The chess player is a strange animal. You didn’t know that? Well, take a look around in the playing venue. Do you spot the guy in the sweater moving his head like a Tibetan monk? And there, a little further on, do you see that man with the gray moustache who is adjusting all his pieces after he moved one?
Everybody who plays chess at a certain level knows that al kind of tics, strange habits, and superstitions are regularly seen behind the board. Strange? Perhaps not, because there’s the prestige and rating points at stake. Adrenaline levels increase and at the same time players are expected to sit behind the board quietly.
Boris Gelfand started to fumble below the table with the pawns he took from his opponent, to discharge some tension. Magnus Carlsen now regularly does the same, only above the table and with all pieces, not just pawns. These days we’re all fumbling with the pieces. Playing chess like Carlsen may be impossible for us, but looking at the board with a tormented face and fumbling pieces at the same time, that we can do.
The moving leg is another common tic. Look again, behind almost every board there is a player moving his leg very quickly, like it’s some kind of mantra. Innocent, of course. The area of unsportsmanlike behaviour starts with long stares at your opponent, laughing out loud and standing behind your opponents back for some time. Legal according to the rules, yes, but nevertheless repulsive to my taste.
Chess players are naturally gracious people, but even we have our limits. Personally, my limit is eating behind the board. When I like to go out and eat at a table for two, I prefer doing that with my girlfriend in an Italian restaurant, not with a stranger during a game of chess.
A few years ago, during a game in the Dutch competition, my opponent brought a pineapple. A piece of pineapple? No, he had brought a whole pineapple which he dismantled with some kind of machete and then ate it in just a few minutes. The juice that fell on the c8-square, he casually cleaned with his sleeve as if he wasn’t in a playing hall, but somewhere on a tropical island.
During a tournament in Belgium last summer me and my opponent had a quick Slav on the board, when he took a peak in his bag, and to my surprise took out a grilled chicken. He ate the whole animal, collected the bones, threw them in a bin and sat behind the board again. Not a muscle moved in his face, he looked like it was business as usual. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had asked the arbiter for a cup of coffee and a dessert.
Intimidation, superstition, or appetite, whatever it may be, my amazement in both cases was too overwhelming to do anything. Throughout my chess career I have seen all the basic food groups, dishes of pasta, sushi, soups, and bean salads. In the Netherlands every chess player has the peanut butter sandwich in his repertoire, beside the Sicilian, of course. Where ever you play chess in the Netherlands, this particular sandwich always comes along, most of the time in some sticky, transparent bag. Instead of walking around and then eat, or even better, eating before or after a game, these people find it necessary to consume their meals during a game. Don’t get me wrong, I like peanut butter, I really do. But I don’t like it when a stranger imitates a sheep just a half meter away from me while I’m trying to remember that one drawing line in the Elephant Gambit.
Drinking (non-alcoholic substances) is of course necessary, and a small piece of chocolate to keep the energy level up, is alright with me too. Fruit, however, is not OK. Fruit should be eaten at least five meters away from the board. I ask FIDE not to bother with shorts and headscarfs anymore, but focus on real problems, like food. If FIDE ignores my call for stricter eating rules behind the board, my revenge will be sweet the next time my opponent wants to devour his favourite dish. I will order a five course Chinese meal and eat it all behind the board.
‘Ah, you think it’s strange to eat Chinese food during the game? Well, maybe you like your peanut butter sandwich in the afternoon, I prefer Chinese food. Could you remove your knight from the a5 square please? I have nowhere else to put my spring rolls. And could you hand me the rice? Thanks. Have a nice meal and a nice game!’
Benno de Jongh
Benno de Jongh writes daily columns during the Chess Festival, published around 3 pm on playing days. De Jongh is a journalist and a chess player, who has never reached the rating of 2000, and probably never will. Despite that fact he is one of the worlds leading experts on the Elephant Gambit and working on a book on the subject, (working title: The Elephant Gambit, A Rare Black Beast with a Proboscis on the Board, publication expected in 2032). De Jongh’s opinions on several chess- and non-chess-related items do not in any way reflect the policy of the organisation of the festival.