(Note, this article is by Mark Jenkins personally. Though Mark is a founding Rudolf Rocker Chess Club hosts and organizer, he’s expressing his own opinion here and not speaking on behalf of other hosts and organizers or establishing any kind of policy)
(Note #2, this was written and published prior to the December 11 murder of Tyree Cayer)
I get inquiries from parents about our casual chess meetups. Other organizers field them too.
A public discussion is worthwhile, are our casual chess meetups at the library child friendly?
I have a few meandering points on this.
First, most of the attendees at our meetups are adults. None of our regulars right now are children.
I’m satisfied with that, as I started hosting chess meetups specifically to fill a niche for adults and particularly for the sake of those more interested casual play.
If you and your child are looking for a game at our meetup, you’re most likely going to end up playing adults who are regulars. A few of us are generous with our time and will teach at an appropriate level. Many of our regulars will give hard lessons through competitive play on the board and leave it at a that.
This may not be what your child is looking for on a Saturday afternoon.
Adults can be intimidating without intending to. I remember this from childhood and was recently reminded when one outstanding adult from my childhood passed away.
Kids may not have the attention span or interest to play for hours. Our casual drop in-format can be helpful in this regard. Be attentive and flexible in your plans when bringing a child with you.
When I co-founded Rudolf Rocker Chess Club with a rented room, I even considered making it an adult exclusive place where I could curse over getting checkmated.
In the end, we ended up being open to youth participation. We even had one older minor as a co-host.
There were certainly times where I could have lived without all the running around when kids had lost interest for the day.
The Library as a Unique Public Venue
The library is a different setting. We don’t get to choose who is and is not present. We don’t rent a room. We simply just sit down with chess boards at public tables (first come, first serve basis) and enjoy the game. Everyone is entitled to do that.
We also have to maintain a respectful environment for other library patrons around us.
People were already doing this at Millennium Library on Saturday afternoons before we made it more publicly known.
I really like this about the library. It is the only truly public indoor space downtown where you can spend the day, access the internet, access knowledge in print (including chess books!), set up a chess board, and not be compelled to spend a dime.
The malls don’t count. Coffee shops don’t count. These are private spaces where you are compelled to spend money and not loiter.
I want to loiter.
I want to be a Saturday chess bum.
I have met people from many walks of life and backgrounds while playing chess at the library. It was a similar experience when we had some summer meetups in Central Park.
I consider it a good thing we are visible in public and meet more than just people who find us on the internet. Often these interactions are as simple as “oh that’s chess!”. Occasionally it results in meaningful engagement.
We have even had encounters with people who are not familiar with the internationally accepted rules. I remember one adult with a different take on queen side castling. There was another with a misunderstanding about castling rights after blocking a check. At least one of these people stormed out upset at us!
The Library as a Place Where Social Challenges Are Visible
As a unique public indoor space in an urban environment, the library is also a place where society’s challenges are visible.
The library has for quite awhile had social worker office hours as a day time resource.
In 2017 there was a fatality which resulted in a closure and for which counseling services were needed to be brought in for staff and the public.
In 2019, bag-checks were imposed at the door.
It was a contentious policy. Attendance dropped. There were read-ins and shush-ins. Drag-queens held back their reading sessions for kids. John K Samson wrote a song, Millennium for All and put out a music video.
As someone who values the library as a public space, I considered if I wanted to keep holding meetups in a space that was less inviting.
I was also sympathetic to the security concerns of staff. I believe that workers deserve the training and supports to have a safe work place.
Ultimately I decided to keep at it. The Millennium branch was still a one of a kind public indoor space and I felt the best way to support it was to keep using it.
After a year the WPL services manager regarded the policy as a mistake and was ready to move on.
As pandemic restrictions lifted and the library branches returned to public access, the security measures did not return.
In April 2022 the Millennium branch embraced further its role as a place to find all kinds of information relevant to the community and opened a community service hub in the lobby, Community Connections, which operates on weekday day times.
That is of course, that not the end of the story.
As John K Sampson sings in that song, “This is where we medicate in bathroom stalls”. I too have medicated in a bathroom stalls. You wouldn’t have seen the AstraZeneca container my pocket to know what I was inhaling.
Not everyone’s trip to a bathroom stall is brief.
Tied up bathrooms stalls in public washrooms are a part of life in downtown Winnipeg. The Millennium branch has 4 floors worth of them.
And unfortunately drug use in the bathrooms isn’t always confined to stalls.
Sometimes security has to deal with people’s behavior in the open areas.
I don’t want to paint an overly negative picture of downtown Winnipeg and the Millennium Library by bringing this up, but I owe it to parents who might not otherwise spend a lot of time downtown to be frank.
Free, public, and downtown is how I like to roll out casual chess. As an adult who is lifetime fan of downtown, I feel safe at the Millennium branch and really enjoy bringing people together there.
It’s up to you as a parent to decide if that’s the setting for you.
Chess for all
When I post that I’m hosting (about once a month), I almost always say that I offer free beginner and novice lessons.
That applies equally to adults who have made the trip, your kids, and even people passing by who take notice and say hi. Chess is a recreation that I’ll freely share and openly invite to anybody into when I’m there. That’s what the library inspires in me
I haven’t noticed a problem with this, but I should none-the-less remind parents that the library is not a place you can park minors who are not old enough to be in public on their own. The library code of conduct covers this.
Other Resources and a Call to Action
The children who might get the most out of our (largely adult) chess meetups would be ones who are already taking the game seriously enough to be contemplating playing in open tournaments with adults. Before investing in such a tournament appearance, a casual meetup is a chance for a youth to see, are they intimidated by adults? Can they handle losing in an over the board setting with a steep escalation in difficulty?
For most children a more ideal setting is one where they can engage with their peers.
We always try to make parents and children aware of the Manitoba Scholastic Chess Association (MSCA) which runs really kid friendly tournaments. Most of these events group the kids into small groups (sections) by ability.
Sometimes they also host more casual occasions and teaching opportunities.
The Manitoba Chess Association also sometimes hosts summer day camps and CFC rated Junior championships.
Similar to how many adults are not interested in tournaments there are also kids who are less inclined to competitive play and would prefer games that are more recreational and even more conversational.
The best casual settings are school chess clubs where available. Middle and high schools sometimes provide opportunities for youths to self-organize these things. In my first few years of high school, there was no club or club room but I would just set up a set in the cafeteria and peers would engage. It wasn’t long before I started keeping multiple sets in my locker to accommodate everyone. At one point I even got hockey jocks into the game.
My first experience with self-organizing dated back even earlier to grade 6. I got peers playing in a covered playground structure and at indoor recess. I tried to conduct a round robin over several months.
Younger kids of course need a lot more adult support to get opportunities going.
For all the children without access to school chess clubs, there’s a gap in terms of casual play with peers.
What I’d encourage interested parents to do is self-organize more casual/recreational public opportunities for their kids to play each other and access instruction, either in partnership with MSCA or as a new organization. Either way, the Manitoba chess community will share the news and help you get the word out.
Millennium for All! Chess for all!
Mark Jenkins 2022-10-23