Five ideas for league chess in Britain

Every now and then a group of like minded individuals find themselves in the right place at the right time. Just such an event occurred on Friday afternoon on the medium of Twitter.  A relatively innocuous tweet from Kings Head Chess Club about the length of evening chess league games started a very enjoyable (and long) online discussion on the state of British League Chess.  Whilst I will not do justice to all of the conversation spread across dozens of threads and tweets, I thought it best to try to capture  some of the lovely ideas that emerged.  Be warned!  Not everyone will agree with every suggestion but thats the point. If nothing else I feel that this blog post is here simply to act as a celebration of the range of proactive and passionate clubs and individuals working to improve British league chess in 2018.

prelim

The British evening league chess scene is a unique institution! Lets talk about it!

Rather than list the entire conversation verbatim I have decided to pull out the core themes and ideas that sprung from the minds of the various actors involved.  Who were they I hear you ask?

  • The Bristol Chess Times (@brizchesstimes) – Loud bloke shouting about modernising the UK chess scene;
  • Richard James (@chesstutor) – Very well established chess tutor from Richmond and Twickenham Chess Club who has run junior training for decades;
  • Kings Head Chess Club (@kingsheadchess) – A big London club who asked a simple question and received about 300 tweets as a response (editors note – Sorry!)
  • Andrew Rimmer (@AndrewRimmer) – .net developer working on creating a new wordpress template for chess clubs to utilise after becoming appalled at the state of most British chess club websites.
  • Hammersmith Chess Club (@hammer_chess) – A phoenix of a chess club who have turned the corner of decline by embracing positive change.

So without further ado here are five ideas or discussions for chess clubs to consider both now and in the future.

There is potentially an appetite for 2hr evening league games

The original discussion started by asking if three hours on a weeknight is too large a commitment for some people and might be putting some players off?  For example, many other activities in modern 21st century life tend to only take an hour (e.g. the gym / play 5 aside football or another sport) still leaving some time of the evening to achieve other things.  Currently 3hr games are basically asking players to give up an entire evening away from home.  Obviously some people may not mind this but it cannot be argued that a full evenings commitment is harder at different stages of life.  For example, young parents, people in full time employment can all struggle to commit to 3hrs compared to say people with older children or retirees.

I know that many people will argue that evening league chess has always run this way and many club players I know would complain if time controls were to get any shorter. Some would say that basically commit or don’t commit its your choice.  However the debate does raise interesting societal impacts that may be hampering the growth of new recruits in modern 21st century Britain.

For example, (I totally acknowledge my bias here) as a father of two young children, 19:30 KO times for league matches means that on a Tuesday evening I miss bedtime. Having finished work at 17:30 – 18:00 I barely have time to get home, eat and then make it to whichever respective chess club I need to be at.

But what if matches started at 20:30?

Young mothers and fathers with an interest in chess could finish work, tuck the kids into bed, eat and still play league chess.  And no, before anyone says anything I’m not proposing leaving the kids home alone!  My point is that it is far more common in 21st century Britain for both parents to take active roles in children’s meal and bed times compared to say 50-60 years ago.  Would we see more young mothers and fathers (i.e. people in their 20’s and 30s) at chess clubs if weeknight league chess started at 20:30?

Interestingly, Richard James countered that a 2hr league game starting earlier in the evening would be far more supportive of junior participation.  Certainly an interesting viewpoint that again may well help boost league participation. For example, if games ran between 18:30 and 20:30. However I would be interested to hear readers thoughts on this as such an early start would directly conflict with the workers / parents discussion raised above.

In the end, I don’t suspect any of us involved in the conversation expect league chess to embrace 2hr game lengths (we also discussed 1hr games of Rapidplay with two games a night! – heresy!) but my point here is to get people asking the question that perhaps we might be hindering league growth by asking too big a commitment from some people in modern 21st century Britain.

Weekday Evenings vs. Weekend Leagues

An alternative to the shorter weeknight games was suggested by Richard James in terms of running localised weekend leagues. Much like the 4NCL but at a local level rather than clubs being forced to travel halfway across the country to play a match.

