Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ten and a half questions about the "decline of English chess"

  1. It's claimed that professional chess is in a crisis in England. Is this actually true, or are there in fact more professionals than ever?

  2. How does the current performance compare to most historical periods and should the period roughly 1975-1995 be seen as a "blip" rather than the norm? If so, why did it happen and can those conditions be recreated?

  3. Is there any reason to think England significantly different to Western Europe as a whole? Where are the new Hubners and Timmans and Anderssons? Doesn't elite Western European chess - Adams aside - presently rest basically on one Danish prodigy, who is an exception more or less by definition? Is England therefore not typical rather than exceptional?

  4. Haven't most leading English players always been amateurs and haven't there always been many strong English players who've given up the game? Does Matthew Sadler's retirement actually point to some crisis or isn't it in fact completely normal? Didn't Michael Stean give up at the height of the boom? Or Ray Keene, for that matter? Doesn't this happen in most Western European countries?

  5. Does this not suggest that there are structural and cultural reasons for the inability of England and other Western European countries to produce world-class chessplayers or to provide a comfortable living for people playing a little below that level?

  6. Isn't the major reason for the so-called decline of English chess the fall of the USSR and the subsequent emergence of a great number of strong chessplayers from the former Soviet bloc? Are there not so many of these because chess culture was promoted so heavily in the Soviet years and chess therefore became far more prominent and widespread in those countries than in the West?

  7. Moreover are living standards not rather lower in these countries, making alternative careers to chess less attractive - but also meaning that prize money in Euros goes much further?

  8. Didn't the chess boom that took place during my schooldays originate with just a couple of major phenomena? I don't mean that they were enough on their own (of course a lot of people did a lot of work) but that without them, it just couldn't have happened? One of these was of course, the Fischer v Spassky match. But wasn't the other the TV show The Master Game? Isn't it likely that that show was far more influential in creating chessplayers than anybody has ever appreciated?

  9. Does this not mean that if people want the public to follow chess and take it up, it absolutely has to be on telly?

  10. Isn't it very probable that chess entrepreneurs in the UK have in fact been trying to get chess on TV, probably in the Master Game format or similar, but have failed? (I don't know this - I don't know some secret you don't know! - but I'm speculating.) Wouldn't you wonder whether the reason it's not been on telly would be the difficulty in finding TV executives who think that there would be any viewing audience for chess?

[10a. Have the ECF ever contacted BBC News Online and asked them why they have no regular chess coverage in a news service which is otherwise probably the most comprehensive in the world?]

PS This post originally appeared on Tuesday 24 July but as it was overtaken by other news that day, we've bumped it back to the top.....


Anonymous said...

1. There are more professionals than ever but most of them are involved in chess coacing and are no better at the game than you or I.
2. Yes although a great decline still much better tan any period prior to 1995- look at the GM entries in the British this year.
Not entirely sure why the English boom happened. Leonard Barden probably had a lot to do with it. It could also be that there was just a load of good chess players at Oxbridge at the same time and they spurred everyone one. Also the emergence of very large Opens with big prize funds (including the Aaronson tournament organised by occasional Streatham player Bill Phillips)(and the Cutty Sark Grand Prix).The Lloyds Bank also was very important. Many junior squad events were arranged- I got to play several simuls against the likes of Polugaevsky and Hort. Finally unpaid chess club people such as Graham Watts, my father and Richard James produced a production line of if not top players at least 150s-210s.
3. I think the Dutch and French are doing better than us. This young Italian chap seems to know how the pieces move (en passant rule et al)
Maybe Germany is in a similar situation to ourselves- not sure.
4. Yes but I think retirement age is fast approaching women's tennis retirement age.
5. Yes probably. Of course most GMs are very clever people and so could probably make lots of money elsewhere PROVIDED they have some social skills. Aside from "boring" professions, poker now provides a serious option to playing chess professionally and has at least as an attractive lifestyle.
Have always wondered though why more sponsorship hasn't been forthcoming from financial companies as this seems a good image/socio economic fit (there are enough chess piece adverts they produce)
7. Yes
8-10 The Master Game was a fantastic programme watched by many non-chess players. Mark Hogarth tried to bring it back. I assume he has got nowhere- big shame.
Don't think it needs to be on the tv to be popular though (although would help)- fishing isn't. The internet is probably a stronger force and chess is right there webwise.


Anonymous said...

viz the MasterGame.

not sure of the chronology here but could that be taken as arising from the Fischer-Spassky match?

If so, when all is said and done just one event - the rise of Fischer lead to a rise of interest in chess in the west. When this came to a natural conclusion there was nothing left structurally to ensure the previous level continued.

