Scholastic chess making headlines

by Patrick Goldsworthy
3/24/2014 – In the middle of the last century a group of teachers in Hamburg, Germany, started a tournament with 160 students. Today, 66 years later, the annual event has over 2500 participants, and includes play against remote opponents via The event was supported on the English side by Barclaycard, which is also spearheading another scholastic chess initiative, Yes2Chess.

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Alsterufer Tournament - Scholastic chess making headlines

The aptly named "Rechtes gegen Linkes Alsteruferturnier“, the "Right versus the Left of the Alster" tournament took place on February 18 2014. The Alster, both a lake and river that runs through Hamburg, separate the city into two halves, and there is a long-standing sporting rivalry between schools on each side of the divide. For a long time, the tournament was the largest scholastic chess tournament in the world, a feat that can now be claimed by the USA – but in any case, the tournament remains the biggest scholastic event in Europe.

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Let’s take a closer look at the division:

The Alster splits Hamburg practically down the middle

The event is held in the main hall of the Hamburg Congress Centre, just next door to the beautiful old “Dammtor” train station. In combination with a number of adjoining rooms, the hall can accommodate the huge volume of Hamburg schoolchildren. The original concept was developed by a group of teachers from Hamburg who met in 1957, and wanted chess in schools to undergo something of a renaissance – the idea for the tournament was born, and in 1958, the first tournament was held, although back then it was a good deal smaller. The following year, the event even received a visit from Botvinnik, then World Champion and his second, Salo Flohr. The tournament grew and grew, but in the time following its inception, was not held every year. After a short pause, the idea of the tournament as a regular event was brought back to life in 1976 and has been held every year since. This year was the tournament’s 56th incarnation.

The tournament hall - or for the duration of the tournament - the largest classroom in the world.

Some can't wait for the action to start

This is how the tournament works: Teams of eight from schools to the left of the Alster are pitted against teams to the right of the Alster, and the points are added together to give an overall score. Teams that win their matches 8-0 are put into a draw for the overall trophy, with all other 8-0 winners receiving medals. All in all, over 2500 schoolchildren took part – but not only from Hamburg – some schools came from the surrounding area, and one team again travelled to northern Germany from London - and the appearance of the team from Twickenham gave the tournament added international flair. 

 Daniel King and Dorian Rogozenco

Hamburg is famous for being the “gateway to the world”, and anyone on the left or the right of the Alster can take part, but the connection with a school in Twickenham, UK, was brought about thanks to English Grandmaster Daniel King, who is very closely linked to ChessBase, and who has been recording videos in his famous “Powerplay” series for many years. Daniel King is the school's official chess coach, and under GM King's supervision, a team from Twickenham travels to the event to take part every year, playing, true to form, in their English school uniform!

Naturally, the British pupils from Twickenham sported their typical school uniform

The tournament is organized by the Hamburg Chess Federation and Hamburg’s school authority. ChessBase, as a partner of the Hamburg-based event for many years, provided help of an organizational nature, as well as overseeing the live London-Hamburg match on

From left to right, the people who made the tournament happen: Jörg Schulz, Carsten Höltkemeyer, Ties Rabe, Rainer Woisin, Jan Pohl, Peregrim Warneke, Daniel King, Björn Lengwenus

Naturally, there are a whole host of other important partners, including Barclaycard, who played a very important role in organizing the event as the main sponsor – indeed, they got so behind the idea that they chose to set up another international program: “Yes2Chess”. Just a week prior to the Alsterufer tournament, a large Yes2Chess event was held with Felix Magath, the initiative’s new patron, who some of you may know from Permiership football, and a panel discussed the opportunities that scholastic chess presents, as well as the challenges such an initiative faces to be recognized – he couldn’t get his young football players to take the game up. You can read all about it here.

Dorian Rogozenco also took part in the simultaneous display

The tournament also featured a wide range of other activities – chess masters from Hamburg gave simultaneous exhibitions – and this year even Dorian Rogozenco joined in to play against all comers. Rogozenco already gives training to a number of young players from Hamburg, and knows the young talents on the scene.

It wasn't just titled players who turned out in number to support the event, Barclaycard bankers, who have also caught the chess bug, came to the congress center with a large team and put their own skills to the test in and had a “Beat the banker" challenge-style event on the edges of the tournament, although the bankers emerged victorious.

After the recent “banker bashing” in the media, the bankers bashed back

The guests from Barclaycard were, unfortunately for our budding talents, laughing all the way to the 8th rank

Several garden chess sets had been set up around the venue

The main event kicked off at 10 a.m., and it was Hamburg school senator Ties Rabe who ceremonially opened tournament proceedings, having come hurriedly from the city hall. As another bonus event, there was a live exhibition match match between two specially selected teams - one from Hamburg, and one from LondonThe exhibition matches between proved extremely popular; a flurry of blitz games took place on multiple computers during the allotted hour. On the German side, pupils from the Genslerstrasse School played against a select team from London, the nominations for which had been supported by the CEO of Barclaycard Europe, Dave Chan.

The moves from Hamburg were relayed to London on Both Daniel King and Pascal Simon helped to coordinate the match, with the technical side of things going off without a hitch. In the end Hamburg emerged triumphiant, beating the team from London with 2 points to 1.

School senator Ties Rabe making the ceremonial first move for the pupils from Hamburg...

...and they were off!

After the opening move, silence fell in the hall and 2500 children set about playing their games. The morning was intense, with thousands of moves, hundreds of games, and even more concentration. It was up and down, with the results coming in flurries - the Left nudged forward, only to be overtaken on the inside by the Right...but towards the end of the alloted time, things were looking pretty even.

Towards the end the scores were pretty much neck and neck

And some almost couldn’t bear not knowing any longer

Did Right triumph over Left? Or did the Left send the Right packing ? It was neck and neck, and many of the participants found it difficult to wait for the final results to appear. After the dust had settled and all the results sheets had been submitted and the scores tallied, the left bank pulled ahead and clinched victory at the very last minute with a score of 632 to 608. 

The final score

After the initial draw for the overall winner from the teams that had won 8-0, Hasenweg II elementary school would have been looking after the trophy for a year – but they had already left and so the result was disregarded and another team drawn out of the golden cup, much to the jubilation of the team from Zitzewitzstrasse School. All in all it was somewhat of a sinister result for the Right bank (if you've studied Latin, you'll get that one).

The winners celebrating their good fortune and excellent play

The overall score is now 37 to 17 to the Left - the Right have definitely got some catching up to do - even if they won 20 straight events, it would be 2035 before they would catch them. The event received a great deal of media attention, with a lot of the poeple involved in the publicizing and organization of the tournament giving television interviews. The support of massive organizations, such as Barclaycard, and the links with Yes2Chess (which, coincidentally, is also spearheaded by Barclaycard) will surely only serve to benefit scholastic chess. Let's hope that this increased publicity and excellent support continue to raise awareness of the benefits of chess for children.

Some of the participants watching the prizegiving