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How a London food court is making chess more accessible

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Harry Docherty and Darryl Bayliss are co-organisers of a weekly Coffee and Chess event at Mercato Metropolitano

The London Chess Club was founded over a decade ago and so has its regular free chess meetings. From a small space at the Castle Centre, in Elephant and Castle, it has grown to welcome dozens of players. 

“It was founded about twelve years ago, they used to play in the cafe at the Castle Centre. It went bust over lockdown, so they kind of got thrown out. Throughout that period and after it, it was a lot smaller and it was a bring-your-own-board sort of thing”, says Harry Docherty-White, 32, one of the co-organisers.

The event has been going on at Mercato Metropolitano, not far from the first venue, since February 2022.

“We moved here because the previous place was too small. We realised we had all this space and what we’d see was that all of the other clubs were actively promoting their events and getting more people in. And we realised there’s so many people out there wanting to do this.”

Darryl Bayliss

“We’re not the original founders, we kind of fell into the role of co-organisers”, says Darryl Bayliss, who is also 32.

Initially, a group of eight people would have their boards and they would play against each other and socialise.

“We moved here because the previous place was too small. We realised we had all this space and what we’d see was that all of the other clubs were actively promoting their events and getting more people in. And we realised there’s so many people out there wanting to do this,” Darryl tells us.

The pair shares the aim is not to play competitively, it is primarily a place to play chess informally and meet other people.

“We’re not looking to create masters or, like, become really competitive. The reason I started coming to the chess club was because I wanted to meet people, socialise on a Sunday. If people are interested in chess, come join us, come meet new people. We’re open to everyone, all ages, all skill levels. If people want to be competitive, they can find people here like that as well,” Darryl continues.

Harry Docherty-White (left) and Darryl Bayliss (right) at Mercato Metropolitano in Southwark, London [Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades]

The club started an Instagram page and listed its weekly Sunday gathering on Eventbrite: “We did a lot more to actively promote it and gradually, within six months, we went from about twenty people to forty, fifty, which was last year. We raised money for boards,” says Harry.

According to Darryl, the game of Chess has recently become more popular thanks to Netflix shows like The Queen’s Gambit and with people being kept indoors during the Covid pandemic.

“During lockdown when people were isolated, they were looking for ways to entertain themselves. The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix show, just gave people a lot of, like, inspiration and made chess kind of cool.

“The buzz and enthusiasm for chess has sustained since lockdown and all over London you can find chess clubs from north to south most days of the week. I don’t think that existed before,” says Darryl.

He explains that his father, who is a lorry driver, taught him how to play chess. “I first learnt chess from my father and my family is definitely working class. I definitely think barriers have come down. Maybe in the past, yes, it was kind of seen as intellectual, maybe a certain part of society played chess. Definitely these days with the way things are, you just need curiosity to learn.”

“Ten years ago, I’d think there’s no way they’re here to play chess, because of the age, gender. There was effectively almost a type before and now it’s just anybody.”

Harry Docherty-White

In many ways, chess has arguably been portrayed as a game for well-to-do people in the past and, to a certain extent, it has even been a class-based game, but nowadays this is not such a fair statement.

“I’m not sure to what extent that’s true, but it’s definitely no longer the case. It’s not an expensive sport. You can buy a chess board for as cheap as ten pounds. You can play online for free. There are no barriers to playing it. I know of a club where there was a homeless person playing it. It’s universal, it’s gotten a lot better,” says Harry.

There is also the element of gender in chess, which historically has been male-dominated. According to the International Chess Federation, only 15% of licensed players in the world are currently women.

Chess players are seen competing against each other in a large room.
Chess players at the London Chess Club’s Coffee and Chess event. [Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades]

“Unfortunately, it’s not 50/50 in terms of gender, but it is a lot better than it was before. I went through my entire school year playing competitively and I think I have met one woman and now we get possibly anywhere between five, ten women, sometimes more a week,” Harry tells us.

He also reveals he could spot who was a chess player in the past as opposed to today. “The appeal has massively expanded. I played it through all my school years, and I stopped for about ten years. Now I sit in here, people walk in, and I have no idea if they’re here for the chess. Ten years ago, I’d think there’s no way they’re here to play chess, because of the age, gender. There was effectively almost a type before and now it’s just anybody.”

Bayliss reassures the club is open to anyone, from any walk of life, and encourages inexperienced players to try it out.

“Please come. We have people who will be very happy to take you through your first game, they’ll be very gentle, understanding… We want people to be involved. We’d love to have you.”


Featured image by Fellipe Pigatto de Andrades

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