The lower pick-up-rate of chess by women and the male dominance in competitions have been a matter of discussion since ages. Many commentators treat the topic with galantry as has Savielly Tartakower in the above quote. It is taken from an impressive collection of statements, arguments and clippings that were excerpted by Edward Winter, the eminent chess historian, and span from the 19th century to the present day.
Apart from the male dominance among the commentators one can also observe that the disregard of chess by women is rationalized. Places and social circles where chess is played are not welcoming for women. On the other hand “Lasker´s Chess Magazine” warns in 1906 that the creation “of ladies’ chess clubs is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members.”
It has often been asserted that women lack the recklessness and ambition required to succeed on the board. Hermann von Gottschall, the Deutsche Schachzeitung´s editor, argued in 1893 that the typical female tendency for intrigues should empower their play. In the same light hearted fashion he went on to claim that their preference for light chatter should not at all hinder women, because in the usual café or club game talking takes precedence over the actual moves.
Von Gottschall wrote for a nearly exclusively male audience, as did so many after him. More recently, explaining the male dominance in chess has become a minefield, and that can also be established from Winter´s collection (which also contains the above photo from a book on the German Chess Congress 1905 showing an actress performing Caissa in the opera “The Royal Middy”, which features a notorious checkmating trick).
France is the must-watch-country for all chess federations. Bachar Kouatly has devised an exciting turnaround of the French Chess Federation (FFE) to “a broad direction, a transversal direction, not only a narrow focus on competitive chess. Without it, the federation doesn’t exist, but with only competitive chess we remain weak.”
Chess is now helping to improve social cohesion and inclusion, explained Kouatly in his remarkable presentation: “We are a tool in the public policy in France.” The prime example is an agreement with the Ministry of Justice´s Department for Youth Protection. Adolescents at the brink of prison can now learn and play chess. The Ministry is paying the chess teachers and club membership fees.
When Kouatly was elected as Federation President two years ago, Jean-Michel Blanquer was one of his election team. Blanquer has since become Minister of Education and is opening doors for chess in France. The Federation has signed agreements with the national associations of sport in primary schools (USEP), sport in secondary schools (UNSS) and with French schools outside of France (AEFE).
An important meeting with the latter prevented Johanna Basti from coming to the London Conference. She negotiated the contracts with the national institutions on behalf of the Federation and is a member of the new Education Commission of the European Chess Union. Blanquer and Basti believe in the social potential of chess but are not rooted in competitive chess. In the past, the French Federation had been run by school teachers who, perhaps paradoxically, were oriented to competition rather than education. Their commitment to the conventional implementation of chess left no room to develop chess more widely within society.
Bachar Kouatly, who was the first Grandmaster in France and is a successful technology entrepreneur, appealed to chess federations everywhere to bring in more people from the outside: “If you are able to bring other people with fresh blood and fresh ideas who will put you out, it means you succeeded!”
Plans are afoot to establish a National Mind Sports Centre where chess and Go and other strategy board games can be played. The project is a joint venture between the English Chess Federation and the British Go Association. It has long been desired to find a place to play league games and competitions and to hold gaming events. Teaching and training would be part of the mix to encourage the next generation into the boardgame realm.
The latest initiative arose from Go player T Mark Hall who left a substantial legacy for the establishment of a centre in London. He fondly remembered the place where he played go as a youngster and wanted others to revive the concept. We are all familiar with the problem of finding a space for community activities. Pubs and church halls serve the purpose but are not ideal.
The original National Chess Centre was in the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street. John Spedan Lewis was a devotee of the game. Unfortunately the Centre was bombed during WW2. After the war, a number of coffee houses, such as the Prompt Corner in Hampstead, open from 10-midnight, kept the spirit alive. It was popular with intellectuals such as George Orwell and European emigrés but eventually all these unique places disappeared.
A recent trend is the rise of board game cafés in which patrons pay a board fee and are expected to buy some drinks and maybe a meal. These are popular with young adults who are to be found socialising in fashionable places like DraughtsLondon in Shoreditch.
Chess and Go have traditionally been played in relative silence, certainly at the higher levels. This factor has made it more difficult to find suitable venues and to attract people to clubs. Bridge, being an inherently social game, does not suffer the same problem. The Casual Chess Club which is held daily in the BFI bar off Tottenham Court Road shows that playing chess in a bar with chatter and music in the background are not always incompatible. There is scope for more than one type of playing area within a venue.
The latest plan is to concentrate all the activities related to mind sports into one place and to combine flexible game playing spaces with in a cafe and a merchandising outlet. The revenues generated from the commercial activities will help to defray the cost of the game activities. Fundamental to this plan is the acquisition of a property which will cost at least £3 million. There are many issues to be resolved regarding funding options, corporate structure and charitable status.
Amanda Ross, who runs the Casual Chess Cafe, has been commissioned to conduct a feasibility study on the National Mind Sports Centre. She will outline her current thinking in a presentation at the London Chess Conference on Monday 12th December 2pm – 4pm. This session is open to all and does not require registration at the conference. Please come along if you would like to share your ideas and enthusiasm about how to achieve this laudable objective.
The most common place to play chess in England is in a pub. This is not because pub regulars decide to take up the noble game. It is because most clubs hold their league matches in a pub. Typically they will occupy a dingy room upstairs, the landlord glad of a little extra custom. The clubs usually have little choice as to where to play.
We should of course welcome chess in pubs. The informality of the surroundings promotes social interaction. Other members of the public can observe chess being played expertly with clocks. Many people approach the boards to watch and often enquire about getting involved. Pubs bring chess out into the wider community.
