The history of chess in England

by Sabrina Chevannes
12/15/2016 – There have been some historical moments in chess, which date back even as far as the 19th Century in England. You could even go as far as to say that some of these moments have helped to define the game today. So, if England has such a strong chess culture, why do they not host more events? This article explores the history of chess in England and investigates the tournament scene. | Photos: Lennart Ootes

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We are currently just over halfway through the biggest tournament in the UK, but if we start to think about what other great chess events there are in the UK, we may struggle a bit. It is quite shocking and extremely disappointing that a country with such strong players and a great chess culture would be so lacking in events.

Since the introduction of the London Chess Classic, England has finally had something to look forward to in the world of chess. The British Championships has been deteriorating over the years, although every so often, a sponsor does his best to try and revive the tournament. However, there are simply not enough strong international chess events in the UK.

England is happy to welcome these guys to London!

However, England was once the cornerstone of international chess; in 1851, the first international chess tournament was held in London, organised by the legendary Howard Staunton. It was held alongside the Great Exhibition, held in Crystal Palace.

The tournament was a 16 player knock-out event, with a similar format to the British tournament taking place in Olympiad right now. The line-up was quite star-studded for that time, but players had to turn down a place for unfortunate reasons. For example, Vincent Grimm of Hungary was exiled in Aleppo!

Adolf Anderssen of Germany was eventually victorious in this event and Staunton came a disappointing 4th place.

It’s evident that chess politics dates way back, as even for this revolutionary event in 1851, there was a big rivalry with the London Chess Club that led them to try and boycott the event. Obviously, the reasons for this rivalry will be hearsay now, but there are some old scriptures seen in George Walker’s old column, A Bell’s Life, which was trying to sabotage the event.

Despite all of this, Staunton was able to raise a prize fund of £500, which probably equates to around £400,000 now! It is quite remarkable, really, because this is the discussion I was having with some of the English players just a couple of days ago. If you think back to the early 90s, when Nigel Short was challenging Kasparov for the World Championship; this match was featured on TV and the likes of Danny King and Raymond Keene were commentating and were household names. There were several other major events such as the Lloyds Bank Masters, which had a generous prize fund and strong players. So, where has this money and interest in chess disappeared to?

Kasparov-Short, cover of Ray Keene's book

Yesterday, an incredible event was held at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, where the House of Commons faced the House of Lords in a match that oozed history. This time, it was done with a twist, as they had some incredible guests attending and watching them play!

The view from the River Room, where the chess was held, was absolutely remarkable!

Can you work out which two top Grandmasters enjoy their champagne as they watch the politicians go head to head?

Of course, this was an outstanding event, enjoyed by all who attended. The history, class and style of the Houses of Parliament were sure to make it one of the most impressive chess venues in the world. But it’s not the first time that a chess event has been held there! The House of Commons has an extensive chess history. Plus, Chess in Schools and Communities celebrated their first birthday there back in 2011! They even had a special guest in the form of Garry Kasparov in attendance!

Both pictures by Ray Morris-Hill

Some fantastic event date back hundreds of years ago. For example, the incredible “Chess Cable Match” of 1897, where the members of Parliament in London played the members of Congress in Washington DC! Now, it’s not like they could just log onto PlayChess and be connected in a matter of seconds with the other side of the world. Instead, it was played over telegraphic cable and took two days to complete! The final score was a 2.5-2.5 tie!

Picture courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery

So, the rest day was an exciting one for some of the Grandmasters, who got to visit Westminster and soak in some amazing views and chess history. Naturally, they were also in awe of the view and were caught snapping some cheeky selfies!

Now, where has our chess culture gone in England? The London Chess Classic is a great event and very prestigious but is still very new. The Hastings International tournament held over Christmas and New Year has been around for a very long time but is not too well-attended anymore. Plus, there aren’t many who like to spend their holidays in a cold sports hall.

There isn’t much choice left in England to play chess. This is why you see many of our top Grandmasters travelling the world all the time to get quality games. It is a shame, and I do hope that some patriotic lovers of chess will help change this and improve our chess scene for the better.



Born in 1986 in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, England, Sabrina now lives in London where she is managing director of the London Academy of Chess and Education. With over 300 members of the academy, she has one of the largest following of students in the UK. Sabrina is a Women International Master and an active chess player.

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