The Electrifying Renaissance of Chess

In the difficult winter months of last year, Haseeb Iqbal, DJ, writer and creator of Chessidency, would get on his bike and cycle around London. The streets were empty. The breeze was icy. Wrapped in a warm scarf and thick gloves, he would find little squares to sit down in with a friend and play chess. ‘It’s one of those games where you completely zone into it,’ Haseeb tells me. ‘Even if it’s two hours long, it’s total zoning. Silence. Nothing else matters.’


Haseeb was one of hundreds of millions of people across the world that turned to the chess board over the pandemic. Over the last eighteen months, chess has undergone an electrifying renaissance: in the first lockdown, the sales of chess sets shot up over 200%; The Queen’s Gambit became Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series, with 62 million viewers; Chess.com reported 192 million games were played in April 2020. According to a UN report, chess can improve mental health and ameliorate anxiety. Affordable and flexible, chess has resurged in popularity across the world.

Copyright: Netflix


A version of chess was first developed in eastern India as a tool of military strategy around 1500 years ago. Each piece was rich in symbolism and poetic imagery. As the modern game then took off in Europe in 1000AD, it was used as an allegory for social classes and their roles in society. Arthur Willoughby, who has been playing chess since he was five, tells me how there is still a characterisation to each piece: ‘a knight, for example, has a sort of, mischievous, adventurous-type character to it. The way it moves across the board- it can confuse you.’


He explains how there are more possible chess moves than there are atoms in the universe.Chess is many things; contemplation, competition, escapism. The game allows you to enter a flow state: a highly-rewarding condition of total immersion. You go beyond the point of distraction, where there is a complete fluidity between your body and your mind. ‘I find it to be like a meditation,’ Haseeb says. ‘You absorb yourself within a strategic vacuum.’


As games can go on for several hours, chess is a feat of mental and emotional endurance; if you lose focus and make one bad move, you can condemn yourself to a checkmate. The longest game ever played in terms of moves was in a world tournament, and it went on for 20 hours. Frustratingly, it ended in a draw. 


The Library Lounge at the Standard Hotel has warm yellow fires, brown leather chairs, and on every other Tuesday night, chess boards, everywhere you look. Haseeb, alongside friend and fellow DJ, Donna Leake, created Chessidency nights in June last year. Their intention was to provide a community space for people to play. The night reflects the pandemic’s impact on changing the way we socialise; it is a relaxed atmosphere but a space where there is an excuse to interact with strangers. ‘Chess is like a football match; it’s a vehicle for people to come together,’ Haseeb tells me. ‘It’s really cool to see this community form around something so unassuming.’


The event exploded, with over 100 people packing into the lounge every fortnight, to play chess and listen to vinyls, with enchanting interludes of live music, ranging from the piano, to the saxophone, to the Japanese flute. Apparently, people have even had romantic flings at Chessidency, bonding over their mutual love of the game.


‘The beautiful thing about chess is that it’s an amalgamation of logic and reason,’ Arthur tells me. The game is both a science; involving critical analysis, strategy and memory, as well as an art; expanding creativity, with an aesthetic to the board and a beauty in the way the pieces move in relation to each other. In Armenia, chess is compulsory for all children older than six, in order to advance their intellectual development and improve their critical thinking skills.


Chess has long been recognised as a symbol of intelligence. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested a lot of resources into cultivating their national talent in the game; the government sponsored tournaments to promote chess as a vehicle for international dominance.

Norman, the Syrian Chessman inBrick Lane (we do not own this image)

Chess has even been played in prisons in the UK to maintain mental agility amongst prisoners; recently, select inmates have been authorised to play an online global tournament this year using prison computers. Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of the charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, told the Guardian, ‘Chess instils mental self-discipline, problem-solving skills…It has a positive effect on behaviour and relieves boredom and was a lifeline to some prisoners during lockdown.’


On a Sunday afternoon, strolling down a busy Brick Lane, I noticed a man sat in an armchair at a table, smoking a pipe and wearing a beret. A sign – “CHESS 4 FUN, FREE” – was propped up on the table next to two boards.


Known as the ‘Umbrella Man’ due to his selection of umbrella hats, Norman, who moved here from Syria in the 80s, has been setting up chess boards in the street for years. Anyone is welcome to join him in a quick-fire match. The atmosphere is intense, yet jovial. Spectators stand around, whispering encouragements. ‘Chess is kind of like music,’ Haseeb says, ‘in that it doesn’t matter where you’re from; it’s a universal language.’


This article was first published in our WELL-BEING print magazine of 2022

Header graphic by Anna Kimonova for LONDNR

Norman the 'umbrella man' regularly crops up on socials
(images not ours)

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