The Grass Arena

The Grass Arena

Nov 20, 2014, 2:43 PM |

I've always thought there was danger with chess that we can think it as too pure a game. That it isn’t a human enterprise but one that only takes place on 64 squares.

The Grass Arena convinced me I had this view completely backwards. It is the autobiography of John Healy. The title is the name he gives to the park he lived in as an alcoholic vagrant in London.

It starts with his abusive childhood and follows Healy through a descent into homeless alcoholism. The book is a harrowing, brutal account of his life as an alcoholic vagrant in London. To take one of many descriptive passages

'In those three months I never took my clothes off nor had a bath. About ten of us men and women, slept in that one room because it was the only one in the house that didn’t have a leaky roof. We were all getting amphetamines off this quack, washing them down with wine and cider. We were like zombies half the time. The room was full of filth - lice, human shit and piss, gobs of consumptive phlegm”

From this misery comes the moment of serene beauty where Healy, in prison, discovers chess. His friend introduces him to the game with 'If i told you about a game that if you were waiting for seven o'clock on a Sunday night for the pubs to open, and you was playing a game, you'd forget the pub wasn't open...' There follows an amazing description of where a man you have followed through his life falling apart pulls himself together around a passion for chess.

It is profoundly moving and more importantly human. Chess isn’t a purely logical challenge for Healy, it is what gives his life purpose and helps him and the book rise above the previous squalor. It is a human challenge where competition is one of the main drivers that gets him sober.

His next book Coffee House Chess Tactics is more purely about chess. It is full of great gambits, sacrifices and swindles. I was going to claim this as an antidote to the emotional roller coaster of The Grass Arena. But I now realise it is a very similar book. It is the infectious joy he describes at every ruse he pulls off that illustrates why chess saved him.

Here is one example of his style of play.


Coffee House Chess Tactics shows the combination of the exhilarating brain gymnastics of chess and the street fighting attitude that kept Healy alive when he was homeless.

The 1992 film of the book is on youtube


You should run not walk to his website and get these books, not just as a chess books but more importantly as a human ones. What saved Healy from the grass arena was not just the 64 square arena but also you the people who play there.