100 Year History of the British Chess Federation

In 1981 the BCF hosted the first, unofficial, World Girls’ U16 Championship. This took place in Sussex and was won by Zsuzsa Polgar with Susan Walker coming 3rd. Now such events are held annually extremely successfully. Lloyds Bank sponsored a Girls’ School Trophy in 1980/1981 and 1982.

It was also in 1984 that the first Marlwood Chess Tournament for School Teams was held for players aged 11 to 18 years. This continued for a number of years thanks to a variety of sponsors.

By 1990 the junior training programme with other affiliated bodies and within the constraints of a tight budget, had developed a nationwide scheme for training juniors at all levels. Over 250 administrators were involved in the structure that included over 100 regional coaches. A national junior database had been created, administered by Laurie Walker, the National Junior Training Co-coordinator. Batsford and Tournament Chess Supplies participated in sponsoring the Junior Squad Championships. Perhaps most telling is that Luke McShane was elected BCF Player of the Year in 1997 when only 13 years old. He next received this accolade in 2003.

The Glorney and Faber Cups have been competed for every year. These events are for boys and girls under 19 respectively. They originally comprised of teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Subsequently the events were strengthened by including teams from France, Holland, Belgium and Germany and the Czech Republic. Since 1978, our boys have won the Glorney 12 times, the girls the Faber 9 times but our last success in either competition dates back to 1997. With the proliferation of opportunities, these events have mainly been used to blood our younger players, rather than be a competitive end in themselves. From next year, they will revert back to being solely for teams from the British Isles.

Since 1950 the BCF have organised an U18 Counties Championship. For some years during the 1980s this was sponsored by NatWest as part of their policy of promoting chess for young people. In 1971 a Girl’s U18 county championship was introduced. Both these events are still running. During the 1980 -1992 period many new individual championships were started for boys and girls starting with the U16 Girls in 1980 and culminating with the U8 and U8 Girls in 1992: this reflected the continuous growth in junior chess activities throughout the country. Recent innovations include: the Ampleforth Junior Masters for players under 16 which was first held at Battle Abbey by arrangement with English Heritage; in 2002 the BCF started a new competition for schools teams of U12 and U14 age groups.

It was in 2000 that junior chess suffered the loss of Mitchell Taylor who had organised The Times National Schools Chess Championship so efficiently for many years, and 2001 was the final year in which The Times sponsored the event. A great debt of gratitude is due to The Times, who with their predecessor, The Sunday Times, had supported the Schools Championship continuously since 1957.

In 1996 the UK Chess Challenge, organised by IM Michael Basman and sponsored by Intel was started. It was then sponsored by Rotary UK and now the baton has passed to British Land. It attracted 22,000 entrants in its first year and this has now risen to 65,000 from more than 1600 schools. Batsford, who have supported junior chess in many ways over the years have awarded scholarships for the best players from 11 different areas of Britain, these awards covering chess books and equipment, training, tournaments and travel. This is another event, although not introduced by the BCF, which is one of the most significant developments in chess in recent years.

Another interesting new competition introduced in 1996 was the Schools Problems Solving Championship, also sponsored by Batsford and organised by GM Jonathan Levitt. This particular venture has proven short-lived.

There is a Certificate of Merit Scheme (now Certificate of Excellence), which has, for over 35 years, captured the imagination of young players.

There have been changes in our society, which have impacted on chess development. 50 years ago most players started chess when they went to grammar schools at the age of 11. Now most pupils attend comprehensives and relatively few have chess clubs. However there has been a tremendous explosion in the teaching of chess to very young children, perhaps aged 6 or 7. Indeed, this provides a means of livelihood to a substantial number of chessplayers. Chess may have had an impact on society in encouraging pushing youngsters ahead to fulfil their potential at a very early age. When John Nunn went to Oxford at 15 this attracted huge (and unwelcome) publicity. Now, such precocious achievements are viewed with equanimity in any field. One of our greatest challenges lies in trying to encourage children to continue with chess when they reach secondary school age. Perhaps for some, learning chess when so young, is not ideal.

The English Primary Schools Chess Association, sponsored for many years by Teachers Assurance, has had a tremendous influence.

One project, which is at the discussion stage, is a pilot scheme for the teaching of chess in schools, backed by the government. It is no coincidence that this is going forward when the Minister of Education is Charles Clarke MP, son of the late Sir Richard Clarke, the chief architect of our Grading System.

A few schools have chess tuition provided by players of high standard. FM Graham Lee has worked at Oakham for many years; GM Matthew Turner is employed by Millfield; IM Andrew Martin at Yateley Manor; IM Adam Hunt is similarly employed at Woodbridge. There are a number of chess scholarships offered to pupils of proven chess and academic ability at Oakham, Millfield, Ampleforth and Harrow Schools.

Senior (for players over 60 and sometimes, rather oddly, for women over 50) chess has developed modestly of recent years. There are now World, European and European Team Championships. The inaugural World Senior Team Championship will take place in the Isle of Man in October 2004, as part of the BCF Centenary Celebrations. We will have to wait some years before England becomes a force to be reckoned with in this field. None of our more recent grandmasters or international masters are eligible to play yet. Apart from the British Senior Championship, held alongside the British Championship, there is only one senior tournament in the national calendar, the Royal Beacon in October.

The BCF first created a fund of £250 for developing female chess in the early 1980s. In1986, Lady Thelma Milner-Barry was elected the first Women’s Director. This was somewhat controversial. Was there any need for special emphasis to be placed on chess for female players? Why did they need special attention? Whatever your views, there is no doubt the marketing of chess for female players needed greater emphasis.

