History Lesson

Garry Kasparov recently commented that England, a force in international chess, currently does not even have an International Master under 18.

If you’ve been following my posts you’ll be aware that I’ve proposed some reasons for this. My next series of articles will look again at what’s happening in chess, and, in particular, in junior chess, here in my part of the world.

But first, a brief history lesson.

The earliest chess clubs in this country started in the mid 19th century, but were little more than groups of friends meeting to push their pieces round the board. With the advent of affordable public, and later, private transport, more formal chess clubs sprang up around the country in the late 19th century. The Surrey Chess League started in 1883 and the London Chess League in 1888. If you look at the players in these early matches you’ll find clergymen and military men, doctors and lawyers, accountants, teachers and civil servants, largely, but not entirely, middle class and also largely male. In those days men typically worked from 9 to 5 while their wives stayed at home to look after the children and run the house. Before the first world war, the middle classes would usually have one or two servants as well. A typical office worker would arrive home from work at about 6:00, eat the delicious meal that his wife had prepared for him, and then perhaps spend the rest of the evening drinking in his local hostelry or attending a club where he could pursue his hobby, which might, in our case, have been chess. So the matches in his local chess league, perhaps the Surrey League, would start at 7:30, to give him enough time to travel, perhaps to an away venue. If he was playing in the London League, though, he wouldn’t have time to go home first, so he’d eat at a restaurant after work, giving him just enough time to reach the match venue by 6:25.

As far as I’m aware, this sort of club chess seems to have been more popular in the UK than elsewhere. While there was a strong chess culture in the UK, though, the really strong players were more likely to come from the coffee houses of central and Eastern Europe, and later, from the factories and collective farms of the Soviet Union, than from the genteel British chess clubs. The evening start times meant that you had only 3 hours, or, in some local leagues 2½ hours for the game. Typically the time control would take you to move 30, and games unfinished at that point would be adjudicated, or, later, adjourned. For many years there was a perception that British players were deficient in endgame skills for this reason. (This has not been true for several decades, though. Consider, for example, Nunn, Speelman, Arkell and Hawkins.)

When I started work in a central London office in 1972 things weren’t a lot different from the 1890s. My job involved writing computer programs to analyse market research data. I’d punch the program onto punch cards and leave the deck of cards out for a driver to take to our computer centre in Slough. The next morning I’d receive a printout with compilation errors, fix the errors by lunchtime and put the cards out again. The rest of the day there would often be nothing to do so we’d spend much of the afternoon in the pub across the road or play bridge in the office. If there was a new Batsford chess book out I’d go down to Foyle’s to buy one of their first copies. Otherwise, I’d spend time in the local library, perhaps reading a book or magazine article about how, in the future, as computers took out the drudgery of life, we’d all have far more leisure time, working only three days a week. So it was usually no problem for me to get home and out again to my Thames Valley League matches, or to stroll down to St Bride’s Institute for a London League match.

But, as we now know, computerisation had the opposite effect. By the mid 80s we could type our programs directly into the computer, correct the compilation errors at once and provide our clients with their survey results the following day. Rather than having more free time we were all working longer hours. I left my office job to work freelance in 1986, but the trend has continued. To afford the absurd price of property in somewhere like Richmond you have to work silly hours earning silly money, and you probably won’t have time to play chess yourself, or even to teach and play with your children.

The world has changed a lot since 1972, and, of course, a lot more since 1883. Chess has changed a lot as well. But our chess clubs, and the whole administrative structure of chess in the UK, is still very much the same. You belong to a club, which is affiliated to its county chess association, which is in turn affiliated to its regional chess association, and finally to the English Chess Federation. So my club, Richmond, goes through Surrey and the Southern Counties Chess Union before it reaches the ECF. Those who like to play more often will be members of several chess clubs, quite possibly in different counties. Nowadays many evening league games are played to a finish in one session, but in the Thames Valley League, where I play my chess, slowplay with adjournment or adjudication at the end, is still the default option.

In the 1960s, when I started playing chess, there was far less academic pressure than today, so I was able to play chess in the evenings, only stopping for a few weeks before my public examinations. One or two children still do this, but most are unable to fit evening chess in with their homework.

I believe, and this is something I’ve been saying for the past 40 years, that much of the overall structure of chess in this country is stuck not just in the 20th but in the 19th century, and that this is one reason for our decline over the past 20 years or so. But there are some organisations and people who want to produce something more appropriate to the 21st century. A structure that takes 21st century lifestyles into consideration. A structure that allows more inclusivity. A structure that appreciates that chess is popular with younger children and that, unless they see chess as a game for all ages the will soon stop playing. Next week I’ll give this more consideration.

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.