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the story

the story

  1. How it all started
  2. BigChess - Designed and manufactured in South Africa
  3. Selling
  4. The Business Pitch
  5. The Benefits of Chess
  6. Charity and Fundraising
  7. The Competition
  8. We are All Over the Place
  9. Boards
  10. Geocaching and the Field Next Door
  11. Our Clients
  12. Our Partners and Employees
  13. Shows, Markets and Expos
  14. Other Cool Stuff We Make
  15. How to Damage a BigChess Piece

 

Chapter 1 - How it all started

My son, went to Cliffview Junior School in Northcliff and amongst other things, he played chess. One weekend he played his first chess tournament at Trinity House in Honeydew.  It was over a weekend and I went along. I was absolutely amazed at the mix of children, the ages, heights, genders and races of all the children and how keen they all were. There were several hundred playing chess in the school hall. It was a pleasant revelation for me to see in South Africa. A mixed variety of children played each other, girls beat boys, and boys beat girls. It was fantastic.   1 
2  This was all indoors. They had all of this going on inside the hall. So I thought that we need to get this out into the open where more people can see it. A week or so later I was invited with some of the parents to play against a selection of the young chess players, all below the age of 12. I played against a young blond boy who seemed to have an attention span of about 20 seconds but he gave me a good lesson! That was quite a humbling experience.

When I was at school (a long time ago), all the head boys and girls were generally the top sports players. Rugby and cricket for the boys and hockey, netball and tennis for the girls. It was almost automatic. So I thought well, it would be really nice to have a chess game that is visible, out in the public, where this youngster in grade 8 could beat the rugby player in grade 12. Just to show that actually the world is not all just brute force and arrogance, you have to be able to think.  I then went around trying to get an outdoor chess set for the school. I tried to buy a set and I couldn’t get one. I was surprised that they weren’t easily available. I had seen a set at Unika (a school in Randburg) and we were able to borrow a sample piece of each type and make fibreglass moulds so we could make our own fibreglass pieces. 

 

I had a friend who was making boats with us. We were all involved in sailing at the time and he knew all about fibreglass.  He helped me to make the moulds and we then started making the fibreglass pieces. We could only make two pieces per day, because it took that long to make it all up. It’s a very slow and messy process. We made one set for Cliffview.

One Saturday morning we bought the paving slabs at the building materials shop and my family helped set up a board near the school tuck shop. This was the very first one we made. Over the succeeding few years, we made ten or twenty fibreglass sets for various people and organizations.  

3 
4 5
This was in 2003, more than fourteen years back. We didn’t make any profit on the sets, we just charged the folks what we paid for the pieces, and we didn’t see it as a business but rather as just doing people a favour. We had the moulds, we built our website and we started selling. We started off slowly but it has actually gone remarkably well. We have had a lot of fun with it. It has been a fantastic project. 

 

6

 

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Chapter 2 - BigChess
 - 
Designed and manufactured in South Africa

A few years earlier I was involved in the manufacture of a small beginner’s sailing yacht which was roto-moulded. I met up with another sailor who made very nice (and expensive) aluminium moulds for plastic kayaks, the type they use for white water canoeing. The tough plastic which is used for roto-moulding was ideal for the chess pieces. It is like the plastic used for Tupperware or traffic cones (only nicer). So, since way back then, I have always wanted to have the pieces roto-moulded which would enable us to make one set a day in a much more cost effective way.

The problem was that those moulds cost quite a tidy sum for each and one needs one mould for each piece and some extra pawn moulds. The other thing is that you can’t make any sets until you have all of the moulds to make each piece. Today, we have extra moulds to be able to make the sets smoothly.

At that time we couldn’t afford that sort of money so we had to stick with the fibreglass pieces. As time went by we got a bit lucky and we then had one mould made, the king, as it was the biggest and most impressive piece.

