Jing’s Gambit: Players Trade Pieces at the Camera Stylo Chess Club

Jing's Gambit: Chess Players Trade Pieces at the Camera Stylo Club

Since its transition away from independent film screenings, Camera Stylo as come to be known as a home to Spittoon readings and events by Beijing’s literati. But lately, a different sort of intellectual activity has been taking place in the café and bar – games of chess.

The chess club that's sunk its heels into the bar began to meet in the summer of 2020 as online chess began to take off around the world – first due to COVID-19 and a need to entertain oneself indoors and later boosted again by the release of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. But for some Beijing-based enthusiasts, there had long been a need for casual gatherings around the board – particularly for English-language speaking players. Even though the capital is home to a handful of the top chess players in the world, formal chess tournaments can be difficult for foreigners to meet qualifications for, and most open tournaments are populated nearly entirely by children, so meeting other players who might want to sit down for a couple of games on the weekend was a challenge.

That’s changed with the arrival of the Stylo club, which welcomes players of all different backgrounds and skill levels.

“As a relative newbie to Beijing, I have found some of my closest friends through the chess club,” says Daniel Rosenberg. “The type of people you can share a pint or a classy cocktail and then whip your butt in a chess game. It's not just a club but a small family where everyone is welcome, from an 8-year old prodigy to your average Joe like me.”

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

Burgess initially started the meet-ups at Side Street after a few attempts to meet up with pals – including now co-organizer Felipe Hurtado Sierra, one of the club’s strongest players – began falling flat. The club moved to Camera Stylo when Hurtado Sierra began to teach lectures on opening gambits in the bar’s upstairs space, and the players found that the quiet of the venue lent itself better to chess playing.

The lectures soon turned into tournaments and other activities as the organizers began to try out just about every form of chess competition they could think of. First, a simultaneous exhibition was held in which Hurtado Sierra played against 11 players at once, beating 10. (The loss was to Burgess – a “strategic loss to get him to keep organizing,” he claims cheekily.) Later, a one-day tournament of 3-minute games, a knockout tournament that carried on for weeks, and even a 4-person team tournament that attracted seven full teams. (The latter was held at French café and bar Chez Soi due to a need for extra space.)

“The team event at Chez Soi has a special place in my heart now. It really brought the club closer together,” says Hurtado Sierra. Still, for him, the real fun is in the speedier tournaments. “Any event that involves blitz chess (under 3 minutes) is more exciting if you add beer!”

Hurtado Sierra retired from competitive chess in 2011 (“If one can ever really do so”), but the club has ensured that chess stays a part of his life. “Sometimes,” he says,” all you need is a friendly club to revive your love for the game and forget the fierce tournaments, long training sessions, and thick books.”

Whether you fancy yourself Beijing’s next Beth Harmon, want to take the skills you’ve honed online to an over-the-board 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 upcoming (date TBD) bughouse tournament that will pit pairs of players against one another in this take-a-piece, give-it-to-your-partner variant. Additionally, this Saturday at 2pm, players will face off at Camera Stylo in a Fischer Random tournament, meaning that the starting piece order will be randomized. 

Oh, and be sure to bring along your mates.

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Images: David Burgess, Joey Knotts