“In those days, the grandmasters wore suits,
hired, borrowed or family heirlooms.
Waiters patrolled the lines of tables,
bearing espresso, hock, small packs of Camels.”
– from ‘Chess at Baden-Baden, 1925’
Duncan Chambers has won the 2018 Hamish Canham Prize with his poem ‘Chess at Baden-Baden, 1925’. The poem, one of 24 Poetry Society Members’ poems published in Poetry News between Summer 2017 and Spring 2018, was selected by judges Carole Satyamurti (chair) and a Poetry Society team of Ben Rogers, Julia Bird, Paul McGrane, and Mike Sims.
Judges were unanimous in their choice of Duncan’s poem, which was inspired by the competition theme, ‘Elegant’ set by Tim Turnbull and published in the Winter 2017 issue of Poetry News. Tim wrote at the time of the poem’s delightful economies, and the contrast between the shabby lives of the participants and the hinted-at grandeur of the tournament resort. Speaking about the winning poem, Julia Bird said:
“The poem is an elliptical account of the first international chess tournament in Germany since 1924. Global and personal politics shift outside the tournament venue while spectators sit in ‘velvet armchairs’ smoking ‘small packs of Camels’. Subtle patterning connects the winners (their ‘hired, borrowed’ or ‘heirloom’ suits) with the losers, who walk off into the rain, back to a life of ‘blocked drains, candles’ and ‘sardines’. The suspicion develops that the grandmasters, waiters and players who populate the poem are actually themselves the kings, knights and pawns of the game.”
Duncan Chambers said about writing the poem:
“Baden-Baden 1925 was a genuine historical chess tournament, in which many of the strongest players in the world took part. I wrote it specifically in response to the competition theme of ‘elegance’ and envisaged the poem as a series of very loosely rhymed couplets, perhaps a bit like a sequence of moves in a game of chess.”