Checking your mates

Ben Gray, Toby Lhyne and Ned Robles discovered they could open up to each other over a game of chess. Photo by Carson Bodie

APPROACHING a chess game in motion, many an observer has asked: “Who’s winning?”

The mates at Fremantle Chess Community are more interested in asking; “How are you?

For a game with a long history of famous egos, it’s somewhat surprising to hear chess described as a creative and spiritual endeavour, a pursuit of artistry, melody and intuition to which each player brings something new, valuable, and welcome.

This is the attitude at the heart of FCC, which was founded by Ben Gray, Toby Lhyne and Ned Robles after an encounter at South Fremantle small bar Percy Flint they all agree was serendipitous. 

Philosophy

The trio recognised a likeness of philosophy right away, but Mr Lhyne credits the game itself with allowing them to develop real intimacy.

“When your mind is focused on chess and your heart is facing someone, it just opens you up in a certain way,” he said.

“We do all the small talk on the board and then the real talk comes through,” says Mr Gray.

Self expression is central to the unique ethic of the group, whose members value the artistic quality of play. The three say the misconception that there is the 

‘right’ move in chess is partially responsible for the game’s elitist reputation.

By expanding chess to a broader and more creative definition, the Community makes space for all kinds of people to participate who may otherwise be uninterested or intimidated. “It’s a juicy game, really,” says Mr Robles.

Mr Lhyne says the game is “too big” to be accounted for with a purely theoretical or mathematical approach. “You can’t run every possibility,” so he has learned to tap into his intuition. 

The opportunity for wordless self-expression is perhaps the catalyst for their connection; each can pick out elements of their opponent’s play that speak to their character and values.

Mr Lhyne describes Mr Robles’ play as “spiritual”, and while his own is “risky and colourful” according to the latter, he prefers “funky and sporadic”.

“Ben loves the pawns,” Mr Lhyne says of Mr Gray.

“He’s a man of the people.” 

Pawns

Mr Gray believes pawns are “wildly underused”, adding cheekily that the collective willingness to sacrifice them so freely speaks poorly of society’s respect for the working class.

Mr Gray and Mr Lhyne started playing chess while working together at Little Creatures, playing more heavily during the lockdown at the beginning of last year as a way to stay connected.

Mr Robles, who has taken on a position of unofficial mentorship within the Community, has been playing since the age of seven. He credits his view of chess as a game offering something more to 1972 Aussie chess champ Trevor Hay, who died in 2016. 

He was “a truly beautiful human being and a master of the game”, he says. 

He recalls Mr Hay, a highly accomplished player, asking his opinion about a move despite the gulf of experience between them. In that moment, he understood what it meant to play with grace and inclusivity. “It changed me,” he says.

Mr Hay pays it forward by asking people to bring used clothing to group meetings, which he drops off at St Pat’s.

It was the spirit of inclusivity that inspired a name change from a club to a community, particularly among women who may have been put off by the often accurate perception of chess as a boys’ club.

For the most part, the trio have allowed the club to develop organically, and have been surprised by some of its developments. They meet twice a week, Tuesday and Friday evenings at Percy Flint. 

While there’s no thought of excluding women, they say the natural development of space for men to express vulnerability has become integral to their lives and mental health.

Mr Gray says the meetings have become something akin to a “mental health support group”.

“The chess serves as an icebreaker in a more meaningful way than just chit-chat. And what I’ve found very unexpected, but what it’s led to is some really great conversations that I don’t think would normally happen between individual males of various ages without such a forum.” 

Anyone is welcome to join either “jam,” as the events are called, and updates can be found on the Fremantle Chess Community Facebook page. 

“We’re about welcoming people,” says Mr Lhyne.

No one should feel intimidated based on their level of experience, adds Mr Gray. “Rules are secondary to fun.

by CARSON BODIE

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