‘DEAR Sir,” the notice read, “Please attend a meeting of those favourable to the formation of a Chess Club.” The circular, distributed across the south side of Glasgow, drew 26 men keen on the game to found Queen’s Park Chess Club.

They went on to respectable success at tournaments in Scotland, despite being somewhat itinerant, moving premises on a regular basis to set up home in local venues including Turner’s Tea Rooms on Victoria Road, the Eglinton Toll YMCA and Queen’s Park Bowling Club.

This was September 1873 and the minutes of that first meeting show money allocated for boards and sets alongside an intriguing note of the purchase of “half-a-dozen spittoons”.

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club. The club meet on Tuesday evenings at Wellcroft Bowling Club at Queen's Park in the Southside of Glasgow. Pictured is club member Ryan McGill....Photograph by Colin Mearns.11 October 2022.For The Herald, see

Whip forward 150 years and these scenes repeat themselves.

It is tar dark outside Wellcroft Bowling Club but warm light from the windows of the clubhouse helps visitors find their way to one of the tri-weekly meetings of the current day Queen’s Park Chess Club.

Inside, tables are laid with the unchanged black and white check of chess boards and players sit, some with pints of beer in hand, gazing intently at the pieces. A century apart and local chess is still a thirsty business.

The 19th-century Queen’s Park Chess Club came to an end in the mid-1930s but in 2019 the spark was lit for a modern version. The park borders Govanhill, an area of Scotland’s largest city that is unfairly maligned and that has some of the highest levels of socio-economic deprivation in the country.

It is also diverse, multi-cultural and crammed with community groups doing innovative and interesting things. Two local organisations, Govanhill Baths and Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre, were looking to organise new community activities and so a chess club began, held on Monday nights in McNeill’s pub, a venue a few doors from the site of the long-closed Turner’s Tea Rooms.

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club. The club meet on Tuesday evenings at Wellcroft Bowling Club at Queen's Park in the Southside of Glasgow. Pictured are members in action....Photograph by Colin Mearns.11 October 2022.For The Herald, see story by

Derek Rankine joined what was then Govanhill Chess Club that summer. He’d only begun learning to play chess the year before but was keen to find sparring partners. “I was a bit anxious when I first went to McNeill’s,” he says.

“There were three big burly guys standing at the door and I had to go past them. I went in and couldn’t see anyone playing chess so went back outside, ready to leave, when one of the guys said, ‘Are you here for the chess club?’”

Appearances were deceptive and, in fact, the chaps were friendly enough to take Rankine inside and show him where to go. The friendliness was a necessary boon for such a novice player. “I was putting my pieces on the wrong squares,” Rankine adds, “and was worried the guys would think I was cheating but they were really helpful.”

Govanhill Chess Club players began playing league games and the group was growing in size but then the pandemic hit and the club members struggled to adapt to playing online. As restrictions eased, McNeill’s refurbished the room used by the chess club and shut its doors to the Monday night gathering.

By now Rankine had become club secretary. “We did have some conversations about trying to keep the club going,” he says. “We were homeless, we didn’t have any money.” But they persevered and Wellcroft Bowling Club, which sits in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s south side, offered them space.

The club also introduced Sunday morning outdoor sessions in the park proper. This visibility, players sitting outside by the duck pond, piqued people’s interest. What began with four players at a “bring your own board” session grew four-fold in just a few weeks.

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club  Photograph by Colin Mearns

The first session in Wellcroft Bowling Club drew eight participants but now each evening draws dozens more from its 40-strong membership, making it one of the biggest clubs in Scotland. The spike in popularity has been difficult to manage but the committee now boasts seven members – and this busyness is a nice problem to have.

While chess has a reputation for elitism, the south side chess club prides itself on its diversity and open-door policy. Among its members it counts Ukrainian refugees who want to make social connections and find some normality in an activity they love; a former prisoner who learned the sport in jail and wanted to keep playing; tourists who’ve read about the club online; and people from the local homeless community who want to take part.

They try wherever possible to let people play for free to ensure equality of access but take membership fees from those who can afford it in order to cover tournament costs. In acknowledgement of the wider geographical spread of its members – and as a link to its forebear – the club changed name to Queen’s Park Chess Club.

“There’s no intense competitive rivalry,” Rankine says. “It’s about making friends and it’s just brilliant.

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“We’ve got the full gamut here – from tournament winners to people who are just learning and wanting to know how the pieces move.

“We’re very happy to help people learn how to play from scratch, which is fairly unusual as at many clubs you’re expected to be a certain level before you can join.”

Graeme McKinnon, president of the chess club, remembers his first formal club experience. He was tasked with playing one of the existing members before the committee discussed and decided on his membership. “Daunting,” he calls it, and this from a man who really knows his stuff.

While Rankine began learning chess as an adult, McKinnon first picked it up when he was around four years old, encouraged by his two older brothers. “We had an Italian marble chess set at home in a room we were not allowed in,” he says. “We’d have drinks in there and play my dad’s record collection and just destroy everything and then put everything back together again before he showed up. I have fond memories of trying to beat my brothers and the challenge of that.”

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club  Photograph by Colin Mearns

McKinnon dropped chess in secondary school but at university in the Czech Republic he returned to it with a passion, going so far as to take a year out of his degree course to focus on chess.

“My professor actually begged me to stop playing chess as I was that obsessed with it,” he adds. On his first visit to a chess club there, he lost every game but the other “mostly 85-year-old male” players were kind and forgiving and helped him build his skills.

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On his return to Scotland, McKinnon wanted to play with real people, rather than online, and he found Queen’s Park.

