David Smerdon | September 04, 2011 22:58

My favourite Amsterdam cafe

No, it’s not what you think.

Amsterdam is quite a city, and although it’s been over five years, I’m gradually remembering all the reasons I love this place.  Of course, you’ve got your museums, canals, tulips, art galleries and clogs, but we all know the real reason to travel to Amsterdam:

The chess.

There are not many western cities out there with a dedicated chess museum, nor with a beautiful square named after a world chess champion (the origins of Max Euweplein won me a glass of wine in a bet).  But even more interesting for the coffeehouse amateur are the chess cafes.  The Dutch are known for their rustic, gezellig cafe and bar culture, and so it’s no surprise that one of my favourite cafes in the world resides here.

Max Euweplein. You can just be able to make out the small statue of the former World Chess Champion's head and shoulders on the left.

The Laurierboom is a quaint little cafe tucked behind the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s main canals.  As luck would have it, I arrived just in time for the annual match between the Laurierboom team and Caissa, Amsterdam’s second-largest chess cafe.  Even better luck saw a free spot open up on Laurierboom’s side, and the chess club’s effervescent and very persuasive manager, Gerard, easily convinced me to step in.

But not as board one, mind you; Grandmaster Stuart Conquest had also fallen prey to Gerard’s hospitable recruitment strategy, and so Laurierboom saw not only one but two grandmasters front for the annual event.  Unfortunately, this probably gave the most uneven match-up ever seen between the two clubs.  But it was never really about the score; it never is at the Laurierboom.

The strongest Laurierboom team in the esteemed club's history. Gerard is the guy with the 'guns' kneeling with me; GM Stuart Conquest is in yellow.

The match was played at the cafe on a surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon, the place decked out with charmingly well-worn wooden sets, smelling of decent coffee (a Godsend for me after Peruvian Nescafe) and spilt beer.  One of the great Dutch chess traditions that I got to rediscover is the custo of offering to buy your opponent a coffee during the early stages of the contest, and then the favour returned a little later in the game.  And afterwards, naturally, the post-mortem beers are shared – ‘going Dutch’, as it were.

I dressed in typical Dutch orange for the occasion. During the game saw full concentration...

...to be replaced after the game with empty glasses.

Despite Stuart and I outrating the room by several hundred points and being treated like mini celebrities, my Caissa opponent, Niek Narings, was not intimidated in the slightest.  As a matter of fact, he seemed to be taking exactly the same approach to the match as me:  take no prisoners and play straight for mate, in true coffeehouse style.*

Of course, it’s a lot easier to burn your bridges when the chess doesn’t count for rating points, but Niek and I still managed to produce one of the most exciting games of the match – in fact, it became clear in the early stages when we moved our four rook pawns in a row that neither of us had any interest in castling or our own king’s safety, and there was going to be blood on the board…

(Note: you can see the whole game played out for you on an animated chess board at the end of the notation.)
Smerdon,David – Narings,Niek  (Laurierboom v Caissa, 28.08.2011)

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.h4 h5 6.a4…

There we are: now, nowhere’s safe!

6…b6 7.Nh3 Bxh3 8.Rxh3 c5 9.Bc4…

My original idea was 9.a5 Nc6 10.axb6 cxd4 11.b7 Rb8 12.Rxa6 Nb4 13.Ra4 dxe3, but I missed I could just play 14.Rxe3 with the advantage.


9…Nf6 loses to 10.dxc5 bxc5 11.e5 Ng4 12.Bxf7+ Kxf7 13.Qd5+, winning the exchange.

10.f4 Qc8 11.Bd5 Rb8 12.e5…

Really going for it, but there’s nothing else now – the bridges are burnt…

12…Nh6 13.e6 Nf6 14.exf7+ Kf8

After 14...Kf8. Note the cool, old-school board and pieces.

15.dxc5 bxc5 16.Bc4…

Wow, who just threw up on the board?!  This absurd position was starting to attract a bit of a crowd, and I was starting to feel the heat.  Especially worrying was if Niek here played 16…Rxb2 17.Qd3 Qf5 18.0-0-0 Rb4, leading to a crazy position where I was not entirely happy about the draft around my king.  But fortunately, the game continued:

16…Qb7 17.Qd2 Nf5 18.b3 Nd4…

Not 18…Ne4 19.Nxe4 Bxa1 20.Bd5 Qc8 21.Ng5 with a healthy advantage for white.

19.Kf1 d5 20.Bd3…


Finally getting rid of my impertinent little white terrier.  But now things start to open up.

21.Re1 e6 22.Ne2 Ng4 23.Bg1 Qc6 24.Nxd4 cxd4 25.Qe2 a5 26.Rg3 Bf6…

And now, with both of us down to our last couple of minutes, I came across an incredibly strong idea, consistent with our mutually sacrificial coffeehouse style:

27.Rxg4 hxg4 28.g3 Rb6 29.Qxg4 Rh6 30.Bf2 Qc3 31.Kg2…

And here, with our clocks hanging, the seemingly indefatigable Niek finally erred.

31…Rxb3?? 32.Qxe6+ 1-0

And here’s the game in full (how cool is this?!):

The post-mortem session with Niek went late into the evening, with players and cafe patrons alike more than happy to kibitz, insult, spill beer on my board and sacrifice my pieces, with complete disregard to my rating.  Exactly the way it should be.

* ‘Coffeehouse chess’ is a style of chess whereby players play aggressively, employing tricks, tactics and directly playing for checkmate, and with little regard for positional considerations or consequence.  Or, in other words,

“ But in the coffeehouse you have to learn quickly how to hold and hit on the break, land low blows and rabbit punches, bite and gouge in the clinches, blow smoke with pinpoint accuracy into an opponent’s left or right eye…”

- ‘Coffeehouse Chess Tactics’ (John Healy), page 13.

The analysis session featured many local kibitzers

...followed by a little grandmaster blitz. Olga, the Polish spectator, is not only a decent player, but is also in my economics class.

Two chess addicts with perhaps slightly different music tastes


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David Smerdon's picture
Author: David Smerdon

David Smerdon is a chess grandmaster from Brisbane, Australia. David attended Anglican Church Grammar School and Melbourne University. To qualify for the title of Grandmaster, a player must achieve three Grandmaster norm performances, and a FIDE Elo rating over 2500. Late in 2007, Smerdon achieved his third and final Grandmaster norm. In the July 2009 FIDE rating list his rating passed 2500, so he qualified for the title of Grandmaster. He is the fourth Australian to become a Grandmaster, after Ian Rogers, Darryl Johansen and Zhao Zong-Yuan. In 2009, Smerdon won the Queenstown Chess Classic tournament.

Source: Wikipedia




Gerard Sanderse's picture

Very nice David, love the article :-)

Bob's picture

Nice article, thanks! I have played chess on Max Euweplein too, but I got beat by a lurking local shark...

rob's picture

Nice game:) When are we playing? My score against Conquest still is 2-0;)

Jonathan O'Connor's picture

On my biannual visits to Amsterdam, I used to love going to the chess cafe on the Bloemgracht. Sadly the owner died a few years ago, and the cafe closed down soon after. Last year, I ended up at the Laurierboom around midnight. It was mainly poker players, but there were also a few chess players. Good fun. Must go there earlier on my next visit.

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