Back in the mid 1970s there were a couple of elderly (by my standards at the time) social players at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: Henry Coke and the appropriately named Philip Pratt. They played each other every week, rarely if ever taking part in club matches. Henry sat there in silence while Philip prattled on incessantly. “What’s it all about, Henry?” “I don’t like it much, Henry.” We all referred to them, with a degree of affection, as the Club Loonies, but didn’t feel particularly affectionate towards them when we were trying to concentrate on our match games.
Children don’t seem to have the same problem: in junior chess clubs kids very rarely complain about the incessant chatter going on round about them, while not having a problem with playing in silence during more formal competitions.
Last week I looked at to what extent the trappings of adult chess should be adopted in school chess clubs, and how this might tie in with Neil Postman’s views on the merging of childhood and adulthood. My view is that, in most school clubs, there is no need for clocks and scoresheets, although the children will probably learn the names of the squares. In junior chess clubs which aim to produce serious players, though, children will learn how to use clocks and score their games. This sort of club will, by definition, be more serious than a school club. Older and stronger players will be expected to play in silence, but younger and less experienced players, who are still learning about serious competitive chess, will probably be allowed a certain amount of leeway. Clubs of this nature will also usually have time for less formal activity, probably at the beginning and end of the session, where children will be able to socialise and play more casual games. At this point, you may or may not allow chess variants. Personally, although some of my colleagues disagree with me, I have no problem with Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess, for example, as they can be played quietly, but I don’t like children playing Exchange/Bughouse because it gets too noisy and does the equipment no favours. My view is that chess variants are part of the overall culture of the game so, in principle, shouldn’t be discouraged.
As you may know, I left Richmond Junior Club in 2006. When I returned several years later the children were chatting during their supposedly ‘serious’ games and the last hour or so appeared to be devoted to Bughouse. Touch move was enforced and clocks were used, but no one seemed too concerned about silence or scoresheets, and chess variants were encouraged. The club was seen more as a social and community club than a Centre of Excellence. Parents who wanted their children to excel at chess were frowned upon as ‘having an agenda’. I quite understand, and have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea that children’s chess should be fun and stress-free, and that ‘pushy’ parents should be treated with caution. Now, looking at it from a Neil Postman perspective, this is a perfectly valid way to run a chess club, and there’s certainly an argument that this sort of club should exist alongside more serious clubs designed to produce strong players. However, it seems that more serious clubs are also more popular. Within a few years the numbers had declined to a fraction of what they were before I left.
Eventually a new régime took over, and, while keeping the same format (social time, lesson, game, more social time) made the club a lot more serious. Numbers increased as did the standard of play. There’s a market within primary schools for ‘fun’ clubs which, while expecting some sort of discipline, are also rather less strict. There’s also a market within the community for clubs which are stricter and more serious, which serve as a bridge between kiddie chess and adult chess. Regular readers will be aware that there’s much I dislike about the current primary school chess set-up. But we are where we are. All we can do at the moment is aim to get the right balance between fun and seriousness, with the right level of strictness. At Richmond, I think we’re doing this as well as we can.