Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Adam Raoof


Adam Raoof, at somebody else's tournament
photograph by Brendan O'Gorman


If you were to follow me home and hide in the bushes outside my flat one evening – and, let’s be honest, we both know that you want to – you would notice two things pretty quickly: (a) I live on the second floor so you can't can’t see in particularly well; and (b) the fact that you can see in at all is in no small measure due to the fact that I don’t have any curtains in my front room.

The absence of drapery I would explain by saying that I haven’t got around to putting any up as yet. As it happens that’s also the answer I’d have given if I'd been asked about curtains in the weeks after I first moved in twelve years ago.

Charlies: the restaurant just by the
Golders Green playing hall
Photograph from Adam Raoof
This is all by way of explanation of why this post has been waiting for me to write it for three months. Having the attention span of a gerbil, I am very easily distracted and unfortunately it often takes me quite a while to finish a project once it’s started. Sad to say, but frittering away time is an affliction I struggle against off the board as well as on it.

Anyhoo, the original motivation for this post was that I’d wanted to find out about chess tournaments. More specifically, I'd wanted to know what makes a good one. Who better to talk to, then, than Adam Raoof? If you’ve played any chess at all in London over the last couple of decades you almost certainly already know Adam and very possibly have played in one of the rapidplay events he holds each month at Golders Green. Actually, even if you don’t live here there’s a fair chance that you’ve heard of him anyway. He’s that sort of guy.

Back in February we – along with Chris Andrescu – met for a bite to eat and a chat about the history of the Golders Green tournament. We discussed much else too - Adam’s work as Chess Consultant on the sequel to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes movie and his role as Director of Home Chess at the English Chess Federation for starters – but those other subjects we’ll save for another day. This post has already been delayed for long enough.

Many thanks to Adam and Chris for their time, and my apologies to them for taking so long to write up what was a very interesting conversation. If you want to sample Golders Green yourself, the next tournaments will be held on June 11th and 9th July. Unfortunately I will be out of London and will miss both, but I hope to play in the one after that (6th August). You never know, once that's out of the way I might even get my tape measure out and start measuring up for those curtains.




Golders Green chessers
Photograph from Adam Raoof


Jonathan Bryant:
It seems to me as if the Golders Green tournament has been running forever.

Adam Raoof:
Yes, me too! At least 15 years.

Chris Andrescu:
Since ’91. Maybe ’90, but I think ’91.

JB:
I came to London in 1992 so that’s why I think you’ve always been around, then. How did you get started?

AR:
Hendon Chess Club used to have an annual rapidplay and one year they couldn’t run it, so I said I’d do it. We held it in Hendon Library, where I worked, and after that I think the second two were in Edgware in a church hall. I went to a guy I knew, Glynne Jones, and said I need some help. He came along for a couple of tournaments and then he said, “Right, you’re on your own.” That was it. I was hooked.

CA:
There were three or four tournaments in Edgware in 1994.

AR:
I used to go and play in George Goodwin's quickplays on Sundays. At that point he ran two of those a month so I thought “I’m going to run mine on Saturdays, and I can go and play his.” At that point there were lots of tournaments

CA:
John Sargent, the Civil Service tournament.

JB:
International Students?

CA:
International Students was good while it lasted.

AR:
We all met as organisers and made sure we didn’t clash and I just fitted around everybody else’s dates because they were already established.

JB:
Now you’re the established event. Your dates are already set to the end of next year aren’t they?

AR:
I always do it a year in advance. I generally keep the same dates, except when Easter moves, but that’s about it.

JB:
What’s the average entry that you get?

AR:
It used to be 70 was a good weekend, but now we’re disappointed if we don’t get 80 and today I think was 100.

CA:
102.

AR:
The record breaker was … (pauses to think)

CA:
119.

JB:
Do you ever have to turn people away?

AR:
Never.

CA:
Once or twice almost to the edge.

AR:
We ran out of clocks once and we literally said “As soon as somebody else finishes you can have their clocks” and we got around it for one or two games. When we had 119 we actually had more than that entered and some people didn’t turn up. It was good weather so we put them outside, we put them in the little annexe just as you come into the church hall. We’d have put them in the kitchen if we had to.

CA:
The worst ever was 20 players.

AR:
That was early on.

CA:
No. About ’96 or so.


A brief interlude followed during which we debated whether 15 years ago counted as "early" for Golders Green. That tells you something about the tournament's longevity, I think.


CA:
It clashed with the British Rapidplay.

AR:
That was in Leeds and even I went to Leeds. Nobody came here, not even me.



Chris Andrescu guarding the Golders Green pairing cards
Photograph from Adam Raoof


Golders Green is such an established event that it's hard to imagine it ever not being there. I was shocked when Adam told me that there had been a time when he was thinking about giving it up.


AR:
There was a point when I was getting a bit jaded and I’d run it for so many years and I thought “It’s not going anywhere. I’m going to hand it over to somebody else to run” and at that point I thought, “No. I’ve got to give it one last shot” and I started using Facebook, I started collecting email addresses. And it worked, it really worked. The numbers went up and up and up.

JB:
No more thoughts of jacking it in, I hope.

AR:
Well it went up very steadily, I wouldn’t say overnight, but it got me interested again. It had become very routine and I thought “Where am I going to get those entries from?”

