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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’s pub chess tradition

FIDE Master Tim Wall, organiser of the Northumbria Chess Masters that was suspended in August, said: 

England has a lovely tradition of chess clubs going back centuries. League matches take place in pubs and places like that and then people often go and have a pint afterward.

But these are all things which are very difficult to do now and, especially for older people, the very idea of going back to this can be frightening. The fear is this long tradition will all die out.

The problem the ECF has is that if over the board chess is not taking place it can’t offer much, but it has to be ready for when chess can get back up and running. It is impressive really how many people are supporting it even now.

That is not to say it is all grim reading. As well as the venture into online events, last month the ECF started the biggest change to its grading system since the 1960s.

After years of discussions, new four-digit Elo-style ratings were finally introduced to replace the old three-digit ECF grades. It is the first step towards a new system of monthly results reporting to bring English chess into line with systems around the world.

Despite the lack of funds, England fielded a full-strength squad in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad, organised thanks to private donations.

ECF issues appeal to its members

Yet in its review of the year, the ECF board reports that “the return of over the board chess in any
significant way looks more remote than ever”.

In a direct appeal issued this week, ECF chief executive Mike Truran called on members to help.

Yearly ECF membership starts at £18, or £6 for juniors. There is also a new “supporter” level costing £10 for players who want to take part in ECF online events, but take-up has so far been poor.

Mr Truran said: 

Like many sports and leisure organisations we have taken an enormous hit over the past six months, and we need members’ help to continue providing online and over the board services now and in the future.

Despite members’ best efforts so far, around 55 per cent of members have not renewed yet.

We will face serious financial difficulties and potential damage to our infrastructure if the current crisis extends too far into 2021 without sufficient membership income to sustain a cost base that we have already stripped back as far as we feel able.

The ECF does have reserves and an investment fund it can fall back on. It has made savings on staff wages by taking advantage of the Government furlough scheme and intends to downsize its offices in Battle, East Sussex.

It can also appeal for help from two legacy funds, the Chess Trust and the John Robinson Youth Chess Trust, if necessary.

However, with its board expecting membership to fall even further – perhaps to just 20 per cent of what it was last year if OTB chess doesn’t restart in 2021 – the future looks bleak.

The ECF, the successor of the old British Chess Federation, runs the British Chess Championships which have been held, with the exception of war years, since 1904. It also publishes ECF grades and now ratings for all players who compete in affiliated competitions in England.
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).

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