The Economics of Chess Clubs

How much would you expect to pay for an evening out? Perhaps a meal at a nice restaurant with your family or a night in the pub with friends? Perhaps a football match or a concert, a visit to the theatre or the cinema?

I’d say certainly somewhere between £10 and £50: quite possibly, if you have expensive tastes, a lot more.

Taking your answer to this question into consideration, let’s think about the economics of chess clubs in the 21st century.

One of the big problems faced by all clubs, at least in my part of the world (an affluent London suburb), is that of finding a suitable venue. We’d all like to meet somewhere attractive, warm and welcoming that makes a good impression to anyone coming for the first time. But all too often we’re confined to back rooms of pubs or draughty church halls.

Chess club subscription rates in my area tend to be between £50 and £100 per annum, although they may have been in abeyance due to the lockdown. My club’s rates are lower at the moment, much to my disapproval, but I’m (as usual) in a minority of one.

Hiring fees for church halls and community centres in my area are roughly in the region of £22 per hour for a suitably sized room. As club matches last between 2½ and 3 hours, and you need time for setting up and putting away, you’ll need 3 hours at a minimum, but more likely 3½ or 4 hours (say 19:00 to 23:00).

Clubs (assuming, for the moment, there isn’t a junior section) tend to have relatively small memberships, perhaps 20 for a smaller club up to 50 for a larger club.

Let’s do some sums. Let’s suppose your club is relatively large, with 40 members. There is some demand for social chess so you meet throughout the year, with perhaps a short break for Christmas. Let’s say you pay £75 a week for your venue, and you also have to pay league fees (although local leagues are cheap, we’ll assume you play in the London League where you’re also paying for the venue). You’re going to want to maintain your equipment and will probably have an insurance policy. There may be other overheads as well. So you’re spending, say, £80 a week, which, multiplied by 50, makes your expenses £4000 a year.

You decide you need to pitch your subs at the upper end, £100 a year, so you have 40 members paying £100 each, which means you just about balance your books. Except you don’t. You probably want to offer half rate subs for unwaged members: juniors, seniors, unemployed, who make up, say, a quarter of your membership. You might want to offer free membership as a reward for members who have been involved in club administration for many years, or perhaps for the local IM who plays on top board and does a lot to make the club successful while also helping other members analyse their games.

You might, of course, strike lucky. Perhaps one of your members knows the landlord of a local pub. Perhaps, and we were lucky in that respect for some years, one of your members is in the congregation of a local church, and can get you the church hall at a reduced rate.

But otherwise it’s very difficult to balance the books.

Let’s think again about that £100 a year. For this you get, in principle, 50 evenings out plus some away matches as well. Let’s suppose you come to the club 20 times during the year. You’re paying, in effect, £5 for an evening out, which seems very cheap to me. If you come more often you’re paying even less. Even a subscription rate of £200 a year wouldn’t be unreasonable, and would enable the club to find a more attractive venue which would perhaps attract more members.

On the other hand, we, like many clubs, have quite a lot of members who only play for us a few times a year. Some of them are players who grew up in Richmond but no longer live locally. Others, in our case, are former members of Richmond Junior Club who feel a loyalty to chess in Richmond. There are also those who enjoy playing club matches two or three times a week and therefore belong to several clubs so that they can play in as many leagues as possible. If we’re their second or third club they may only play a handful of games a year for us.

If you’ve ever captained a team, especially in a higher division, you’ll be aware that the number of people thanking you for the invitation and telling you how excited they are to play is far outweighed by those who tell you they’ll play if you’re desperate and give the impression they’re doing you a favour by doing so.

For these players, £100 a year for, say, 10 games, is £10 per game, which, for players who are often reluctant to play, might be expensive. If you’re only playing 5 games a year, it’s £20 per game, which is probably unacceptable. And if you raise your subs to £200 a year you’d lose them completely. But you need these players to stay competitive in the top divisions of leagues and attract stronger new members.

There are alternatives. Back in the 1970s we had a ‘county membership’ category for those who had moved out of the area but wanted to keep in touch, which might cater for players like this. You might have different membership categories: match chess only, social chess only and both. You might also want to consider a ‘pay to play’ membership where you can either pay annually or, say, £5 per game or club visit. These days, this could perhaps be automated.

What do you think? How does your club work in terms of balancing the books and finding a suitable venue?

Do let me know. I’ll be continuing this series with articles explaining how we got here and what we might do about it.