Sunday, April 3, 2011

Coffeehouse Chess

Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure in downtown Des Moines.
Home of fine coffee and good chess.

  Dan Troxell from Des Moines has been coming to our Thursday night quick tournaments at the Salvation Army in Marshalltown on a regular basis since last summer and we had been planning to visit Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure in downtown Des Moines where Dan and some his friends get together to play chess on Saturday mornings once the weather got nice. At the club on Thursday, Scott agreed to join me and I asked Jaleb on Friday if he wanted to come along and he said yes, so yesterday the three of us set out at 7am for the 60 mile drive to Des Moines.

Zanzibar has a lot of coffee, but the tables are the right size for a game of chess!

  Chess in coffee houses is a tradition dating back to the 1700’s in Europe, where chess players would congregate and play for pride and money. Zanzibar’s is located in a gentrified section of Des Moines in a neighborhood full of houses, apartment buildings, businesses, and restaurants. It is a narrow shop filled with giant bags of coffee beans and round tables just big enough for chess board. We came in and Dan was playing his friend Mike. I got a big mug of Ethiopian Dark coffee and a sesame bagel with cream cheese ($3.85) and played a couple of speed chess games with Jaleb at a square table by the window while Scott waited to play at Dan and Mike’s table. There were all sorts of different people wandering in and out of the coffee house while we were playing and the tables were full of people writing on their laptops, college kids doing their homework, and people having breakfast and socializing.


Dan and Jaleb battling.
  After my 2 games with Jaleb were over (I lost one and won one on time), Dan played Jaleb and Scott played Mike while I just hung out, had another Ethiopian coffee and bagel with cream chess and watched. As opposed to our Thursday night tournaments where we play with 10 minutes on our clock, on this day we were just playing chess without clocks or time limits. At about 8:30 a fellow named Paul stopped in to play chess. He watched Scott and Mike play and after about 10 minutes Dan introduced me and we started to play a game. I had no idea how good Paul was so when we sat down to play, I just tried to take my time, make good moves, and enjoy myself playing. I probably broke the rules of casual chess by writing the moves down, but I wanted to give a feel for the play of the 'Zanzibar regulars'.

  The game took about 45 minutes. Paul defended really well after losing a piece in the opening and we decided to play another game. Jaleb had beaten Dan a couple of times and Mike did the same to Scott, so Jaleb matched up with Mike, Scott played Dan, while I had the white pieces in my rematch with Paul.

  This game was a long grind that took about an hour. Paul is a very good player and a tenacious defender. If we played each other more often, he would be more aware of the tricks I try to pull and be quite hard to beat. It was a nice change to spend a couple of hours at the chess board while only playing a game or two and I enjoyed matching wits with Paul.

  Jaleb was playing speed games with Mike and winning more than he was losing and Dan was still playing Scott. It was a little after 10 and I wanted to leave at 11, so Jaleb played Paul in a game and I took on Mike for my last game of the day.


  Another long, close, grinding game and one that I felt lucky to win. It was a quarter past 11 at this point, but Jaleb and Paul were locked in a titanic struggle. Jaleb lost his queen and was trying desperately to survive, while Scott was following the action. I hung out talking with Dan and Mike for awhile until they left and around noon, Jaleb managed to win Paul’s queen and take the ending, so we headed back to Marshalltown after I got one more cup of Ethiopian coffee for the road.

From the left, Jaleb, Mike, Scott, Paul, Hank, and Dan.

  It was a lot of fun being invited to playing some no-pressure relaxing chess at Zanzibar’s and we’ll be heading back this way in another month or so. Paul and Mike have never played in a rated tournament, but they proved to be strong players who have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. It was a fun day for playing chess and making new friends. I’ll bet there are more players who meet for casual play at places like Zanzibar’s across Iowa than there are players who go to clubs and tournaments and maybe one day there will be a way to get them all to know about each other to meet and play.