President’s New Year Message

It’s been a strange and frustrating year with no over the board competitive chess since last March. We can only hope that, with a vaccination programme now rolling out, we’ll be able to meet up again to play chess, to share a drink or a meal with our friends, at some point in 2021.

It’s likely, then, as could have been predicted at the time, that we’ll lose the end of the 2019-20 season and the whole 2020-21 season, with, perhaps, league chess resuming next autumn once herd immunity has been achieved.

At least this enforced break gives the chess community the chance to think about what it is doing and why. What is the purpose of chess clubs? What is the purpose of chess leagues? How can we, to use a currently popular phrase, ‘build back better’?

Recently, our friends at Hammersmith Chess Club have been asking exactly those questions. An article in the January 2021 edition of CHESS (it’s also on their website) by John White explains what’s happening.

The background is that one of the country’s leading Go players, T Mark Hall, died seven years or so ago, leaving a generous and substantial bequest to enable the establishment of a permanent London Go Centre. The idea was developed into a mindsports centre, for bridge and chess as well as Go, and the famous Young Chelsea Bridge Club got involved, followed by Hammersmith Chess Club.

A former Salvation Army building in Hammersmith was identified, and the sale was completed on Christmas Eve. Shortly before lockdown, Hammersmith Chess Club moved from their community centre venue which many of you will know and love into the Young Chelsea Bridge Club’s premises in Goldhawk Road, with the idea of eventually moving to the new venue.

From my personal perspective this is very convenient: it’s very close to Ravenscourt Park station, 12 minutes or so from Richmond on the District Line, and the newly extended 110 bus route which serves my estate stops almost outside. It’s also just round the corner from Latymer Upper School, which I apparently attended, although it’s far too long ago for me to remember.

Some of John’s comments about the current state of British chess really hit home.

“Overwhelmingly, the venues I play chess at, which includes the Middlesex and Thames Valley Leagues as well as the London League, are pubs, dingy community halls or in some cases an even worse venue. My point is – these venues are not attractive to women, young players (and their parents), or new people wanting to play chess.”

Another local club which has the right idea is Ealing, who meet at a sports club where they can run junior as well as adult sections, and where you can get a cheap drink in the bar after your game. This is, as far as I know, fairly similar to the way many chess clubs are run in continental Europe. Are there any sports clubs within our Borough we could work with? Richmond Bridge Club, which, with 500+ members (about 60% female) owns its own venue in East Twickenham: could we work together?

John White again: “I know for a lot of members of chess clubs, the venues are fine. However, I throw this challenge at you – the club is not yours per se, you are merely the custodians of it. Your responsibility is to run it efficiently and hand it on in rude health to the next generation of chess players.”

Very well said, John! Exactly this. Chess clubs exist for the community at large, not just for the convenience of their members. They need to meet at spacious, attractive venues, and, these days, a junior section before the adult club is absolutely essential. It’s also essential that the club provides facilities for informal as well as competitive chess, and has an active programme of instruction as well as social events. This is all well and good, but, of course, they also have to be financially viable.

But in order to do this you need committee members with time, energy and vision, people like John White, and these are not so easy to find, especially in a club with only a few dozen members, many of whom don’t live locally, and almost all of whom have to prioritise their family and work commitments. Perhaps there are too many small clubs, and we’d do better with fewer, larger clubs. What do you think? I can tell you what needs to be done, but it needs someone much younger and more energetic than me to put it into practice.

Let me conclude by telling you a story. Many years ago, a father brought his teenage son along to his local chess club. The boy was extremely shy and struggling in many aspects of his life, but the one thing he had was an obsession with chess. He was welcomed into the club, selected for a few games for the lower teams, and made friends with other boys his age (in those days, unlike today, chess was popular with teenage boys), both at the club and in tournaments: friendships which would, in some cases, last a lifetime. It might have surprised anyone who knew him at the time, but that boy would, in a few years time, captain teams, become club secretary, run a very successful junior club for three decades, and eventually be elected club president.

That boy, of course, was me. Everything I’ve done since then has been for the boy I was, to repay the kindness shown to me more than half a century ago, in the hope that I can transform other lives.

If you can help in any way, or have any other constructive ideas, please let me know. Tell me what you could do, please, not what I should do.

In the meantime, all I can do is wish everyone who reads this a Happy and less socially distanced New Year.

Links:

T Mark Hall foundation: http://www.tmhallfoundation.org.uk/

John White’s article: https://hammerchess.co.uk/2020/12/23/the-mindsports-centre-the-time-is-now/