Friday, March 02, 2012

Blue is not the colour

The Varsity Match takes place tomorrow, or so I'm given to understand. If you're into that stuff. Personally, when it comes to Varsity Matches I always recall Danny Baker's comment on the Boat Race - that it was as if the Cup Final was the same two teams every year.

I never played in it myself, what with not being good enough and all, since back in the early Eighties there were really quite a lot of good players about. Though I did play in the Freshers' Varsity Match. I'd probably show you the game, too, were it not for

(a) my presently being several hundred kilometres away from my old scorebooks; and
(b) the fact that I got a pasting.

Chess evidently didn't count for very much in the University scheme of things, anyway, since you didn't get a Blue for playing in the Varsity Match, as you did for most other sports. Saying so inevitably raises the question "what's a Blue?" to which the answer is that I've never quite been sure, although I believe it entitled one to go to Vincent's and behave like an arse. There was also something called a half-Blue, which possibly entitled one to go to Vincent's and behave like half an arse. You got one for ballroom dancing, I seem to remember, though not for chess, something which rankled with chessplayers back in the days when there was more chess than ballroom dancing on the television.

You got nothing for playing in the Freshers' match, of course. Except a pasting.

The best of Britain (seen here with the Oxford and Cambridge teams)

Well, without meaning any offence to anybody playing, it's hard to see that the match merits a great deal of attention now that it's basically a fixture between two reasonably good club sides, such as can be seen regularly in the 4NCL (and not necessarily in the top division) or in more than one provincial league. I'd probably get in the team myself, these days, and a working definition of a match not meriting special media attention would be "any match I'm good enough to play in".

Nobody really pretends that the Varsity cricket match is any big deal any more: and to the corresponding fixture in our game, the same surely applies. Perhaps very little in British chess is a big deal any more. But the Varsity Match, nice though it no doubt is to play in, really isn't. It has some historical significance, of course. But perhaps not quite enough.

So, getting back to the Sage of Deptford, it's as if the Cup Final were the same two teams every year - and those same two teams weren't actually that good. Pfft, say I. I can see the point of elitism, sure. But what's the point of elitism where there isn't any elite?

[Photo: John Saunders]


Tom Chivers said...

Are bow ties allowed under the FIDE dress code?

Anonymous said...

Chess was classified as enough of a sport at Cambridge to justify the award of a Half Blue. The strength of the match and the reduced number of British players taking part is indicative of the decline of secondary school chess.

Martin Smith said...

Don't they play at the RAC Club - where, I'm told, there is a stonking great chess painting. Does any one out there know anything about it?

ejh said...

You could ask Ray?

Talking of secondary school chess, is the national schools championship (sponsored by the Times in my day, I believe) still going? I'll post on the subject, if it is.

John Saunders said...

Can you change the photo credit to "John Saunders", please?

Rather a whingey, pointless article, in my view. You shouldn't get too hung up on the strength of the players involved. This is not what the match has traditionally been about.

Anonymous said...

The results site of the National Schools Championship is at

It still has the same age related handicap system. Personally I think that became obsolete when players like Short and Hodgson started to emerge as 2000 standard at very young age.

ejh said...

This is not what the match has traditionally been about

What is it about?

John Saunders said...

I wrote something about it in the April 2011 CHESS (and probably in a few BCMs in years gone by).

Suffice to say that it is about tradition, and respect for tradition, and respect for chess. People like Staunton, Steinitz, Zukertort and Lasker considered it worthwhile turning up for the occasion, acting as adjudicators and match referees, even though the players themselves were often quite weak players.

I've attended a dozen or so Varsity matches and found them wholly enjoyable, mainly because of the friendly atmosphere created by sponsor Henry Mutkin, who is simply one of the nicest blokes you could ever wish to meet, and also because of the players, whose company I always find refreshing.

It's a feel-good event that deserves support. As well as being probably the oldest English chess fixture, it is perhaps the only long-lived one that still enjoys the same level of prestige that it had at its inception.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was all about the post match pissup and trying to avoid mentioning RDK in the rude limericks.


ejh said...

Suffice to say that it is about tradition, and respect for tradition

But I don't think it does suffice to say that. Traditions are important, but they're neither unchanging nor untouchable. Indeed, a tradition that can't withstand a certain amount of questioning is possibly a tradition that's not as strong as it thinks.

I have a great deal of respect for sporting tradition: I learned that as a football fan. But I also think traditions need to be viewed with a sceptical eye: I learned that as an Oxford history undergraduate...

ejh said...

(Talking of a sceptical eye, the revamped Blogger Preview and Comments functions are bloody awful, aren't they?)

PJM said...

To continue the football comparison, I'd be interested to know whether UK viewing figures were markedly down on 2007 when Cardiff and Portsmouth contested the 2008 FA Cup Final. The previous year had seen Chelsea fight it out with Man United.

Tonight was the UCL - King's Varsity rugby match at the Stoop; an impressive venue for what isn't an enormously high quality game.

If there's a worthy contest and a willing audience, I don't have a problem with any event being staged.

ejh said...

I don't have the slightest problem with the event being staged. It's some of the flammery around it that I don't much care for.

alexholowczak said...

It'd be interesting to see how either would fare over 8 boards against Edinburgh, who won the BUCA Team Championship the weekend before over 4 boards. Their 4 players had a mean grade of over 200 between them. They were stronger than the top 4 playing in either side of the Varsity game. (In fact, Cambridge finished 4th, and Oxford 7th, but neither fielded their strongest side.)