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    Saturday
    Nov212015

    On the (Supposed) Fall of British Chess

    Here (HT: Marc Beishon) is a longish and questionable article on the supposed downfall of British chess. One might nitpick about a few of the facts (and I'll engage in a bit of that in a moment), but there does seem to be something to the story - a pity, given the media and cultural power of England and its historical importance to the royal game.

    Let's start with some minor nitpicks, beginning with the claim that the England was once the #2 chess country in the world. It did take second in three consecutive Olympiads, from 1984 to 1988, but was it deeper than the United States or Hungary? It's arguable, but it's certainly clear that they were among the chess super-powers.

    The suggestion that they've fallen below Egypt and Peru is even more absurd. Sure, they might have placed behind them in a recent Olympiad, but to draw the conclusion that England lags behind those countries as a chess power is a bizarre sort of reverse propaganda. The top English players could hold their own against anyone, and they would be underdogs against only a very few teams. (Certainly not Egypt or Peru.) Mickey Adams has been a 2700+ player for a very long time, Nigel Short is sometimes over 2700 and never too far away from that mark, and Luke McShane and David Howell have also crossed that barrier. Matthew Sadler is also an upper 2600 player, while Gawain Jones seemed headed for 2700 not all that long ago as well.

    Unfortunately, the drop-off after those six is precipitous, and there don't seem to be any super-talents on the horizon. Their #7 player is John Nunn, rated 2597. The 60-year-old Nunn was a player in the second tier of the world elite (i.e. never a threat to win the title but the sort of player who was regularly invited to super-tournaments), but that was 20+ years ago. So what has happened? I'm not entirely sure, and I would have thought that Malcolm Pein's chess in the schools programs would have made a bigger difference.

    Also unhelpful: snarky articles like the one discussed here. Chess and chess players aren't exactly presented in a positive light (there's no money in it, chess isn't glamorous, chess players are physically unfit, pretty much everything said by and about Danny Gormally, and on and on it goes). When we talk about chess to the "civilian" world we should be winsome ambassadors for the game - especially when we have the chance to speak to members of the media. It isn't necessary to lie or hide the truth about the negatives, but there are many positives about the game and its increasing popularity around the world. We should emphasize them!

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    Reader Comments (10)

    Dennis, as someone in England, I think the key point of the article is the lack of backing (from both private and public sides) and professional organisation. The schools programme looks impressive but it targets mainly primary (5-11) ages I reckon, and the national under 19 school championship (which I played in when it was very strong and has been going since 1957) now has only about 100 entries mainly from elite private schools (there are about 3,500 secondary schools). The current sponsor is an elite school - it used to be a newspaper group (Times/Sunday Times). I'm guessing, as I've not been involved for some time, but I think we lose many potential players at this stage, while there is the obvious issue of lack of sponsorship/finance/opportunities after school age.

    November 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMarc

    Thanks for the critique, Dennis. I wasn't attempting to be snide or defeatist about chess, which I love, just calling it as I saw it. Look at the England team currently playing in Iceland: an over-50, an over-40, an amateur and two guys in their prime. Given our lack of titled players under 20, how will the team look in 20 years? Or take a look at this year's British championship – dominated by the over 30s/40s/50s. I take your point that the Peru thing may be a statistical quirk, but the future in terms of playing strength does not look healthy. Plus I worry about the ongoing battles at the ECF, the proportion of kids who drop out after 11, the lack of mainstream media coverage, the way chess has slipped – over the course of my lifetime – out of the public eye. It wasn't just the Fischer-Spassky match that generated headlines. I remember at university following the Karpov-Korchnoi matches in long news reports in newspapers. Now, world championship matches are lucky if they get a par on the puzzles page. Something has gone wrong. One other thing: journalists should never, as you seem to suggest, be boosters for what they are writing about, even if they are sympathetic towards it. They should tell the truth as they see it.

    Thanks again for your considered response. Main thing is to get a debate going about these issues and get chess moving forward.

    [DM: Thank you for your reply. I agree with you, and would note that we in the U.S. had the same problem for many years: lots of kids playing, but practically nothing to keep them going after a certain point. We've turned the corner here, it seems, and hopefully that will happen in England as well.]

