Thinking and drinking: Pub Chess Toronto shakes up the game

Local chess masters want to rid the board game's rep as geeky and uptight

“Thinking and drinking don’t mix—but they do here,” says Dan Macdonald on a recent Wednesday night at the Madison Avenue Pub.

Macdonald is one of about 20 people gathered upstairs at the popular Annex watering hole for Pub Chess Toronto, a new weekly club that’s breaking the rules of the royal game.

Shortly after 7 pm, a frenzied shuffling of plastic chess pieces on boards and the patter of palms striking buttons to start special clocks—used here for timing five-minute games of speed chess — break out.

“Do you need a pawn?” one player calls out. “No, I need a mate,” another shoots back above the barroom din. This banter, totally not kosher in rated tournament play when national rankings are at stake, is something Pub Chess founders Liza Orlova and Geordie Derraugh encourage.

“It’s a very casual, social thing that we’re trying to go for here,” says Derraugh, 25. “There’s already lots of chess clubs out there that are very serious.”

A $20 cover grants players entry into a weekly cash-prize tournament, though the less competitive can pay half that to play casual chess. Either option comes with a drink ticket, also redeemable for appetizers.

Derraugh and Orlova, both chess masters, hope these boozy socials will help rid the game of its geeky reputation and bring chess to a wider audience. “Everyone thinks that chess is just such a very intense game,” says Orlova, a six-time Ontario girls’ champ, now aged 20. “I wanted people outside of the chess community to be coming to these events.”

It looks like picking a venue that serves up cheap pints and grub is a good strategy: Pub Chess has regularly drawn about 25 players since starting up in June, and finding these numbers encouraging, the founders eventually want to expand to other bars.

Sitting in front of a green-and-white checkered board and nursing a pint at a recent meet, Brad Arsenault explains what brought him out after a lengthy hiatus from chess. “The lure was definitely the combination of chess and socializing,” he says. “You know, you feel like an adult drinking beer but still playing the game.”

Further along the table, Gannon Lawlor is getting down to a friendly match. His favourite part so far is “The drinking,” he laughs. “No. It’s the relaxed atmosphere—maybe the combination.”

To promote the event, Pub Chess isn’t only relying on the relative novelty of the setting. August 12 was ladies’ night where women play for free and there is another scheduled for September 9. And last month the group hosted its first tournament of bughouse, a complex four-player chess variant played across two boards.

In bughouse, sometimes called Siamese chess, teammates sit side-by-side and play the opposite colours on different boards. When a player handling, say, the white pieces, captures a black one, they can pass it along to their partner for use in their game, and vice versa.

“There’s lots more communication than in a normal chess game,” explains Derraugh, “and a bit of trash talking.” In other words, it’s pretty much the perfect game for pub play.

The club’s unique approach inspires some unorthodox tactics.

“I think it’s a good strategy to buy your opponent a drink before you play them,” laughs Derraugh, possibly from experience (though doing so will hardly guarantee victory). Being buzzed at the board might trigger sloppier play from some, says Orlova, but not all. “Some people are the other way around. They drink and they just play instinct moves and then they play better.”

Heightened blood-alcohol levels aside, the players who come out range from neophytes to pros. Serious talent has even given lessons right on the spot, like when International Master Artiom Samsonkin (right now ranked ninth in Canada) dropped by a while ago to school everyone.

Sometimes, the battles of wits go on until midnight, says Derraugh. And at least once, the chess players stuck around for last call.

For his part, Macdonald, still lingering as a tourney wound down, claims he’ll keep coming back “until dementia overtakes me.”

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