Chess, Life & the City: from Bogotá to Geneva

Do you know how to play chess?

Some people would classify it as an ‘intellectual’ game. Apparently chess is very much like life, it teaches you to think, plan, organise your thoughts, and take action.

“The modern game—essentially unchanged now for about 500 years—is perfectly designed to stretch the human mind to its outermost limits, but not beyond.”Spanier, 2013

So chess is not just any game, it has been worked and re-worked throughout history. Within those small black and white statues, there is a dense process of thought, based on logic and power structures that reflect on many aspects of society, even today; allowing it to be an interesting strategy to educate people, not just on how to play the game of chess but also how to play the game of life.

Quora asks, how is chess similar or dissimilar to life?

Here are a couple of motivational interpretations from Sudhir Srinivisan…

  • Pawn promotions: The smallest people can become the greatest, with perseverance
  • Forethought: To succeed in the long-term, it’s crucial to plan well in advance
  • Rook in the End Game: The quietest and the most unexpected people can often be the most loyal and the most useful during trying times
  • Placement: A knight in a corner is a knight wasted. If you don’t give your assets what they need, they’ll be useless and perhaps leave you eventually

…and some critiques…

  • Queen: Women, despite being far more powerful than men, are encouraged to be selfless and keep the man’s well-being at the back of their mind at all times
  • Pawn unity: If there’s bickering and no solidarity in the economically weakest sections, it’s a recipe for impending ruin
  • Pawn play: The poorest and the smallest are often the first to be sacrificed, and suffer the greatest loss

And then there is also a more reflective position which Joe Blitzstein holds…

“Pattern recognition: Both in life and in chess, reasoning well about complicated problems requires recognizing patterns, structures, and analogies, so that the situation can be chunked into simpler pieces and to make it easier to effectively use past experience.” – 

Or again, as Joe Blitzstein shows us…


Chess is one of the things I inherited from my grandfather, who died shortly after he taught me. I was about 6 when I learnt, but now thinking back it feels like he was trying to teach me something much more important than a game. It was about teaching to have patience and to think. Something that people in our world sometimes forget to do, particularly within the context of busy, hectic or chaotic cities where you barely have time to think!

The way I understand this game is that it’s about forcing, and eventually when they see the benefits, encouraging, people to think before they act. A lesson which is also very valuable in life.

So what does this have to do with cities?  Well, in my experience cities are like primary school playgrounds during playtime. They are chaotic, they are versatile, they have so many activities going on all at the same time. They are spaces with tensions and for exercising power amongst each other in both positive and negative ways.

But playgrounds are also a space of exploring and learning. They are a space where we learn about relating to other people, about sharing and taking turns on the swings; about nature and getting dirty; about balance, taking care not to trip over, or slip off the monkey bars; they are also about identity, developing your identity, what do you like doing? What other kids do you like to hang out with? etc.

So like playgrounds, cities are also spaces of learning. I’m not saying its all positive learning, cities can also expose people to violence and crime which some learn from and reproduce. But this is even more of a reason to take the opportunity that cities represent, to teach society, young and old about respect, discipline, thought, creativity and solidarity.

Through a game of chess for example.


Chess in Bogotá

Bogotá, Colombia

7ma Chess players, Bogotá, Colombia

This photograph is taken on the 7ma street in Bogotá, at about 6p.m. Hundreds of individuals pass by this place every day, many of them stop to watch men, women, girls and boys playing the game of thought. I have also stopped here many times, I get a warm feeling of excited pride for the city… and it also makes me think of my grandfather.

Adolfo Paéz came to this point on the 7ma about seven years ago, carrying three tables and three chessboards. Every day he and others who have taken part in this activity for many years, teach others how to play, encourage anyone to participate and organise and run tournaments. People from all walks of life come together in this space. It is maintained from people’s contributions which are voluntary, usually no more than 500 Colombian pesos ($USD 0.15), which is used to maintain the clocks, buy replacements for lost pieces and store the boards and tables.

Adolfo has been nicknamed the ‘Profe’ (Teacher). You can meet him in the following video (in Spanish)

“Chess is like a universal language” – 


However, despite this vibrant space that is open to teach people about thinking before acting, it is unclear what will happen to it as Bogotá’s historical centre and 7ma become pedestrianised and gentrified. Although the change is welcome and actually quite positive, one can already notice the diminishing activities along it.


Pedestrianised section of the 7ma, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

So the question remains, what will happen to Adolfo and his tables? To his intervention, which has for so many years encouraged people in the city to stop and venture in to a different form of thought?


Chess in Geneva

So let’s jump across the Atlantic for a second and visit the city of Geneva in Switzerland. I was walking along the lake the other day and I came across this…


Chess by the lake, Geneva, Switzerland

Yes, a chessboard has been engraved in to the rock. I swear, I touched it just to make sure. When I saw this, I couldn’t help thinking about Bogotá.


Maybe some people might be thinking I’m heading toward a classic example of neo-colonial mentality, suggesting that a Swiss model of public space should be implemented in Bogotá’s public space. But no, I am conscious of that reality and even so, I think good ideas should be shared.