When I originally started out organising 12 tournaments a year didn’t seem like such a strange idea because I could save lot of money on printing. But after a while we never printed anything really because people just knew about the tournament.

I realised where I could get those extra entries from were people who used Facebook, people who use email but don’t really pick up leaflets at all, maybe they look at the calendar on BCM online or the ECF calendar or teletext or Ceefax when that was going.

We always get a core. At the fringe the people who come and make the difference are the people who decide “this month I’m going to come and play at Golders Green. Next month I’m going to play in a weekender. The month after that I’m not going play in Golders Green, but I’m going to play in Richmond.” Those are the people. If you can just remind them on Facebook or send them an email it makes the difference.

JB:
I think Golders Green is the only one you can actually enter online.

AR:
My friend Mike Bennett does HendonChessClub.com. He’s a web designer. I thought I could put the entry fees up but what I really want is more players so I said to him, “Can you design a system so people can enter online? They don’t have to pay. I just want to be able to do all the paper work before they get there.” I just wanted people to come in and sit down and start playing. Mike did it all for me.

JB:
I always used to enter on the day because I was unorganised and I’d end up queuing with loads of other people waiting to pay…

AR:
I hate that. When you go to a tournament and it’s supposed to start at 10 but it starts at half-past because people are late. I thought let’s just get people to come in and play and we can settle up later.

JB:
A lot of people would assume they wouldn’t pay.

AR:
I do sometimes chase them! But they do pay. People are very honest and it does save them a lot of time.

We did put the late entry fee up to £20. It is quite expensive to go to other tournaments and enter late. It’s relatively simple to enter Golders Green. They’re more likely to make a decision to come and play at the last minute and they can also enter online and save themselves a fiver.

I lose in the sense that I could probably put the entry fees up and the late entry fees up but I'd probably get less players. I’d rather have more players and make it a more significant event. That’s what makes it interesting. If we had 70 or 80 players every time that would be OK, but to get 100? 120? That’s great.

JB:
Golders Green is a very important event for London chess now, I think. Even though I don't play in it very often I know it's there and if I ever want to play I know I'll be able to get a game.

AR:
It’s only a little local rapidplay and yet because it’s in London and it’s been going on so long, we’ve had just about everybody come through it at one point or another.

CA:
Such as John Nunn, Michael Adams.

JB:
A few years back Jim Plaskett was here each time I came.

CA:
Harriet Hunt.

AR:
Luke McShane. That’s how I got to know people. They turned up and played here and I got to know them.

More and more we get a lot of juniors, under 16s, coming to practice for events that take place on the Sunday. So if they’re coming for a National Junior Squad event on the Sunday, they turn up at Golders Green to give them a little warm up. At one point we had an influx of juniors from Sri Lanka and India too.

JB:
So, when it comes down to it, what is that makes Golders Green a success?

AR:
I think the only secret is to keep on running it, no matter what. We have kept going every month and eventually that wins a certain loyalty from the players. We are blessed with a convenient venue right next to a tube and bus and coach station at Golders Green. We've made certain improvements over the years and we’ve got modest but guaranteed prizes.

JB:
Do people sometimes ask you why you don’t increase the prize money?

AR:
Occasionally, but not that frequently. The main reason why people play at Golders Green is that it’s organised well, hopefully, and it starts relatively late and finishes on time. We don’t have a lunch break so people get six games of chess without hanging around, and it’s friendly. Prize money isn’t a priority.

I’ve thought about the prize money very seriously, but with the capacity of the church hall limited to 120 at the most and the fact that I get a pretty large entry at the moment, there’s not much of an incentive for me to put the prize money up because I’m not going to get that many more entries. If I had a bigger venue, then maybe.

JB:
I know some people look at prize money in relation to the entry fee, but I think to me and a lot of people it makes no difference.

AR:
We’ve kept the entry fees at a reasonable level. Ironically, that’s for the convenience of the person taking the money - i.e. me! – though. It’s easier to take an entry of £15 than it is to say “let’s put it up a pound” and then have to faff about with change all day.

People appreciate it and it doesn’t seem to affect the strength of the entry. You still get a very competitive tournament. In the end people are very friendly. They treat it like a local tournament. They get to know people and come along as regular competitors.

JB:
Having large prizes for what are essentially amateur tournaments can risk causing trouble, I think.

AR:
I’m in charge of the grading and rating. To be honest there aren’t that many people who would play the system. If you provide a financial incentive of course there are always going to be one or two exceptions. We generally don’t have that problem at Golders Green.

CA:
No, not at all.

AR:
I know the players pretty well. It’s very unusual that I see somebody at Golders Green that I don't already know. When I do, I introduce myself and try and get to know who they are.

JB:
Have you had any other difficulties running the tournament? My experience is that any disputes are pretty low-level stuff.

AR:
No, I think it is fair to say that this is one of the friendliest events around, and we try to keep up that efficiently-run-yet-informal atmosphere at all times. On occasions I have had to throw out drunks, and stop players strangling each other, but generally they get on well, playing in a competitive spirit.





Interview Index



3 comments:

Adam Raoof (adamraoof@gmail.com) said...

I am, of course, far better looking that the photograph would suggest... nice interview, thanks J!

EO said...

andrescu? is this romanian, by any chance?

Jonathan B said...

Very possibly. Don't know. Haven't seen Chris around for the last few tournaments. Not sure what he's up to these days.