    November 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Moss

    Can I add one other big worry to my list – lack of sponsors. Surely at the very least the British Championship should have a sponsor. Banks and tech companies should be falling over themselves to be associated with chess. Sponsorship, telly, mainstream media coverage, public interest, mass participation, the bolstering of the elite game – that's the virtuous circle we need to create.

    Or we can chug along as we are presently, with guys who've played for 50 years running a show that plays in ever smaller theatres.

    November 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Moss

    Main thing is to get a debate going about these issues

    This is a bit of an unconvincing claim to make when the piece itself was extremely short of debate about some of the claims that were made, notably concerning the removal of the hapless, incompetent, incoherent Phil Ehr. Mr Ehr had his say and Nigel Short had his characteristically aggressive say, but where, please, were the voices of the people Short was attacking? Where were the voices of the people who don't think the problem with English chess is the ordinary players and organisers? Or people who think that sponsorship for chess events isn't magically available just because people would like it to happen?

    "Debate" indeed. It's an embarrassingly one-sided piece, full of assertions about people who are active in organising, playing in and discussing English chess and empty of their own opinions and explanations. Nobody who read the piece would have a better understanding of what's been happening in English chess, when they'd finished, than they'd had when they began. Some of it was an entertaining read. Less of it was enlightening.

    November 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterejh

    The tone of the article is in striking contrast to the enthusiasm of European Team Championship live commentator Simon Williams, at least early during the event: "England has the best team in a long time, we can compete for medals!" Such hopes or dreams didn't materialize.

    Here comes a series of (rhetorical) questions:
    In which western country is everyone, or an obvious majority, perfectly or 'pretty' happy with their chess federation?

    Should a Chess in Schools program aim to produce future grandmasters or top players (the latter term being more restrictive)? Sure, someone very talented and ambitious might discover the game in such a way, but the program doesn't fail if such a person doesn't exist or happens to have enough other hobbies.

    [DM: Why not, as a small *part* of their mission? Even if they just help create an infrastructure for chess beyond their primary mission, that would help.]

    In which countries could players like Nigel Davies or Daniel Gormally earn a comfortable living from chess?

    [DM: Do you mean just from playing? Nowhere, or almost nowhere.]

    Russia or Ukraine - I doubt it. China - they would have long been dropped for younger and more promising players. My personal perspective - just one voice, but I have a rather broad interest in chess going well beyond the 2700+ group: I last noticed Davies when he played an open in Hamburg in the 1990s where I happened to be kibitzing. As a matter of fact, Davies is inactive since 2009. For Gormally it is more recent: a round-robin in Amsterdam last February. Sadler and McShane, certainly more talented than Davies and Gormally, decided against a professional chess career. Williams, at least nominally (even) weaker, is charismatic and creative enough to do many chess-related things in addition to playing.

    November 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

    What is remarkable about Moss' critique is that it could also apply to many other Western European chess scenes, including traditional chess countries such as the Netherlands and Spain. Sure, the details are different, but Holland has lost many of its chess columns and has relatively few top juniors coming through, even though they have a wonderful junior development structure.
    So the critical factor may be chess' diminishing media profile in Western Europe, especially compared with Asia. And perhaps there is a limited impact that even good chess federations can have about that.

    November 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterClifford

    Well, the piece is certainly simplistic, and many claims are widely inaccurate, but I do not think it falls way below the standard expected of a general daily newspaper. It's not an insider's view printed in a specialised chess magazine: it's a journalist's view printed in a broadsheet. I don't think an oncologist would find a Guardian article on cancer any better, and same goes for any expert in any discipline, even though you and I would likely find such a piece helpful and clear in highlighting main issues.

    And it does highlight some important issues. For one, the English Chess Federation is too paralysed with petty infighting to spend any time on bringing business sponsorship in, not that they would seem to have the expertise required. Voting out a non-salaried CEO in favour of a vacancy is frankly stupid by a first-year business degree student's standards, and that's just one example amongst many.