The truth is that having walked past the chess players in the 7ma on so many occasions, I would be very sad to see them go. I know there are many benefits resulting from pedestrianising the 7ma in Bogotá, but as a mere observer I had gradually noticed how on the side that had been pedestrianised there were fewer people on the streets, eating, laughing, dancing, drawing, playing. On the other hand, the side that had yet to be pedestrianised was vibrant and packed with people doing all sorts of beautiful and creative things. It seemed to me that the essence of Bogotá´s city centre was being pushed aside a little.

Probably because with pedestrianised spaces comes gentrification, with gentrification comes changes in the market and value of services, with changes in the value of services comes changes in the people who use that space.

So I have been thinking about how, what chess playing brings to the city of Bogotá, could still be salvaged by taking one good idea from a city and trying it out in the context of another, something along the lines of…

Chess, Life and the City

Valuing and acknowledging the contrast between two spaces and their activities…


A sketch of people playing chess on the 7ma, Bogotá, Colombia



The 7ma after pedestrianisation, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

And engaging with these two spaces to cherish and encourage the positive aspects of both these spaces….


Chess in the city, Parc des Bastions, Geneva, Switzerland. Source: TripAdvisor

Can you imagine it?


Chess board on the pavemement


Re-imagining this space, chess board on the pedestrianised 7ma.


So if we want our cities to teach us about life, to teach our children to have patience in life and think about their actions, chess should be cherished, and so should actions like Adolfo’s.

Not only because it provides a space for learning in the city but also because its popularity and positive effects on people is a way of showing city planners about what kind of city Bogotá is, and what kind of city Bogotá (not only the built city but also its people) wants to be. Listening to the people who use and appropriate themselves of its public space should be at the centre of the gentrification process.


This is about a question.

The city, any city, is a tool that society created for its people. It is the space for citizens to come together and become a force of power. Each city is symbolic in its own way because, as human beings dwelling within them, we are the ones that construct their meaning.

After the climate marches, society has reconstructed the meaning of cities like Paris, Zurich, London, Sidney, Beirut, Sao Paolo, Bargny, Oslo, Manila and even Aleppo. Today, thanks to their participation in the marches, these cities are at the heart of the struggle to combat climate change, they are symbols, granted because their people gave them that significance. After all, what makes a city is its people.

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 So, what meaning does your city have? And how will you contribute, also as an individual, to giving it that meaning?


In November, the Guardian came up with a classy introductory video on the Climate Change Conference in Paris.

People were not silenced, even after the traumatising attacks in Paris. It is an inspiration to see how, on the 30th of November, despite threats and fears from terrorism, people all around the world gathered in one way or another to march, to make themselves heard, to take action and hold their governments accountable for the decisions they were about to make.

Whether it was by marching through the streets with drums, music and painted faces; or placing a pair of shoes with name tags, sign posts and even plants in a main square; collectively people have demonstrated how they can be a force of power that transcends boundaries of all sorts.

Whilst officially, the Conference is due to conclude on the 11th of December, so far we know that…

“Today, the 100 per cent clean energy target is a major element of the deal in the final stages of negotiation in Paris.” Avaaz in The Independent, 8th December


The Guardian interviewed activist and actor Emma Thompson who reminds us that:

“Every single person on this Earth has the power to change the world. And when we all come together, our power becomes irresistible. Now we must use our power to tackle the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.”

After the 30th November it hit me.

I had always known that climate was a major issue and I had made efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. For example, I cycle everywhere I go, I have greatly reduced my meat consumption, I try my best to buy bio products and make an effort to use my own bags at the supermarket.

But this is not enough. It’s not fast enough. That 100% target is never going to happen if we, as individuals don’t hold our government accountable for it on a daily basis. But how cane we hold them accountable if we ourselves, as individuals, don’t live up to that target.

So are we only going to act when we follow the crowd on a climate march?

Or are we also going to act individually? Daily? On a people-scale? To see how we can spread the word, how we can show others how delicious the taste of an egg is when it has been hatched in freedom; the fact that eating less meat is not a major sacrifice and how the challenge of cooking non-meat dishes is actually a motivation (for those who like to cook); the fact that travelling by bike is healthier, quicker, more enjoyable and you gain an incredible feeling of freedom and independence when you do it; that once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll never want to go back…I’ve already started this campaign with my mum, who have you campaigned for?

So this is not just about me or you, it’s about how we invite others (not guilt trip them), in to a more sustainable lifestyle. Because at the end of the day, this campaign becomes about realising that people aren’t bothering you about your carbon footprint to make you feel guilty and drive you crazy, they are doing it because they care about the planet you share, the life you live and how much you and your children will be able to continue enjoying it.

On a wider scale, as Emma Thompson says, when we all come together, our power becomes irresistible. Cities are an opportunity to concentrate this collective action, to spread the word more quickly, to become and example to others. They allow us to take public transport, to use our bikes, to find innovative ways of being green through urban agriculture or wonderful markets, so why aren’t more people taking advantage of this opportunity?

Imagine how much more power we would have if we all come together, having already achieved very low carbon footprints individually.

Who is going to argue with us?


Thais Brown, 2, of New York, rides on his mother's back as demonstrators gather

Source: Jason DeCrow, The Guardian