Again a really interesting idea that I would love to get readers feedback on.  Again the benefits of running weekend leagues would enable longer games but also maximise the opportunity for juniors to participate at more amenable hours of the day. Three key questions were raised with the “local weekend league” idea:

  • Would players be able to commit their personal time to weekends easier than weeknights (editors note – I couldn’t?)  Would such a league not steal potential attendees at congresses and the 4NCL?
  • Where would these weekend leagues be hosted?  Battersea Chess Club generously volunteered their current venue for example but I think most readers would ask how to obtain and hold onto venues for such leagues over time?
  • How many fixtures are reasonable in weekend leagues? Would these be shorter divisions and fixed numbers of games?

WordPress should be the goto place for a chess club website

The group unanimously agreed that the digital skill of most British chess clubs was woeful and the poor presentation of most clubs to the outside world was directly affecting recruitment.  Digital literacy is something that I have spoken about before and all those involved seemed to settle on the choice of WordPress for setting up and running club websites.  I loved the following quote:

If you can create a decent looking document in Microsoft Word you can create a decent looking website in WordPress – Hammersmith Chess Club

Andrew Rimmer is currently in the process of producing a generic wordpress theme for chess clubs to use and roll out and The Bristol Chess Times have agreed to help road test and provide feedback.  Watch this space for more updates as and when this potentially beneficial tool for the chess club community will be ready.  Thanks Andrew!

Losing juniors at secondary school level means adult leagues don’t benefit in terms of recruitment

There is a large range of beneficial investments and schemes in Primary school children’s chess across the UK. These are all great wonderful initiatives!

However, the statistics show that a lot of children drop away from chess when they reach secondary school age and don’t come back. When we are talking about the weeknight British League Chess scene most of the discussion identified that a large increase in primary school children playing chess has not resulted in any noticeable increase in people in their 20’s joining adult clubs.  There are many reasons for this and its a complex subject. I myself stopped playing chess between the ages 14 and 20 for the usual adolescent reasons.

However, it does make me ask the question about what are clubs doing to attract young adult beginners?  As I have said on many an occasion, online chess is exploding with tens of millions of people playing around the globe.  The interest in chess is there across all age ranges and yet in the UK club scene we seem to struggle to attract people in their 20’s and 30’s?

Certainly some of the issues we have already discussed in this article may be contributing and I don’t pretend to have the answers (yet) but I feel it is an interesting behaviour to call out and think about.  How many of the 40,000 school children playing chess in the UK today will go on to play at adult clubs?

Proactive clubs producing content and social spaces are thriving

6

Local Bristol legend Dave Tipper demonstrating a nice smothered mate! Dave has been an active contributor to the Bristol & District League online for almost 15 years. 

Finally, the message from the group discussing the British League Chess scene was one of optimism.  Where clubs were actively engaging in digital skills, creating social spaces and promoting themselves they are seeing huge benefits.

Horfield chess club had 23 registered players when I was appointed webmaster 18 months a go and at the start of the 2018/19 season is now looking at circa 35 players playing league chess and a further 4-5 regulars turning up each week for friendly chess.  In the Bristol & District Chess League, both North Bristol and Downend & Fishponds have also been very active in their promotion and have reported impressive growth levels.

Perhaps the poster child for chess club reform is Hammersmith chess club. The following quote from Twitter sums up their proactive approach:

“…in less than three years we have gone from 28 members and the very brink of extinction (£600 deficit that year), to 72 last year & able to refresh almost our entire range of equipment thanks to positive cash flow” – Hammersmith Chess Club

It should be noted that none of the clubs I’ve mentioned have achieved this success with just one individual.  All the clubs agreed that having multiple club members step up to create, publish content, run training nights, greet newcomers is the key to success.  Perhaps the old club approach of saying one person is responsible for the website is the reason why so many clubs are in the state they are in?  In each of the successful clubs mentioned, a small group of individuals is making a real difference to the benefit of all!

jon
Thanks for everyones support!

Conclusion

So there we are!  Five interesting ideas identified in the British League Chess scene in 2018.  I appreciate not every idea or discussion here will be to everyones tastes and thats ok.  If nothing else I hope this article helps readers ask questions about their own clubs and leagues and if there is anything they could be doing differently.