 

getting it down

There is a shop that sells tools for woodworking. The guy at the shop referred me to a lady called Estelle. I telephoned phoned her and she said she would make the sculpture for us. It took about four months to make the knight out of wood. She makes the model and then the pattern maker takes the model and cuts it in half to make a pattern from it from which they can make a mould. In the picture of the two guys discussing how to make the mould the fellow on the left is the pattern maker and the person on the right is the mould maker.

The pattern from that piece then goes to the foundry where they use molten aluminium to make a mould. From the foundry it goes to the mould maker who grinds, polishes it to make it useable. The whole process can take months to complete.

If you look at the face of the knight, you won’t find one like this anywhere in the world. It took us two and a half years to get all the moulds done.

With the king, the mould was machined for me, however in the case of the knight, it was a bit more complicated. The knight in a chess set is the iconic piece so much so that a chess player will say show me the knight. He won’t care about anything else because that’s the piece that holds the character of the set.  So we wanted a good-looking knight as our fibreglass one was horrible. king mould open half

 

In the meantime we wanted to start selling sets because we needed to make some money. So we made the sets using half fibreglass and half plastic, which was presumptuous. We went back and replaced the fibreglass pieces from the people who bought the early sets. We told them, “Look this is the deal: we haven’t got the all pieces yet. We have the king and the queen and the pawns and the other three we haven’t made.”  Here’s a picture of the mix set at the Drakensberg Sun.

drakensburg sun

The process from the start to a finished product goes as follows:

The mould clamps into a frame. There is a huge machine that has three arms. There is a mould on each arm and they put an exact amount of plastic into the mould. The plastic comes from Sasol and it comes in pellets in whatever colour you want. For us it is mostly black and ivory. The whole thing then goes into a chamber which gets heated up and rotates slowly. The plastic melts at a certain temperature and it clings to the outside of the mould. It gets pushed outwards when it is cooled and the piece comes out like a chocolate Easter egg. They then put a plug in the bottom and let it stand for a while to cool down. It takes about twenty minutes to make one piece so this machine runs all the time. They can make a set in two days or one set a day if needs be. Before we could only make two sets a month and now we can make more than ten a month. 

We have got a special machine that prints out the stickers which we designed ourselves. We can apply temporary branding to sets. We do have another method for applying a logo or branding when the pieces are being manufactured. We started off by designing a box for shipping the pieces but packing them was a problem so we then came up with two nets, one for the black pieces and another for the ivory pieces.

 

cluster 1

We only make the traditional chess set. I would have liked to make custom sets, maybe African themed but the problem is the moulds. Each mould is expensive as I mentioned earlier and it takes many months to make. I gave it a lot of thought. There is a very nice South African themed normal size chess set which has now become a collectors’ item. You cannot get them anymore and I thought about that but actually, when people play chess they often want the pieces to be quite plain, you do not want pieces that are too ornate. I would love to do another completely sculpted set in our South African theme but to have a sculpture to do it, but it would take two to three years and we could not afford the costs either.

I am an Engineer so I am quite clean on the detail.  We did one show which was the first outdoor show with the new plastic pieces. We were sitting there, looking at the pieces and I noticed that the King was rocking. So I went and had a look at it. It was bulged at the bottom, because it heated up. In the morning it was fine. At lunch time it had bulged. Now we make sure that every piece has got a little hole in it to release the air pressure. We have got to check that every piece is drilled. It is the little details that one does not always think about that make a difference. 

waterfall colourful dispaly

The factory can work evenings and weekends which we are not doing yet. The problem with that is the quality goes down a bit, because the folks are tired.  But we want we make more moulds which will equate to more production. Often people do not mind waiting a week or two if we do not have pieces for them.  Quite a few folks want colour ones and we make them especially. For example, they may want their school colours.

We take pride in making and designing our own product. A lot of respect is associated with practising that. There is something satisfying about making a thing, getting it to the customer and seeing the customers’ children use it. That is an amazing thing to be able to do, so I think that is something I would not give up.

