Ten years ago, at the time of my first visit to Amsterdam I was not playing very much chess yet, still my playful nature brought me to the famous chess café, Gambit. A friend asked me as we strolled through the Jordaan: what about a drink and playing some chess? Of course I could not refuse that!
Now that I live in Amsterdam, I became a frequent visitor here. This is my invitation to you, come and look around, share with me the Gambit-experience!
The Westerkerk is towering above you while you approach the Bloemgracht. A few more steps and you find the door of the old, traditional house, the Bloemgracht number 20, with a chessboard hanging above the door. Well, if you can't find it just ask anyone. Locals will show you the way, unless they are also lost tourists...
The Gambit is the longest traditional chess café in existence in Amsterdam. The exact opening date of the café is lost in the mist of history.
How did it all start? Menase Goldberg, the founder and owner of Gambit, likes one thing in life very much, and that's chess. In the 70s he played chess frequently in local restaurants, or anywhere else where he could play – per his own statement he was crazy about playing chess. He was feeling somewhat depressed in those days, only chess could delight him. So one day he asked a chess-friend: "I have an idea, I would like to open a chess café, what do you think?" The friend said: "Great idea..." This much encouragement was more than enough for Menase. He realized his dream and opened the café. And there you have it already for 25 years.
The place does not pretend to look new, posh or tidy. On the contrary. The walls have not been painted and never will be. It is a traditional "brown pub", a "bruin cafe" – this is a pub style of Amsterdam. The idea is that the walls and furniture are allowed to ripen and color brown by the constant smoke. It paints the walls yellow first – this stage has already been accomplished – then more and more brown, equal of that of the furniture.
The walls are full of famous chess player photos, a shrine to world champs and Dutch chess celebrities. The wooden chess boards and pieces are also 'original', but recently an industrious girl at the bar dared to clean them – it shocked most of us, the colors of the pieces changed dramatically.
Many say that Menase Goldberg, the founder and owner is a wild man. If he is not happy with a game, you may hear him raise his voice – but you should not worry, he has a golden heart. He is a good player himself; he has always been playing innovative, daring chess. He participated in many tournaments over the years in Holland and abroad. In the old days there were exciting games played here in the Jordaan for hard money... He is still playing and living chess, you can meet him in the cafe daily.
Let's get back for a moment to my first impression of Gambit. As I stepped in the café, there was Prindi, The Cat. She was the hostess of Gambit for over 20 years, greeting all chess visitors. Sitting and watching the games and people, in a true chess-cat style. No smoke or shouting could upset her – she had a Buddhist nature. Prindi got her name after the Georgian female ex-world champion, Gaprindasvili – she knew about it and was honored. Unfortunately Prindi has departed a few years ago to cat heaven. But her memory stays around.
An integral part of the café is the soft classical music in the background – most of the time Mozart, Menase's favorite. Some evenings you may hear some good jazz too. The café is not smoke free – and it will be a tough one to ever change.
Gambit has a list of famous visitors: the Polgar family has been here already three times! There is a whole photo board showing the "Supergirls" beating up the astonished audience in the smoky Gambit, and yellowish newspaper articles giving account of their miraculous story on their way to the top. Actually, during their visit to the Netherlands one of the Polgar girls beat a Dutch GM in a blind chess game – she was eight years old at that time.
Some famous players, like Dutch GM Jan Timman are also regular guests. Timman has been in Gambit several times recently, conducting some endgame studies together with IM Yochanan Afek, probably simultaneously sipping some fine Dutch beer. Some American and British grand masters also stepped by recently.
You can improve your play here in a relaxed environment over a drink. IM Yochanan Afek (standing in the picture above) gives chess lessons on all levels in the cafe. Afek is also a composer of endgame studies and chess problems, he's writing books and publishing weekly chess columns in Israel, UK and France. He likes Gambit, in fact the place inspired him so much, that many of his articles and studies have been written here. He composed a few award winning chess problems over a glass of wine.
Gambit traditionally organizes the famous summer and winter Jordaan open chess tournaments. The number of players is only limited by the space at the tables of the café – when every table is full the enrollment is closed. The place is always fully packed during these tournaments.
There are many kinds of people visiting and playing here, locals and foreigners
Gambit sponsors its own amateur chess club, with two participating teams in the Dutch promotion class.
The author of this column, Aniko, also likes to visit Gambit: "Proost!"
Schaakhuis Gambit, Bloemgracht 20, 1015 TJ Amsterdam, +31 20 622 1801
Chess café's are rare nowadays – probably it's financially difficult to sustain a café which has its only income from those few drinks that the players consume – some say chess players are not the best on spending money actually... But in the Netherlands you can find several more: one in Utrecht, the "Ledig Erf", one in Den Haag, one in Enschede, "Het Bolwerk" and a few mixed play cafes in Amsterdam itself, where people also play backgammon, go or various card games besides chess. In Europe there has been a very famous chess café in Paris – unfortunately it's closed down now. In Tel Aviv you can find the Emmanuel Lasker Chess Club and Café. There is one cafe in Frankfurt, Germany too. It would be nice to see a growing number of chess and play cafés all around the world. So if you like the game and have such ambitions, just start one!
Aniko Kiss (pronounced 'Kish') is from Hungary. After travelling all over Europe she has now settled down in Amsterdam. She has a company, Business Basics, which specialises in business in management and organisational consulting, information technology and personal coaching. She is intensely interested in people, interested to help and improve the conditions of their businesses and lives.
Aniko has always loved games, especially chess, but only started to play seriously two years ago. "It was Garry Kasparov's charismatic personality and brilliantly simple style inspired me from the first moment," she confesses. Recently she offered to be a "roving reporter" for the ChessBase.com news site and supply it with local chess stories, interviews and pictures. She is also engaged in translating Fritz into Hungarian.