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.

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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

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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!

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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.