The future of English chess

by Malcolm Pein
9/6/2023 – There has been an official announcement from the UK Government of a package of measures that will support the England teams, our best juniors, new tournaments and our deaf and blind players. This is the culmination of a 25-year quest and a 12-month-long campaign. Initiator Malcolm Pein tells us how it all came about and what it means for the future of British chess.

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Editorial by Malcolm Pein

I first tried to secure government support for chess soon after Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997. The objective then was, ideally, to have chess recognised as a sport, as it is in so many other countries. Back in the late 90s the government of Tony Blair was keen on the idea, and I met then Department of Culture Media and Sport Minister Chris Smith for a drink on the Houses of Parliament terrace. He undertook to put something in a culture bill that was planned for the autumn, but in the early years, the government had such a big agenda I recall the bill ran out of parliamentary time. Subsequently we could never get chess into any legislation, although there was an Early Day Motion (these are non-binding) on chess in 1999 from Charlotte Atkins MP, and it was signed by 99 MPs

Since then there has been the paralysis arising from Brexit and then Covid, but also The Queen’s Gambit and the boom in the number of people playing. Last year someone said to me: “This chess boom is great, but will it do any good in the long term? How can we exploit it?” I decided government recognition would be a real tangible benefit and might just be attainable.

I devised a political strategy to try and get more attention focused on the game, exploiting the obvious massive increase in popularity. Securing some sponsorship for a match came at just the right time. I decided to make it a UK vs Ukraine Solidarity Match with Michael Adams taking on Andriy Volokitin. With the assistance of Dominic Lawson, I was able to get in touch with the Ukrainian Embassy and the Ambassador gladly agreed to host the match. Matt Piper, a former team-mate of Mickey’s in Cornwall, connected me with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development who also agreed to host four of the eight games, so we split it between the two venues.

I then approached the All-Party-Parliamentary-Group (APPG) on Ukraine and asked if they would host an opening ceremony. One of the officers of the APPG, Alex Sobel MP, very kindly agreed to approach the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who is a great supporter of Ukraine. Sir Lindsay offered to host the opening ceremony at Speaker’s House within the parliamentary estate.

Next, I contacted Rachel Reeves MP, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as a keen player and a great supporter of Chess in Schools and Communities and chess generally. Back in 2016 Rachel helped me to stage a match between the House of Commons and the House of Lords and I asked her if she would assist me if I was to organise a second contest, which she was delighted to do.

Then with more than a little chutzpah, I asked the Speaker if we could have the wonderful rooms at Speaker’s House for two hours after the UK - UKR opening ceremony, to run the Lords versus Commons contest and permission was granted.

With help from Rachel’s staff and others, including Peter Hornsby who runs 2020 Chess, and utilising the parliamentary contacts I’d established over the years, we managed to get 24 players. As previously reported here, the attendance at both events was excellent. Between these two events we certainly got chess noticed in the corridors of power. At this point I arranged for a question to be asked of a government minister in the House of Lords, asking him what support the government gave to chess. Of course, the answer was that there was none, but it was excellent to have that on the record.

The next part of the plan, with the help of CSC’s Chief Operating Officer Chris Fegan was to re-establish the APPG on chess to act as a pressure group. We approached all the MPs and Lords who played in the match and there was a lot of enthusiasm. Giles Watling MP, John Baron MP, Stephen Metcalfe and Lord Dafydd Wigley of Caernarfon agreed to be officers and my thanks also to Ellie Reeves MP and Chris Stephens MP who attended the inaugural meeting. Jeremy Corbyn MP also attended, briefly, but he had just walked into the wrong Committee Room.

With the help of a chess-playing former Special Advisor, I managed to get a first meeting at number 10. At this point, ECF President Dominic Lawson used his extensive political contacts, which go all the way to the very top. Dominic has been promoting chess in his newspaper columns and to ministers whenever he had the chance over the years. This time he found a sympathetic ear; well, more than one.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (centre) and Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer (left) welcome Bodhana Sivanandan, her father Sivanandan Velayutham, Shreyas and Jitendra Royal to No.10.

Promoting chess fits in nicely with one of the Prime Minister’s policies of trying to make children smarter by focusing more on maths and Dominic succeeded in getting us a meeting with more senior policy advisors and people from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture Media and Sport.

In the 10 Downing Street garden, the Prime Minister chats with 14-year-old Shreyas Royal and 8-year-old Bodhana Sivanandan (right) about his and their future hopes for the game.

Prior to this I had spent a couple of months researching UK government spending on sport and building an argument for supporting chess. There are sports with relatively tiny numbers of players compared with chess that receive considerable sums of money from Sport England.

Dominic and I made the case, emphasising that even in these straightened times, a rounding error in terms of government expenditure could be transformational for English chess. We were initially disappointed to find out that Sport England were against welcoming chess into the fold.

I made the point that as long as there is some money from somewhere, recognition as a sport can wait until a more auspicious time. Since the meetings back in May there have been lots of negotiations and discussions with government departments until, just as I was writing this, the official announcement, which you can see below, came through.

