The chess set in Cambridge Market helping to end pandemic isolation

Loneliness has been a universal experience during lockdown.

More people were calling mental health helplines throughout the pandemic suffering from mental ill-health caused by the isolation. The number of adults showing symptoms of depression has doubled since the pandemic began.

Now one Cambridgeshire man is hoping to address this global feeling of disconnection in his own unique way – through chess.

If you walk past Cambridge Market in the city centre on a Tuesday you might see some people playing chess at Shelley and Sarah’s cafe van. This isn’t any old chess game, however.

It’s a paired-back game that is easier to pick up and quicker to play and it also has a secondary purpose instead of just being a way to pass the time.

The game was designed by Oakington based Ross Smith with his business partner Ian McKay in 2015 after they decided to do something about the levels of disconnection and inequality they saw in society.

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Ross said: “People are afraid to talk to each other nowadays. We all harbour stranger danger and are stuck on our phones. Chess is a device we can all use to get people to talk.”

He chose the universal language of chess to encourage a connection over a game and a coffee.

Ross and volunteer Sam Jermyn trialled a five-a-side chess session for the first time since the pandemic on June 8 at Cambridge Market to see who would play.

He said: “Shelley and Sarah have been established as part of Cambridge’s community for decades. They greet everyone by name and many who pass are the lost, lonely or dispossessed. Their faces light up at the connection.

“The chess games help Sam’s social skills by practising speaking to people, but it also encourages strangers, especially men, to talk.”

Ross Smith is on a mission to bring people together in Cambridge through a round of chess
(Image: Cambridge News)

As a Cambridge local, Ross wanted to address the divide seen in the city between the top few and the bottom many. In 2019 Cambridge was named the UK’s most unequal city in terms of earnings.

Chess was used as a form of therapy in Baghdad in the 9th century and has since been used to treat ADHD and dementia. It demonstrates empathy by predicting other players moves and aims to encourage problem-solving and build rapport between the players.

Ross said: “Chess isn’t about elitism or champions. It crosses social divides. I watch my eight-year-old granddaughter play with the elderly in care homes. You can play our cardboard version of chess by text like battleships.

“Sam has been playing with people virtually who have been shielding throughout the pandemic. It gives people an excuse to start talking.”

Since Ross started his enterprise six years ago he has seen benefits including increased self-esteem and confidence and a reduction in loneliness in the communities he’s worked with.

He has also taken his chess sets into prisons across the country. In the last year, he has received 292 letters from inmates who opened up about their lives and their mental health because of these chess sets.

Ross describes these sets as a self-help tool kit to help with life skills, bring some company and contribute to mental wellness.

He said: “When you receive a chess set we set you a challenge to play with different people. When you complete it you get a certificate. My granddaughter’s goal is to play 25 games in Milton Keynes shopping centre. I saw her approach some kids in McDonald’s and watched their faces turn from concern to beaming smiles as she sat down and started to play with them.”

Learning to play chess was what helped pull the famous chess player and author John Healy out of prison and alcoholism. Healy, who is a friend of Ross, was taught to play by a cellmate during a stint in a prison and went on to become a chess champion.

Ross said: “Healy’s story isn’t of redemption. It’s a story of peer to peer connection. It took an insider to get through to him. To us, chess can be a conversation starter and an important life tool.”

To connect with a fellow stranger and play some chess, head to Shelley and Sarah’s cafe van on the northside of Cambridge Market every Tuesday from roughly 9am-2pm.

Quote “Your first move is hello” to receive a free chess set valued at £7.50 and start your course to share the game further.

Learn more on the 5asideCHESS website.

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