I can’t help feel that perhaps we are witnessing the evolution of a new type of chess club within the UK.  Those that create engaging social learning spaces by leveraging the power of digital.  There are hundreds of chess clubs across the UK and it is highly unlikely that all will make the transition required to survive but I believe all should be encouraged by the examples discussed here and the individuals fighting to make it happen.

Finally I want to extend my sincere thanks to all those who engaged in the conversation on Twitter yesterday afternoon.

Lets do this!


mecircle

Jon Fisher

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.

6 thoughts on “Five ideas for league chess in Britain”

  1. Some thoughts on these various points / suggestions….and in a random order as well since I want to start with WordPress (WP)…

    1) “WordPress should be the goto place for a chess club website”

    Various things prevent clubs having good websites. Some of the factors…

    – Technical expertise to put together and maintain a site
    – Costs of hosting a site (a decent WP hosting plan can be c£50 pa)
    – Enthusiasm and time available to write content

    Clubs that have excellent sites have these resources, but those are actually often down to just one or two individuals. For example at Battersea as far as I can make out, a great deal of the web work is done by a pro journalist who also lists building WP sites as a professional skill. Battersea also benefit from having a large venue at a pretty low rent, and I believe they have one or two members who are willing to put quite a bit of money into the club. (I played in a free-to-enter blitz down there for which – as I understood it – someone had put up a £100 prize. Not from club funds… someone wanting to promote the club was willing to donate £100 just for this one event. I’m not naming names in case the people involved prefer privacy.)

    Some of these problems could be addressed by clubs working together. E.g. Joining together for a hosting plan that can support a large number of sites at a low cost per site. A “standard” WP setup that comes with well-chosen chess plugins etc might be useful as well.

    Those kinds of things don’t help with writing lots of good content however.You might know that for many years my club was the source of one the best and most popular chess blogs around. (http://streathambrixtonchess.blogspot.com/).

    Why is it not continuing any more? The contributors don’t want to spend time writing that much any more, and some of them don’t even play chess much any more.

    When I see the great work you’re doing on the Bristol Chess Times, I find myself wondering how many years you’ll be able to keep it up for, when again it is heavily reliant on one or two people.

    Btw this is nothing special to chess…. I know a good many people who’ve been enthusiastic bloggers and podcasters at one time or another in fields like video gaming, movies, etc. Most of them stop after a number of years.

    2) “There is potentially an appetite for 2hr evening league games”

    There is potentially an appetite for all kinds of stuff! However it’s hard to tell how well it will work before trying it. The Croydon League has a rapidplay division, where on the night you play two rapid games one as white and one as black. Match starts at 8pm I think and the whole thing is around two hours.

    I think this is a great format, but of the numerous teams in the Croydon League, only three enter teams in that rapid division. I don’t know why there isn’t more interest as there are plenty of people from other clubs that play in rapid and blitz events.

    Streatham’s nearest thing to a club night is the Streatham Library Chess Group, which runs from 4:30 to 7:30 every Tuesday. It’s very popular with kids, and also adults. Couldson Chess Fellowship has events in the afternoon, principally for retired people.

    The world is full of different categories of people for whom different times and formats would work best. However you need them to work for a critical mass of people to have a viable event.

    For example while you might love an 8:30 pm event after your kids have gone to bed, many others would prefer an event they can go to immediately after work.

    There are various evening leagues around :London that start at 6:30, 7:00 and 7:40. The session lengths and time controls vary too. It’s not too obvious to me that any of them are much more popular than any other, and in fact there is a lot of overlap in the people who play in the various leagues. The main factor in who-plays-in-what appears to be more geographical. “I can conveniently get to X after work, but not Y”.

    3) “Proactive clubs producing content and social spaces are thriving”

    This seems to be true, though what is less clear is how far they are thriving by attracting more people to chess versus how far they are just attracting people who were already active players, essentially “poaching” them from other clubs by having more to offer. I do see a fair amount of the latter in clubs that I know about.

    While this is of course fine, if it’s mainly the latter then it’s a zero-sum game which can’t boost chess as a whole.

    Also as mentioned this “proactivity” is usually down to a couple of key people, so the fortunes of clubs are very much tied to those people being around.

    4) “Weekday Evenings vs. Weekend Leagues”

    From what I’ve seen there are people that find weekday evenings better suited to their lifestyle, and others that find weekends better. Overall though the total number of people who turn out for weekend events like tournaments and country matches does seem to be a lot less than turn out for evening league matches.

