Last week I looked at how the Morning Group at Richmond Junior Club was organised between about 1996 and 2005. This week I turn my attention to the Afternoon Group.
My partner in running this group was Ray Cannon, a strong amateur player who had also been involved in coaching at the highly successful Central London YMCA chess club in the late 1970s and 1980s. As you see, we didn’t have fantastically strong players as coaches, and neither of us was naturally comfortable standing in front of a class with a demo board. But we were both almost obsessively efficient about learning everything we could about our members and keeping track of all their games and results. I’ll repeat what I said last week: brilliant organisation is much more important than brilliant teaching. Good organisers can find good teachers, but good teachers can’t find good organisers.
The main purpose of the Afternoon Group was to enable ambitious young players to play games with a variety of openings and time controls in as close as possible to tournament conditions.
Each half term featured an opening or group of openings. We ran a three-year cycle of ten openings or opening groups: Ruy Lopez, Other Open Games, French Defence, Sicilian Defence, Other Semi-Open Games, Queen’s Gambit, Nimzo Indian and allied Defences, King’s Indian and allied Defences, Other Queen’s Pawn Games and Flank Openings. Some of these openings were used every year, some twice in three years and some once in three years. Booklets on each opening or group were published, the last page of each giving the first moves of 18 sample variations – these are available for free download at chessKIDS academy . Our members were introduced to each opening or group through a Coach and Play session: a short lesson followed by two games, one with each colour, against opponents of similar strength in which they were encouraged to consult the booklets and, if they chose, select one of the variations from the back page.
Integrated with this were two Grands Prix, running from September to July: a 30-minute Grand Prix and a 10-minute Grand Prix. Twelve afternoons each year were devoted to the 30-minute Grand Prix. In these sessions members played three 30-minute games during the three hour session, against three different opponents of similar strength to themselves. Pairing cards were used to ensure that, as far as possible, within each half of the season (6 events) no one played the same opponent more than once. Half of these events were freestyle and in the other half they had to play the openings they’d learnt about a week or two before. Points scored in these events were accumulated over the season with cash prizes awarded at the end.
Eleven afternoons were devoted to the 10-minute Grand Prix. Five of these events were freestyle, the other six, again, were with the Openings of the Half Term. For the 10-minute fixed opening events we cut up the back page of the booklet and placed them in a ‘hat’ (actually a chess pieces box): the players drew out of the ‘hat’ the variation they had to play in their game. This Grand Prix was run in three sections with promotion (70%+) and relegation (-30%) between divisions. GP points were awarded based on the percentage scores and accumulated over the season, with prizes again being awarded at the end.
For a time we also ran a Puzzle Grand Prix six times a year, with positions selected by Ray Cannon, in which participants had to find the winning move in twelve tactical positions. Again, points were awarded for solving the puzzles and prizes awarded at the end of the season.
Other activities on Saturday afternoons included Simultaneous Displays, usually once a term against IMs or GMs, endgame sessions, slowplay sessions, 5-minute tournaments, and, during the holidays, chess variants such as Exchange (Bughouse) and Kriegspiel.
We also ran two individual weekend tournaments a year: a London Juniors qualifying tournament with an added U18 section in the Autumn and a club championship in the Spring.
In addition to this highly structured environment there was a club rating list and a club games database. The rating list was updated regularly using both internal and external results, Ray Cannon performed an invaluable service by obtaining results from RJCC members in many tournaments in London and elsewhere. We used a pseudo-Elo method of calculation, with an extremely crude but seemingly effective iteration to take into account the assumption that many players in our rating pool were improving and few, if any, were getting worse. This list was used as a basis for team selection and board order for EPSCA and other events.
All games played in the Afternoon Group at 30 minutes per game or more and in the top section of our weekend tournaments were recorded on duplicate scoresheets, entered into ChessBase and, from about 2000 onwards, analysed with Fritz and published in the Members Zone of the RJCC website. I currently have a database of almost 16,500 RJCC games from 1977 onwards, with another 500 or so from 2006 when I was in the process of leaving the club, awaiting entry. Through this database we knew a lot about our members, how well they played, their opening repertoire and their strengths and weaknesses. This again helped us with team selection as well as enabling us to provide feedback to our members and their parents.
But times change, and the club had to change as well. The morning session was no longer viable due to a combination of an increase in Saturday morning football clubs and an increasing demand for private academic tuition which often took place on Saturday mornings. One result of this was that in the afternoon group there were fewer children interested in playing seriously and more who saw it purely as a social club where they could chat to their friends. The club had to move on, and, for various reasons, I had to move on as well, only to return last year. The club is very different now, inevitably so, but there are still lessons to be learnt from our story.