The Battling Suicide Bus was crowded. A group of students from Manchester University were playing 5asideChess.
Alain, a computer engineer from Holland, had just left to buy a few coffees. This was his third day dropping by for a game.
Lucy played her music along the cobbled street, sullen and unmoved as usual. Walking past her came Roland, a swinging blur of elastic energy and noise.
“What’s this then,” he said, loudly addressing the whole planet.
“It’s 5asideCHESS,” I said.
“Where’s the rest of the board?”
“This is a quicker version of the game. We want to get people to sit down and connect, rather than being on their phones all the time.”
Roland looked over at the students to his left. He put a seashell to his ear. His movements were clumsy and full blooded like a blunt axe.
The students looked shiftily on. There were six in the group and three of them kind of dissipated away.
Roland circled the bus a few times. He wrote a message to a lost friend and pulled up a chair.
The three students looked over from the other table with nervous laughs. Roland’s dog plodded around.
“Well I’m not playing youse lot,” he said. “Yous’ll kill me.”
He reached into his bag and pulled out a DKNY branded chess set. It was shiny and small, the pawns like little silver tombstones.
We played a game.
“Why don’t you play that guy standing up?” I said. “He’s got nobody to play.”
“I ain’t beating no student.”
After a bit of encouragement the student, Xavier, came over.
Roland quickly won the first game. Chess has an odd and unique power to change perceptions. Perceptions people have of you and of yourself.
We had seen a similar thing in Cambridge on the first day of the tour. Two girls with tattoos and accents wondered up to the bus. The local councillors and other ‘educated’ people kind of ignored them as they walked over to sign the bus. They were curious but timid and clearly felt out of place.
When one of the girls sat down with a councillor and started playing chess you saw a change in everyone. Both girls opened up and sat back.
During the second game Roland started talking.
“Watch,” he said. “If your Knight is here it’s protecting this line of attack. Do you see?”
Xavier nodded, looking up.
“But why can’t I move here with my pawn instead?”
Roland smiled. His shoulders lifted and a delicateness came through him.
“Um, well, that’s a good question actually. It’s called En-Passant, right, you listening.” He had a deep and crackly laugh.
“It means can take your pawn with mine if you move it both squares.”
“I never knew that.”
Alain came back with a coffee.
Chess comes with connotations of intelligence, of discipline and antiquity.
In a perfect world everyone would just be open to connect with people, and have no prejudice. But this isn’t a perfect world, and to see 5asideCHESS make this difference has been pretty amazing.
As Roland left that day in Edinburgh, Lucy still playing her accordion, Alain smiled.
“That guy with the dog was a very good teacher of chess,” he said.