Don’t worry. Although this might start off like a post on politics, it’s actually about something else. Most things, in my experience, are not about what most people think they’re about. If it really was a post on politics, Nigel, quite rightly, wouldn’t publish it. After all, this is a chess blog.
In the aftermath of the recent General Election it’s been interesting to read articles from a variety of viewpoints on what will happen next with regard to both UK politics in general, and, more specifically, Brexit.
Adam Swersky, for example, is a local councillor in Harrow (North West London) representing the Labour Party. In his day job he leads an initiative helping people with health problems and disabilities to find employment. He wrote an interesting article proposing a Grand Coalition to solve the UK’s political and social problems.
A couple of hours later I came across an article in the Sunday Times suggesting that the election result might open the way for a soft Brexit. The article was written by the newspaper’s economics correspondent Tommy Stubbington, who had previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, and, before that, for Dow Jones Newswires.
You might by now be asking yourself what this has to do with chess. But 22 years ago, back in 1995, Tommy and Adam were sitting across the chessboard from each other in Round 4 of the Richmond Chess Initiative Championship. Tommy was the more experienced player so the game resulted in a comprehensive victory for the future Sunday Times over the future Harrow Labour Party.
Both Tommy and Adam were strong, but not outstanding, players at primary school age, both achieving grades in the 120s before giving the game up to concentrate on their academic work. If you’re bright enough to understand chess at a higher level at that age without intensive coaching there’s a fair chance (although it’s not true for everyone) that you’ll find other things to do with your life that are more lucrative, such as being a top financial journalist, more worthwhile, like helping people with health problems find work, or just more interesting than chess.
This is one of the problems with children starting competitive chess young: those who do well will be the children with a very strong general intellgence (David Didau believes there is such a thing: you may disagree) who will often choose to do other things with their lives.
Looking back at the 29 players in that 1995 tournament, there is, as far as I know, one (older than most of the players in this event and also older when starting competitive chess) still playing regularly and another, who also started relatively late, playing occasionally. I’m aware that another competitor, now a Brussels-based Eurocrat (not sure what effect Brexit will have on him) plays online to a high level. So we’re getting at most 10% of our stronger players remaining active 20 years later – and don’t forget that these were the strongest RJCC players, and the RJCC players in turn were the strongest primary school players. The followthrough from primary school to adult chess has been for 20 or 30 years at the most 1% (probably more like 0.1% now), even in an area like Richmond with a strong and active junior chess club acting as a bridge between the two worlds.
Children who start competitive chess at secondary school age, however, do not need precocious skills – and it’s those who are more likely to continue playing chess as adults. The younger children start to play competitively the more likely they are to become grandmasters, but the older children start to play competitively the more likely they are to continue playing as adults.
If you look at the pattern in other Western European countries you’ll find that, although chess is very popular with young children, just as it is here, it is also, unlike here, popular with teenagers, and, again unlike here, many young people come into competitive chess for the first time in their teens. There are several possible reasons for this, which I’ve touched on in many articles here and elsewhere over the years. Perhaps the educational and social ethos in this country, something I alluded to last week, also has something to do with it. What do you think?