Chess for the homeless

by Juan Antonio Montero
2/6/2021 – Every Monday and Wednesday, a chess workshop takes place at the “Centro Vida de Cáritas Diocesana”, a centre for homeless people in the Spanish city of Coria-Cáceres. For eight consecutive years the workshop has been organized thanks to an agreement between Cáritas and the Club “Magic Extremadura Deportivo-Social”. Juan Antonio Montero and Ainoa Jiménez share an encouraging, inspiring story.

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A home for everyone

By Ainoa Jiménez and Juan Antonio Montero

Needless to say, it makes us all happy that two organizations have managed to successfully work together for eight years. Neither the hot Spanish summer nor the pandemic have been able to stop the program, which is interrupted only one month per year under normal circumstances. During the coronavirus crisis, it was interrupted only as long as the restrictions were in place — as soon as the restrictions were lifted, the workshop was resumed: we were eager to keep it going.

It is very easy for our club to work with Cáritas, as the people in charge make everything very simple for us, and their behind-the-scenes motivational work is priceless. The workshop is called “Ajedrez, cambio y juego” (Chess, change and play), a name that was not chosen at random. We give a lot of importance to names in our social and therapeutic programs — often, the names are plagiarized, but as innovators we are already getting used to it.

Psicóloga Ainoa Jiménez dando clases de ajedrez

Psychologist Ainoa Jiménez giving a class | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

The regulars are waiting for us there, smiling and as eager as ever — there aren’t many of them, maybe five or six... But as it usually happens, there are a couple of new members. One of them is quite talkative, immediately introduces himself and expresses his desire to be part of the class, despite having no knowledge of the game; the other one sits at a distance and is clearly less expressive. 

We organize the workshop in an open space — i.e. anyone who passes by and sees us during the hour and a half that the class lasts can join the group: this is the charm of this unique program. At the end of the session, we always have more people than the ones that were there from the start.

Nos preparamos

Getting ready | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

We must adapt as we go along. On our indispensable demo board, clearly visible in the big hall, we place a knight and say, “Chess is very easy, let’s see if you know the name of this piece”. Knight, of course. A first win. And then we get our ‘experts’ to get involved with the instructor to get the class going: “Mate, tell the new kid how the knight moves. As an L, of course. Good, go out and show us”. The newcomer assimilates the information quickly.

Then we use our transversal methodology, Cognitive training through chess, which has served us so well. “This piece we have here is a pawn, it is not going to move. Everyone, how many moves does the knight need to capture the pawn?” “Two”, responds the newcomer. One of the ‘experts’ intervenes, “Yes, that’s right”.

Los jugadores avanzados ayudando a los principiantes

Teamwork | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

I increase the difficulty, now the pawn is further away. We pose the same challenge. Another student gives the answer, the newcomer is assimilating everything very well. Meanwhile, I see that the one who wasn’t very talkative is paying close attention but remains silent and distant.

Things are going well with the knight exercises — further and further away. Now I don’t place the knight on the demo board and only mention the square it is on, but I leave the pawn: “The knight is on f5, memorize it — how many moves would it take it to get to a1?”. That’s pretty hard for everyone, as they work on their memory skills and their logical and spatial reasoning. I go on, and suddenly the one who had remained silent raises his hand and says, “The knight can jump over other pieces”.

El signo de que toda va bien

Everything’s alright | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

Yet another class that is going well. Some may not show up next Monday, but in every session, as in every game, you have to try to win.

Homeless people are also suffering the consequences of the pandemic. To this day, society stigmatizes their life conditions and discriminates against them.

I can hear a “let’s get down to business” as I enter the Cáritas Diocesana Coria Cáceres (Extremadura) reception centre, where I give chess workshops, both in its therapeutic and social aspects as in its more classical ones. Smiles and “good afternoons” accompany the start of these sessions.

The painting which usually occupies the space where the demo board is hung is already resting on the table to give way to chess. Everyone is waiting with their masks on, paying attention to my entrance. Certain implicit gestures of complicity express a shared sentiment — it’s good that we will play some chess today.

Método de entrenamiento

We have heard the students say, “we have a good time”, “we do something different”, “we leave our routine”, “we have a lot of fun”. These and other comments prove once again that chess is a very powerful tool for social and therapeutic intervention, as it is not limited to moving pieces but a medium to forget our problems temporarily by training our minds, memory, attention, coping skills, while enjoying the company of classmates, turning the hall into a meeting point for an hour and a half.

Outside the chess classes they continue with their own individual dynamics and with their normal problems, but in these workshops they enjoy companionship, understanding and an environment of equality.

We work on values and strategic thinking, in addition to empowerment. One of the students has a catchphrase, “you’ve tricked me again”. He sees through chess how much responsibility we have for our own actions and the language we use — we are what we do, but of course we can rectify or at least learn from what we have done in order not to repeat our mistakes. We decide which our next moves will be, after having taken responsibility for the ones we’ve already made.

We have already gone past the hour, and once again we hear, “When is the next class?”

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Juan Antonio Montero, psychologist and president of the spanish Chess Club "Club de Ajedrez Linex Magic"
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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 2/7/2021 05:57
An incredible story that restores one's faith in humanity.
afiedito afiedito 2/7/2021 03:10
Great idea, and congratulations for your program. Chess can teach many important lessons in life...
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