Jing’s Gambit: Players trade coins at Camera Stylo Chess Club

Since moving away from independent film screenings, Camera Stylo has become the venue for Spittoon readings and events by Beijing literati. But lately, another kind of intellectual activity has taken place in the cafe and bar – chess games.

The chess club that dug its heels into the bar began meeting in the summer of 2020 as online chess began to take off around the world – first due to COVID-19 and a need to be entertained inside, then again stimulated by the exit of The Queen’s Bet on Netflix. But for some Beijing-based enthusiasts, there had long been a need for casual gatherings around the board, especially for English-speaking players. Even though the capital is home to a handful of the world’s best chess players, formal chess tournaments can be difficult for outsiders to meet the qualifications, and most open tournaments are populated almost entirely by children, so encountering new other players who might want to sit down for a few games over the weekend was a challenge.

This changed with the arrival of the Stylo club, which welcomes players from all walks of life and at all levels.

“As a newcomer to Beijing, I found some of my closest friends through the chess club,” says Daniel Rosenberg. “The kind of people you can share a fancy pint or cocktail with and then whip your ass off in a game of chess. It’s not just a club but a small family where everyone is welcome, from the 8 year old prodigy to the average Joe like me.

Founder David Burgess says he’s delighted to see the number of players increase over the past few months, as well as seeing a good mix of cultures. “In our knockout tournament, we covered almost every continent,” he boasts.

Burgess first started dating on Side Street after a few attempts to meet friends – including co-host Felipe Hurtado Sierra, one of the club’s strongest players – began to fall flat. The club moved to Camera Stylo when Hurtado Sierra began giving lectures on opening gambits in the upstairs space of the bar, and players found that the quietness of the room lends itself better to game play. ‘chess.

Conferences quickly turned into tournaments and other activities as organizers began to try just about every form of chess competition they could think of. First, a simultaneous exhibition took place in which Hurtado Sierra played against 11 players at once, beating 10. (The loss was to Burgess – a “strategic loss to get him to continue to organize,” he cheekily asserts.) Later, a one-day tournament of 3-minute matches, a knockout tournament that lasted weeks, and even a 4-person team tournament that attracted seven full teams. (The latter took place at the French cafe and bar Chez Soi due to a need for additional space.)

“The Chez Soi team event now has a special place in my heart. It really brought the club closer,” says Hurtado Sierra. Yet for him, the real fun is in the faster tournaments. “Any event involving Flash Chess (under 3 minutes) is more exciting if you add beer!”

Hurtado Sierra retired from competitive chess in 2011 (“If We Ever Can Really Do It”), but the club have ensured that chess will remain a part of their life. “Sometimes,” he says, “all you need is a friendly club to rekindle your love for the game and forget about fierce tournaments, long training sessions and thick books.”

Whether you want to be Beijing’s next Beth Harmon, want to put the skills you’ve honed online in an out-of-this-world setting, or are just curious about how the pieces move, you can get involved by contacting Burgess via WeChat (ID: birdseed45). The casual games will continue at Camera Stylo, and if you’re looking for a fun tournament, look no further than the next bughouse tournament (date TBD) which will pit pairs of players against each other in this take-a-piece , give the variant to your partner. Additionally, this Saturday at 2 p.m., players will compete at Camera Stylo in a Fischer Random tournament, which means the order of the starting pieces will be random.

Oh, and be sure to bring your friends.

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Images: David Burgess, Joey Knotts

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