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Chapter 3 - Selling

Our business is very hands-on unlike a lot of other business. Let me give you a quick example of why we do this. Somebody once said to me “why don’t you go into retail?” So I went to Sportsman’s Warehouse and they were very keen, but wanted to make more than 50% profit of the current selling price at the time. This meant we had to put the price up but that is not the spirit in which this is intended. We are not looking for shareholders. We have our internet web setting and we sell it ourselves. I just think it’s important not to let others hijack it. I don’t favour the idea of people who don’t understand what it is we do and coming into the shop to grab a chunk of the pie. Usually there is a profit because we do want to be sustainable so that we can make more moulds as the demand increases. More moulds means more productivity so every year we try to invest in two moulds.

We get enquiries from guys who want to strike deals. If I find out that someone is doing a deal like buying it through somebody’s somebody’s somebody, I will bust them. This is not for that.  This is not for the people on the other end trying to get the set in the most economical way. 

We are not affiliated with any department, like Basic Education. We just make the pieces. What folks do with them is up to them and we love to help. A school may phone us and say that they would like a set. They can raise money for a set however they would like to do it, and then have person at the school that looks after it and teaches the kids chess.

We feel that we play an important role, on that level. We believe that if you do a good thing and it is durable and brilliant, it will find its way where it needs to go.  That is my approach.

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Chapter 4 - The Business Pitch

I went to a very interesting business course held once a week at the Hub in Johannesburg. There were a whole lot of entrepreneurial youngsters. When you get old like me, you forget why you do this stuff. It was a very nice course. I met twenty to thirty people, from different walks of life and all in different stages in their careers. I was the oldest fat white guy and I made good friends there.  At the end of the course we had to make a pitch for our businesses. It had to be seven minutes long. This was my pitch and I hope you’ll find it interesting.  It’s about why everybody should have a chess set. I gave to all these guys in the panel pictures of children so that they would be thinking about them.

These are the guys that in twenty or thirty years’ time are going to be doing everything for us.  They going to be our doctors, managing our local municipalities, running power stations, flying aeroplanes and they’re going to pay for the taxes that pay for our pensions. So we better start looking after these guys now, not tomorrow.  The problem is, we have got eleven point three million children, twenty four thousand public schools and two thousand independent schools, but we’ve got unemployment of a horrible number.  So I believe it’s our responsibility to make sure that our children are educated properly, fed, and sheltered and cared for. We only have ourselves to blame if this doesn’t happen because, if we don’t do it, they can’t do it themselves. So at BigChess we reckon that we can help children in one way by trying to teach them how to think.  Not like geography or history or anything like that but the thinking process: how you go from one step to another? How do I move this from there to there? How do I organise that thing? It’s about thinking.  So why chess?  It develops logical thinking. It’s a game of patience, nerves, will power and concentration.  It also helps you develop and predict the future and the consequences of your actions.  It can be very self-motivating if you throw in rewards. You can learn how to play and practice regularly. It helps develop a scientific way of thinking. It’s been shown to improve school work and grades and chess actually is cheap. A board and a set are not that expensive.  There’s more about it on our website. I believe chess should be played at all schools because of the academic benefits. On our website there are some academic papers showing that children who can play chess get better marks. It helps a child to think, focus, visualise the moves ahead, see the consequences, analyse things, plan and juggle multiple options.  So why BigChess? You can play outdoors, rather than in a dark, quiet room.

If you go to Joubert Park, they’ve just bought two brand new set. They used to have those horrible old fibre glass pieces. It took two years but eventually they got it and for me, having them in Joubert Park was the best compliment. If you talk to anybody of any race, who’s over the age of thirty five and knows the chess sets at Joubert Park, they will tell you that the old sets had been there for about fifty years. Now it’s our set there and that’s really cool.

The Pitch

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Chapter 5 - The Benefits of Chess

Chess is an old game. It was designed one and half thousand years ago in India. So why is it so popular? Maybe because it is a battle. It was designed by one of the Rajahs in India to teach the military how to strategize.  How they move on the battle field is exactly how the pieces move.

