The British used to attract, as a matter of course, pretty much every top player eligible to enter: but now, by my count, we're down to two of the top ten - and maybe half of the top thirty. Given that the top echelon of British chess is not what it used to be either, we're talking about a smaller selection from a weaker pool.
The long-term reasons for this decline have been discussed elsewhere: they exist and they're not anybody's fault. Chess is short of cash in a world where money matters: chess is never going to pay, say, Luke McShane what Goldman Sachs are paying him. Besides, the world has changed from the days when every leading British player could be counted on to turn up at a seaside resort for two weeks to enjoy the company of the rest of the chess community (as they would not have called it then). Most of our leading players are professionals: people say, quite rightly, that Short and Adams would be expensive, but even below their level there are plenty of players who expect to receive "conditions" and can quite likely get better conditions elsewhere. London, for instance.
The world has changed in other ways. A number of our leading players live abroad, and can get to a international open with attractive prizes as easily as they can get to Liverpool: indeed, even for the rank-and-file it's no novelty any more to go abroad to play in a strong open tournament. Not so long ago the British used to be the strongest tournament most people were likely to see, let alone play in, all year: but now, it seems like just another open tournament, and not as strong, by a long chalk, as many. And this is the problem. The British is no longer special.
It needs to be special: it's our championship. It needs to be the best we can make it. Something is badly wrong when a player of my strength can find twenty players in the tournament lower-graded than myself. I'm a decent enough player sometimes, but I shouldn't be playing in a national championship. It's reaching the point of absurdity and I think there is a strong case for a drastic change.
I want to make a proposal here for how I think the British could be revamped. As with all proposals, it'll have strengths and weaknesses. As with all proposals, there will be much that I have overlooked. And as with all proposals, it is easier to make than to put into practice. Nevertheless, easy as it is to say it, I think that from 2010 onwards the open, Swiss format for the British Championships should be dropped.
I think instead that
- the tournament should be an elite one, a twelve player all-play-all.
- the top eligible players should be invited, in order of strength, and places filled on that basis until all were filled.
- it should continue to be a part of a wider festival of British chess, with other tournaments running alongside, most significantly what would, hopefully, be a strong Major Open.
(a) I think the national championship needs to be an elite event. When all the top players played, it didn't matter if a few weaker players took part and scored 2.5/11: no problem, the best players were all there fighting for the title. This no longer applies. So if we're going to pretend that it's anything more than just another open, much more than a weekend tournament, we have to select the best of those who enter and show that to the world.
If we can't get Short and Adams, well, that's something we can live with. The top ten (I'll explain later why I say ten rather than twelve) at Liverpool are Jones, Nick Pert, Conquest, Bogdan Lalic, Hebden, Haslinger, Gordon, Arkell, Gormally and Williams: that's a good tournament. But it's a far better tournament if there's only two players weaker than Williams than if there's sixty. And I think that an elite tournament might well, even if gradually, attract the stronger players.
(b) The top ten would be picked in grading order: from which particular list, I care not, whether it be ECF or FIDE, so long as the rules are set out clearly and stuck to. Players 1-10 invited, made an offer. Then number 11, and so on until ten places were filled.
I am aware that this is a complex and difficult process. Inevitably some players will ask for more than can be offered: inevitably some players will be offered more than others. Inevitably there will be accusations of favouritism.
Moreover I have said nothing about where the money is to come from: and this is plainly a difficult problem, since if you do not know what your budget is, you cannot make a firm offer, while sponsors are unwilling to commit sizeable sums until they know who is likely to be playing.
People who know far more than I about these things, and who have experience in the field, would have to manage the process. But I hope it could be done.
(c) My proposal would be to allow two other places: one for the winner of the Major Open and one wild card, to be used as the ECF saw fit: perhaps a promising junior, perhaps a popular veteran, perhaps a player who's no longer active enough to have a rating, perhaps a player of notably interesting or aggressive style, perhaps a strong local player. I know that this, too, is fraught with difficulty (as anybody who follows golf will know) but it does provide the organisers with some genuine discretion to make the tournament even more attractive.
The qualifying place from the Major Open is an old tradition and a good one: it should be maintained. Other than that, I've made no provision whatsoever for qualifying. I know this goes against what many people want. I'm sorry about that. I like the idea in principle. But I also like the idea of an elite tournament and the two conceptions are simply not compatible. Qualifying belongs to the era of a strong open British, when it was hard to get into and you were playing for a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If the open goes, I believe qualifying, the single Major Open place apart, has to go too. (I hope, in fact, that qualifying through the Major Open would be much more difficult than it is now: because it would be a much stronger tournament.)
(d) If elitism is in some ways important, so is inclusivity. It's crucial that it should be part of a chess festival and not a single tournament, held on its own with the rest of us only attending as spectators. All that would achieve would be to replace "just another open tournament" with "just another all-play-all".
I believe this proposal is worth thinking about: thinking about hard. I love watching the British Championships. But they're not, really, the British Championships. I don't believe, in the current format, they can ever properly claim that title again. The world has changed, the world of chess has changed, and I think the British needs to change with it. Is it not, manifestly, time for a rethink?
[* although my particpation will be limited as I am packing today and on holiday from tomorrow!]