It had been a long time coming. Following highly successful excursions to Amsterdam, Cork and Wroclaw in recent years, the small matter of a global pandemic had put a hold on the annual Hammer trip abroad for the last 2 years.
But the Hammer spirit is restless. The urge to travel beyond this sceptred isle, visit foreign shores and bring our unique blend of chess, camaraderie and appreciation for the finer things in life, returned in 2022 as we paid homage to the resting place of Captain Evans with a visit to the capital of the Belgian Riviera – destination Ostend.
A total of 18 Hammers plus wives, girlfriends and families, made the extremely civilised journey from St Pancras to Brussels, then on to Ostend, expertly shepherded by Hammer’s very own Tomas Cocinero (aka. Frank). The destination was the Royal Ostend Chess Club, or KOSK, a hook-up made possible by the generous introduction from Hammer’s GM Danny King.
With a warm greeting from KOSK President Jose providing a delightful antidote to the North Sea windchill, our Friday night activity was to be a 3-minute blitz tourney against the Belgian locals. But first a scenic walk across town to reach the club, including a stroll through the expansive German market where the fragrant odours of sizzling sausages and mulled wine proved too much to resist for some.
It must be said at the outset, the hospitality from KOSK was truly exceptional from the word Go. Free beers and croque monsieur’s were laid on for the weary Hammer crew as we arrived at the fantastic KOSK club-house. The KOSK players were eager to make friends, put the world to rights, and many a trappist beer was consumed with our comrades.
KOSK’s clubhouse is also deserving of a mention – a charming old school building complex housing a range of sporting and other activities. The purpose-made desks the club uses had inlaid chess boards and the club has a collection of 60-year old vintage chess clocks – the ticking and operation of which was a real novelty to some younger Hammers.
It had been planned that we’d all play the Evans Gambit, however that idea was quickly discarded and we freestyled. Truth be told, the outcome of the evening was something of a blur. Those Belgian beers really creep up on you! However, our more sober companions informed us that KOSK comfortably won the round. No shame for Hammersmith, however – 3 minutes + increment is a really tough time control. A game can be lost in a flash by overthinking a couple of moves as the clock continues to tick and the move-pressure piles on. Aided and abetted by the occasional 12% ale we were beaten fair and square. Still, tomorrow would bring a chance to go again in a pair of long-games.
As the chess finished and the beers continued to flow, we ended the evening firmly as comrades with our Belgian club mates. Some Hammers trickled back to base, while others took the opportunity for a nightcap.
The following morning was a slow start for many in the group. Luckily the next round of wood-pushing was set for 2pm, so plenty of time to blow away the cobwebs & get back in the groove for a pair of long-play matches.
Taking advantage of the Baltic breeze, some hardy Hammers took the opportunity to explore the Ostend seafront. “Extensive” doesn’t really do it justice, as a beautiful sandy beach stretches down the coastline for miles, fringed by a combination of modernist, classical and other monumental architecture. Even in the depths of Winter it’s a sight to behold & one can really appreciate why it’s such a jewel in the crown for Belgium.
Hammer Brian found the temptation for a dip too much to resist. Indeed, he reported it was a comfortable 12 degrees in the water! Thankfully he’s an experienced outdoor swimmer and well used to the frigid climbs of ice swimming in Russia. But still, his exploits were met with howls of disbelief!
After the morning’s exertions, Hammers re-assembled at KOSK for 2pm sharp for the second round of the chess festivities. A pair of long-play (1 hour each, no increment) matches against the same opponent.
Pride was on the line for Hammersmith, after the entirely reasonable but nevertheless rather painful drubbing the evening before. The first round of pairings with Hammer as White ended in a dead-heat, so the pressure was on for the second-round pairings.
Despite the statistical disadvantage, Hammersmith were soon off to a strong start with the Black pieces, building a comfortable four-point lead through a strong set of finishes in our middle order. The score line narrowed as we succumbed to a series of very tight results across our top and lower boards setting up a tight but ultimately persuasive victory as the results came in. As is often the case in competitive games, a tense crowd gathered around one of the final boards to go, as Chris Skulte was narrowly defeated on time.
All told, Hammer took the win by 3 points with a rather ruthless display of our long(er) game prowess, leaving us tied with KOSK over the two days of chess. A fair result all things considered and the bonhomie with our hosts continued after the match had finished with an exceptionally well-received trophy presentation. KOSK retained the trophy and will bring it back to Hammersmith next year for their return visit, where we’ll reconvene!
There followed more drinks, and the excellent conversation and interest from both clubs in learning about our new pals continued apace. A large contingent from KOSK then joined us back at Hammer base camp (the Rubens Hotel by the seafront) for a fine evening of steak & frites, beers, wine and high sprits. It really was a joyful occasion as we broke bread with new friends and learned more about our near neighbours and their ways.
A small diversion from our antipodean contingent to catch their World Cup knockout game followed – sadly not the result they wanted, but it segued nicely to another evening of fun and games in the local watering holes.
Sunday brought a welcome respite from the chess, and – for some Hammers – the drinking. It allowed the more intrepid amongst the group to further our explorations of the beautiful city that is Ostend, with a sub-group even taking the short train ride to explore the stunning neighbouring settlement of Bruges. Restorative food, the occasional restorative beverage, and an appreciation of all things Belgian were the order of the day.
The weather was particularly bracing with a stiff breeze dipping temperatures comfortably below zero. Windchill is no barrier for true Hammer grit though, and in homage to our surroundings and shared pastime, Christof and Andy braved a near 40-minute walk to search for the final resting spot of our eponymous gambit hero, Captain Evans.
Perhaps surprisingly for such a lauded maverick of his time, contemporary accounts of the location of his grave are somewhat sparse and recent photographs even rarer. In what took on the feel of an Anneka Rice-style treasure hunt, our two history-seekers initially turned up at the wrong cemetery (the Ostend New Communal Cemetery). After a fruitless search of gravestones and some further research, they took a punt on the Old Kerkhof cemetery – located nearer to the coast and appearing to be much closer in epoch to the demise of the infamous seafarer. After another 20 minutes walking and some frantic searching, the grave was located.
Pleasingly, the cemetery and indeed Captain Evans grave site both appear to have seen some degree of significant restoration since the last available photograph we could find. The striking geometric stone slab atop his tomb has been cleaned up and now sits alone as a fitting memorial to this celebrated gentleman.
As a tribute to Captain Evans, Christof setup his chess board with the famous gambit and placed it atop the monumental stone. Hopefully our Captain would be proud that his legacy remains intact.
As the afternoon wore on, our intrepid crew re-assembled and made the short walk to Ostend station for the journey back to London. Picking up the rest of the team at Bruges, the train continued its journey back through the Belgian countryside en route to Brussels. A short pit-stop at Brussels midi allowed the travellers a chance to recuperate, with the Europa Brasserie proving a welcome spot for food, drinks and the chance to refresh ahead of our final stretch to London.
Two hours on the Eurostar and some last-minute chess (and snoozing for some) later, the familiar surroundings of North London emerged as our trip drew to a close. A chance for some to catch the England v Senegal game at the Betjeman Arms, others headed home. However, we all felt a nostalgia for the weekend just gone.
A note of thanks
Success has many fathers, and the list of people deserving thanks for helping organise this most excellent jaunt is too lengthy to mention in full. However, the following individuals deserve our special thanks: Danny King, John White, Frank Valle, Chris Skulte, Adam Cranston, and Oostende Chairman Jose.
Hammersmith salutes you!