He says: “I read about chess every day normally and when I wake up in the morning I review the games I’m playing online. I wake up an hour before work and have a look at my games and then I’ll maybe spend about half an hour reading pages in the chess book related to the games.

“Throughout the day I might have a look to check in on the online games – it’s a bit like taking care of a plant – and then in the evening I’ll maybe spend two hours reading chess books.

“If I’m sitting with a chess book and reading about chess I get a positive energy. I feel like I’m improving my knowledge but also helping keep that knowledge alive.”

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club. The club meet on Tuesday evenings at Wellcroft Bowling Club at Queen's Park in the Southside of Glasgow. Pictured is club member Ryan McGill....Photograph by Colin Mearns.11 October 2022.For The Herald, see

Both McKinnon and Rankine speak of the deep connections chess has to the past, its different systems and moves. The names of these moves have a certain lusciousness, one can see the allure: Calabrese Countergambit, Orthoschnapp Gambit, Sicilian Defence, the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Nescafe Frappe Attack.

McKinnon says he gets an adrenaline rush from the game just as strong as that from a physical sport, like when he plays tennis with his wife. For Rankine, it’s almost meditative.

“You get into a flow state,” he says. “Immersed in activity and the whole outside world is shut out, the game is all that there is.

“There’s something about that level of immersion when your opponent is trying to beat you and setting traps all the time and you’re constantly on edge but you feel all your outside stresses are going away.

“It’s got this incredible cultural history and then you have all these ideas coming to you and you’re trying to apply them to your own games.

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“My wife used to tell people her husband plays guitar in a band, which was cool. And now she’s not so happy telling people her husband plays chess.”

Would his wife like to learn chess? “No. No, is the short answer. Hard no.”

Looking around the room, women are certainly noticeable by their absence. The club is predominantly male with only five women members. This is a problem across the sport. Marianne Burns and Caitlin McCulloch are doing their best to represent the ladies, however.

Burns set up a chess night in Brodie’s Bar, also in Glasgow’s south side, and there is now an overlap in players between the two groups. Burns’s club has also recently been on the move and it currently plays in nearby Shawlands. McCulloch started off at Brodie’s Thursday night matches before finding Queen’s Park Chess Club.

She is now a team captain and determined to show that women belong in the game.

The Herald: Feature on Queen's Park Chess Club. The club meet on Tuesday evenings at Wellcroft Bowling Club at Queen's Park in the Southside of Glasgow. Pictured is Caitlin McCulloch (team captain)....Photograph by Colin Mearns.11 October 2022.For The

“I’ve been the only woman in a room of 50 men and I’ve thought, ‘I’m meant to be here’ despite the stares. I like taking on this role because I think it’s important. The comments you hear, like, ‘Oh, you’ve lost to a woman’ or ‘You play like a girl’ are so boring.

“I get frustrated at the lack of women. People make the same arguments all the time – men and women play chess differently, women just aren’t as good.

“If people actually read into any of the science behind it they would know that’s not right and it’s the systemic barriers that stop women playing chess, such as the social aspect of people thinking you can’t play.”

McCulloch and her three siblings all began playing chess as children. Her father, also a keen chess player, would drive his four children to tournaments at weekends. “I remember my very first tournament at the age of 12,” she says.

“I sat down and was beaten by a seven-year-old in four moves and I walked away like, ‘Is this chess? Is this supposed to happen?’”

Rankine says being beaten by a child is a rite of passage but one with difficult social etiquette: “None of us like playing kids very much. If you beat a kid you don’t feel good about it, if you lose it’s embarrassing.”

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As McCulloch details her chess history, a tournament is taking place within a side-room of the bowling club. A team has travelled from Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire for a competitive match. In contrast to the gentle hubbub of the main area, the serious players are silent in their focus.

McCulloch had poked her head in for a look but the disruption is not welcome. She understands the need to concentrate though. “Sometimes when you’re completely in the zone it’s like nothing outside the board exists,” she says. “Which is a hard thing to describe because you don’t realise it as it’s happening.

“You’ve just got the 64 squares and the pieces on them and that’s the only thing you’re thinking about. It’s a nice feeling. When you’re in that zone it’s pretty cool.”

McCulloch also enjoys the social aspect of the game, as does Canadian Alex Lane. He’s new to Glasgow, having moved to the city for work from Calgary, and he was keen to make friends. Listening to him talk, it sounds like the indoor sessions are right up his street.

“I’m liking Glasgow,” he says. “The summer was wetter than I was expecting. I’ve found out a few of my jackets aren’t actually waterproof.

“I’ve really gotten to know so many people that I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet from across all walks of life. It gave me the opportunity to join the community through the club and meet different people.”

Lane played a lot of chess growing up, learning from his father and then learning to beat his father, but he knows his limits. “I think I’m a decent player but I get humbled quite often,” he adds. “That is, I lose. Quite badly.

“But I like how honest it is. It’s not like poker where you have no clue as to what’s underneath someone else’s cards. Everything that’s being done you can see. You don’t have a different perspective than your opponent. When you win you’ve earned it, when you lose you’ve earned it. So I think it’s a true display of your preparation, of your calculations.”

Chess club members have games nights and movie nights. There have been summer hikes and a planned trip to watch Queen’s Park Football Club. The club is growing constantly and has recently been on the move again – it’s now settled in The Bungo, a south side restaurant with a basement venue.

The committee is busier than ever but passion for the game spurs them on. “We have various group chats so even if we’re not here we’re still talking chess,” McCulloch says.

She pauses, then adds: “There can be too much chess.”