England’s historic chess scene is facing an “hour of need” with tournaments shut down because of Covid-19 and a national federation in danger of financial ruin, officials have warned.
The English Chess Federation, the body that oversees a network of more than 600 clubs across the country, said membership is expected to fall a staggering 55 per cent this year – mainly due to the coronavirus outbreak.
While a handful of over the board events have restarted elsewhere in Europe, in England players are unable to meet and play in person because of the UK government’s “rule of six” that restricts groups meeting up, as well as local lockdowns in place around the country.
Some events have been moved onto online platforms, with the ECF setting up an online presence, the ECF Online Clubs facility, with around 5,000 members across various platforms, and a new online rating system.
However, that has not stopped the number of ECF members dropping from around 12,500 in 2019/20 to a projection of around 5,500 by mid-October as chess players decide not to renew.
The latest published figures as of September 19 (see table below) are just 4,891.
The ECF, which is run by volunteers and is not eligible for government sports funding, is fully aware of how worrying this is. A report due to be presented at its annual general meeting this month will say Covid-19 has had a “devastating effect on the ECF, both operationally and financially”.
Individual clubs, some of which date back 150 years, also face an uncertain future. Clubs in England often meet in venues such as pubs, community halls or hired rooms, which in some cases show no signs of reopening.
Many club members are also from older age groups, seen as particularly at risk from Covid-19, which has, at the very least, dampened enthusiasm for a return.
England has one of the most thriving chess scenes in the world with local and regional leagues all over the country, a circuit of weekend congresses and a national league called the 4NCL. Events such as the Hastings Congress, the UK Chess Challenge and the London Chess Classic are also world-famous.
Grassroots chess has a rich history in England.
The English Chess Federation lists nearly 3,000 clubs on its website, but it is believed only around 600 are active.
Manchester Chess Club is regarded as England’s first major provincial chess club, founded in 1817, but the oldest still in existence is believed to be Liverpool Chess Club, which was founded in 1837.
North of the border the Edinburgh Chess Club, established in 1822, is not only the oldest club in Scotland but one of the oldest in the world.
England’s national team is ranked 13th in the world by the international governing body FIDE and its top play is the Cornishman GM Michael Adams (2716 FIDE).