By Vernon Grant
THE first time I had lunch with Stuart Conquest I knew instantly that he played chess. It took him half an hour to pass the olive oil!
Seriously, if anyone knows how to make the right move it is Stuart. Aged 9 he represented England in the European Chess Championships.
In 1981 he won the world under 16 championships Argentina.
By the year 2001 he was one of the top 100 players in the world.
Next month his patient skills will be on display in Granada when he competes for a first prize of 2000 Euros at an inaugural event to be staged at the Alixares Hotel, close to the Alhambra Palace (December 6-10).
This comes off the back of him finishing 5th out of the 117 players that competed in a European tour event at Calvia, Majorca, last
So here is a man who clearly knows his rook from his bishop. What then is an International Chess Grandmaster doing living in Spain ?
“Eight years ago I boarded the ferry to Bilbao. I was going to compete in a tournament in Andorra. On board I met a lovely Spanish girl who came from Haro. I wouldn’t miss a Chess tournament for a woman so when it was over I visited her there an I have hardly left the town since. Today Haro is home.
“I’m still on good terms with that girl but have made many other friends here. “The population is just 8000 and everyone seems to
know each other. The Spanish lifestyle suits my relaxed nature and Chess is respected here as a serious sport. I never felt that was the case in the UK.”
Stuart was born in Ilford, Essex but became well known as a child chess prodigy when still at school in the coastal town of Hastings.
Spain is a country he has known since he was in his twenties and which he now travels across when competing in Chess tournaments.
“Chess is a great incentive for me to see more of Spain . Since I have lived here I have seen much of the country and just love the place. I particularly like Cordoba. There are also some less well known areas that are attractive, such as Valladolid . It is so cheap to live on the road here with smart hostals in towns and Cities costing as little as 20 Euros a night. I love driving around Spain. I know the country better than I know the UK. Believe me, a three hour drive is nothing in this vast landscape.
“I might be 30 minutes from somewhere like Ronda, or be just down the road from a famous Spanish landmark. If so, I will stay an extra night or two in the region and enjoy it. I don’t have to be back in an office on Monday morning.”
Stuart surrounds himself with memories of Britain and the cultural figures that were prominent before and during his childhood. He is a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy and Tony Hancock. Another favourite of his is the actor and film director Woody Allen, who once bemoaned his own lack of success at the game. Said Woody: “I failed to make the Chess team because of my height”!
During a working trip back to England Stuart stayed in Liverpool and returned home to Haro with many posters of the Beatles. He is also a serious reader of classic English language books.
“When I am not playing in a competition I will spend time on my computer playing Chess and testing myself. The first part of a chess game is critical. “The outcome can depend on the first 15 moves. A good player always knows when to quit in a game. I am constantly learning more.
“I don’t get homesick for England . I have been away too long. I don’t watch current British television so what is happening culturally in Britain today passes me by. However, if the rain is pouring in Haro I can always watch my collection of that 1970’s comedy classic “George and Mildred!
“I spend my time in England rummaging for obscure LP’s as the woman who sold me my apartment included in the sale some furniture
and an old record player. I usually return laden down with some great albums from years gone by.
“On my walls I have posters of British icons such as Michael Caine and Hugh Grant. People who are quintessentially British, for that is what I am. When I walk out of my apartment I am surrounded by all things Spanish but I can never be Spanish.”
Haro is a very pretty and self sufficient town. Located near the motorway that runs from Bilbao to more southern areas of Spain, it has ample shops and supermarkets. In the summer the outdoor swimming pools are very busy. Live here and there doesn’t appear to be any reason to go elsewhere. So when not playing or studying the game, how does a thirty something, single and attractive male enjoy himself in such a rural town?
“I don’t find Haro remotely claustrophobic. I go out a lot. By day I go to the restaurants where I can enjoy the set menu of the day for 8 euros. By night the bars stay open as long as there are customers to serve.
“In the summer you will see children out in the town square until the early hours. It is a safe, friendly and homely town and that’s another reason why so many people from all over Spain own a second home here.
Stuart was too busy playing Chess at school to learn Spanish. That came when at a young age he travelled across South America armed only with a translation book. He admits it was a steep learning curve.
“When I went on my travels I had no Spanish to speak of and thought I would never be able to master the language. After the first week it began kicking in and after seven weeks I was making myself understood.
“I speak the language fluently now and anyone thinking of moving to towns in Spain that are not on the Costas must learn the language. It is vital. It’s not easy but after a few weeks of learning you will appreciate the benefits.”
Today, on returning from his travels, he can discuss his latest triumphs with any Spaniard.
“I have had Spanish taxi drivers ask me very involved questions about Chess. Can you imagine that happening in England ? Generally people in Spain know about Chess. It will never compete with tennis, golf or football but Chess has a higher standing culturally here than in Britain.”
So where has he yet to explore that interests him?
“I have never been to the Extremadura region of Spain or to the Cabo de Gata, but I will do so eventually. There are many more Chess tournaments in Spain and the country is among the front runners in Europe. I get more work here than I would do if I lived in the UK. If I do well the prize money pays for the expenses.
“Last year I came second in the British Championships which was great. It is a young man’s game today so it is nice to know I can still pit my wits against the best.
“I am looking forward to competing for the first time in Granada. It is a smashing City but I have only ever been there as a tourist.”
In between playing chess I shall be relaxing by strolling around the City, meeting friends who live there and, of course, visiting the Alhambra Palace. I am told December is a good time to see it in all its glory.
Stuart has possibly found the perfect way to live in Spain . His skills, honed at a very early age, allow him to see all that this country has to offer.
Lunch comes to an end and it is up to me to utter a line he must have heard a thousand times.
“Don’t worry Stuart – I’ll get the cheque mate”!