If you are a chess player you will find that the guys do not like to lose.  They take it personally. It is kind of an insult to his manhood. There is a couple of guys that play chess by post somewhere in Europe. This game in particular has been going on for nine years! They write a letter to each other to say this is my next move. When one gets the letter back he takes a board out and he goes back over the last nine years and does all his moves again to see wherever he is. There are a number of guys who do this kind of stuff.

The benefits of chess have been recognised by our president, the Queen, and other great leaders like Madiba. I was very fortunate to be able to give one set to Bishop Tutu. I sneaked into Linde auditorium where he was conducting the Cecil youth orchestra (which he narrated). I’m a fan of his so we named a piece Desmond. I gave it to him and he was absolutely lovely. He was gracious, a really fantastic guy.

There are twenty-four thousand schools in South Africa. It is a heap of amazing opportunity. So far our growth has been fantastic but we could do more. The kids love it. This is a school in Rustenburg.

selly park secondary school - rustenburg

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Chapter 6 - Charity and Fundraising

Sometimes we are able to help by giving a little better pricing on a set, for example, for St Vincent’s School for the Deaf.

They were one of the nicest people we have dealt with. Marie delivered the sets and the lady there was in tears.  We gave them one set and they raised the money for the other set so they have two sets. We like schools and organisations to work towards something if we help them out so that it seems more valuable to them. These kids were fantastic. And the folks that run that school are angels, they are amazing. So I reckon you can’t afford to not have a BigChess set at every school.

st vincents school for the deaf with their new bigchess set !

Another thing that I think is very important is to have these chess sets in prisons. We think that a set should be in every prison. These guys turn out to be great chess players, because they have a lot of time to kill. And playing chess gives them something. It helps their rehabilitation.

Another goal would be to find a company that has got a social program and do a deal with them where they can brand the pieces and we roll it out to some of the folks who cannot afford them. We cut the price down and kind of run one machine just making sets for this company. It would take some months to set up such a project but it’s definitely worth it if the company has the vision and builds the boards.

We have got a project where we make a chess piece into a money box. My idea is to put a money box at the schools and the kids can start saving for a BigChess set. There is a hole in the top where the children can throw in their coins. I will put two or three LEDs in the money box so they can see how full it is. I also want to work out a way of weighing the money box so that when the thing weighs maybe about ten kilograms they get a set! If whatever is in there is more then they get their change back. If it is less, we just take it.

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Chapter 7 - The Competition

checking plastic thickness

Our competition is imported from China. Our pieces are twice as thick, weigh more than twice as much, generally better made and are prettier. 

We sometimes replace the Chinese ones that break and we’ve had quite a few of them that have broken. The Chinese blow they moulds like how plastic bottles are made. That is why they are much thinner like plastic bottles.

The one at Montecasino is broken and that’s a Chinese set.  So we try and persuade people not to buy that set (we slate the Chinese there a little bit). See how thick our plastic is there, it’s really strong, almost like a traffic cone. Our factory uses the same process they use to make those big industrial water tanks.

The Chinese are healthy competition. They are amazing. They make incredible stuff so I am a fan of theirs’. This also motivates me to take up the challenge to take them on.

A lot of people like the fact it is made in South Africa. We are more expensive than the importers but our product is so much stronger and much bigger as well. You can even sit on ours. You cannot sit on the little knobby imports. We think it is the best set in the world. Nobody has said we are wrong yet.  

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Chapter 8 - We are All Over the Place

We had a lady who saw our set at the Indaba Hotel, came to pick one up and took it to Uganda. We also have sets and pieces in Namibia, Miami, Warsaw, Switzerland, Greece, Belgium, England… we are all over the world! You can check out our “bigchess – out and about”...

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Chapter 9 - Boards

The best boards are the concrete slabs. We don’t make them but had some guys who came and built a board here for us and we kind of helped them. Here is a sequence of photographs on how to make your own board. This was done over a period of two days and it is not a difficult process. We have got PVC boards for a temporary use which is one you can roll out and put on the floor. You can get plastic tiles as well.  But the best for schools is the concrete slab as it is the most durable. Most of the schools and resorts have got handymen who can do that kind of building.  I think for the schools it is quite fun when they start building the boards and the kids can see what is happening. It kind of builds some excitement.  So when the set arrives, the excitement is overwhelming. We took one down to a school in Vanderbijlpark or Vereeniging, I don’t quite remember. They bought two sets for this massive school with three of four thousand pupils. The school has got six massive chess boards in the middle of the school. The squares are huge. It is amazing. They said they will have to get more sets, that’s how popular chess is there.

