Most people associate the French town of Dunkirk with Operation Dynamo, the rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers from the northern French beaches during World War II. Indeed, apart from this amazing slice of history, there’s possibly not a whole lot to recommend Dunkirk as a holiday destination. After our plucky lads left in 1940, it was occupied by the Germans and then bombed to pieces; not much remains today of the beautiful original old town – the 50s & 60s style buildings that rose from its ashes are non-descript at best. But year after year I come back to Dunkirk – me, a raggle taggle collection of friends and family, and a large gold cup… so my association with Dunkirk is for an entirely different reason – chess / les échecs!
Thirty years ago, a well-known London chess club, the Kings Head, was invited to play a weekend match against a team from Cappelle-La-Grande, a small town on the outskirts of Dunkirk. Twenty or so young men arrived on a Friday night at the end of May, played chess and drank beer for all they were worth for two solid days and then left again. So was born the annual tradition of the May Bank Holiday Kings Head Chess Club jaunt to France. Its longevity has owed much to the chess loving late Mayor of Cappelle-La-Grande, Roger Gouvart’s ongoing willingness to bankroll the whole experience. We’ve never quite understood how somewhere with a population of 8,329 has its own planetarium, a massive sports complex and every February attracts chess masters from all over the world to its International Chess Tournament, but it does, and that’s part of its idiosyncratic charm!
I started coming on the Dunkirk trip in 1990. My parents, whose local just happened to be the Kings Head (at that time the social venue to the eponymous club), had been going on the trip for a few years. My boyfriend at the time had taken up chess and was playing for the club. So I tagged along, mainly for the beer (the chess came later).
The sheer scale of the French’s hospitality was overwhelming; a champagne reception, long lunches involving endless bottles of red wine (Lirac – the French appeared to have unlimited boxes of the stuff squirreled away in a cellar somewhere!), and huge quantities of beer served during the games of chess.
I also discovered that chess players weren’t all middle aged, didn’t all wear cardigans or smoke pipes (OK, well some of them did), but were in fact really friendly and quite a laugh. I was hooked… and by the following year I was also playing chess, so was part of the team as opposed to a ‘hanger-on’ (the affectionate term for partners who came but didn’t play, long before the term WAG was invented). And I now organise the whole shebang!
It’s hard to explain to the uninitiated what is so amazing and addictive about chess that you can happily sit immersed in a game for 4 hours. In my 20s I played what’s called blitz chess every night of the week (that’s games played out over a period of 10 minutes; 5 minutes for each player to make their move), and a ‘proper’ long game against another club one or two nights a week. I love the endless possibilities of the game, the fact that you can sit down at this black and white chequered board, with 32 pieces in front of you, and just not know what is going to happen.
Yes, many players, especially the super-strong, learn openings, so that the first 5-10 moves may be entirely ‘out of the book’, which means following a set series of moves. But I’ve always got my enjoyment from sitting and making it up as I go along. Sometimes this worked to my advantage (I’ve seen grown-men crumble when I thrash them off the board, and then admit that I hadn’t really got a clue what I was doing); sometimes I lost embarrassingly quickly, caught out by some trap or trick that I’d completely missed. I can never take it very seriously for very long, which is probably why I’ll never be as strong as those chess players who really, really care (sometimes too much – best not go into too much detail about the ex-club member who became so enraged at losing a game, that he launched himself across the board and smashed his opponent over the head with a chess clock!).
The Kings Head tends to win the match most years – that’s three long games, one on Saturday and two on Sunday (each lasting on average 2-3 hours). The French continue to ply us with alcohol, and, bizarrely, after all these years, they don’t seem to have quite copped onto the fact that for a chess club that has a long tradition of playing in a pub, the beer only makes us stronger. It’s perhaps not our proudest boast that many of our players sit down to the board hardly able to focus on the pieces in front of them, or to stay awake between moves, but still win. And yet, the French’s preferred ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is bottles of Lirac! A few years ago now, when I could actually play chess half decently (before children ruined my ability for cogent thought), I was drawn against the Cappelle captain, Michel Gouvart, the Mayor’s son, for the last game of the match on Sunday afternoon. He is what’s known as a solid club player (in other words, pretty handy with a pawn), and (like all chess players) hates to lose (especially to a woman, I suspect). As we finished our meal, a full bottle of wine appeared in front of me. ‘Pour vous’, said a smirking Michel. I enjoyed the wine, and promptly lost my game, but I am sure it did wonders for Anglo-French relations.
Sadly, things are changing… Roger Gouvart died in 2013. There is a new mayor in town, who clearly wants the tradition to continue, although whether he has the same fondness for chess and beer remains to be seen. On our visit this year the Cappellois spent a lot of time shaking their heads and talking about ‘austerity times’. We are also all a bit (OK, quite a lot) older – we’ve played our way through three generations of Cappelle chess-playing dynasties since we’ve been coming! There’s no longer the race to see who can have their first beer of the day on Sunday morning, or the drinking sessions in someone’s room after the last bar has shut til the sun is coming up. This year our youngest player was in his late 30s, our oldest 75 (he only took up chess 18 months ago). We’ve also lost quite a few club stalwarts over the years – RIP Andrew Whiteley, John McVicar and Baz Dennis, amongst others. But we’ll keep coming for as long as the French will have us.
The town of Dunkirk has also grown on me over the last 25 years, it may not be most people’s top choice for somewhere to return to year after year, but there is comfort in returning to the familiar. Following a bit of a dip in fortunes in the 1990s, when ferries to Dunkirk stopped taking foot passengers, and many hotels, restaurants and bars in the town closed down, it’s having something of a renaissance.
It still holds the anniversary celebration of Operational Dynamo and the ‘Little Ships’ (the boats that sailed the Channel to rescue the men from the beaches) – a bit sobering to realise that I had been there for the 50th, and this year was the 75th. There’s also the busy Saturday local market, the harbour that stretches around the town, the sculpture park with its concrete sheep, and the stunning beach.
And having been coming for years, we have our regular haunts, where we are remembered by the patron year after year, and each of which has been affectionately rechristened by us – the Flemish bar, the Glass House, the Pub and the Hat bar (the bizarre late night hang-out for the transsexuals of Dunkirk). Many an amazingly memorable evening has been spent in these weird and wonderful bars playing Perudo or cards (yes, even for chess players other games are available), dancing and being chatted up by French sailors.
It’s not everybody’s tasse de thé… a hardcore group of us go every year, but there are lots who come once, spend the weekend in state of utter bemusement and never return (Jon being one of them!). I guess you either get it or you don’t. A few years ago, desperately in need of some female solidarity, I brought my friend Sarah along. She drinks, she has a husband who plays chess… pourqoui pas? As we arrived at our rendezvous point for the start of the weekend, I immediately left her with a group of club members, while I went off to check everybody had arrived, and, as organising chess players is a little akin to herding cats, I didn’t come back for quite a long time. When I finally returned, I found her in the centre of a group of adoring males, chatting away happily, beer already in hand. She looked at me and smiled, “Yup”, she said, “I totally get this!”. She’s been back every year since. As the French would say “A l’annee prochaine”!
*with thanks to Alex Bourke and Steve Coles for some great photos!