The Kings Head pub in Bayswater, west London lent its name to a famous chess club. The aptly titled Drunken Knights club plays in the Plough near the British Museum. My local club in Kingston-upon-Thames plays at the Druids Head pub in the historic market square. We are not alone in our quest. A board games club meets there as does the local Philosophy discussion society. Pubs are the new community centres. They need us because they are losing custom to drink-at-home, pay-TV lifestyles.
Clubs are moving to pubs not just from choice but because there has been a shift in community infrastructure. The places where clubs once met are rapidly disappearing or have become unaffordable. The other traditional places where clubs met were in church halls, community centres and in workers or veterans clubs. All of these are under threat of closing. The unstoppable economic force is the increasing rent. The population density in London must be amongst the highest in the world and this is driving up the price of space.
There was a time when there were places where members of the public could congregate for convenience or social reasons – promenades, bandstands, station concourses etc. These have virtually all been privatised. Public space owners and councils have leased the space to commercial enterprises. If you sit down anywhere you are expected to buy at least a drink.
Church halls are disappearing along with the churches as the nation becomes more secular and mall shopping has replaced Sunday worship. Working Mens clubs are disappearing as industrial activity dwindles in the 24/7 service economy. Veterans clubs disappear as the memories of war fade. We are instead seeing a boom in new building developments – luxury apartments being the investors’ favourite.
Society is always changing and chess must adapt. Gone are the days when a typical chess club might have a hundred members meeting several times a week in a well-furnished community club. Membership of clubs has reduced to a quarter of the level 25 years ago. The lower level of membership cannot sustain rental payments any longer. Clubs are moving to pubs because the publican is hoping that the players will buy some beer.
This exposes the risk of pub chess: the publican may eventually find that chess players are so engrossed in their chess that they do not buy as many pints as a regular customer. Also some players may feel that alcohol may impair their cognitive processes. The net result is that the economic justification for accepting the chess club is disproved with unfortunate consequences.
There is a depressingly familiar pattern: another event provides more profit for the pub especially around Christmas and New Year. A wedding or birthday event could take priority at any point during the year. Or the landlord comes along and announces an increase of the rent at short notice. Hence there is a phenomenon of pub-hopping as clubs move from one disaffected publican to a fresh one and the process goes through a repeat cycle.
But let’s not dwell on the possible downsides. Traditionally pubs are places to relax and spend leisure time of which playing games was a regular element. The factor which makes chess expensive is that chess players like silence. It is the demand for a private room without noise which creates our problems. Hence the answer to our problem is that we need to revert to the social approach to games playing. There must be more tolerance of noise. Players play for fun rather than for glory. Casual games are proving very popular. At Kingston we alternate serious chess nights with casual chess nights. The Casual Chess club meets every day in the British Film Institute café just off Tottenham Court Road and people of all levels turn up to play.
The first law in England which mentioned pubs was in 1495. Its purposes was to restrict the popular games which were distracting men from their duty of practising archery. In England, people have always enjoyed beer and games in the pub and this tradition is going to make a comeback.
By the end of the year, more than a million refugees who are seeking asylum will have been registered in EU countries. Projects in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have deployed chess as one of the elements assisting the rehabilitation and integration of refugees. One of the features of chess is that it is an international language in itself. People from different coutries can begin to communicate across the board.
One of Germany´s biggest refugee reception centres is located in Munich in the Bayernkaserne. The Münchener Schachstiftung (Munich Chess Foundation) started the initiative in 2011 and then raised support from other foundations. Chess tutors are employed to supervise chess events each Friday where instruction is given to beginners and intermediate players. In another project, a special school for unaccompanied young refugees, Schlau-Schule, ran four classes were run during the last school year. Several of the students had learned the game at the chess meetings in the Bayernkaserne Project supervisor Dijana Dengler of the Münchner Schachstiftung is moved by the memory of how Afghan youngsters started to invite everyone interested to late night chess sessions.
During the first weeks after they have registered their application, many refugees have little to do. When Niels van der Mark learned about refugee boredom in November 2014, he decided to give chess a try. Together with club mates from Schaakvereniging Doetinchem he started to pay regular visits to the reception centre in the Dutch town near the German border. “We were surprised how many Syrians know chess and play it quite well.”
Those who show an interest are also invited to the chess club. Offering tournaments makes little sense, as the refugees are usually just staying for a few weeks. Van der Mark encourages them to join one of the free chess sites on the internet in order to stay in contact with others who keep playing. He has also make some connections with chess clubs in the refugee’s new place so that they receive a welcome. Chess can provides a ready-made social network.
Van der Mark is unaware of other Dutch chess clubs that have followed the example of Doetinchem, “because we didn´t make a noise about this”, but the local media found out about the project and loved it. Here you can see a TV report (in Dutch)..
Only men and boys joined the chess sessions. As Van der Mark noted “They kept saying that women don´t have a place in war, and they pointed out that what we call queen is in Arabic a vezir – a minister”. Some of the Syrian children would move the pieces in a different way. They play a variant called “damen” (a word which means “draughts” in several European languages).
In Sweden, instilling an interest in chess fever has been found to improve the mood of formerly depressed and isolated youth. Ake Drott, a therapist and social worker specialises in unaccompanied young refugees at Steget Verdare (One Step Further), a non-for-profit organisation in Mölndal near Gothenburg. Two years ago he started using chess and has been passing on his lifelong enthusiasm for the game to the young people he is assisting. “Chess works tremendously well: they feel better, they get better at school, they get along better with others. Everything!” says Drott.
Last year Ake and his team leader, Pontus Teiler, participated in a graduate seminar on chess teaching at the University of Malmö. They documented and analyzed their experience which now comes as a basis for a presentation at our conference. Drott, Dengler and Van der Mark will all share their experience in our workshop Chess for Refugees and encourage others to establish projects elsewhere.