Regular readers will know that over the summer (from June to September) I ran a number of “Chess Profiles” on the Chess Journal Blog. The idea of these profiles was to give clubs (all British unfortunately, no international chess clubs ever took me up on my offer of an interview) an opportunity to talk about how they run and what works and doesn’t work. In total I spoke to 11 clubs across the UK and an enjoyable and insightful read each of them was. However, I also started to notice very consistent patterns from these clubs that I was sure contributed to their burgeoning memberships. Lets have a look at some of these themes.
Supporting all levels of chess ability
Astonishingly 10 out of 11 chess clubs interviewed stated this as imperative to the growth of their memberships. All these clubs recognised how important it was to offer a level of chess across the spectrum with most boasting members ranging in ability from 23 to 200 ECF (850 – 2200 ELO). These clubs were strategically ensuring that they had enough teams registered across different divisions and leagues so that any new membership enquiry could be supported, irrespective of ability.
Creating a welcoming atmosphere
We all know how inaccessible chess can appear to an outsider or novice and therefore all of these clubs were making active strides in breaking down these barriers and encouraging attendance of non-chess players.
A common theme from my interviews and anecdotally with chess friends is how unwelcoming (!!!) some chess clubs can be when they just focus on chess. A room full of established club members who “just want to play their game” and are unwilling to engage unless the new person happens to be of a similar standard to them.
Fortunately, a significant proportion of the clubs I talked to had actively gone out of their way to create a welcoming atmosphere. For example, always ensuring that there is a member of the club on hand to welcome new people who arrive on the night and offer a friendly game. Or the organisation of less serious tournaments where new, less confident players can try their hand at club chess without being smashed off the board on their first night. Even the inclusion of a bar seemed to go a long way to helping these clubs (although it must be said only 50% had a bar – I’m looking at you Horfield CC!) where members who valued a cheeky pint over the mainline borefest of the Berlin Defence could indulge and make friends.
Running tutorials, lectures and club nights
Another common trait of growing successful clubs was the provision of training nights or lectures for all club members. These were often held by the strongest members of the club (in some instances titled players) and encouraged the participation of all members to come along and learn and improve. I feel this theme goes deeper than just personal improvement as the tutorials and lectures were often sited by my interviewees as a lovely social aspect of the club that contributed to the camaraderie.
Entering multiple leagues and cups
A surprising addition to our list but one that consistently came up! Just over half of the clubs I interviewed registered teams in multiple leagues. This appeared to give them a greater reach to get players but also ensured a large number of games available. When you consider the first trait of supporting all levels of ability, this starts to make sense as the more games and competitions the club is registered for then the greater the demand and offer of competition. It also highlights, how forward thinking some of these clubs are being when they look at their local domestic league and notice that it is shrinking (as was happening in several cases).
Not everyone I spoke was able to support juniors due to the constraints of week night chess. However, 7 of the 11 clubs I interviewed did offer some level of junior support and most stated that it was a target area for them in the future. It seems that supporting junior chess was seen as a real positive for these clubs as it not only welcomed in the youngsters but their parents also. This again contributed to the social space of the club where juniors could be seen bashing out some blitz (much to the disgust of the coaches nearby) whilst the parents sat in the bar and wondered how they had missed their own two move mate.
My journey around chess clubs in the UK finished in September (who knows I might resurrect it next summer) but the above five traits all appeared to be consistently benefiting those I spoke to. Having reviewed the above list I was astonished to come to one simple conclusion – All of the above traits are about creating a social space first and a chess club second.
Lets be honest, if you are willing to contact a chess club in the first instance then chances are you like chess to some degree. Successful, growing, chess clubs are not necessarily worried about creating brilliant chess players. First and foremost they are focused on creating welcoming social places where people can make friends, trade stories of near misses, have a pint and engage in the right level of competition. Those of us held in the sway of caissa will probably play it to some degree anyway so the club has to become about the place I can go to chat to others like me. It was noticeable how many of the clubs I spoke to mentioned adopting the above practices and then noticing an increase in cups and leagues won in recent years.
In short, in order for your chess club to grow, focus on making friends. The chess will look after it self.
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.