Sarajevo Stories and Tips

The Chessmen of Sarajevo

Bosnian standoff Photo, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

On Liberation Square in front of the orthodox cathedral, there’s a large chessboard painted onto the paving and unless it’s pouring rain, it’s likely to be surrounded by men playing chess.

The usual scene as you approach the chessboard is the backs of thirty to fifty men crowded around in a rough square, peering over each others’ shoulders for the best view of the board. Depending on the stage of the game and who’s playing, there might be tense concentration and quiet discussion, or there could be loud calling out of suggested moves and groans of disappointment when the suggestions are ignored. The banter can sound quite heated at times, but always seemed to be good-natured. At least it never came to blows while I was there, (I’m sure it would have in some other countries that I’ve visited-including my home country).

I didn’t ever actually play a game; it seems the next competitors are chosen by popular demand from among the most verbose critics of the preceding game. That is, the crowd in general will call out two names “Šaško i Tabak, Šaško i Tabak!” in much the same tone as they’ve been using throughout the game for “Dame na Kun, Dame na Kun” (Queen takes the knight, Queen takes the knight). Then Šaško and Tabak will step up and play or glance at their mobile phones and make their excuses. This will go on ad nauseum until who knows what hour; one night we passed at about 11pm, and there were still a couple of diehards battling it out. I’m sure if I’d asked to play though, I’d have been welcomed, if for no other reason than the novelty value of playing an Australian who keeps trying to ask silly questions in Bosnian with a Czech accent.

This might sound a bit nerdy, but hanging around by the chessboard was one the things I enjoyed most in Sarajevo. There’s a crowd of regulars and it doesn’t take long to know some of their names. Watching their interactions and especially their reactions to suggestions and criticism made for fascinating people-watching and it was the closest I thought I came to glimpsing a Bosnian national character. That’s a big claim, I know, but if such a thing as a national character exists, then a group of blokes cheering on some competitive event is as good a place as any to try to understand it. For example, imagine a group of thirty Italian men around a bocce pitch, thirty Japanese men around a Sumo ring and thirty Australian men around a pie throwing contest and you’ll certainly see some different characteristics that you can attribute to each nationality.

Anyway, I liked it and it was a good fixed point to meet up if your travelling companion wanted to go off and look at shoes! If you understand and play chess, I highly recommend passing at least a short part of your stay with the chessmen of Sarajevo.

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