ChessFest with Alice

by Tim Wall
7/10/2021 – On Sunday 18th July the charity "Chess in Schools and Communities" is staging the UK’s biggest-ever outdoor chess festival, ChessFest, in Trafalgar Square, London’s most famous public space. It is to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the children’s classic "Through the Looking Glass." Tim Wall looks at what visitors can expect to see, and examines our lasting fascination with Lewis Carroll’s epic fantasy tale. Big pictorial preview.

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There have been some fantastic settings for chess events in history. In the 18th century, the great and the good in the chess world gathered at Café de la Regence in Paris, while the 19th century masters played their swashbuckling gambits at Simpson’s in the Strand in London.

Perhaps the 20th century’s most iconic chess location was on a stage in Rejkyavik, Iceland, where America’s Bobby Fischer beat Soviet World Champion Boris Spassky in the dramatic 1972 Match of the Century.

For more than a year, chess players and fans the world over have had to make do with a rather more modest kind of chess venue – playing and watching online, from their own homes.

But now, with the rapid rollout of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, there is some hope around the corner, and reason to celebrate: On Sunday 18th July, from 11am-6pm, ChessFest is being staged in London – just a Mad Hatter’s hop, skip and a jump from the oldtime chess mecca, Simpson’s.

ChessFest is the first major chess event in the UK since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, as Chess in Schools and Communities’ traditional London Chess Classic – normally staged at Kensington Olympia in early December – was unavoidably postponed in December 2020 due to Covid restrictions. As an alternative, CSC chief executive Malcolm Pein was understandably overjoyed to be able to go ahead with an outdoor festival this summer.

The event – which is open to everyone and completely free to enter – is taking place with the kind permission of The Mayor of London and Westminster City Council.

Commemorating a much-loved children’s classic

And what could be a more magnificent setting for the return of over-the-board chess return than London’s favourite open space, Trafalgar Square? Overlooked by the statue of Admiral Nelson himself, and guarded by the square’s famous four lions, a whole new audience of budding chess players can enjoy the game how it was meant to be played: over a board, with friends and friendly banter.

Trafalgar Square panaorama – click to enlarge

ChessFest, sponsored by XTX Markets, is commemorating one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’, who starred in a chess game of her own in the classic ‘Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There’ – first published 150 years ago, in 1871.

An ‘Alice’-themed chess game will be re-enacted on Trafalgar Square on a giant chess board, with 32 professsional actors each playing the part of a chess piece. Down the generations, the ‘Alice’ story, depicting life as a game of chess, has inspired ‘magical realism’ writers, filmmakers and artists as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, Tim Burton and Ralph Steadman.

This gif replay follows a reconstruction of the game made by Glen Downey in his master's thesis. The main characters are mostly represented by chess pieces, with Alice being a pawn, in a world consisting of square fields divided by brooks or streams.

Some of the basic chess rules are ignored: one player makes several consecutive moves, and a late check is left undealt with. The final position, however, is an authentic checkmate.

Source: Wikipedia 

Chess as a Game-Changer

There will be a mesmerising range of other chess activities for visitors to take part in and watch on Trafalgar Square.

As well as casual games for the public and simultaneous displays by Grandmasters, there will be free lessons from professional chess tutors for everyone from absolute beginner up, and the chance to play in the Unofficial World Giant Chess Championship – all free for everyone who wants to come along.

Adding to the fun, there will also be an Inter-City Chess Challenge match via live video linkup from Trafalgar Square, where a team of schoolchildren will represent London against a team of schooldchildren from Liverpool in northwest England, where a satellite ChessFest event will be staged in the city’s Chevasse Park.

Among the other attractions on Trafalgar Square will be a ‘Battle of the Prodigies,’ which will match up London’s Shreyas Royal and New York’s Tani Adewumi in a live internet match.

Chess has been a game-changer for Shreyas (helping to save him from deportation from the UK) and for Tani (whose family fled religious persecution in Nigeria). ChessFest also aims to encourage positive change by bringing the benefits of chess to a wider audience.

In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ the story is set on a magical chessboard, where Red and White Kings and Queens, plus characters as bizarre and colourful as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Carpenter and the Walrus, and the Lion and the Unicorn, all fight for the supremacy of the kindgom.

Among all the strangeness, a young Alice tries to make sense of this confusing, topsy-turvy world, eventually progressing from being a humble pawn to become a powerful queen in her own right.

This theme, of a young person becoming empowered through the dreamlike game of chess, is not dissimilar to the story of Beth Harmon in the Netflix smash hit ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ where she saw chess games on the ceiling in her dreams (see this interesting analysis of The Queen’s Gambit, and its relation to Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ story). Just as Carroll sought to inspire young people in the Victorian age, so his fantastical tales remain in some ways the perfect analogy for chess as a potential game-changer in young people’s lives today.

After what seems to many of us like a far-too-long break from OTB chess, ChessFest could also be just the ‘shot in the arm’ that we all need to get out there and play some chess again. It certainly looks set to be a great day out and a giant advertisement for our game.

For any readers in the London area who wish to take part, feel free to just turn up – no pre-registration is required. Come with your friends, and enjoy chess’s very own ‘fan zone’. The twin magic of Lewis Carroll’s world and the dreamlike mysteries of chess await.

For more information about ChessFest, go to:

Pictorial of the Barclaycard presentation in Hyde Park 2014

Video impression


Tim is a FIDE Master, journalist, chess coach and FIDE International Organiser from Newcastle upon Tyne, England. From 1999-2016 he worked as a journalist and editor in Russia and Azerbaijan for such publications as The Moscow Times, The Moscow News and Caspian Business News. In February 2018, he organised the Northumbria Masters, resuming a series of international tournaments in the North East of England that he began in the 1990s.


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