Old Chess master opens café of hope – inside time & inside information

50 years after leaving HMP Pentonville Chess ‘hard man’ and award-winning author, John Healy, opens loneliness café in Cambridge

John Healy, winner of 14 literary awards for his Penguin Classic autobiography, ‘The Grass Arena’, opened a new loneliness initiative, the 5asideCHESS & Life café in Cambridge on recently. Healy, who turns 80 in November, turned his life around at the age of 30 when he left behind a life of violence and alcoholism after being taught to play chess by fellow prisoner, ‘Harry the Fox’. Healy swapped his chronic addiction to alcohol to a more positive addiction to chess, becoming a champion in the process. Whilst he no longer plays as much as he did, remarkably he has not touched a drop of alcohol since 1972 when he walked out of the gates of Pentonville prison for the last time.

A ‘cruel companion’

Healy who has lived alone for many years said, “Loneliness is a cruel companion and places like the 5asideCHESS and Life café can be a life saver to people who are struggling. It’s not always easy to break out of the prison of your own mind but feeling that there is somewhere that you can go to connect and perhaps make new friends over a game and a cuppa could be the difference that makes the difference.”

The big bus

Social enterprise, 5asideCHESS started its journey in 2015 using a simple game of chess as an ice breaker to get people of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, and backgrounds connecting. 5asideCHESS co-founder, Ross Smith, said, “The board is a great leveller which promotes conversation between people who would never normally meet, breaking down barriers in the process. Since 2018 the 5asideCHESS Battling Suicide Bus has toured up and down the country in a mission to tackle loneliness and social isolation and the mental health problems these issues cause. The Bus is signed with hundreds of messages to loved ones lost to suicide – a powerful reminder of the devastating ripples caused when someone takes their own life”.

The first move

Inspired by Healy’s life story of a prisoner being able to get through to a fellow prisoner in a way which no other well-intentioned help was able to do, 5asideCHESS has developed a WingMAN program which is now being rolled out in several prisons as well as in universities and communities around the UK. The program uses 5asideCHESS as a tool to teach life and social skills which can be learned and practiced through the game as well as helping to build confidence and self-esteem, improving mental health and well-being in the process. Their mantra is “Your first move is Hello”


April Cox from the 5asideCHESS & Life Cafe explains; “John rarely ventures out these days and having him come and open the café and share his story of overcoming addiction and building a better life through learning to play chess was a privilege which has inspired us all. The 5asideCHESS and Life Café operates as a pay-what-you-can, volunteer-run café which aims to provide a warm, friendly place that people of all ages can rely on. That’s going to be especially important during what is likely to be a very difficult winter ahead and our WingMEN will make sure everyone feels welcome, no matter what their story. We’re starting in Cambridge but we’re hoping to see communities in other towns and cities around the UK opening a 5asideCHESS and Life Café too. Healy who has just completed his sequel to The Grass Arena is hoping to see one open near his home in London soon.

To find out more about 5asideCHESS ask your librarian or education staff to email hello@5asidechess.comor write to: Crossways House, Longstanton Road, Oakington, Cambridge CB24 3BB

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