A Rochade with friends 3

Behind every great project, there’s an idea. Sometimes the problem is just to get the idea out there. This month we want to show you how an idea worth spreading, combined with a little bit of action, can turn into a project, that touches people’s lives. Martin Knoflach, a kindergarten teacher from Tyrol, managed to turn a great idea into an even greater project. And you can be part of it too. So if you are looking for something to do out there in Vienna, we have a suggestion:

Every Thursday evening there is a special chess event on the university campus. Martin hosts a get-together, named “Rochade with Friends” where Austrians and refugees come to play chess. No matter whether you are in town for just a week or if you are looking for long-term chess partners, if you are a beginner or have an Elo (the measurement of skill level in chess) of 2500:  everyone is welcome.


Playing Chess with Alireza

The King doesn’t speak a language

It all started when Martin wanted to play a little bit more chess. He met Alireza, a young refugee from Afghanistan, and they met once a week to play. This made Martin realise that chess has one big advantage when it comes to intercultural exchange: it’s universal. So he figured that more people might be interested in finding new chess partners from different nations.

Martin Knoflach at Rochade with Friends

Martin making a move

“The great thing about chess is that you don’t even need to know a shared language in order to play with each other. But it is a unique way to bring people from different cultures and nations together. This way refugees can get in touch with Austrians even before they learn German and it gives them a place to practice the language once they attend German class.“, Martin says. But Martin’s initiative is not only beneficial for refugees. “Some people come because they want to become better players, some people come because they want to make new friends. We have people from all professions, ages and nationalities playing chess together.”

A sense of mutual respect and equality are what make the weekly meetings so special. When you meet a person through playing chess nothing matters apart from their chess skills. But don’t be afraid, you don’t have to be a pro to come and play. Beginners are as welcome as skilled players and trust us, there is no faster way to boost your Elo than playing with these guys.

“Actually I didn’t play chess before I came to Austria” Alireza tells us “but it is a very popular game in the Middle East. So when I arrived in Traiskirchen, I had nothing to do. I wasn’t allowed to work or to attend German class. So we asked for a chessboard and I learned chess. And for 3 months I played chess everyday just to have something to do.  This summer I was among the Top 10 at the first Chess Unlimited Tournament. (An event organised by Kineke Mulder, who is very actively trying to connect Austrians and Refugees through chess.)

Mohammed at Rochade with Friends

A Mohammed – a regular attendee

Since April, Alireza is now attending the event each week, and so is A Mohammed Ascher from Iran. Having played chess for 25 years already, he is not only a fierce player but also a skilled teacher. “I’ve been in Vienna for 8 months”, he says. “Chess has always been my hobby. Now it’s also a way of distracting myself while meeting new people.”

As we attend one of the weekly meetings at the ÖH Kindergarten on Campus, we can witness the beauty of chess: Two strangers connecting through a game and eventually becoming friends. “The idea was to create a space where people can meet each other as equals and realize that we can all learn from each other. And eventually this forms a community, where we become friends and help each other out.” Martin explains. “Four of our players already play in Austrian Chess Clubs. Like mastering the art of chess, the process of starting a new life in a foreign country, is a long-term goal. This way we can start the process together.” If you want to learn more about the advantage of helping refugees to help themselves, then check out Alexander Bett’s talk at TEDxVienna’s conference ‘What if’.

How do strangers become friends?

Of course we were eager to find out how Martin turned his idea into a long-term project. After collecting a few donations from his friends and buying some chessboards, Martin reached out to the organisation “Fremde werden Freunde”, an organisation which connects refugees and Austrians trough different kinds of acitivies. They helped him to find a location and players, and to spread his idea via Facebook. Martin emphasizes how easy-going the collaboration with the organisation was. With their support his concept turned into a weekly event within 6 weeks.

If you are not a passionate chess player, “Fremde werden Freunde” do offer a great diversity of other activities (such as cooking, sports, German classes) to connect Austrians and refugees. Since the summer of 2015 “Fremde werden Freunde” has already brought together around 700 people. All of their events are for free.

If you also want to improve your chess skills, you can attend one of their weekly meetings:

Thursdays from 6:15 pm – 9 pm

ÖH Kindergarten, University Campus Hof 4

Spitalgasse 2, 1090 Wien

All levels are welcome.

Photo credits: Radu Meșter

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About Julia Unteregger

Julia is a writer and a mental health professional. In her free time she likes to hike, even though she fears heights. She also drinks a lot of coffee and plays an excessive amount of solitaire.

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