Culture  Slice of life

Bridget Sprouls on Café Pi’s chess culture

Pi is not just a mathematical constant. It is also a café on St. Laurent, and what goes on inside has given it a singular reputation among the neighbourhood cafés. There are the usual laptops, newspapers, and gossip. But the environment is also strewn with the black and white squares of chess boards and their statuettes, with mumbling men in caps, novices studying strategy books, and hovering onlookers eager to engage in some hypothetical warfare. Pi’s web site,, refers to chess as “Le roi des jeux” or “king of games,” and states that “it is one of the few games in which luck is not a factor – and neither is race, religion, age, and social class. In an individualistic world where the loneliness of people is becoming more widespread, chess brings individuals closer together.”

Arpad Kiss opened Pi eight years ago as a chess café. He plays when he has the time, which – he admitted with a smile – is not often. The name “Pi” was chosen, he said, “because it references mathematics and logic, but it is also a sign that is mysterious and inconclusive. So it combines logic and art.” Café Pi serves as an art gallery, featuring the works of a different local artist every month. They brew fair-trade coffee and offer a generous selection of vegetarian delectables.

Last Wednesday, I watched a young man wait patiently to play the winner of an ongoing game. It wasn’t long. Two older men skirmished at a furious pace with their hands practically dancing together over the chess board, as they ushered the knights and rooks through battle. Alexandre Chaput-Daunais learned chess only six months ago, but is already advanced enough to teach the game to primary students at L’Ecole Charles-Bruneau. He informed me that this rapid style of play is called “Blitz.” In Blitz, each player is given a short five minutes in which to make all of his or her moves. Each player must tap the silver button of a timer after every turn. I played a game with Chaput-Daunais, and was caught completely off-guard – so to speak. The imposed speed of Blitz made little sense to me until he explained that it was a contest of reflexes – like any sport – and strategy must be automatic. ‘This,” I comforted myself, “requires practice.” Pi holds a Blitz tournament in the afternoon of the first Sunday of each month, and judging by the number of players in the café on a Wednesday afternoon at two, it must be hugely popular.

A large grey-haired man in a flannel jacket named Lesley drifted around the café like it was his own living room. He told me, “There are only two words one needs to describe chess. One is ‘alive,’ and the other is ‘religious.’ It is religious because you must believe that you can win. If you sit down to play and you do not believe, it is not possible…. And I say it’s ‘alive’ because it will take over your life. I wake up at three in the morning, thinking about it. C’est un amour.”

Montreal offers a variety of venues for those who enjoy the anonymity of a public space. To many, Café Pi is but another such place, but for the chess-playing regulars, it’s a whole world unto itself. The same enthusiasts – nearly all of them men – furrow their brows at the well-laden tables year after year. Some do come and go, but those that I spoke with seemed dedicated to their peculiar fraternity. An urge to achieve success in some way, even if it’s just checkmating the opponent, seems to bring all the players together.

Mansour Faycal – who drives 18-wheelers – has been frequenting Pi every Friday and Saturday almost since its inception. He said “When I don’t work, I play chess. It’s like a drug…. I need to play. I often play chess all night on the Internet. But when I play too much, after five or six hours, I’ll have a headache.” Faycal began playing chess when he was 14 in Ethiopia. Now he says that “Chess is my only challenge. But it’s okay because it’s free! Sometimes, I finish work and my boss says, ‘Why are you hurrying away? Are you taking drugs?’ and I say, ‘No, I have to go play chess!’”