Pub chess – recapturing a tradition

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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.

A drunken knight
A drunken knight

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.

Julian Way and Olga playing as a pair.

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.

About John Foley

Director, London Chess Conference Secretary, Education Commission, European Chess Union Director, ChessPlus Ltd Promoting chess as a way to develop thinking skills

2 thoughts on “Pub chess – recapturing a tradition

  1. great i like the combination of beer and the chess…..i love to play games while drinking…but i never try the chess,,its seems to be interesting…i must try this next time….

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