Modernisation

Over the past two weeks I’ve considered the view that the whole structure of English chess is really not suitable for the 21st century.

Over the past decade or so various groups of modernisers have attempted to get their candidates elected to positions on the English Chess Federation board, but, while some of them have been successful it has always ended in tears.

It’s been clear for a couple of years now that another group, based loosely around the organisers of the highly success London Chess Classic and Chess in Schools and Communities, has been trying to get its nominees into positions of influence on the board. Their representatives are opposing the current holders of the positions of Directors of Home and International Chess in the forthcoming elections next month.

In principle I’m in favour of much of their agenda (and should add that some of them have been good friends of mine for many years), but the way they have gone about things has made them a lot of enemies, and it seems to me extremely unlikely that their candidates will be elected. Two of their number, already on the board, are standing unopposed, although I understand that unsuccessful attempts have been made to find candidates to oppose them. They may possibly be in danger of defeat, though, from None of the Above, such is their unpopularity in some quarters.

Take, for example, the English Chess Federation forum. The English Chess Forum has existed for some time now. Like all forums it attracts a number of eccentrics, illiterates, obsessives and single issue fanatics, but it also hosts a lively debate about many aspects of English chess. Of course, sometimes posters (and whole threads) are critical of the English Chess Federation, and so some of those on the ECF board, seeing this criticism as something that might deter, or might in the past have deterred, potential sponsors, advised their board members not to post there and instead set up their own lookalike English Chess Federation Forum. On one recent occasion it was alleged that the English Chess Forum was described as ‘toxic’.

But their own forum has not proved very popular with posters, most of whom have preferred to continue using the original. Moderators have sometimes been slow to remove pseudonymous posters (both forums understandably operate a ‘real names only’ policy). And recent discussions concerning disputes among members of the ECF board have been potentially more damaging and ‘toxic’ than anything on the English Chess Forum. The whole episode has made the ECF, in the eyes of many, look rather foolish. In my opinion it would have been much better to set up a blog to enable board members to communicate with the chess playing public while working closely with the original forum to encourage positive debate on a wider range of issues.

It also appears that those who are seen to stand in the way of ‘progress’ are destabilised. The excellent Lawrence Cooper left the post of International Director a couple of years ago, having, as far as I understand it, had enough of the constant arguments. Alex Holowczak, the young, energetic and hard working Director of Home Chess, has recently been targeted. Lawrence and Alex are two of the most popular people in English chess and, I would have thought, people you really want to keep on your side.

I guess it’s, in some ways, the same problem as we have with FIDE, and perhaps a similar problem to the one that would face Jeremy Corbyn in the unlikely event that he should become Prime Minister. If you don’t like the system do you try to tweak it from within or overthrow it? In attempting to overthrow the system they’ve alienated the very people whose support they need, and who would, in many cases, be generally in favour of modernisation.

There are two fundamental problems, it seems to me, with regard to modernising the ECF. Chess players in this country tend to be very conservative (with a small c), very resistant to change and reluctant to provide financial support for their national federation, whether through Game Fee or through membership, which might, for example, go towards supporting our national teams at all levels (open, women, seniors, juniors etc). They’re not going to vote for modernisation any more than turkeys are going to vote for Christmas.

The ECF is essentially an amateur organisation, and, as in any amateur organisation, you’ll have a mixture of excellent people who work hard for the love of the game and those who like attending boring meetings, hearing the sound of their own voice and generally feeling important. Most of the current ECF people come in the former category, but this hasn’t always been the case in the past. What you can’t do without upsetting a lot of people is impose professional standards on an amateur organisation.

Although I have a lot of sympathy with their agenda, the modernisers have succeeded in alienating many of the most popular and influential people in English chess over the past couple of years. But without a radical overhaul I fear for the future of chess in this country. A recent poster on my Facebook wall suggested that chess has no future either as a professional game or as a recreational hobby, but only as a learning tool for young children. I hope he’s wrong but this is the way things seem to be going. I guess, though, that the current set-up will last another 15-20 years and see me out.

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.