Battling loneliness and suicide through chess

In the UK, an enterprise seeks to address loneliness by offering chess games.

by Portia Ladrido

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The Battling Suicide tour bus stops in various destinations across the UK and invites people to play chess. © 5asideCHESS at Facebook

Earlier last year, Britain appointed a minister for loneliness, following a report that showed how over nine million people in the country suffer from loneliness. The epidemic of loneliness is even more disconcerting when it’s also been proven that it can be worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Indeed, loneliness has a way of affecting one’s health and what’s alarming is that this can rarely be identified right away. Loneliness is such an abstract concept that when we do feel it, there’s just a looming fear and helplessness that may sometimes be hard to shrug off.

Knowing the depth of this problem, a social enterprise based in Oakington, Cambridge called 5asideCHESS seeks to address this issue by selling chess sets that are aimed at reviving “the art of conversation”. Buyers of chess sets are also made to pledge that they will be playing the game to connect with more people in the UK.

Ryan Child, the managing director of 5asideCHESS, talked to INKLINE to share how it all started and where they want the enterprise to go from here.

INKLINE: Can you share the story of how 5asideCHESS started? Also, why the name?

Ryan Child: The game was invented in 2015 as a social experiment to engender conversation and connection, using the chess boards as icebreakers to do so. The name comes from football. Our board are half the size of traditional boards, so it’s just a reference to a smaller playing surface.

I: Of all the things that can be used as a tool to start a conversation, why did you guys choose chess? What is in the game that makes it a great tool for connection?

R: Chess is such a good tool for demonstrating consequences, thinking ahead and mental discipline, that it seemed a perfect fit. Obviously, when you see homeless people or those suffering from addiction teaching students or young people the game and the value that can bring to both sides, you see just how powerful chess can be. It’s seen as an intellectual game, but in truth can be taught within 30 minutes on one of our boards.

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A man playing the enterprise’s chess set in London. © 5asideCHESS at Facebook

I: When did you start doing the Battling Suicide tour? Can you explain how this goes? What inspired you to do the tour in the first place?

R: We met an awful lot of people suffering from loneliness and social isolation, and sadly Suicide is the end of the road when people become so isolated that they feel they can’t share anything anymore. It’s worth saying that we aren’t the Samaritans or the last line of defence here. We want to promote a culture where people are caught way before that critical moment. So the tour is an attempt to raise awareness of suicide prevention, and how conversation can be a really powerful tool in that regard.

In many ways, it has become bigger than we imagined. Bearing in mind we are learning every day. The amount of people that are affected is incredible. And we now have more than 150 memorials and messages written by people who have lost loved ones to suicide or survived it themselves. I’ve been completely blown away and sometimes a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. It’s been amazing, really.

I: How do you measure the effectivity of your enterprise when it comes to connecting people? 

R: This is our greatest challenge. We try to get measures as much as we can, but it’s hard to measure mood and wellbeing a lot of the time. So we just keep pushing the idea of conversation and now have a few researchers advising us about the best ways to form a report about the tour and its effectiveness.

I: How do you wish to scale your enterprise? What steps are you taking in that direction?

R: I see it as a network. The people that by our chess boards are given a sign that says Do Disturb, and we ask them to go out and connect with people in safe public places. that can mean sitting with a book at a cafe and making eye contact with 20 people. If you connect with just one person and they sit and play chess, or just talk, the benefits can be huge. So in terms of scaling, we are working extremely hard to get more people to engage our society in conversation. Support from Boston Tea Party, Costa Coffee and Tesco is helping us to achieve this.

I:  What do you dream for 5asideCHESS to become? 

R: Our dream is to have a network of people that access their emotional wellbeing through connections in the real world, rather than the dopamine drip feeds of social media. This project isn’t about getting rid of phones or social media etc, because both can be great, but it is about re-engaging people with each other, breaking down barriers and fighting for a better connected, healthier society that is much more aware than it currently is.

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