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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Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/18/2016 12:56
"I take it this was originally published without indication as to author as now Sabrina Chevannes is revealed as the writer." Mark Jordan.

That is correct.
Mark Jordan Mark Jordan 12/17/2016 12:58
I take it this was originally published without indication as to author as now Sabrina Chevannes is revealed as the writer. Sorry to have to say so but it's historically very inaccurate (written from a faulty memory?), poorly constructed, generally badly written and, not unconnected with the first three issues, the thesis is badly argued. The decline in English chess is bemoaned but no reasons or solutions are attempted.

Staunton's was the first actual tournament in chess history, and featured most of the leading players of the day. Competition before then was limited to matches between individuals with prize funds raised by those individuals and perhaps a few supporters, but there really wasn't much organised chess going on before the mid 19th century and not that much more until the 20th. Most 19th century chess activity was very local due the simple fact that it wasn't easy to move around then but, with the development of railways, it was possible to begin to create a national chess scene.

The international chess scene only really developed in the twentieth century with continued development in infrastructure but there wasn't much money in it, few professionals and not ant tournaments. The number of pros and tournaments did increase through the 20th century, but slowly, and it was only when air travel became more available that things could really take off. But it was the Fischer phenomenon, together with the rivalry between the USSR and everyone else that really increased the profile of chess, brought it in to the public eye and made it sponsor-able.

The English/British scene really took off from the early 1970s and the period of our chess masters travelling the world, living from a suitcase, and doing nothing but chess, began then. It was also the time of increased club membership and the weekend congress. But such a boom could only last so long, however, as public interest and sponsors are fickle and move quickly on if there's nothing new to grab their attention. Having said that, with hundreds or internationals worldwide every year and still some sponsors to be found, things are still better than they were pre-Fischer.

Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/17/2016 02:14
Thanks FOfferman!
yesenadam yesenadam 12/17/2016 01:17
Maybe with... Sabrina and Daniel King?
Gee, just imagine the current top players in that format, sharing their thoughts. Surely THAT would get the general public interested, in a way current commentator formats don't. They don't seem like such personalities, a lot of these current guys.. but get inside their heads, to hear their thinking styles, in their own words/voices. All those cute accents hehe. It would be amazing.

In the mean time..let people watch the old series online! Gee..if they don't destroy it (like the BBC used to do routinely) they make sure as few people as possible see it.
Well, of course, the important thing is that 1 or 2 already wealthy people get more $. *whinge over*
FOffermann FOffermann 12/16/2016 09:59
We'd like to confirm: Luke McShane and Erwin L'Ami.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/16/2016 05:31
Thanks guys. Makes a lot of sense. Would be nice to have a confirmation from Chessbase.
CMPonCB CMPonCB 12/16/2016 01:41
I imagine the article was written by Malcolm Pein. Clearly by someone English ("our chess culture"). Malcolm was lamenting the gradual demise of Hastings and lack of good tournaments during his interview with Maurice yesterday.

McShane and L'ami in the photo.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 12/16/2016 12:51
I think it is L'Ami and McShane.
Raymond Labelle Raymond Labelle 12/15/2016 09:49
Who are the Champagne GMs? A guess - on the right: Erwin L'Ami. On the left, who we see drinking, wilder guess: Loek van Wely. Will we have the solution?

Harder to guess: who wrote the article?