Chess returns to downtown Ashburton

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CHECK MATE: Jim Armstrong of the Ashburton MenzShed (centre) separates Stewart Bennett, to his left, and Roy Keeling, to his right, ahead of their friendly chess battle at Te Whare Whakatere, watched by members of Litter-Free Ashburton.
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Octogenarians Roy Keeling and Stewart Bennett battled it out on the Te Whare Whakatere outdoor chessboard last week in front of a small crowd of supporters.

The chessboard is in the green space within the new district council building.

Roy proudly wore a t-shirt with the photograph of world chess champion Bobby Fisher.

Fisher took the world title from Boris Spassky, who both Ashburton men had the honour to play in Christchurch in 1988.

Then, like now, there was plenty of rivalry.

RIVALRY: Stewart Bennett (left) and Roy Keeling in action.

Roy, 89, and Stewart, 85 are avid chess players, who have been playing against each other since the mid-1960s.

They were also members of the Ashburton Chess Club.

‘‘We were playing each other in the 60s. (Stewart) won the club championship one year (but) we’re pretty even,’’ Roy said.

Ahead of the match there was talk about retiring hurt, or calling the match a draw if the weather turned.

Then when Stewart, who was playing white, took the first move, that old rivalry returned.

The chess pieces were bought with support of Ashburton Lions Club around the mid-1990s.

They funded the $5000 custom made chess pieces, and drummed up sponsor support to share the cost.

Roy, who worked for the district council at the time, said the idea for the public chess area had come from then chief engineer Steve Taylor, a fellow chess club member.

The district council was supportive of the initiative. Pavers, then on East St, were painted.

The chess pieces were stored away nearby and brought out on request for chess club members and passing visitors.

The giant chessboard was a way to promote the game in the district.

During the spruce up of the town centre, the chess pieces spent time in Methven then returned to Ashburton. They were restored by members of Ashburton MenzShed in 2019.

Member Jim Armstrong said the restoration was undertaken free of charge by members between jobs.

‘‘We had to patch some of them up, and they all got spray painted,’’ he said.

Bev Skates, of Litter-Free Ashburton, said after the restoration they were stored at the former i-SITE building. Litter group members would put them out on the East St chessboard each Friday for the public to use.

She remained interested in their whereabouts following the closure of the building.

‘‘I always wanted to make sure we knew where they were,’’ Bev said.

She found out they would be available for use in the outdoor green space area of the new civic building during the library’s open hours.

The chessboard can be accessed via the ground floor library, next to the children’s playground.

‘‘This is a fantastic area for them, (and) they are available all the time, for anyone, any age,’’ Bev said.

Chess is good exercise for the mind. Roy wants to keep playing for as long as he can.

He has taken it up online, playing ‘‘lightning chess’’ every day. It’s a game in a quick five-minute chess format.

He plays prior to tea, and is vying up against players from around the world.

Stewart too remains drawn to the game.

IT’S A DRAW MATE: Stewart Bennett and Roy Keeling call it a draw after playing on the Te Whare Whakatere outdoor chessboard.

On the chessboard, when the rivalry kicked back in, there was a battle with much to-ing and froing.

It was settled with a draw.