Last week I considered the development of chess clubs and chess administration here in England since the 19th century and explained how little has changed over the best part of 200 years.
Chess became very popular among children of secondary school age (11 to 18) after the Second World War, and, for 35 years or so, the average age of entry into competitive chess gradually declined. For the past 35 years the main focus of junior chess has been in primary schools, with the game gradually becoming less popular among secondary school children. This is one reason why, as Garry Kasparov recently pointed out, we currently have no IMs under the age of 18.
The typical chess club outside Central London meets once a week from about 7:30 to 11:00, usually in a church hall or the function room of a pub. A larger club such as Richmond will have about 40 members. Many clubs are much smaller and have perhaps 10 or 20 members. The times and, sometimes, the venues make them unsuitable for younger children. They’re also difficult for older children, who are under a lot of academic pressure with homework in the evenings. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, you’d give up chess for a week or two while you were doing your last minute revision, but for most of the year you’d have time to play chess in the evenings. These days, with children having several hours homework a night, this is no longer possible for most of them. Those few teenagers who are still playing in evening leagues will tell you in the September before their public examinations that they won’t be able to play all year.
So chess is now played in ghettos. Young children play at school. Older children tend not to play at all. And adults, mostly middle aged or above, play in the evenings at times not suited to children. If you want to get children and adults playing together you need chess at weekends. As it happens, there’s quite a lot of chess played at weekends, but not all of it is suitable.
One of the good things about chess in this country is that there’s a thriving weekend tournament circuit including both slowplay tournaments over two days, perhaps with a Friday evening round, and rapidplay tournaments over one day.
There are also regular county matches, ranging from open events down to events for players graded under 100, whose teams tend to be selected from players in local leagues so don’t attract many children. County chess is still successful in the South East of England where there are several counties who can field teams of similar strength, but is struggling in less heavily populated parts of the country.
Finally, there’s the 4NCL (and also the Junior 4NCL) which takes place at hotels on the outskirts of nondescript Midlands towns. This season the lower southern divisions of the 4NCL take place in Telford, in the West Midlands, about 150 miles from London. If you enjoy the social side of things it’s fine, and the league seems (I’ve never played in it) to be very well organised, but it’s a very long way to travel for a couple of games of chess. Even county matches often involve time-consuming journeys across London.
So let’s invent a different sort of chess club, which will be attractive to adults, to children and to families. Let’s also invent a totally different chess structure for this country.
Our new ideal chess club will meet at weekends Saturday or Sunday afternoons, as well as in the evenings. It will run structured chess courses for children (which may also take place in early evening slots) using a proper chess course such as the Steps Method. The lower levels would not require professional teachers but might be run by parents or adult members of the chess club. The club may also run tuition for adults. Just as in, for example, cricket clubs, there will be a 1st team, a 2nd team, perhaps a 3rd team, as well as junior teams at various age groups. Stronger juniors would, of course, be able to play for the senior teams if they were good enough. There would be inter-club matches in local leagues on weekend afternoons with 4 hour sessions. Evening leagues currently only have time for a 3 hour, or sometimes even a 2½ hour session. If you play to a finish in one session the games will often degenerate into a time scramble (or two time scrambles if you’re playing n moves in n minutes followed by a quickplay finish) with a random result. In my local league slowplay, with a choice of adjournment or adjudication for unfinished games is still the default option. There are many who believe that adjournments and adjudications have no place in 21st century chess, but those who make the decisions in the Thames Valley League don’t agree with this. The games might run from 2:00 to 6:00 or from 3:00 to 7:00, giving children plenty of time to get home to bed while adults will, if they choose, be able to spend the rest of the evening with their friends in their favourite hostelry or curry house. Local leagues of this nature could be used as feeders to the 4NCL, using a pyramid structure like that used in, for example, football in this country.
Evenings could be used for rapidplay leagues, with double round matches. The time limit would be 30 minutes per player per game, or an equivalent time control using increments. Children playing in these matches would get home earlier than they would from a 3 hour session, while adults will have more time to enjoy a few pints in the pub afterwards. It would also be possible, for example, for a junior to play in the first match, to be replaced by an adult arriving late from work for the second match.
To implement this you’d need major changes to the whole structure of chess. You’d need to phase out evening chess leagues and county matches, and, while you’re at it, abolish the National Club Championship, which should have been put out of its misery years ago. You’ll also need to persuade chess players that they’ll need to pay a lot more if they want a club that’s open longer hours. Parents, at least in more affluent areas, will be very willing to pay membership fees if they think their children will benefit.
Sadly, I really don’t see anything like this happening in my lifetime, though. It reminds me of the tourist who was lost in Ireland. He asked a local in the nearest pub how to get to Dublin. “If I were you, sir”, came the reply, “I wouldn’t start from here”.