Underground Chess

Let me take you back to the year 1961, the year in which I was fortunate enough to win a free place at a leading London school. The journey required two trains: from my local station to Richmond, and then on the London Underground District Line from Richmond to Ravenscourt Park, a journey of about 12 minutes, where I’d be in the company of other boys from my school.

My father had taught me the moves the previous winter, but in those days chess was something you did at secondary school, not primary school. On my first day I brought my pocket chess set into school and another boy gave me a game. He took all my pieces and mated me with his two rooks. I soon discovered that some of the boys on the District Line also enjoyed chess, and was able to play them. Towards the end of the school year I was thrilled to win my first game on the train against a boy from the year above me.

In those days there was nothing strange about playing chess on trains or buses: it was perfectly normal, accepted behaviour in the 1960s. But when did you last see anyone playing chess on a commuter train or bus? In these days of mobile electronic devices of all sorts, there’s so much else to do.

Of course I played at school as well, at break and lunchtime. My progress was slow, but by the end of 1965 I could beat everyone else in my form, so my parents went to the library to obtain details of our local chess club (I’m still a member today) and somehow also found out about the London Junior Championships which took place (and still do) in the Christmas holidays.

What happened to the other boys on the District Line? For most of them, of course, chess was just a passing interest, but there were others who continued playing. One of the boys on the train (in fact on both my trains), a few years older than me, is still occasionally active with an ECF grade of 160.

Another of the District Line boys, a year younger than me I think, was not, as far as I remember, much of a chess player at the time, but he took up competitive chess many years later and is now one of the most active players in the country, with a current ECF grade of 153.

There was another boy on the District Line as well, but as he was younger still I didn’t take a lot of notice of him. I was to get to know him much better when he joined the my chess club. His name was, and still is, Michael Stean, and I guess most of you know what happened to him.

All in all, not a bad chess record, I think you’ll agree, for the boys on the Richmond branch of the District Line.

There’s another branch of the District Line passing through Ravenscourt Park, the Ealing branch. (There were at the time two Ealing trains to every one Richmond train, which was twice as crowded. The Richmond branch boys assumed the man who devised the timetables lived in Ealing.) There would also have been a chess player on the Ealing branch: his name was Andrew Law.

Andrew, who sadly died very recently, was an exact contemporary of mine, but fortunately for me we were never in the same form so at the time I didn’t know him well and probably never played chess against him at school. If I had done, perhaps I wouldn’t have sought stronger opposition elsewhere, in which case I wouldn’t be writing this now. Andrew, as my English readers will know, was a very strong player, achieving two IM performances and just missing his final norm. A less self-effacing person with the same talent as Andrew would have gone much further.

It may or may not also be significant that there was no real chess club at school while I was there. There was at one point a small, student-led group, but I don’t remember anything else and we never played against other schools. Michael Stean mentioned a chess club in an interview in CHESS a couple of years ago, so perhaps there was something after I left the school. I played bridge for my school, but chess for my club. If there had been a school club, I might never have joined my local club, and, again, you might not be reading this now.

Now turn the clock forward more than half a century, to the present day. I’ve written in a previous blog about the three main services a children’s chess club can offer: instruction for beginners, opportunities for casual play with low-level instruction, and more serious instruction for competitive players. We get enquiries from all three categories. The players we really want are those who, as I was, are doing well at school and want to take the game further. This is what Richmond Junior Club, as an aspiring (and former) Centre of Excellence, is all about. The only problem is that we increasingly get parents of younger children who know little about chess themselves and are deluded about how good their children really are. We also get parents who want their children to learn chess but don’t know enough to teach them. At present we’re not geared up to do this but if there’s sufficient simultaneous demand we might be able to do so in future. For those parents who just want to give their children the opportunity to play other kids, the obvious answer is to join their school club. If their school doesn’t have a club we could help them set one up.

Isn’t there another solution, though? If they enjoy playing chess why don’t they just do what I did back in 1961: bring a chess set into school and find someone to play against. Then, if they find they can beat all their friends, they’re probably good enough to join Richmond Junior Club.

What is this all about, then? Why is it that all the kids who enjoy playing chess in their primary school chess club don’t seem to play against their friends at any other time?

Why does everyone seem to think that, because there are such things as chess clubs in some primary schools, you’re not allowed to play chess any other time? It almost seems that chess has gone underground, but not this time on the District Line. Can anyone tell me why?

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.