Branson Pickle

Billionaire businessman Richard Branson was recently photographed, not for the first time, playing chess with the board the wrong way round. He also appeared to have made six moves to his opponent’s three, which might explain why his business dealings have been so successful. He also claimed that “chess is the best game in the world”: again he’s frequently made similar statements, with which we heartily agree, in the past.

Chess playing journalist Leon Watson (a real player, from Battersea chess club) mocked him in a Daily Telegraph article.

A couple of days later, the Times, in a diary column written by their chief film critic, Kevin Maher, replied, describing those who complained that the board was the wrong way round were “chess Nazis”, boasting that “I’ve been playing chess, sometimes handsomely, my entire life while completely unaware of this rule”. He concluded by suggesting that “chess nerds need to get a life”. You might think it inappropriate that a serious newspaper should bandy the word ‘Nazi’ around lightheartedly in this way, but we’ll let it pass.

Week after week I have problems in school chess clubs persuading the children to set the board up the right way round, and to call the chunky guys in the corner rooks rather than castles. They’ve been taught the game at home by parents who play chess in the same way that Branson and Maher do.

Now don’t get me wrong: if you want to set the board up the wrong way round and play fairly random moves, just because it’s fun, don’t let me stop you. The other day I visited the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition in Kew Gardens. I take photographs myself, but just for fun. Unlike the amazing photos I saw at the exhibition, mine are totally devoid of artistic merit. There’s a big difference between someone who takes photographs and a photographer just as there’s a big difference from someone who plays chess (like Branson) and a chess player, someone (like you or me) who tries to play well and get things right.

I think this is something many of us in the chess community tend to forget about. Most people who play chess know little or nothing about the game, and often despise those of us who take it seriously. Which is why most parents who sign their children up for primary school chess clubs have no interest in helping them because they don’t want them to become ‘chess nerds’.

Chess players have a serious image problem. How can we deal with it?