does not record whether Lechtynsky was showered with gold coins by the spectators after his brilliant finish; even in a modern chess cafe such a queen sacrifice should be worth at least a decaf skinnny latte.