Terry Fellows was living in Inuvik in 1983 when he first learned about the ragtag group of chess enthusiasts who played regularly at Park Royal Shopping Centre. He was so excited by the idea that he decided to take a vacation in West Vancouver.
“It gets worse than that,” he said. “It sounds silly, but when I discovered that I was able to play chess and meet friends, I moved down in ’91 and settled in Vancouver.”
For the past 25 years, Fellows has visited the mall several times each week to play chess, visit with friends and decompress after a long day of work as an emergency physician.
But that long-standing tradition recently came to a sudden halt when mall management sent Fellows a letter ordering the group to “cease the use” of the Park Royal food court by March 31 or face serious consequences.
“If your group fails to comply it will give us no alternative but to reach out to the West Vancouver Police Department,” Park Royal general manager Karen Donald wrote in the March 22 letter. A carbon copy of the letter was sent to a WVPD sergeant.
According to Fellows, the letter followed two meetings with management, when mall representatives suggested to the chess players that a cost-benefit analysis had come out in favour of evicting them.
Mall representatives declined to comment, but Donald’s letter states that the food court must be kept free for paying food court customers. No-loitering signs have already been papered around the area, warning that seating should be limited to one hour.
But Fellows said he regularly buys snacks and drinks while he’s in the food court, as do many of his chess-playing friends.
The group is an informal one, not associated with any club, and players include pensioners, teens, doctors, dentists, janitors, dishwashers and international chess competitors. It also includes United Power president George Ingham, who turns 80 this month and has been playing at Park Royal for half a century.
“It is about getting together,” he explained.
Ingham described the mall’s ultimatum as “bizarre.” He said the players had in past years gathered at alternative locations in the mall at the request of management, and about two decades ago they even paid for their own chess tables to be put in. Those tables disappeared a few years back.
“When you consider what’s lost, it’s history,” Ingham said. “We are annoyed. We are really annoyed.”
Ingham said he and others, resolved not to resign, are considering a counterplay.
West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith has promised the chess players that he’ll speak to mall management.
“I don’t really understand it,” he said. “It’s a very restful thing to observe a group of people quietly enjoying themselves and meeting other people and encouraging new players and playing chess. I think it adds to the ambience of the mall.”
He recalled that when Park Royal South first opened, a giant chessboard was installed in the atrium for shoppers to use.
“It’s been something that’s been part of that mall forever,” Smith said.
Mall management have suggested that the group move their games to rented rooms in the West Vancouver Seniors’ Activity Centre, the library or the community centre, and pledged a one-time donation of $500 to help cover rental costs.
But cost isn’t the only issue, according to Fellows, who worries about losing the spontaneity of playing in a busy, public place like Park Royal.
“It’s enjoyable to have people watch us play and it’s enjoyable to have a father with his daughter or son building up the courage to ask if they can play a five-minute game,” he said.
He struggled to find the right words to describe why the chess games at Park Royal are so important to him, but clarified his thoughts in an email.
“I find it a game of rules and fairness. It promotes joy through victory, although fleeting. It provides pride with a new creative move. Mostly it provides me a time of rest where all the outside stresses and noises are dimmed,” Fellows wrote.
“But it has to be more than that because a computer can generate the same. Chess when played in community is all about social interaction. For me it affirms the importance of relationships.”