25 July 2023

'More popular than it's ever been': why chess is still champion in Canberra

| James Coleman
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Street Chess

Street Chess outside King O’Malley’s, Civic, with Shaun Press. Photo: James Coleman.

Every Saturday for more than 20 years, the tables outside King O’Malley’s Irish Pub in the city have been decked out with chessboards.

People of all ages and professions are given 15 minutes to knock over their opponent’s king, with cash prizes in the mix for the winners.

It’s called ‘Street Chess’ and just as the world passed International Chess Day on 20 July, the weekly gathering is enjoying its biggest boom.

“Chess is more popular pretty much than it’s ever been,” organiser Shaun Press says.

“We get about 40 people every Saturday, a mix who have played online chess and decided to go against another human face to face, and a lot of people who played chess in school competitions.”

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Canberra currently hosts the biggest chess tournament in Australia – the Doeberl Cup, last held in April at the Southern Cross Club in Woden and attended by more than 400 players from across the country.

Shaun says we also “punch well above our weight” when it comes to competition-level chess players, per capita.

“It’s the usual high-education, high-income Canberra thing, and it helps we’re kind of small and self-contained because it’s much easier to maintain your contacts.”

The combined effect of COVID lockdowns and Netflix’s hit series The Queen’s Gambit only compounded the popularity of chess as a mentally stimulating pastime, particularly among younger people.

“A lot of people started playing online during COVID, and then watched The Queen’s Gambit, which made chess cool,” Shaun says.

Shaun himself learnt the moves in Year 2 at school, but only got serious about it as a teenager when he joined the school chess championship at Marist College.

“I sat down to play the school champion and he beat me in four moves, and I went, ‘What the hell?’. So I went back to my class and drew a chess board in the back of my exercise book and worked out exactly what had happened so I could make sure it never happened again.”

The problem-solving appealed to him, but he says there are different reasons for different people. And a great problem solver doesn’t necessarily make a great chess player.

“We get a broad spectrum of people playing Street Chess – a few academics who you know are fantastic mathematicians or leaders in their field for things like logic, but when they come to play chess, they’re just average like the rest of us.”

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Despite losing many games, Shaun stuck at it and entered other local championships when “some people would just walk away”.

Chess players between the ages of 20 and 40 might also be hard to come by in other places when school makes way for the busyness of university and employment, but not Canberra.

“We’re very evenly spread all the way through the ages, when it comes to lots of 20 and 30-year-olds,” he says.

“And Canberra being what it is, in lots of different jobs, I’ve run into people who I knew through chess. Like one of my bosses at Defence was a member of my club. A much weaker chess player, though.”

Street Chess

Points to note: The corner square on your right should be white, and the queen should be placed on her own colour. Photo: James Coleman.

Shaun joined Street Chess in the late 1990s, several years after it had moved from its original birthplace as a tournament at Gus’ Place.

“Apart from the whole outdoor dining stuff Gus Petersilka pioneered in Canberra, he’d also come from Austria, where many of the cafes had chess boards,” he says.

“It was part of the cultural mix.”

When new owners took over the cafe, the chess moved to tables in Garema Place before coming to where it is today, in the beer garden at King O’Malley’s. Several other local businesses in the area are also connected as sponsors of the cash prizes.

Street Chess

So far, so good. Photo: James Coleman.

Shaun says fronting onto City Walk is an ideal way to strike up conversations with passers-by and pick up new members.

“People will stop and say how they used to play it in school, they’ll ask some questions and sit down and play,” Shaun says.

“We can have two six-year-olds playing each other and then two 80-year-olds.”

In the end, it all comes down to a fun way to spend a morning, but it turns out there are also life lessons to learn too.

“There are certain things chess teaches you about life, if you want to take those lessons – such as objectivity, having a formalised decision-making process, and also just accepting when things don’t go your way.”

Visit Street Chess for more information.

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