Everybody has got a different vision of how they want the board to look. For example, we have got one customer who did a really nice board with a seating area by the board. Other people paint on the floor. One resort has done a whole seating tiered so the kids can all sit and watch. It looks really cool. 

mabalingwe

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Chapter 10 - Geocaching and the Field Next Door

We have got kind of a plan to put some pieces around and about just for a bit of fun. So we put some pieces in the field next door. We filled them with concrete.

filled with concrete and reinforcing 

Now there is a game called geocaching. It is like a worldwide outdoor treasure hunt and they have a website. They give you clues as to where the treasure is. You get coordinates and you have to find a little micro cage. You write your name in there and you kind of tick it off on the internet.  If you find one you get certain points. If you do a geocache further from home you get more points.  It is like a hidden little cache of things. Randomly, some people will come along in the field, find the piece, fiddle around with it and we did not know what was going on.  I thought they were collecting insects or something initially. Once or twice I would see guys in the field next door with a fancy Jeep, and I would wonder what was going on. They came for a second time and the third time I stopped one of them and asked what they were doing here. He said to me this chess piece became a cache. Underneath the chess piece they had hidden something. I dug around and I found out that they had named it and given it coordinates. They named it Charlie’s Castle and has become what they call a cache bag.

 

geocache 1 geocache 2

 

What we do is turn it upside-down and cut it out. We put some iron fence bars in there and we fill the piece up with cement. We then dig a hole and fill it with cubic meter of concrete. Then we put the piece inside the concrete and let it set. There is one outside on the grass with rope marks around it because people have tried to pull it out. They have broken the head of another piece. One time I saw someone kicking it. I don’t feel so badly about it. I actually take it as a kind of compliment. One day we put a whole lot out there. One got pinched and the next day we put fifty pieces out there, just to show that we do not care about thieves. We actually have a programme for those that want to pinch a piece where they can actually get one free. So if you give us a nice picture of something funky with a piece, we will send you one for free to try and discourage people from pinching them. But nobody has done that yet, they just pinch them.

 A lot of people stop to see the pieces in the field. My idea is to have pieces all over Johannesburg, just randomly… In Europe it is quite common to have arty stuff that does not necessarily mean anything. That, to me, is really nice if we can do it occasionally. But not destroy anything or cause any problems. I think that is quite cool.

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Chapter 11 - Our Clients

Our clients range from schools, corporates, resorts, hospitals, private homes, and so on.

We had one person who bought a set for his kids because it gets them outside learning chess, not inside on their computers.

Here’s an interesting story.  We went to the Hobby-X show and there was one guy who wanted to buy the set on display, right there. He owned the sweet shop. The guy wanted to pay in cash, and I said, no, you cannot do that, you must wait. He wanted to take it away while we were on show. Then I thought about it for a bit and asked myself, “Are you stupid?” So, I went and found him. I said “here is the deal, we will give you less ten percent and I will deliver it on Monday, but you cannot have it now.  Because it is on display.”  He agreed and paid the deposit.   

Another lady at the show asked if she could borrow a set because she had some German people coming out to teach chess at the Maritz Brothers School in Alberton. So I said okay.

The Germans came, they had their event and one said he wanted to buy a set. We then got payment from the German Chess Association for two sets.  One for the Maritz Brothers School and one for them. They came back and went to St Peter School. We sent a set there as well. The German folks have got a ten year plan to come and teach chess to the schools. It is ground level stuff.  It’s not posh and fancy but it is pretty amazing. Food and medicine are important. The kids need that. But once you have that, teach them how to think. It’s the best gift you can give anybody. That has been fun. 

