French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once called chess the gymnasium of the mind.
On the Saanich Peninsula, this mental fitness studio lies on the second floor of the SHOAL Centre for Seniors, where the ‘Chessnuts’ of the Sidney Chess Club meet every Tuesday between 2 and 4 p.m. for games in a competitive but also social environment that welcomes all levels.
“If you have played chess before and you want to softly, gently, get back into it, it’s a great place to come, ” said Mark Jarrett, club spokesperson. “We are competitive to a point, but it’s about friendship. It’s about socializing and it’s about some intense chess games, which we all kind of enjoy.”
Formed four years ago, the club found itself forced to scale down activities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this hiatus is over and the Chesssnuts (a homage to the club’s creation around the Christmas season) are ready to welcome new members while showing their moves at the Grand Pacific Open Chess Tournament in Victoria, running April 15 to 18.
Club members Jim Sweet and Alan Kell have registered for the competition. “A lot of us played chess years ago,” said Sweet. “I used to play a lot of chess, when I was younger and when I was at university and I have played in tournaments. But that was way back, a long time ago.”
But that passage of time has not diminished his love for the game. “The more you play it, the more you fall in love with it,” said Sweet. “It’s just a wonderful game. It’s the best game in the world.”
Many factors account for the game’s appeal, said Kell. “It’s not like cards or football or soccer or rugby,” he said. “Each player has those same pieces and it’s you and your mind.”
To grossly sum up the vast literature on the theory of chess, it is a full-information game with no random events, or to use a more vernacular term, luck.
The only such element is the method of determining who gets to play with the white pieces, which always move first in granting that player an advantage.
The game’s appeal also lies in the possibility of encountering and solving problems with foresight, creativity and planning, purely relying on intellect.
“It’s mind over matter, basically,” said Sweet.
While chess players can draw on a large volume of training literature and technology through puzzle apps, the Chessnuts rely on a more organic approach by playing full games during which they often talk to help each other learn.
As such, they push against the perception of chess players being socially awkward, a theme running through many popular depictions of chess such as the recent Netflix’s hit Queen’s Gambit.
That is not say that the club members who watched did not enjoy it. Quite the opposite. “It was a story that just grabbed you,” said Jarrett.
Sweet, who also praised the show for not only its chess but also other subjects, also recalled once meeting a female player from eastern Europe with skills not unlike those of the fictional Elizabeth Harmon of the show.
“At the end of the game, she could just refer back to a position and reset the board instantly to that situation and then replay it, saying, ‘this is what you should have done,’” said Sweet. “People who have that ability, that is quite something.”
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