The BCF has been a pioneer in the field of tournaments where female players compete alongside males. This legacy goes back to Vera Menchik. In FIDE circles they still talk of a woman playing in a men’s tournament. Now that is indeed a clever trick! The Duncan Lawrie World Mixed Challenge was won by Judit Polgar. The Foxtrot tournament was also held in London. This was part of a series sponsored by van Oosterom and featured 5 leading women and 5 male veterans. It was delightful to hear ex-World Champion Vassily Smyslov and GM Lajos Portisch sing, accompanied by GM Mark Taimanov. This event had little to do with the BCF, except in an advisory capacity.

A glance at our results over the more recent years shows a considerable advance by our female players. Arguably the most important administrative step has been the rule in the 4NCL that all teams must have at least one player of each sex. This has caused captains actively to seek out female players, to the benefit of all. Sadly, some years earlier, it had not been found possible to persuade County Teams of the desirability of such a regulation. Yes, we have 5 WGMs, 9 WIMs and 7 WFMs, but we have still been unable to attract to the game as broad a base of female players as we need.

Of more recent years a new way in which to play chess has arisen – on the Internet. Many thousands of games are played by people who never leave their home, nor ever meet their opponents. This is serious chess, although often played at the furious pace of all the moves in three minutes. However, it has nothing directly to do with the BCF, which is primarily concerned with over-the-board play. This has led to a reduction in the income base of the federation. Any growth in chess activity is to be applauded, but the BCF has not got to grips with this sudden change in social habits. The same challenge is faced by all the mind sports. Electronic communication has affected how the business of the federation is conducted. The need to travel to meetings has become much reduced. Correspondence chess, a whole separate way of playing the game, is being permanently changed by e-mail. We await with considerable interest, tinged with some alarm, the next change to be wrought by technology.

In spite of the many successes achieved over the last 30 years, the BCF has continued to be restrained in its expenditure, and thus its initiatives, by inadequate income. The Government’s annual grant has been invaluable and today amounts to £60,000. Nevertheless there remains grass-roots resistance to any call to subscribe adequately to the national organisation and to appreciate that without the BCF many facilities would not exist. It is difficult to translate sponsorship income for a specific activity into an increase in money for the whole organisation. Vigilance is needed to ensure the proportionate cost of the central office does not inexorably grow with time. We can see this happen with the national government whatever its political makeup.

In 1981 the Congress Affiliation Scheme was introduced, followed in 1983 by the Independent League Scheme. A Finance Committee was created in 1990, which enabled expenditure to be more professionally controlled. The Levy Scheme became unsatisfactory and in 1994 was replaced by Game Fee, which grew directly out of the Congress Affiliation Scheme. It is a system related to the number of games played and graded. Not only is it more acceptable to those who pay, but it also increases the income base and is more visibly democratic as all organisations are represented on Council.

A new voluntary Direct Membership Scheme was launched in 1990; this was modified in 2001 in an effort to encourage wider acceptance and offered members more attractive benefits. Earlier, in 1992 the BCF had launched the Challenge the Russians Appeal under the control of David Norwood, then Publicity Director. All these initiatives have met with only limited success.

Now thoughts are returning to the idea of the BCF becoming a membership, rather than event, driven organisation. Unless players are members, games in events in which they compete would not be graded. This is very much the United States Chess Federation system, together with game fee. Such a change would radically alter the way the federation works.

As chess is not recognised as a sport, little money has come our way from the national lottery. This danger was recognised before the lottery legislation was passed and vigorous representations were made to enable chess to receive its fair share of the cake. Little came of that, but in 1999 it was hoped success had been achieved when Tony Banks MP, then Minister for Sport, announced that chess would be recognised as a sport subject to the necessary legislation being passed. His interest was sparked by the volume of earlier correspondence relating to the subject. Sadly he was replaced in a government re-shuffle shortly afterwards and this initiative has yet to make any further progress. The prime benefit to chess from the lottery is that the Hastings Congress is now housed at the splendid Horntye Park Sports Complex.

Other problems remain. Today there are far fewer sponsors than there were 20 years ago; this is a common problem for all cultural and sporting activities that do not attract massive television coverage.

The BCF Office was relocated in modern premises in Battle in 2001 and at the same time arrangements were made with English Heritage for chess events to be held at Battle Abbey. The BCF Library was rehoused at the University of Kent in Canterbury, but this has so far proven unsatisfactory. A contract was signed with Games Parlor for an Internet games site, which initiative again proved unsatisfactory.

Sir Richard Clarke would still recognise the Grading system he introduced 50 years ago. Currently there are few problems. It must be difficult for younger readers to grasp that the original pioneering work was undertaken long before computerisation was an option.

Paul Buswell resigned as secretary in 1988. Since then the office has been managed first by Grete White and more recently by Cynthia Gurney. It is functioning well. It is good that Paul, who rendered 10 years of dedicated service, is still actively involved in the Federation. We are hugely indebted to all these individuals and to their assistant staff over the years, for their unfailing efforts, loyalty and reliability.

Perhaps even more important are the thousands of voluntary officers all over the country. They may be match captains, club secretaries, treasurers, tournament organisers, bulletin editors, junior coaches, etc. Our wealth lies mainly in them and the chessplayers eager to get on with playing competitive chess.

It would have been unrealistic to expect us to be able to maintain our international status of 20 years ago. Only by viewing the broad sweep of history is it possible to realise that English chess has made great progress, some of it generated by the BCF, but more by individuals.

And so we come to our Centenary year. 25 years ago a change of name was suggested to reflect our responsibility to English chess: at long last this has been agreed to in principle. The name does not matter, the objectives do. We believe the BCF will remain a valuable organisation and wish our successors good luck in their celebrations in 2104.

John Poole
Stewart Reuben

With considerable help and encouragement from the BCF Office

October 2003