Clubland Heroes

Some of you will remember that Mike Fox and I wrote a column for CHESS called Addicts’ Corner for fourteen years.

While looking for something else, I came across this, from 18 years ago.

I was wrong about the Thames Valley League, which, like other similar leagues, is still continuing reasonably successfully, still being propped up in part by the baby boomers. In fact there’s been something of a chess revival in London in the past few years, due to go-ahead clubs like Hammersmith and Battersea with younger organisers. New leagues are springing up designed to be more attractive to younger players, and are proving successful. I’m still here, soldiering on, because there’s no one else to do it, but I’m open to offers if anyone wants to transform Richmond into a dynamic 21st century chess club.


For we too were – perhaps still are – clubland heroes ourselves. Chess clubs like these are slowly dying, victims of the currently prevalent work ethic, the increase in home entertainment, and the oppressive culture of exams, testing and project work in schools. Richard’s local league, the Thames Valley, is down to 36 teams now, and is losing at least two teams every season.  In twenty years time evening leagues such as these will, unless there is a remarkable change in the social fabric of the country, be gone. In the words of Eric Bogle, writing in a different context, “But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday, no one will march there at all.”.

Yes, we were the young Turks once, way back when. Oh, how we celebrated our victories, putting the Percys and Harolds in their place. How we stunned them with the latest Russian TNs, usurping their long cherished boards in the first team. How well we remember those convivial evenings studying the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn in the smoke-filled room above the pub. How we laughed at the greybeards who, week in and week out, regaled us with stories of chess in the thirties. Things were so much better, they told us, when they were young and fab.

But where are the Jasons and Matthews taking our place in the first team? Where the Darrens and Daniels to mock us when we tell them our tales of Fischer and Tal? You know where they are, of course. Working a fourteen hour day on the Stock Exchange floor. Sniffing coke in a lap-dancing bar. Pumping iron in the gym. Perhaps even playing chess on ICC. While we still soldier on because there is no one to take our place.

Chess is a pastime for young children now, just another board game alongside Snakes & Ladders and Ludo, to be played for a couple of years and then discarded. Chess sets abandoned on the bonfire of history along with last summer’s Pokémon cards. “Do you mean grownups actually play this game as well?” we were asked by an innocent 7-year-old the other week. Blissfully innocent, and blissfully ignorant, too, of the history and the heritage, the literature and the beauty, the reasons why we continue to play the game. Yes, we are both actively involved in teaching young children to play, and, given the prevailing Zeitgeist (look it up, Mike) we probably have no choice. Sometimes, we’ll discover a Luke McShane or an Ameet Ghasi, and perhaps that makes it all worthwhile. What, we wonder, would those bewhiskered gents staring out of their 1900 sepia photographs have made of it?