The support for our national teams is potentially transformational and will hopefully help to arrest the decline of England’s standing in world chess. I also pushed for some programmes for supporting chess in communities, particularly chess tables in parks and other public spaces, and also for help in promoting chess in schools of course.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport put out the following press release:

A package of measures worth almost £1 million will inspire the next generation of chess players, bringing chess to a wider audience, whilst supporting the development of elite players.

Plans will see 100 new chess tables installed in public spaces, and grants for schools in disadvantaged areas to get more primary school children playing chess.

Investment in the English Chess Federation will ensure players receive world-leading training and development opportunities, and help make England a chess heavyweight.

Plans form part of Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer’s mission to give young people “someone to talk to, something to do and somewhere to go” outside of school.

Chess will receive a major boost, thanks to a package of measures announced today.

The package will support primary school children attending schools in disadvantaged areas across England to learn and play chess, improve the visibility and availability of chess in communities most in need of improved green space, as well as fund elite playing as part of a combined package worth almost £1 million.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will invest £500,000 in the English Chess Federation (ECF) over two years, in order to develop the next generation of world-class talent. Funds will support expert coaching, training camps and cutting-edge computer analysis for international events to assist current grandmasters and up-and-coming players.

Investment into the ECF will include funding for junior training camps and one-to-one coaching with England internationals, prioritising access for young chess players to take part in an educational, productive activity that helps develop critical thinking skills. A portion of the money will be dedicated to support visually impaired and deaf players to compete in their own elite level competitions.

This investment comes following a speech at the Onward think tank in July, where Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer set out her commitment to ensure that young people have “someone to talk to, something to do and somewhere to go” outside of school.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said:

“Chess is a brilliant way for young people to develop skills such as patience and critical thinking. It is something constructive on which to spend their time and feel part of. It inspires creativity and sparks the competitive spirit.

“We want to give more young people the opportunity to find the thing that they love and realise their potential. So this package is focused on getting more young people playing chess and supporting them to develop their talent.

“We’re also equipping our elite chess players with expert coaching to help them dominate at the highest levels of the global game and restore England’s reputation among the best in the world.”

English Chess Federation Director of International Chess Malcolm Pein:

“The unprecedented grant funding will be transformational for English chess, helping to train more grandmasters and beginning the process of regaining England’s former status as a force in international chess.

“The funds will enable us to support a training programme and pipeline for our growing pool of young talent as well as assist our elite players, seniors, visually impaired and deaf players to compete for top honours in their respective international competitions. The funding will also enable the ECF to revitalise the chess tournament circuit here at home.”

Alongside the support committed to elite players, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) will provide £250,000 to 85 Local Authorities throughout England to install 100 new chess tables in public parks and outdoor green spaces, to allow more people to play, connect, tackle loneliness, and develop problem solving skills.

DLUHC is also committed to working with the devolved governments to consider how best to support the installation of outdoor chess boards in Scotland and Wales.

Local authorities which are currently receiving the Levelling Up Parks Fund (LUPF) and have been identified as communities most in need of improved quality green space will determine where to locate the chess tables.

In addition, the Government has set out plans to encourage more primary school children, particularly girls, to learn to play the game. The Department for Education will award grants of up to £2,000 to at least 100 schools in disadvantaged areas across England, subject to interest.

The grants will enable them to purchase chess sets, provide access to weekly online chess tutorials, and set up online learning platforms and curriculum planning materials for teachers. This will give even more young people access to a productive, enriching activity, helping them build relationships and develop key skills that can be used beyond the game.

Children’s Minister Claire Coutinho said:

“Chess is for everyone, regardless of background. I’m thrilled that more primary school children will learn how to play, boosting their concentration, problem-solving and well-being in the process.

“From providing in-person tuition to helping pupils enter competitive tournaments, this funding will support schools to spark a passion for chess in children across the country.”

Learning to play chess is already a skill that young people aged 14-24 can choose to pick up while working towards their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE). Since 2021, 8,000 young people have pursued chess as part of the Skills section of their DofE.

Harriet Hunt, International Master and former World Girls’ Champion said:

“My own journey into international chess was inspired by the world-leading England players and teams at that time. I am delighted that this government funding will enable the next generation of English talents to reach their potential and compete successfully at the highest level internationally.”

David Howell, Grandmaster and UK no.1:

“Chess has been my life and, as a professional player, the news of support from the government is music to my ears. Hopefully this will inspire the next generation of chess players, as well as bringing the joys of the game that I love to an even wider audience.”

Jitendra Singh, father of UK’s no.1 chess prodigy Shreyas Royal said:

“I was struggling to support my son with the required chess tournaments and coaching instrumental to his development at such a young and crucial age.

“With this grant from the government we will be able to help more kids flourish at the game through the hard-working organisations of the English Chess Federation and Chess in Schools and Communities. I believe that it is also a very beneficial hobby and would love to see more people getting into the game from this monumental announcement.”

About CHESS Magazine

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The above editorial is reproduced from Chess Magazine September/2023, with kind permission.

CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read.

The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organises the London Chess Classic.

CHESS is mailed to subscribers in over 50 countries. You can subscribe from Europe and Asia at a specially discounted rate for first timers, or subscribe from North America.

Malcolm Pein is the CEO of Chess in Schools and Communities, organiser of the London Chess Classic, Managing Director of Chess and Bridge Ltd, the publisher of CHESS Magazine, and chess correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.


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