Further Thoughts about Chess Clubs

There are three activities a chess club might provide: social chess, competitive chess and chess instruction, which could be anything from teaching small children how the horsey moves to elite coaching for potential grandmasters.

This is something every club, whether an adult club, a junior club, a community club, a school club or whatever you happen to be, should consider.

You might decide to offer any one, any combination of two, or all three of these activities.

I often use the analogy of a swimming pool.

There are several reasons why you might visit a swimming pool.

You might want swimming lessons for yourself or your children.

You might want to hang out with your friends, having fun splashing around in the shallow end.

You might want to do serious training, either to keep fit or because you’re a competitive swimmer.

If a swimming pool tries to offer all these at the same time, no one will be very happy. If you’re doing some serious swimming you don’t want a load of kids getting in your way, and if you’re just having a good time you don’t want other users shouting at you to get out of the way.

So the pool will probably set aside specific times for different types of user in order to keep everyone happy.

Likewise, it’s a problem if your chess club has both social and competitive chess at the same time in the same room. If I’m playing in a league match I don’t want to be disturbed by conversation somewhere else in the room, and, at the same time, if I’m playing a social game I don’t want to be told to keep quiet by the match players. Some social players are happy to play in silence, but others are not.

Let’s say you’re paying £75 for your single room venue. You have a 6-board match this evening, as you do most evenings during the season. Most of the other players won’t come because they don’t want to sit there in silence, and perhaps also because your venue isn’t a particularly pleasant place to spend an evening. You can’t really charge the away team so you’re playing £75 for six members who will be reluctant to pay more than a few pounds for the privilege. I’m not an accountant and have no knowledge at all of financial matters, but this doesn’t sound good to me. In the words of Mr Micawber: Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

Just like the swimming pool, you’ll need separate rooms, times or venues for the different activities you want to provide, but how are you going to make it work financially?

One reason why venue prices are high in my part of the world is that they’re booked by professional teachers offering professional services for which people are prepared to pay significant amounts of money. People are very happy to pay £15 or £20 for something like a yoga class which will improve their health and well-being. They’re also happy to pay similar amounts for tuition groups which, they hope, will improve their children’s academic outcomes.

So, let’s suppose a tutor is paying £50 for an hour and a half, and has 10 students paying £20 each. Before deduction of overheads she’s making £150: not something that will make her rich, but well worth having.

Let’s propose a possible solution: you run a junior chess club before your club starts, using a volunteer coach from your club. You’ll be paying more for the venue, but the proceeds will enable you to balance the books. You might also attract new members for your club: some of the older children will eventually graduate and it’s also quite possible that one or two parents may want to join.

Of course it’s not so easy. You need volunteers who are prepared to offer professional level tuition and who have the appropriate chess and teaching skills. You also need a whole raft of safeguarding policies, child protection officers and so on. You can’t just open your doors as Richmond Junior Club did back in 1975.

Here in Richmond we tried this a few years ago but found little interest: parents who want professional chess tuition are already catered for by Richmond Junior Club, while most primary schools in the area have chess clubs for children who just want to play low level games with their friends. In your area, though, it might be different. It might be different in my area now, if we had a better venue and did more to advertise it.

You could also run other events: instruction, talks, simuls and so on, for which you could charge, and perhaps open them to members of other local clubs and the community at large. Could you persuade your top board to analyse some of his recent games in front of an audience, or perhaps take on the rest of the membership in a simul?

Other clubs have found other solutions. Our good friends at Wimbledon, for example, now have two venues meeting on different evenings: a church hall for matches, with special events (talks etc) on non match evenings, and a pub for social chess, preceded by a free junior club.

This sounds ideal if you can make it work financially. Pubs are great venues for social chess, where you can play and chat with your friends over a pint of your favourite tipple, but, for various reasons, are not always suitable for more serious competitive chess. There’s also always a problem with pubs in that the next landlord might not like chess.

Church halls, on the other hand, are, as long as they are warm, well lit and well ventilated, fine for match chess, as there will be fewer distractions than you’d get in a pub.

Ealing have one of the better venues in our area, within a sports club where they have a large, quiet room next door to a bar: an environment giving the best of both worlds. From when I asked them a few years ago, they also seemed to have a very good financial deal. I believe many continental chess clubs are also part of larger sports clubs.

Other clubs have been more ambitious: look, for example, at the Chess Centre in Ilkley, in its own dedicated building, which looks wonderful: exactly what chess clubs should be. I’m not sure how they raised the money to buy the premises, though.

If you’re lucky you might receive a bequest. Hammersmith Chess Club are now in a new Mind Sports Centre shared with the London Go Centre and the Young Chelsea Bridge Club, made possible by a bequest from a Go enthusiast.

Hammersmith’s John White wrote eloquently about the problems chess clubs face:

Overwhelmingly, the venues I play chess at – this 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.

I couldn’t agree more.

He added:

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.

Part of the reason for your existence is to help promote chess to new people.

Again, I’m in complete agreement.

For me, this is a moral imperative, and one that is often ignored by clubs who seem not to want more members because it would give them more work to do. I’ll write more about this in a future article.