Chairmen Of The Board

City Weekly

3 July 2008


Who are the chess fanatics who duel in Sydney’s public spaces? By Tatyana Leonov.

It’s 6pm on a Friday evening. The Town Hall Square food court has a few people sitting around. Most of these people are playing chess. Fifteen to 20 people are gathered around five games and the conversation is flowing, however those playing say little, remaining focused on their chequered boards of 64 squares. They are playing blitz chess. “We play under time pressure here,” says John, a systems administrator. “So we have five minutes each [move] and whoever loses on time has lost the game. We respect that. This is the way we play on the streets.”

The chess players bring along clocks and chessboards every afternoon. They play till the cleaner kicks them out; on a Thursday night you are likely to get more games in due to late-night shopping. Some Fridays the players move onto the Spanish Club if the mood is right. Today, a man strums a guitar while the games are played. Though he does not play chess, you’ll find him here most afternoons sitting, playing and getting coffee. It seems as if this is a community of sorts.

More people arrive with roll-up fabric chessboards and clocks. They set up next to the others and begin to play. As games are completed, new players take their turns. Some of these people have come straight from work in their smart suits and carrying their briefcases. Others may be retired, on the dole or having a break from work.

Tuesday evening in Town Hall Square is much the same. Gino has been playing for 20 years and coming here for two or three. “We used to play in the Queen Victoria Building food court but people started making trouble, so we started playing here and they encouraged it,” he says. “People can buy food and if it’s OK by security, it’s OK by everyone else.”

Another place to find chess players any day of the week is Hyde Park. Every morning at 7:30am a Sydney Council worker brings out the large chess pieces for the giant chessboard located near St James Station at the northern end of the park. They are taken away at 3pm. This leaves seven and a half hours a day for people to play.

There is a crowd around the big chessboard. Two stone tables with chessboards engraved on them are located up a few steps. You can bring you own pieces and play.  A few smaller games are in progress on the tables and also on portable chessboards. “There are regulars here who don’t work, are semi-retired, or on the dole,” says Tony, a university academic. “Some come from the office. Sometimes they even take an afternoon off.

“My chess name is Kenny Rogers. Someone thought I looked like him with the grey hair and everything.”

Chess names are the norm here. There is Cabbie – he drives a cab. Small and dressed in a three-piece suit, he is quite the character to meet on a Saturday afternoon in the park. There is Mafia (because he is Italian), and there is Cockroach, though no one really knows why they call him that. “He smokes a thousand cigarettes a day so maybe they call him Cockroach because nothing will ever kill him,” says Rob, a regular who lives in the park and has been playing here for two to three years.

“Chess is a brilliant game. Every walk of life comes here to play.” Rob says, watching the game being played on the giant chessboard. He jumps up at a wrong move.  “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t play chess”.

Harry has been watching chess games in Hyde Park since the 1960s. He says he does not play, but later I spot him playing a game on one of the smaller boards. “I remember when the boards used to be on the other side of the park – that’s how long I’ve been coming. I was 10 years old. I’m going bald now. A few of us have grown up watching chess in the park.” He points out a few players. “We go back 60 years, maybe more.”

Mick, aka Mafia, has been coming to Hyde Park to play chess for about six years. To him it is more than a hobby: it has helped him get his life back in track. “I used to gamble,” he says. “This game is cheap, you do not pay any money. If I was the mayor of this city I would have a set-up like this in every park in Sydney, because it keeps the older people busy. The kids come around as well. Everybody is happy. Even people who suffer from mental illness come and play this game and mix with other people, learning something new. It’s a great experience. I have not gambled now for three months.”

People come and go. A box of leftover food appears. Those who are hungry gladly eat; others continue to play. Come 3pm the chess pieces are collected and the players who have been playing on the big board go their separate ways. Those who live in the park stay put. Others arrive with their portable chessboards and clocks and set up on park benches. “I went to New York for three weeks and played chess everyday in Central Park.” Leo says while setting up another game. “I’m addicted to chess.”