    Mr Moss seems to take the view that if he had to identify one issue as the single greatest impediment to English chess he would say lack of money, and few people I've ever spoken to on the subject would disagree. As he rigthly points out, mid-tier professional players in England do struggle financially. Anyone who's ever seen Gormally's Twitter feed (don't if you've eaten recently) knows that the situation can't be quite as bad as he puts it out to be: the man is certainly the author of his own misfortunes. However, it definitely is not rosy and most of talented young players do not even contemplate professional play. Why would they if they'd be struggling to make a living, and (crucially) would have negligible prospects of ever bringing in an income equivalent to the average graduate salary? Were it not for the latter more players might stay in the game (in many respected jobs junior professionals struggle before they start making good money) but chess offers little such prospect.

    It's all great to say that chess is fascinating (we all know that!) but so are many other professions and there will be few people who will view chess as the only career choice they could be happy with. And when the time comes to make a decision between several things you could reasonably be happy with doing for a living, they will take into account their basic evolutional needs. A Najdorf brilliancy will neither impress potential mates nor put food on the table.

    I would have thought that Malcolm Pein's chess in the schools programs would have made a bigger difference

    With respect, that I strongly disagree with [in the interest of full disclosure, I actually work for Chess in Schools]. The way I see it, the problem is not lack of children interested in chess, but again: the money when you're thinking whether you want to take it further. Children learn to play chess in schools, many of them thanks to Chess in Schools' primary school programme, and some the most interested and talented of them will go on to join clubs, take lessons, play in tournaments. But then the time comes to study for your A-levels, go to university and think about what you want to do for a living. At that point it becomes irrelevant how much you like chess, or for that matter any other of your hobbies: as it doesn't look like you can do it for a living, you have to choose something else.

    Until chess deals with that problem I can't see this improving.

    November 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKajetan Wandowicz

    I don't mean to disrespect Gormally, but according to the FIDE-Database he is currently no 738 in the world rankings. Why should anyone expect to be able to make a decent living from that? Not even in tennis or golf he could. But then why is his case given as an example to illustrate the supposedly difficult situation of English chess? Maybe the problem of chess players is their often totally unrealistic expections as regards sources of income and media attention. Maybe the glass is rather half full than half empty.

    November 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJPS

    It may be a lack of money but it also appears to be an unwillingness of English/British players to travel abroad to obtain experience. Jonathan Hawkins became the first British GM for 4 years in 2015, and even then they had to create a special tournament in Wales for him to play in in order to meet the criteria for his third GM norm. That is because British players can not or will not travel abroad to play in tournaments beyond the Junior level. They play against each other all the time in mickey mouse weekend tournaments with two rounds a day and not much prize money at stake. This is no kind of preparation for playing serious open or round robin tournaments.

    [DM: You may be entirely right about this, but one thing to keep in mind about norm events: except for national championships and maybe some other special exception I'm not aware of, it's necessary to have at least three players representing foreign federations for it to count. (The fear is that all-national events will lead to collusion for the aspirant's norms.]

    Chess will always have to rely on patronage from wealthy individuals or companies because it is not, and never will be, a spectator sport that attracts mass interest. What helps is having a World Champion, chess is booming in India because they have Vishy Anand as a role model, same thing in Norway with Carlsen. Unfortunately the last time the media made a big push to promote chess in Britain, Nigel Short was wiped out by Kasparov in the 1993 World Championship. It has also been said that sponsorship world wide dried up after Kasparov lost to Deep Blue based on the idea that who wants to watch 2 humans playing a match when the 'real' world champion is in a box somewhere at IBM? I never really bought that, but it is definitely true that sponsorship below the super elite GM level has fallen off a cliff and it amazes me that opens with $30,000 in prize money (total) are regarded as 'well endowed' these days.

    November 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Veasey

    Dennis, that was the reason i mentioned the South Wales Masters event where Hawkins made his third norm. They invited 3 or 4 weak continental GM's so he could reach the qualifying criteria. The rule is that you can obtain 2 GM norms in National events but the third must include an event where at least 3 of the competitors are from foreign federations. English chess has nobody in authority with any kind of vision to grow the game at all. The London Chess Classic for example is run by a group outside of the English Chess Federation who want nothing to do with them.

    November 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Veasey

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