Hirfan Romzi: Looking at a Game of Chess as a Metaphor for Life

The Founder of Aliwal Chess Club talks about how their community gatherings are never just about playing chess.

“When you play chess, everything happens within those 64 squares. Every single move you make is calculated. There’s no such thing as luck. If you win, you made that happen. And if you lose, you have no one to blame but yourself. The same goes with life.

I’ve always believed that you have full control over everything you do. When you hit a certain age, you gain enough maturity to understand that it’s all on you. Sometimes, friends think I’m too harsh for thinking this way, but everything really boils down to the choices you make.

Even if you lose or get screwed over by someone in life, you can’t blame the other person for playing the game. The ball is in your court to respond with your own strategy. People may give advice, but ultimately, it’s the decisions you make that determine the outcome.

I think my generation is very soft. You know the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs? I think we’ve surpassed the basic need for security. Now, after just a minor inconvenience, people are like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Stop that! You still have complete control of your life!

I think I’m like this because of my childhood. Of course, everything we go through here in Singapore cannot compare to the struggles that others in Third World or war-torn countries face. But as a kid, I was really forced to mature and grow up fast.

My family was financially burdened. There were many times where there was no food at home. I’ve had to work since I was 12 to support myself. Back then, because I didn’t have money to top-up my EZ-link card, I’d walk from Queenstown to Jurong East to go to school.

I’m grateful to be born in such an environment. Because now, I know how to survive. Many people fear taking risks because they’re scared to fail. I have nothing to lose. Even if I lose everything, I would still know how to survive. I can go back to eating baked beans everyday.

This attitude towards life translates into everything I do, including running the Aliwal Chess Club (ACC). You start with a dream which becomes a vision, and then you work towards making it a reality. You might fail, but you still try. You give it your best to make it happen.

At ACC, our motto is ‘Drink teh, then we play’. Before it turned into this large community gathering, it started off with me simply wanting to play chess with friends. We’d buy milk tea from Teh Sarabat, then go to Sultan Gate off Aliwal Street to play chess.

I’m honestly not the best player, but I was such a fan of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. It really popularised chess. From there, friends started reaching out to teach them how to play. The community became bigger, and it turned into a weekly lifestyle.

Our very first organised chess meet took place in November 2021. I posted on Instagram, inviting anyone who’s interested to come join us. Not the most sophisticated setup – we had wooden crates as seats – but 15 people turned out. I was surprised there was interest.

I then got the idea to have a chess meet in a café when I was doing the design rebranding for Huggs Coffee. Outside of running ACC, I’m a graphic designer. At the time, Huggs had just opened their flagship store in Maxwell. It had an amphitheater and a community space.

Seeing how Huggs was expanding and wanted to bring in a large crowd, I pitched the idea of doing a chess meet to my Managing Director. The idea worked, and 20 people came to Huggs to play chess. That led to other café collaborations down the line.

Today, we try to organise two chess meet-ups a month. One will be at a café for people who want comfort. The partnering café will even come up with a special teh for the event. The other will be a street chess meet, because we want to stay true to our humble beginnings.

What’s special about ACC is that it’s never just about playing chess. My team and I do try to make it cooler; give it more of a creative arts vibe. We’d have a small busking setup at the back alley and invite bands to play. We even had vendors coming in to do live poetry.

One of the crazier ideas we had was recreating something called neon chess. We painted the chess boards to make the neon squares glow under UV light in a dark room. We just want to change this notion that chess is just this serious game only for very serious people.

Challenges of running the chess club? To be absolutely honest, it brings me more joy than any hardship. I was telling one of my teammates, when I gather people, and I see them happy, it makes me very happy. I’m doing this more for myself than anyone else.

Because when I was growing up, I was so deprived of family. I had no love from my family, whatsoever. I always depended on friends for joy and companionship. So when I see people come together and have fun, I get a sense of satisfaction. I go home and I feel at peace.

ACC welcomes everyone from all walks of life. We’ve had people come in suits, and people come in slippers. We’ve had parents come down with their kids, and we’ve also had single lawyers. And even if you don’t know how to play chess, just come down, and we’ll teach you.

Do you know the card game We’re Not Really Strangers? I printed my own set of t-shirts that says, We’re Not Really Here For Chess. Yes, it can be awkward and intimidating, especially if you’re an introvert, but just take a chance, and we promise you, you’ll have a great time and gain a community.” – Hirfan 

Interview by Arman Shah

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1 Comment

  1. Yet another story that resonates so deeply with us. Thank you Arman, for seeking out these beautiful souls within your community, and for sharing their journey with us. Hirfan is a remarkable young man – such maturity and wisdom, the ability to acknowledge both the dark and the light, and to embrace it all with grace. May his words echo in the hearts of all who read his story. Sending love. Justine and Michael.

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