The UK government recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness and Social Isolation but the problem has been known about and warned about for years and I know you’re all asking yourselves “So what is chess doing about it?” Well – a lot, and every day.
Last week I caught up with Ryan Child from Bristol-based social enterprise 5-a-side chess – who use the game of chess to welcome all-comers and to start conversations about chess, life, mental health, the universe and everything… “Your first move is Hello, don’t you know.” [visit the 5 aside chess website]. ‘5 aside’ refers to 5 pieces (and 5 pawns) each to start with, played on a 5×6 board instead of the usual 8×8 – incidentally the same idea on a 5×5 board was a recommendation of mine for coaching.
The delights of the game! A drop-in session of 5 a side chess is underway.
Here is the full interview:
BCT: Why chess?
Ryan: Chess is a game that represents so many of the core, mental attributes that seem to be slipping away in today’s ‘instant’ society. In one game of Chess you are required to show great discipline and really think through your actions. And there’s no doubt that with everything at our fingertips today, the need to think things through and plan is quickly falling away. For example, when people use twitter they are able to bash and criticise others without having to contemplate that person’s emotions or feelings. That emotional disconnect is really unhealthy, and I think Chess is a great counterbalance to that. Where every action is thought through and, subsequently, so is the effect it has on the person sat opposite you.
BCT: How did 5-a-side chess start?
Ryan: 5asideCHESS was started back in 2015 as a social project. The idea was to give out 1,000 chess boards to venues across the country. This was just before the curve of all the ‘board game’ cafes that have sprung up in the last few years. We wanted people to have more of a chance to connect. It worked to certain degree but we want people to be more engaged in the project now.
The initiative has cross-party MP support from David Warburton (Somerton and Frome), Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) and Darren Jones (Bristol).
We have also developed a big mental health side of the project, because it’s just so prevalent in society today, and I think we can make a real and tangible difference. Our Blog mostly focuses on this, with tips for dealing with issues, first-hand accounts and interviews with experts. We are also starting a podcast of the same nature this summer.
BCT: Can people join even if they don’t know the rules of chess?
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. The whole idea is that anyone can get involved. The board is a smaller version of the traditional one, and you have fewer pieces. So the game is shortened, with the same rules, and so offers a quick way to learn the game because you move through the phases much quicker.
BCT: Can you describe a typical day/session of 5-a-side chess? How does it work?
Ryan: So we have a team of volunteers called HELLO PEOPLE in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and soon London who go out and sit in cafes with our boards, teaching people to play and also just giving the general public the chance to connect. In May, everyone will have the chance to be a HELLO PERSON because the Chess Pack will be going on sale at www.regencychess.co.uk.
HELLO PEOPLE sit with a ‘Do Disturb’ sign in cafes, nursing homes, homeless drop-ins and other venues where people may want to connect. Anyone who wants to play can sit for a while and play with absolutely no judgement and just for the simple reason of playing Chess and having a chat. Games typically last around 10-15 minutes.
A DO disturb sign.
BCT: What sort of impact can you see happening? And what feedback have you received?
Ryan: Probably the watershed moment for me was in December of last year. I was at a nursing home in Bristol playing a guy with Down’s Syndrome and Dementia. He was actually the son of a Brigadier. Anyway, after about 5 minutes of playing he started telling stories about his childhood, about how his aunty had taught him to play while his dad walked around the house with all these subordinates following him around. It was a great story. And, it’s worth saying that we weren’t really playing, more he was moving the pieces around. Anyway, he was taken back to his room and the main supervisor, a woman called Jenny, started telling me that they had never heard him talk about any of his childhood ever. He’d been in that nursing home for 5 years. There are a lot of other stories like that, but it’s a pretty good one in terms of showing just how much impact chess in general, but particularly our small and accessible game can have in terms of connection.
BCT: Can you share any plans or aims for the future?
Ryan: Our new partnership with Regency Chess means that from May onwards the project can make itself sustainable, which is a huge development for us. The sale of our Chess Pack, which include a sign, a board and a HELLO PERSON membership, will mean the money can be spent on furthering our message of connecting and promoting good mental health through Chess. Essentially, we want our members to be ambassadors for the core message of connecting and fighting loneliness and social isolation. We have seen the benefits for elderly groups, homeless people, men and women in rehab and also students. In fact, our Chess and Music lunches at Bath University have been a big success and if anyone wants to come own and join us they are more than welcome.
Music and Chess – two things that need great harmony – at Bath University.
BCT: Would it benefit you to connect with anyone else in the chess world? (E.g. Leagues, Event organisers, Ambassadors, Players?
Ryan: I think to have players endorse the program would obviously be beneficial. We are planning on running a 5aside world championship in Birmingham actually. To me the potential is limitless and I would certainly encourage anyone in the Chess community that may want to reach out to do just that.
~ end of interview ~
The Bristol Chess Times will post any developments on the world champs, or any other events, and we are inviting anyone with similar initiatives and stories about the game to write columns for us. Look out for Ryan at local (8×8) chess tournaments too – and challenge him to a game of 5-a-side! Many thanks to Ryan for the fascinating interview and best of luck for the project!
Mike is a regular pretender in Bristol’s top division and can also be seen propping up local tournament ladders. He writes a regular column for the Bristol Chess Times and plays a solid 20 openings a season.