“Chess is the game which reflects most honour on human wit” – Voltaire.
Chess has had an image problem. It conjures up thoughts of bespectacled men in anoraks hunched over boards in the upstairs rooms of grotty pubs, or spotty, gangly schoolboys who can’t get a girlfriend and make do with the Sicilian Defence (Winawer variation).
“Dysfunctionality” is the word that springs to mind. As former British champion Bill Hartston said: “Chess is not something that drives people mad; it is something that keeps mad people sane.” The board’s 64 squares are so much less challenging than life.
Chess was not something you could admit a passion for – until now. For Tesco has announced that sales of chess sets are booming and that its new own-brand set is selling at double the rate forecast. It attributes the sales spurt to the fact that celebrities such as Madonna play, and makes a startling claim: chess is trendy.
“Chess, of all the really traditional board games, has undergone an image transformation,” said Karen Harris, Tesco’s senior buying manager. “Being able to play chess is fast becoming a very cool skill for young people.” At last, we chess lovers can out ourselves.
“The celebrity factor is important,” said Gerry Walsh, president of the British Chess Federation. “They are role models for the young and encourage them to take up the game. When chess was featured in the first Harry Potter film, we noticed a sudden upsurge in interest.”
Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, who have taken chess lessons from former Scottish champion Alan Norris, are the best-known celebrities. But a surprising number of famous names enjoy the game: former world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis; Andrew Flintoff, the superstar of English cricket, who used to play chess for Lancashire; former snooker world champion Steve Davis; and pop stars Bono, Moby and Sting.
British chess has, however, yet to unearth anyone to rival the Norwegian Simen Agdestein, who is both a chess grandmaster and played football for Norway. If only Wayne Rooney knew the intricacies of the Modern Benoni. “Anything that can get us away from this nerdy image of chess has got to be good,” said John Saunders, editor of the British Chess Magazine. “That image has never been true in countries outside the UK and US. In Russia and much of Europe, it’s a mainstream sport.”
Here, the government has refused to put chess on its list of recognised sports (a move that would have tax advantages). Walsh said his priority was to convince the government to change its mind. The artist and chess obsessive Marcel Duchamp had no doubts. “Chess is a sport, a violent sport,” he insisted. “If it’s anything at all, it’s a fight.”
Saunders believes that in the UK the nerdy stereotype dates from the immediate post-war period, when chess was a middle-class, grammar school activity. “If you flick through back copies of the British Chess Magazine from the 1940s and 1950s,” he said, “you see an endless succession of elderly men in horn-rimmed spectacles and tweed jackets.”
Chess is now played well beyond the confines of grammar schools. According to Walsh, there has been a huge increase in the number of primary-school pupils playing – up to a hundred in every school. Last year’s British Land UK Chess Challenge, a nationwide knockout competition for pupils of all ages, attracted 71,000 entries. “The interest in primary schools is enormous,” said Walsh, “though there is a big falling off when they go to secondary school, and we don’t know why.” He added that chess was no longer seen as a boys-only activity. “At primary level it’s about 50-50,” he said.
It is helping the chess-in-schools cause that the education secretary, Charles Clarke, is a keen player – he lists it as a recreation in Who’s Who. Clarke’s father, the senior civil servant Sir Richard Clarke, was an excellent player and invented the British chess rating system (every player registered with the British Chess Federation has an official rating for tournaments.)
“Chess is a mind game,” Mr Clarke told the Times last year. “It forces you to think. If you tried to prove that playing chess helps you with GCSEs, that would be difficult, but it forces thinking. It’s a game which develops logic and strategy.”
The growth in the number of sets being bought has been fuelled by the encouragement of chess in primary schools. But Saunders, whose magazine sells 3,000 copies a month, said he had seen no evidence of a boom in top-level chess. There are around 18,000 registered players in the UK – players who have ratings and compete in tournaments – but the figure does not appear to be rising.
The internet has encouraged more people to play. There are many sites, both subscription-only and free, on which it is possible to play one-to-one games against players all round the world. But, said Walsh, that could act as a disincentive to players to join their local club.
Saunders said there was an inevitable lag between an increase in popular interest in the game and the emergence of top players. The boom in the mid-1970s, driven by the world championship match in Reykjavik in 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, produced a generation of strong British players 10 years later. But now the UK is lagging again. In the recent chess olympiad in Spain, England had one of their worst ever results, and Scotland, Wales and Ireland also finished well down.
The question now is: can Madonna and Bono have the same effect as Fischer and Spassky did 30 years ago, producing a generation of cool chess players who can challenge the Russians and Ukrainians? Anyone fancy some rook’n’roll?
– Madonna plays chess in two of her music videos
– U2 frontman Bono said: “At 12 I studied the grandmasters, and I was fascinated”
– World boxing champion Lennox Lewis was said to play chess as part of his build-up to bouts.
– Sting and his band took on champion Garry Kasparov simultaneously at a charity match in New York in 2000 – they were defeated.
– Jude Law was a keen player at primary school.
source : guardian.co.uk