A male dominated game?

by Andrew Martin
2/5/2018 – On Sunday January 14th 2018, something very unusual happened in England. A chess tournament took place with upwards of 260 players, all of whom were female. The southern semi-final of the ECF National Schools Girls’ Championships was made up of eighty seven separate teams of three. Thirty two schools took part. This may be commonplace in countries such as Turkey, India, the USA and others, but in the UK it is almost unique. IM Andrew Martin has the story. | Photo: Jasmine Andrews

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Girls only

Back in 2014 the ECF decided to expand the portfolio of national schools tournaments to include a girls-only event. This was an excellent move and the tournament has grown year by year to the point at which it is absolutely massive today. From the feedback we have received it is set to grow further. Luckily, we have a sponsor with vision, St Catherine’s School in Bramley, who sees the value of encouraging chess among young women and the associated educational benefits.

Spectators and parents

The playing hall | Photo: Andrew Martin

I’ve learned a lot over five years about what girls and women like about chess and what will bring them to play in an event:

  1. Good conditions for play.  Luckily, the venue at St Catherine’s has plenty of space, light and air.
  2. Efficient, competent organisation. The event should run to time and does what it says it will do. No surprises.
  3. A strong, social element. This is the major difference between women and men. Time is made at this event for the teams to mingle. An excellent free lunch is provided by the sponsor. Conversations take place, friends are made. This does not stop the event from being highly competitive.

Spot grandmasters

Spot the grandmasters: There are two in the photo-can you see them? | Photo: Andrew Martin

Team managers

Pleanty of team managers, most of whom are male! | Photo: Andrew Martin

Will they stay?

Now we come to the big question and one that occupies me: how many of these kids are going to stay in the game? It’s OK to have big numbers, but if most of them give up when they reach adolescence then the war is not yet won.

This, hitherto is what has happened in the UK. There is very little opportunity to make a living from chess and so kids get diverted into other things. I would welcome advice from other countries, which have been more successful than England in solving this problem.

Let’s digress for a moment. I was recently sent an article by maverick IM Mike Basman, which he tried unsuccessfully to get published in a chess magazine.

It is an interesting read and he touches on the important subject of how to keep young people involved in chess.


by Mike Basman

Some time ago, when Ray Keene was young, he was interviewed for a chess book.  "Do you have any other interests besides chess?"  he was asked. "What else is there?" he replied.

That was our situation in the sixties; chess was an amazing game. We thrilled to the battles over the board, we absorbed all the histories of the past, including the stories about Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine; the Soviet players, headed by Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian, Tal, Spassky and Bronstein were all gods to us.

Naturally, the last thing any of us wanted to do was to get a job.  In this way we were part of the revolution that produced so many artists, actors and musicians, people who were prepared to misfit into society in pursuit of a dream.

Inevitably, reality broke in, as we left university, found wives, and realised that chess could not provide a living; perhaps because we were "not good enough", or because, even if we were, life was too precarious.  One of the most poignant chapters in my book, "The Killer Grob", is entitled "Shaun Taulbut becomes an accountant".  It still brings tears to my eyes.

In the 90s, when I was running the UK Chess Challenge, I dwelt on the question, "If chess players are so brilliant, why are they so useless". They surely had the analytical powers to get to the depths of a problem, to see the essential elements; could not this genius be harnessed to solving world problems?  But in general, chess had such a hold on the minds of its followers that few ever left it to deal with bigger issues.  And many had problems of their own; Morphy and Fischer withdrew from life; Steinitz was always the cantankerous rebel. Only Kasparov has made a decent stab at political life.

In my analysis of the chess playing character, I came up with three vital ingredients which were undeniable positives:

  1. analytical power
  2. ability to make decisions
  3. ability to withstand pressure.

All these produced a resilient character and a powerful thinker.  But for a successful personality, there were four cardinal virtues which were also necessary but which chess players often lack:

  1. kindness
  2. knowledge (in the most general sense)
  3. honesty
  4. the ability to work with others

Accordingly, in running the Chess Challenge, and in my chess teaching, I tried to develop all these characteristics so that players could move more easily between chess and the wider world. I tried to bring in more girls to chess, who would have some of the cardinal virtues mentioned above; e.g. kindness, and the ability to work with others. This approach caused some puzzlement in the chess world; hundreds of strong new players were produced, but why, asked Gary Kasparov, were there no English International Masters under 18 years old?

However, if your aim is to produce more balanced individuals, who nevertheless have a lifelong love of chess and mental activity, you would have a different approach to someone who was primarily trying to produce strong chess players.

Seen in this context, my bankruptcy last year, though not intentional, was not accidental. With 50,000 players a year, the Chess Challenge got so big that it came to the attention of the VAT authorities. I am not a worshipper of the sacred cow of taxation; tax money is necessary to the government, to fund its operations; however, for every pound spent wisely, there is at least another pound misspent or wasted; and what the government is most wasteful of is our time.  I explained to HMRC that I needed time to run the chess event, the largest in the world, and that time should not be invaded carrying out many of their pointless and overcomplicated procedures. Of course, HMRC did not take kindly to this request for "less", and after around 10 years of "discussions", they bankrupted me.

Many people consider that I was insane to have opposed HMRC, but my point is, if we are not to use our own minds and voices to suggest improvements in the organisation of society, the value of our chess training is negated.

I realised that in writing this article, I may be addressing a hostile readership. After all, many readers are accountants, lawyers or solicitors! And in fact, when I published these ideas at the Terafinal in August, 2016, there were howls of protest on the English Chess Forum. Yet even among these voices there were many shades of opinion. The accountant, Alan Kennedy, essentially agreed with my position when he wrote on the Forum, "You can tell who are the people who never have to deal with VAT rules… they are the happy ones".

I hope my example may have caused some people to think more deeply about their place in society; the argument must continue, and will be taken up by the children of the Chess Challenge. But for older players all is not yet lost. They also have their part to play. Keith Arkell, Mark Hebden, Danny Gormally — will you be content to jog around from tournament to tournament until the year 3000?  Bill Hartston, will you spend the rest of your life entertaining us with your Stephen Fry-lite Beachcomber column in the Daily Express? The country needs your brilliant analytical skills. We should no longer be simply fairground curiosities.

Time to grow up guys!

I find Basman’s comments on the development of the chess-playing character fascinating. I’ve learned from them.

To close, let me say that there is no doubt in my mind that women can become as strong at chess as men.  There are three reasons why they may not:

  • Opportunity. Do women really get equal opportunity in the current chess world? Is this situation improving?
  • Priorities. Women see life very differently.
  • Free choice. Women simply choose to do other things.

Coming back to the schools event, it’s quite obvious that chess is popular among girls and young women. Initiatives such as the UK Chess Challenge, now administered by Sarah and Alex Longson and Chess in Schools and Communities have helped to build this regard. I hope that we can keep all these players in the game. 

Under-11 winners

The winners of the U11 competition – Guildford High School | Photo: Clare Berry

Under-19 winners

The winners of the U19 competition – North London Collegiate | Photo: Clare Berry


Andrew is an English chess player with the title of International Master. Martin has won various national and international tournaments. He has been playing for years in the Four Nations Chess League, at present (July 2009) for Wood Green Hilsmark Kingfisher, previously for the Camberley Chess Club. Martin received his title as international master in1984. He earned his first grandmaster norm in the British Championship of 1997 in Brighton. Martin was a commentator on the chess world championship between Kasparov and Kramnik in 2000.


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