As Others See Us

“Chess. Quite boring if you ask me but chess club is the sort of thing you should belong to aged 8 if you’re going to graduate to the Bullingdon Club and then become a Tory MP.”

(A note for non-UK readers: the Bullingdon Club is, according to Wikipedia, “an exclusive but unofficial all-male students’ dining club based in Oxford … noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising (“trashing”) of restaurants and students’ rooms.” It’s former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.)

This is the opinion, not that anyone, as far as I know, was asking her, of one Sophia Money-Coutts, in a recent Sunday Telegraph article about board games. I guess she should know about Tory MPs, if not about chess. Sophia’s grandfather was Bill Deedes, a Tory (or Conservative, for those of my friends who like to make the distinction) MP famous for his friendship with Margaret and Denis Thatcher, and from a long line of MPs dating back almost 400 years.

I suppose it makes a change from the usual stereotypical description of chess players: we’re usually portrayed as being introverted nerds with poor social skills and dubious personal hygiene, shabbily dressed and with our sandwiches in a carrier bag. Articles about chess on internet news sites often conclude with the obligatory ‘all chess players are loonies’ feature, with paragraphs about Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on the bus, and Fischer – well – just being Fischer. Given the way we’re presented in the media, it’s not surprising that parents sometimes tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. Sure, they want them to play chess because they’ve read that ‘chess makes kids smarter’, but, understandably, they don’t want them to grow up to become either Billy No-Mates or Boris Johnson. To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse.

Perhaps, though, there’s also an element of truth in Sophia’s perception of school chess clubs as being mainly for intelligent boys from upper-class families. We could start by looking at the schools taking part in the final stages of various national schools competitions.

Let’s start with the EPSCA (English Primary Schools Chess Association) Under 9 Championship.

The final eight teams this year, in order of finishing, were as follows:
1. Westminster Under (the junior branch of Westminster School, one of London’s leading academic schools)
2. Homefield (upmarket prep school in South London with a strong recent chess record)
3. St Paul’s Juniors (the junior branch of St Paul’s School, another of London’s leading academic schools, whose former pupils include Jon Speelman, Julian Hodgson and many other chess players)
4. Wetherby (top people’s prep school in central London, former pupils include Princes William and Harry)
5. The Hall (upmarket prep school in Hampstead, also with a strong recent chess record)
6. Hallfield (prep school in Edgbaston, an affluent suburb of Birmingham)
7. Akiva (Jewish fee-paying primary school in North London)
8. Dulwich Prep (the junior branch of Dulwich College, another top academic London school, whose former pupils include Ray Keene)

Eight fee-paying schools, seven of them in London. Will the Under 11 Championship be any different?

1= Westminster Under
1= Haberdashers’ Aske’s (prep department of leading independent school in Elstree, just north of London, another school with many recent chess successes)
3. Heathside (another upmarket prep school in Hampstead with a strong recent chess record)
4. North London Collegiate (prep department of leading independent girls’ school in North London)
5. North Bridge House (upmarket prep school in North London, again with a strong chess tradition)
6= Homefield
6= Brookland (state primary school in Hampstead Garden Suburb)
8. Heycroft (state primary school in Essex with chess on the curriculum via CSC)

So 14 schools were represented in this competition, of which 12 are, I believe, fee-paying, 12 are in affluent areas of London and one in an affluent area of Birmingham.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against any of these schools and offer my congratulations to all of them, to their pupils, their chess tutors and their parents. It’s especially gratifying to see the CSC (Chess in Schools and Communities) pupils from Heycroft and the girls from North London Collegiate doing so well. But it does look as if, taking only school chess clubs into consideration, Sophia Money-Coutts has a point.

The ECF Under 19 Schools Championship is not very different, although, partly because of the way it’s run, there’s a much wider geographical spread: as far as I can tell, the final 16 schools were either fee-paying or grammar (selective) schools.

(For those readers not familiar with the UK education system, in most parts of the country children move from primary to comprehensive (non-selective) schools at the age of 11, but in some areas there are also state grammar (selective) schools which require children to pass an examination. There’s also a thriving private sector with many fee-paying schools.)

1. Royal Grammar School Guildford (fee-paying)
2. Hampton School (fee-paying)
3= Reading School (grammar)
3= Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (fee-paying)
3= Queen Elizabeth’s School Barnet (grammar)
6= King Edward’s School Birmingham (fee-paying)
6= The Judd School (grammar)
6= Nottingham High School (fee-paying)
6= City of London School (fee-paying)
6= King Edward VI Grammar School Chelmsford (grammar)
6= Wilson’s School (grammar)
12= Sir Thomas Rich’s School (grammar)
12= Eltham College (fee-paying)
12= Wirral Grammar School for Boys (grammar)
12= Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (fee-paying)
16. Yarm School (fee-paying)

Here’s an exciting game from this event with a remarkable conclusion. Can you find an improvement for Black on move 24? The winner is an IM elect from Haberdashers’ Aske’s school: his opponent was representing Sir Thomas Rich’s School.

While I’d again like to offer my congratulations to the participants, and my thanks to the orgainsers of both competitions, this does make the whole schools chess set-up in the UK look very elitist, in the worst sense. I wonder how many of the participants will indeed go on to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, join the Bullingdon Club and become Conservative MPs.

I’d suggest two things: we should be doing more to promote chess in the state sector, especially within comprehensive schools (CSC is already doing great work in primary schools), and should also strive to promote a more positive image of chess itself: as an exciting and beautiful, not a boring game, and of chess players: as serious sportspeople, not as either nerds or toffs.

The answer to my question above: Black missed the extraordinary defence 24… Qd7, when, after the moves 25. Bxd5 e6 26. Nxe5 Qxd5 27. Qf4 Qb7, my computer assures me that White will eventually draw by perpetual check by moving his knight to g4 and then to f6. Chess is only boring to those who, like Sophia, don’t know enough about it to appreciate its excitement and beauty.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.