    Personally I’d be pretty keen on Sunday afternoon chess. Venues for that aren’t so easy to come by though!

    5) “Losing juniors at secondary school level …..”

    People changing their interests at secondary school level is not unique to chess, and I’m not sure that anyone has any great ideas about how to reduce the number that do.

    I pretty much gave up chess around age 15, and so did many of the people I played with. However the reasons for that aren’t such that any chess club could do much about it. They include exams, teenage hormones, and different perspectives on life and on chess.

    However there is probably a lot that the chess world could do to help people find their way back to playing when they’re ready for that.

    All that said, I think there is scope for a lot of growth in OTB chess over the next few years at least. The biggest potential sources of new players are a) online players and b) returning players. In both cases we need to figure out ways to reach out to them, and make it easy for them to give OTB a try.

    1. Hi Jagdip

      Thanks for the detailed response. I’m not going to go into all your comments but three that I wanted to talk about were WordPress, content production and losing juniors at secondary.

      1) WordPress really isn’t that complicated if someone is willing to learn. In 2018 it’s one of the simplest content management systems to pick up. And £50 per annum is very good for the service offered. If a club is unwilling to learn WordPress then they either have no website or are reliant (as you say) on a technical individual. But many clubs websites already have a “techie individual” and they look awful because that persons knowledge hasn’t been kept up to date (“this is how we did websites in the 90’s” syndrome). By using a service like WordPress a club becomes less reliant on individuals in the long run and keeps uptodate with modern web practice.

      2) Content production. You are right that it can get tiring and sometimes these things stop. But I don’t see that as an argument not to try otherwise Noone would make anything! All good things must come to an end. Again to come back to the WordPress theme this makes hosting, managing and publishing content so much easier than historically for clubs.

      3) Secondary school leavers from chess. My point here is simply that not enough effort is made by clubs to support adult beginners. Everyone talks about “making connections with junior clubs” but there is very little evidence that this yields good recruitment for clubs in the long run.

      I think ultimately these ideas (and others that people talk about) are there to help proactive clubs. If a club doesn’t want to self promote itself and pay £50 a year (or £18 as my club does) for a website then, sorry to sound blunt, it probably won’t function as a chess club much longer into the 21st century.

      As I said in the article, I fullly expect a lot of British chess clubs to disappear if they don’t learn to adapt and promote themselves better. This might just be an evolution of British League chess so no bad thing.

      Again thanks for your detailed comment and your readership of Bristol Chess Times.

      1. Sorry it’s taken me a while to notice your response. (An illustration of how even pretty keen chess players don’t necessarily keep up with chess media!)

        Firstly I think we agree on more things than you might have taken from my comments….

        – WP is an excellent option, esp if you plan to produce lots of content
        – Producing content is a good thing, to whatever extent that you are able to do it
        – It is important to cater to adult beginners, to casual players and to players at the lower end of the ratings scale.

        Overall it sounds like you might be much more pessimistic about the state of club chess than I am, which may be a difference between London and Bristol. Around here I’d say clubs are on the up in recent years, and that’s not only the few that are putting a lot of effort into online content and social media.

        In fact there are plenty of thriving clubs that only have a pretty minimalist online presence, but what they do have is lots of enjoyable real world activity.

        Where my analysis would maybe differ from yours (as I’ve understood it anyway) is not so much in what is good to do as in what are the relative priorities of various things that it would be good to do, given the resources available to get them done.

        As an example, I think it is very beneficial for clubs to have a website that…

        – Shows up prominently in Google when someone searches for chess in your local area
        – Is attractive and informative to someone looking for info about chess in your area
        – Works well on whatever device they are using, i.e. phones and tablets as well as computers

        On the other hand, I think maintaining a blog full of match reports on every fixture would only be modestly beneficial, and might well not be a great use of time or money if those things are in scarce supply.

      2. Your analysis doesn’t differ. We both agree on the purpose and priority of a clubs website.

        Attractive, responsive websites with regular content updates will achieve all of the things you speak of e.g. Google prominence.

        I’m not pessimistic I just see a changing of the old ways. 😀

Leave a Reply