The impact of a game of chess on my community

I’m a community manager. I put a chess board on my desk.

I recently started working full time as a community manager for an office building. The building has four major tenants that take up multiple floors each, and one floor with five tenants on it. The position was a new one, and the building wanted me to do a few things;

  1. encourage tenants to sign up to a portal website (the online community)
  2. make events and perks in the foyer (the offline community) increasing customer satisfaction

My very first hypothesis was if people like me, they will do small favours for me, where the small favour was signing up to the website. My second hypothesis was that this building was very corporate and might take a while to become accustomed to my new face.

My “office” is the foyer, I’m there 90% of the time, and what I saw every morning was fairly insightful. There was definitely a routine to each individual’s entry into the building. Whether it was listening to something through earphones, always holding the same cup of coffee, or entering together at the same time.

So, I started to analyse. I looked at the demographics of the building, I started keeping a tally of how many people came in the front doors, how many people rode bikes and stored them in the bike cage. I started to run mini competitions where to win, tenants had to tell me something about themselves.

I wanted a way to interact with them that didn’t feel pushy or intrusive on their walk between the front door and the elevator. I knew that as a community manager my biggest asset is a fun personality, so I decided to introduce something I liked, in the hope that the tenants would return the favour.

So, I settled on board games. Based off my conclusions about the demographics, I picked chess. It’s a well known two player game, and I figured anyone who walked past the board could play a single move or stay and play a few more, and I would always play the other team. I monitored the board and made my moves fairly quick so that it would always be the tenants’ turn.

On the very first day, 16 people made a turn. The game finished by the end of the lunch rush, and I had made a few new friends by the end of the day.

I want to take this time to note, I am not a huge chess player. I know the basic rules, I learned how to play when I was in primary school and I haven’t touched a board since.

By the fifth day of having the board on my desk, we were finishing two games a day. On the eighth day, we finished three games for the first time. People were staying longer and taking more turns, and more people were participating. People would see their friends playing chess against me, and come over to watch. I’ve had a crowd of about five people several times now.

And it really had an effect on the community. The first time I lost (to a guy who played competitively in university and one of his friends), I took a photo of the winners and posted it to the website. Other people from the same company recognised them and talked to them about it, then they all talked to me about how they didn’t know that the other played chess and now they had something in common.

I started to get regular players who actually taught me how to play better and more strategically. I developed a group of regulars who didn’t play chess particularly well, but who enjoyed the break up of their monotonous day and the thrill of winning or taking one of my pieces.

Then, I also got a few comments from people who said they didn’t know how to play chess. It was time for a new game.

I picked Connect 4. It was faster, less strategic, and more accessible. I debuted it on a Monday. One tenant came down from his office just to make a chess move but hadn’t realised I’d switched the game. He said he’d played chess on the weekend and was actually looking forward to making a move when he got to work. He wasn’t excited to play a whole game, he just wanted to make a single move and use it as an excuse to get away from his desk.

I had guests to the building playing and commenting how they wished their building had it, couriers started playing with me too. People began coming to my desk, out of their way, to play a move when they went in and out for lunch.

And I got some truly lovely comments from it too.

One man who I recognised but didn’t really speak to other than “good morning” approached me out of the blue one day and said even though he doesn’t play, seeing other people play set him in a good mood for the morning, and he thought it made the building “less sterile”.

One woman said she had a game she thought I would like and that she was going to bring it in for me.

Another man (and the comment that melted my heart a little and inspired me to write this post) said :

You’ve encouraged me to make a space and put one (chess board) out at home and play with my kids

My best friend works down the street and she started eating her lunch at my desk so she could play chess against my tenants, I think that says a lot. She was really disappointed when she showed up and it was suddenly Connect 4 — then I realised it wasn’t me she was coming to visit at all!

The next game I’d like to get is Scrabble. I think it will appeal to the people who haven’t yet played. Connect 4 has been good for getting people to feel nostalgic and relive their childhoods, and most people who play will stick around for an entire game.

Getting a small desktop whiteboard and using it as a scoreboard for chess has also been great. It riles people up when the score is close or when I’m winning by a lot. Guests who arrive early for meetings also have something to occupy themselves with, and sometimes two of the tenants will play each other instead of against me.

Chess has now become a highlight for some of the tenants. They practice at home, pull out old dusty sets and teach their children, and come to work and tell me all about it.

Breaking into the community took a very simple, very old game. And the lesson we can learn from chess is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to bribe people with competitions and prizes.

Offer something familiar, something that provides a bit of a thrill (even something as “boring” as chess gives you a rush of endorphins when you take your opponents queen), and take away all obligation and hurdles (if they make a bad move, they can leave the game and let someone else fix it, and it’s on their way to their desks).

The chess isn’t the foundation of the community, but it enables the community to see each other doing something that can spark conversation. Conversation and engagement within a community is the ultimate goal and sign of a healthy community.

This was originally published in October(ish) of 2017.

@mehdeeka writing about marketing, art + tech, and feminism.

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