Check Mate at Culture Night Belfast

Cathal Murphy reports on the recent Ulster Chess Championship and looks forward to playing at Culture Night Belfast

It’s one of the best kept secrets in Northern Ireland – a thriving chess scene, with well-attended clubs dotted everywhere from Belfast to Bangor, Mallusk to Armagh, Omagh and all the way to Derry~Londonderry.

There are regular weekend congress tournaments organised by the Ulster Chess Union – usually hosted in venues like the Belfast Boat Club or Groomsport Hall in Bangor, some attracting up to 60 participants of all ages and levels of ability – and even an organisation for kids, Children's Chess, Ulster, encouraging the next generation of players.

The influence from south of the border and further afield is also strong – several Northern Irish players, including Brian Kelly and Karina Kruk, compete on an the international stage, regularly attending tournaments and congresses in Dublin and big money chess festivals a couple of times a year in Las Vegas.

Yet this burgeoning chess scene is not a new development in Northern Ireland. The annual Ulster Chess Championship was first held in 1892, believe it or not, and most recently took place at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. As a former winner of the junior title, I didn’t quite manage to bag the top prize again this year, but my enthusiasm for the game will never be dented.

Having travelled to Europe to compete, I have experienced the universal language of chess, communicating with opponents of various nationalities through moves across the board. And for those keen to get involved, you don’t even need to be a whizz to play the game, like so many Grand Masters, or Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess prodigy currently ranked number one in the world.

Coaching is available at most clubs in Northern Ireland, with players essentially ranked according to par, as they are in golf, meaning that new players can compete with established players at a meaningful level in order to gain experience and learn as they go.

In the States, or in Europe – where chess has been played for centuries – you will often see people enjoying games in bars, public parks and city squares, competing in a relaxed and cultured environment. Former UCU president David McAllister admits, however, that, despite the growing infrastructure for aficionados of the game, chess remains a minority pastime in Northern Ireland, with a predominantly male membership.

'I would love to see the game become more mainstream in this country, but I do acknowledge the image problem the game may have in Northern Ireland,' acknowledges McAllister, referring to the stuffy, uber intellectual reputation often associated with chess.

'That’s something we are working hard to overcome,' he adds. 'Although there are youngsters that play [in Northern Ireland], very few go on to play as adults. There is great work going on, however, to broaden the game's appeal and make it a more widely enjoyed pastime.'

That work includes taking chess to new audiences and settings. As part of Culture Night Belfast on September 19, for example, the Ulster Chess Union is promoting a street and coffee chess evening at Cafe Nero on Lombard Street.

The event, which will start at 4pm, is in its third year and has become an integral part of the Union's strategy in introducing chess to prospective new players in a relaxed continental style.

'There will be people playing street chess,' the UCU's Mark Newman explains of the Culture Night Belfast event. 'Some brilliant chess puzzles to solve, friendly banter and brilliant chess surrounded by the eclectic atmosphere of Culture Night. The aim is to encourage passers-by to experience the fun of chess and hopefully have a quick game.

'There may also be exhibition games on view from some of Northern Ireland’s recent Ulster champions, as well as tutorials, casual games and perhaps an impromptu blitz chess tournament. So why not sit down and play chess with a friend, a total stranger, enjoy the game and make new friends, while solving some challenging and beautiful chess problems?'

It is certainly a novel way to get involved in the sport that counts billionaire businessman Bill Gates and hip hop collective the Wu Tang Clan among its keenest disciples. Newman encourages people of all abilities – or none – to pull up a chair to the chequered board come September 19.

'Any new players, or passers-by of whatever chess level – from grand master to curious onlooker – who wish to drop in and have a game of coffee house chess will be more than welcome.'

For more information visit the Ulster Chess Union website and Culture Night Belfast website.