The English Chess Implosion

With Garry Kasparov having recently pointed out that England has no IMs under the age of 18 there have been discussions in various quarters about how this could possibly have happened. Although England is still a recognized force in international chess, due to having a number of World class GMs, the number of young players coming through to international level seems to have diminished to a trickle.

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions as to why this should be the case which doesn’t help in understanding what has happened. In one discussion a self appointed ‘facilitator’ soon held court and quickly dismissed a suggestion made by an International Master that there are no incentives to push past a certain point. The discussion then moved on to the budgets of other countries, coaching, secondary school chess etc..

At no time did anyone have the idea to ask International Masters such as Lawrence Trent and Lorin D’Costa why they weren’t pushing towards the GM title. Or why so many kids are quitting after they reach a certain level, something which could be ascertained via a questionnaire. Was it that the truth might get in the way of their pet theories or the opportunity to expel hot air?

The answer is really very simple. The English Chess Explosion of the 1970s and 80s came on the back of the Fischer – Spassky boom in which record numbers of people wanted to play chess. Jim Slater meanwhile offered £5,000 for the first English GM and then £2,500 for the next 4. Back in the 1970s this was a lot of money, in fact £5,000 could get you a house! Prizes and conditions for titled players were also good, for example an International Master could expect to get his flight, hotel and an appearance fee paid if he went to a tournament whilst Grandmasters would get a lot more. There was money and prestige for a broad sweep of players, and this was a major motivator. Chess was cool and being a professional chess player was a cool career.

What is the situation now? Well if you take a look at a chess tournament calendar then the UK doesn’t have much in terms of international events. The prizes at weekend tournaments actually seem to have diminished during the last 20 years, making them very poor when you factor in inflation. To spend a lot of time studying and playing chess as an adult most likely means you are an impoverished anorak, at least from the English public’s point of view. Chess was cool here but now it’s sad. And when that’s the case it will be a lot harder to interest anyone in playing.

Accordingly many of England’s Grandmasters have either stopped playing altogether or cut it down to a minimum because they can’t afford the time and/or expense. The situation is better in many European countries where there are more tournaments, bigger prizes and better conditions. It helps keep titled players around for longer, they see a point in continuing. And in doing so they help pass on the baton of chess understanding to the next generation that get to play them.

As for chess nations such as India, there’s simply no comparison. Indian players are often given jobs and then encouraged and supported with their chess by the companies they work for. Meanwhile even the U.S., not known for its chess culture, is now offering scholarships for chess players to go to University and there seems to be a drive towards given the U.S. the best team in the World. Whether this will lead to chess becoming cool in the US remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt.

How can England improve? It’s difficult to know where to begin. Essentially I would say titled players do not feel particularly respected or wanted, for example they are often the victims of disparaging remarks and discussions in blogs and on bulletin boards. Tournaments are held that specifically prevent them from playing, so-called ‘stars barred’ events, and there have even been vendettas against those who have dared to play in local leagues. There are some bright spots of course, such as the London Chess Classic, Four Nations Chess League and Coulsdon Chess Fellowship. But even in the better events prizes and fees have still declined dramatically, which is in keeping with levels in the UK generally.

When you put this together it’s clear that no matter how much someone loves chess or wants to improve, pushing through to ever higher levels in England is going to be a luxury that very few can or will want to afford. Talented youngsters will have to prioritize their future careers once they hit their teens and adults who might be within reach of a title will find that their dreams have to take a back seat if it’s a choice between a chess tournament or a family holiday.

I faced such dilemmas myself in the early 1990s when conditions and prizes were already in decline. Essentially I used savings to support myself, live in a caravan whilst studying and go to tournaments abroad in an attempt to get the GM norms I needed for the title. It was a really hard decision to make and thankfully I succeeded. Had I failed my situation would have been very unfortunate, though perhaps I could have got a job stacking shelves in Tesco.

These days my choices are much simpler; people often ask why I’m not playing, but then why would I want to? To play to a level I’d be happy with, and in tournaments where I could develop or carve out new achievements, it would take a lot of work and financing, and especially in these days of extensive opening preparation and my having other responsibilities and interests. But if my efforts were to be made more worthwhile and feel vaguely appreciated it would be tempting, and indeed I did play in a tournament in Colwyn Bay last year when the organizers covered the expenses for myself, Mark Hebden and Keith Arkell and treated us all very nicely.

So is it just money that will improve things? Frankly I see this as putting the cart before the horse, money can be around in chess but then spent on Chessbase for 8 year olds or brand new offices and laptops for a governing body. In England I think we should start with the recognition that spending time mastering chess needs to be seen as cool and that its chess heritage lies within its strong players and their skill. It took decades of study and competition to hone these skills, what can then be done to pass their knowledge on to the next generation and have them eager to learn?

First and foremost an extensive competitive infrastructure is a must in which the titled players are motivated to participate, so financial rewards are good and a dash of respect and appreciation would be even better. Once you have this then there’s more reason for youngsters to continue, even if it means combining it with a career elsewhere. What won’t encourage them or their parents (and remember that parents pay for the petrol, entry fees and hotels) is the sight of GMs being impoverished and often spoken about with contempt by rank and file players. They rightly figure it would be better to spend a fraction of the time needed to become chess GM on becoming a doctor, lawyer or accountant. It may not be as much fun but there’s a bottom line here to consider.

So the answer to England’s chess woes seems staggeringly obvious, but will something be done? Probably not, so welcome to the English Chess Implosion.

Nigel Davies

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About NigelD

Nigel Davies is an International Chess Grandmaster living in St. Helens in the UK. The winner of 15 international tournaments he is also a former British U21 and British Open Quickplay Champion and has represented both England and Wales on several occasions. These days Nigel teaches chess through his chess training web site, Tiger Chess, which has articles, recommendations, a monthly clinic, videos and courses. His students include his 15 year old son Sam who is making rapid progress with his game. Besides teaching chess, Nigel is a registered tai chi and qigong instructor and runs several weekly classes.