Aliwal Chess Club
Photograph: Aliwal Chess Club(Back, L to R) Syariz, Zuhaili, Amirul, Shaiful; (Front, L-R) Haikel, Hirfan; Z (not pictured)

Aliwal Chess Club is taking the game to Singapore’s streets

Thought chess was boring? You haven’t met these boys

Cheryl Sekkappan

Chess has got a bad rep for being difficult, nerdy, boring – or all three. The game brings to mind players, stereotypically socially awkward males, stuck in a quiet, white box of a room staring at the chess board as they stew over their next move. It wasn’t until Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit took the world by storm that the board game gained a sheen of cool.

In Singapore, there’s a chess renaissance brewing on the streets. Specifically, Aliwal Street, the birthplace and namesake of Aliwal Chess Club (ACC). Made up of seven 20-something- year-olds, ACC has been holding public chess meet-ups in Kampong Gelam since November 2021 which has, at one point, blown up into a gathering of over 80 people.

What makes them special? They’re making chess accessible – even cool – again. Take the club’s upcoming World Chess Day event. Double the size of the club’s previous WCD event, it will have 11 stations spanning chess in all its variations. Think chess blitzes, trivia rounds, life-sized chess set-ups and neon chess. There will also be a chess-themed retail market and live performances by local bands to keep visitors entertained throughout the event. 

RECOMMENDED: This collector built a heritage museum in his own front yard and Meet the young hawker keeping a 120-year-old traditional Teochew beef noodle recipe alive

Aliwal Chess Club
Photograph: Take Five SG

A lockdown phenomenon

As is usually the case with these things, ACC didn’t start out with the intention to form a chess club. Its founder, a 23-year-old graphic designer called Hirfan, first fell in love with the game after using it as inspiration for a secondary school art project. He taught himself through videos on the internet and only got serious after playing the game frequently with his bunkmate during National Service. 

“Then lockdown came about,” says Hirfan. “The Queen’s Gambit came out at a time when people were trapped at home. Then there was the rise of and people started playing online. Over time, my friends got intrigued.” 

When lockdown regulations were loosened, this interest turned into casual lepak sessions over chess and teh. “We used to sit here [at Sultan Gate] where there used to be wooden chairs. We would buy teh tarik from Bhai Sarbat and just play chess,” says Hirfan. “It wasn’t a serious thought. Like, hey, let’s create a whole, big chess club. It was really just to have fun – we carry that spirit all the way.” 

It wasn’t a serious thought. Like, hey, let’s create a whole, big chess club. It was really just to have fun – we carry that spirit all the way.

The opening moves 

ACC’s first street meet happened in November 2021 when Hirfan agreed with the rest of the group to open up their regular chess hangs to the public. By his memory, 15 to 20 people turned up for the first session – mostly friends and mutuals that the ACC members reached out to on Instagram.

The so-called “raw and rugged” first session garnered enough interest to give the boys the confidence to organise more of the same. “From that first street meet, so many people were enticed. We had passers-by who were like, what’s this? And wanted to join. It made us think, this is cool. We should try to replicate what’s in New York City,” says Hirfan, referring to the NYC chess hustlers who are staples at Washington Square Park. 

ACC came to realise that there was a real gap, a desire among casual chess players to meet and connect with others like them. Hirfan shares, “Our street meets started a whole train of people coming. Most of them have played chess for a long time but didn’t know where to go or found it hard to find friends who play chess. Chess clubs offer chess meets too, but they are quite serious. They sometimes run tournaments but you need to pay money to join. For those who just want to hang and play chess, ACC became the platform.”

Aliwal Chess Club
Photograph: Shaiful/Aliwal Chess Club

Developing the pieces 

Seeing the success of the street meets inspired the boys to put more thought into the club. Creating a vibrant community is no easy feat and the ACC members found it important to cater to two distinct groups in their audience – those who were into the easygoing street meets, and those seeking a more structured and comfortable experience. 

Enter the café collaborations, which took a test flight at Huggs Coffee where Hirfan was working at the time. The café was keen to test out a new social concept and gave ACC the opportunity to run its first café chess meet within its space. That grew into more official collaborations with the likes of Rumi The Poet’s Cup and the now-defunct Horizon Café. 

We could explore more. We started to bring in creative pop-ups, bands, arcade machines – it became more fun.

For ACC, the café collaborations were the perfect playground to try out their creative, out-of-the-box ideas while supporting small local businesses. “After doing it for a year or so, we came to know what kind of revenue we could bring in and what we can offer to cafés,” says Hirfan. “We could explore more. We started to bring in creative pop-ups, bands, arcade machines – it became more fun. That became the culture of ACC: if it’s street meets, expect ruggedness; we sometimes sit on the floor or in a carpark. You want more comfort? The café collaborations are for you, just that you have to purchase a meal or drink with our partner.” 

The organic community that has grown up around ACC has even caught the eye – and support – of the authorities. Once afraid to be under the scrutiny of the Singapore Chess Federation, Hirfan now has their support – the organisation generously loans ACC chess boards for their big chess meets. Before, the club had a BYOB (bring your own board) policy.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and One Kampong Gelam (OKG) too, are now in touch with ACC on plans to revitalise the historic district. Last year, the government agency helped make the club’s Bussorah Street Chess meet possible by closing down the whole street so ACC could set up table after table to host over 80 participants in rounds of chess. This year, URA opened up the 45 Sultan Gate shophouse to the club for its World Chess Day event. 

Aliwal Chess Club
Photograph: @a.mrld, @hanakarimz

Raising a rook-us

“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box,” goes the Italian proverb. And if there’s one thing that ACC is clear about, it’s that chess is for everyone. 

The club makes it a point to coach beginners at its events. The upcoming World Chess Day event, for example, will run 10-minute workshops for total novices. ACC gets people of all backgrounds attending its street and café meets too. “We have people coming in slippers, lawyers coming down after work, it’s crazy. But that’s the beauty of it – anyone from different backgrounds can come in, chill, and just play chess,” says Hirfan.

That’s our aim: not to be the best, but to be the most fun street chess meet.

Perhaps that is the secret of ACC’s success, which has seen the compounding effects of its own warmth and hospitality. Serendipitous connections have opened many doors for the club, and for those who show up at ACC’s events, the simple fact of genuine human connection keeps them coming back. Hirfan shares, “I’ve personally had so many one-on-ones with players who come forward and share that they really love what they’ve found in ACC, that they connected with so many people and made new friends.” 

And for Hirfan and the ACC members, it all goes back to that spirit of fun. “Chess is a universal game! Why do you have to be so good or so smart to play? Just have fun, I think people miss out on that,” says Hirfan. “That’s our aim: not to be the best, but to be the most fun street chess meet.” 

Follow Aliwal Chess Club on its Instagram and don't forget to register for its free World Chess Day event happening July 29. 

More to explore

    You may also like
    You may also like