Outdoor Chess: Canberra

by Alexey Root
12/1/2020 – December 1st is the first day of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, bringing daytime temperatures in the low 80s (Fahrenheit) to Canberra, the capital city of Australia. FIDE Master and International Arbiter Shaun Press provides photos and a history of outdoor chess in Canberra, with additional text by WIM Alexey Root.

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Street Chess

According to FIDE Master and International Arbiter Shaun Press, Canberra’s city center has hosted outdoor chess events, known as "street chess," for almost 30 years. Founded by the late Patrick Connell in the early 1990’s as a once-a-year event, street chess evolved into a weekly rated tournament attracting players of all strengths and experience.

Originally played at Cafe Essen, Canberra street chess found a new home 20 years ago at King O’Malley’s. For nine months of the year, street chess happens in its outdoor beer garden. The indoor Guinness room hosts chess during the three months of winter.

A social setting

The outdoor beer garden at King O’Malley’s contrasts with what Press calls, "the normally austere environment of traditional chess clubs." He continues, "The social setting means that no one is guilty of taking the tournament too seriously, and it provides a gentle introduction to the new chess player. That is not to say the weekly tournament is not competitive, but for regular players, any disasters can always be repaired next week."

Rated play

Each week there is a seven-round G/15 (game in 15 minute) tournament, with a prize pool of $130. King O’Malley’s sponsors the first prize. Entry fees cover the rest of the prize pool. Press reports, "Normally between 16 and 24 players attend each week, not counting players who turn up for (free) casual games. Despite the attraction of the prize pool, most players are there to engage in some friendly banter, sharpen their chess skills, or simply improve their rapid rating. Each event is rated by the Australian Chess Federation (ACF), while the event at the start of each month is also FIDE rated."

Rite of passage

A number of junior players started their chess careers playing outdoors in Canberra. Currently, the youngest regular players are ages 7-10, while the oldest players are over 80. Press says, "It is almost a rite of passage for local players to spend at least some time playing street chess, with players such as IM Andrew Brown, IM Junta Ikeda, and GM Anton Smirnov playing in the past. Notable ‘guest stars’ include GM David Smerdon, GM Hrant Melkumyan, and GM Lev Aronian, along with a number of IMs and FMs who have visited regularly over the years."

Joshua Lee (left, with White) playing against GM Hrant Melkumyan

Co-author

I met my co-author Shaun Press by asking International Master Alex Wohl whether there is outdoor chess where he lives, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. While there is outdoor chess near his home, Wohl told me that Canberra outdoor chess had a longer tradition. Then Wohl directed me to the Facebook group Street Chess, run by Press. In addition to being a FIDE Master and International Arbiter, Press is also a FIDE Trainer and a FIDE Delegate and General Secretary for Papua New Guinea.

If you live in a country with outdoor chess right now, such as a country in the Southern Hemisphere or a Northern Hemisphere country with a mild winter, and you would like to be my next co-author, please contact me at editor@chessbase.com or via Facebook (Alexey Root).

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Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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