German Chess Association
Worcester

We did one set for the blind folks in Worcester. It was black and yellow set because partially sighted people can distinguish between yellow and black. We put little knobs on the black pieces so that they can feel which one is black. They also lay the board out so that that the black squares are slightly higher than the white squares. Those guys play brilliant chess without seeing anything.

We also had the pieces at the Big Brother House for about three weeks. They came here, the whole mob, looked around and said they want to rent some pieces for a photo shoot.

big brother

We also had the movie about a young chess champion that came and shot with our pieces.

Jolene Martin who does music shows on SABC TV also came and shot an interview here with some Christian music guys from Potchefstroom. They spent the whole day all for four minutes of film.

 tv shoot (2)

 

 

There also was a lady from Sasol who saw us at a show and she ordered two sets of Sasol blues. I had to play with the colour. We delivered to their offices in Rosebank and they had them filled with sand because she did not want them stolen. I could hardly pick the pieces up, so I do not even know if they are going to play with them. She has taken them to schools and other events to try and promote the game.

The sets are also very popular at weddings. People like to have the pieces in their wedding pictures.

What I do as well with the resorts is give them free delivery if they give me accommodation and I’ll go hiking. I’ve done that a couple of times.

Sometimes when we have a running race we put a board and a set at the finish line that people can play with, or fiddle around with.

 We have had a lot of fun with BigChess.

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Chapter 12 - Our Partners and Employees

We have four employees and run on a simple and organized system. Everybody knows what to do and when to do it. We do have some anomalies now and again but it has never been anything we cannot handle. When the factory delivers, they know what order to put the pieces in so that we can do a quick check which takes a second. Rarely will you find a grumpy person handling or working with the pieces. Anybody that we interact with seems to be pleasant. When we deliver to the schools it is just a good feeling. All the kids try to help and are always super excited.

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Chapter 13 - Shows, Markets and Expos

We go for a lot of shows and expos, usually for free because people like to have us there. We set up for a day or two, the kids play, we sit and watch them and chat with the people. But sometimes we don’t man the shows, like the Gateway show. We just took it the, set it up and left. That doesn’t happen often but that weekend we had another expo in Brakpan. We were also in a Garden Show. They had to build gardens on a stage. One of the participants used our pieces and we were in their garden magazine.

 

show 1 show 2

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Chapter 14 - Other Cool Stuff We Make

I have put some electronics inside some of the pieces so we can light them up.
illuminated illuminated bishop

We have a translucent pieces. They are see through and we put pretty colours in there. I have a new design that I am working on that will allow you to have and control funky colours in your illuminated piece from an app on your phone. You can set the colour patterns, twirls and all kinds of co-ordinated arrangements. So that’s a project on the go.

We also make tables and chairs out of some pieces.

table n chairs

 

Initially we made the chess piece tables just for fun and to display at shows. One lady saw them and said she wanted three tables. Then everybody wanted to buy them. We didn’t even have a price yet! So I had the glass tops made, armoured and drilled. We plan on doing a few more fun things with our pieces in future.

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Chapter 15 - How to Damage a BigChess Piece

We ran some ballistics tests on the pieces. We wanted had to test them like how the “Myth Busters” do it. So the question was, can you hide behind a BigChess set to protect you from bullets? Because in South Africa you need to know stuff like this. This is true but only for bird shots. We used a 9mm as well as a 38 special.

 brian our ballistics tester

The story is on the website: Go to story. These sets are so strong that the only way you can break them by sawing them with a chainsaw or burning them.  We want to have a YouTube video demonstration of somebody sawing one up and then somebody burning one or setting it alight.  The fire department said they will do the burning for us, but the sawing, I would like to do that myself like a real life axe murderer. 

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Conclusion

To sum it all up…

We’ve sold a lot of sets and it’s a fantastic thing to work with because they don’t come back. Everyone loves them. When we deliver sets, the folks are always happy. It’s brilliant. It’s a fantastic product.  It’s one of the best things we have ever done, I think. I love it.

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