Luke McShane

The rise of outdoor chess

The rise of outdoor chess
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A giant chess board appeals in much the same way as a giant cake. Rationally, one realises that the size doesn't affect the essence of the thing. But the inner child knows that the jumbo version is just more fun.

So I'm excited that a game of 'human chess', in which actors take the place of chess pieces, will be played on a giant board in London's Trafalgar Square later this month. I'm expecting a strong showing from the Red Queen and the White Knight, as the costumes draw inspiration from Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Their performance will pay tribute to the 'Immortal game', one of the most celebrated in history, which was played 170 years ago, just a couple of minutes down the road at Simpson's in the Strand.

The human chess game will be the highlight of Chess Fest, a free chess festival which runs 16-18 July.

The charity which organises it, Chess in Schools and Communities, hopes that one legacy of the festival will be a greater number of chess sets available in public spaces. These are popular in many cities from New York to Budapest, but are an uncommon sight in this country.

One bright exception is Holland Park, in London, which has had a giant chess set since 2010, thanks to the efforts of concert pianist and chess lover Jason Kouchak, who undertook similar initiatives in Edinburgh and Paris. A giant chess board is instantly recognisable, and provides a forum for people from all walks of life. I remember walking through Vienna in the height of summer, spotting the outlines of a giant chess board in the distance. Up close, the game unfolded at a languorous pace. Within that expansive park the chessboard had kindled a gentle intimacy between the players, who must have been strangers. Meanwhile a mixed crowd of young and old lingered to chat and watch the spectacle.

Of course, chess boards in parks don't have to be giant to grab the attention. I like to see those stone tables they have in New York's Washington Square Park, where the familiar chequered board is marked out on the surface. Bring along your own pieces, and that unobtrusive picnic table is ready for a contest.

But look out for the hustlers, who lie in wait for passing tourists. As a shy teenager, I remember taking my place opposite one of these characters. His volley of trash talk took me by surprise, but his moves didn't. Winning the first game was expected, of course, but when I also won the next one it took him by surprise. We drew quite a crowd before my excited younger brother blew my cover, announcing that I was at that time already a master-strength player.

It's a far cry from the way chess is played at the Szechenyi thermal baths, in Budapest, where there are no clocks and no stakes (at least, so I assume). The plastic set sits atop a stone table, so the bathers can just swim up and play. And so they do, as the steam gently rises and the sun goes down.

In the closing scene of Netflix's 'The Queen's Gambit', they allude to that same ageless love of the game. Beth Harmon, the heroine, strolls through a park in Moscow, in which elderly men line the tables, lost in their games. One accosts her, affectionately, and she is invited to take her place at the table. Looking in his eyes at that moment, she is transported back to her cherished games against her childhood mentor.

Those who love the game know that it brings people together, and makes long-lasting memories. We've seen an extraordinary boost during the pandemic, where many people have got their fix online. With the easing of restrictions just around the corner, what better aspiration than to do the same in the open air? Let's take this outside!

Written byLuke McShane

Luke McShane is chess columnist for The Spectator.

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