Similar situation with Swedish tennis post Borg and more recently perhaps.

Anonymous said...

I think your Fischer comment could be applied perhaps to the US Jonathan, but would not apply to England- 23 years after the match (1995) is a long time for it to peter out.

ejh said...

I think Jonathan means that the whole process petered out, i.e. that the match set off a train of events which created their own momentum (since the next generation were inspired by Miles, Short and so on) and that that took a long time to wear itself out. I'd agree with him.

Interesting about Mark Hogarth, it's what I'd suspected. Do you know why he was knocked back? You'd think somebody would say yes eventually what with there being so many channels.

In general I'd think the existence of the big opens was predicated on the existence of so many chessplayers rather than the other way around: nobody's going to become a professional player on the strength of opens anyway, the competition is too fierce. You're probably right about Oxbridge by the way, since the first wave of players were playing before the Fischer match, and I did wonder whether a similar process might have occurred in Holland and Germany where Timman and Hubner were strong players before 1972.

I suspect that what makes countries produce top-level players largely depends on what happens rather before the age at which they might jack it in for a good job! And it would depend crucially on how many kids were playing (though of course numbers on their own aren't all there is to it by any means) which was surely the big difference when my generation was coming through. How to recreate that is the hard question...

Jonathan B said...


that's exactly what I meant yes.

John Saunders said...

Valid points for the most part, and I've made them myself in various articles over the past few years. The so-called English Chess Explosion was a blip, what we have today is (unfortunately) the norm.

One point worth making is the dreadful state of the UK economy in the late 1970s when our first wave of GMs were entering their twenties. There were very few decent jobs for graduates, so a career as a chess pro seemed a pretty good prospect at the time. These days the prospects for well-qualified graduates are very much better and, with all the competition from hungry young East Europeans, a chess career hardly compares.

Chess on the TV - plenty of people have had a go at this but the way they make programmes today compared with the 70s and 80s is a bit different. You don't go to the BBC themselves but to some production company somewhere and try and sell them the idea. The old BBC was a bit like the civil service, and had people who would put their support behind 'worthy' subjects, but it's all bean-counting these days, together with what's 'cool' or fashionable. I suspect that small production companies being run on a shoestring are less likely to take the sort of risks that people with secure jobs in the old BBC would. I suspect that the same may apply to potential sponsors in the modern era - they may be less altruistic than they were and want to know what they will get for their money.

I would guess there are actually more people making a living from chess than ever before - but they don't make it from playing. Coaching, teaching, scribbling... yonks ago, when Hort saw all the titled players coming off our conveyor belt in the 80s, he told Leonard Barden "what are going to do with them all when they're 40" - good point. Chess can only ever be half a career. At 40 you are closed to finished. Stean and Sadler got out when they were in danger of being too old to get a 'proper job'.

I'm not inclined to blame our organisers, though there have not been too many new dynamic ones coming along in the past few years. Decline would have happened anyway - a sort of reversion to the norm.

One chess administrator recently asked me what would improve the prospects of English professional chess. The only thing I could suggest was "rampant inflation as in the late 1970s".

One reason the East Europeans are always going to be better than us is because they have more real coaches than us. Strong players who devote themselves to coaching other strong players from an early age. There are a lot of chess teachers in the UK but a lot of the strong ones just teach schoolkids how the horsey one moves, or in some cases are not really strong enough to coach players up to a high level. There has never been a chess coaching culture in the UK, not even the likes of Miles or Short and co (who tended to be self-teaching mavericks). I asked Bob Wade what he taught Tony Miles and he replied "Nothing - he wouldn't let me!". I think our top players of the 1980s were more talented than the Russians but I'm not sure they had the same work ethic as has produced 100s of GMs in Eastern European.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Roll on a massive recession. As well as helping produce an upswing in British chess fortunes it would have a wonderful side effect in that we could watch loads of property programmes where people driven by pure greed and a sadly misguided belief that they have excellent interior design skills buy several properties and get badly caught out and face financial ruin. Serves them right!

Chris Morgan said...

When Chris Ward did a simul at S&BCC a few years ago, he said he had recorded a celebrity chess programme for television and told us to look out for it, but as far as I know it was never shown.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Chris Ward simuls too - even though he didn't set himself on fire they were great fun.

If memory serves the programme he talked about was a pilot and never got taken up.

Tom Chivers said...

John Constable and his wife brought the goodie bags on Ready Steady Cook yesterday afternoon. The general mood from Ainsley was interested in chess, whilst the chefs made jokes about the bread being stale, mate.

ejh said...

Not just the bread then.

Anonymous said...

may be there is just better things to do than play chess!