Sunday, November 11, 2007

How Margaret Thatcher ruined British chess

My posting on the leadership election using a chess analogy inspired Paul Walter to write about the Fischer vs Spassky world championship match of 1972. I was just getting into chess before it took place, so it had a huge effect on me too.

But then it had an effect on many people in this country. The financier Jim Slater had put up extra money for the march when Fischer made one of his frequent threats to pull out. At about the same time Slater also offered a £5000 prize to the first British player to qualify as a grandmaster.

In the early 1970s it was scarcely conceivable that there could be a British grandmaster. But Slater's prize, the boom in chess and the arrival of a remarkably talented generation of young players soon changed everything. Tony Miles qualified as the first British grandmaster in 1976.

Soon there were numerous British grandmasters. When I was a keen player in the 1980s we had two of them - Glenn Flear and Mark Hebden - in Leicester alone.

Tony Miles never quite became the strongest player in Western Europe, but Nigel Short, Jon Speelman and Michael Adams all emerged as credible contenders for the world title. In 1993 Short qualified for a match for the championship, defeating the former champion Anatoly Karpov and the Jan Timman, the Dutch player who had always been Tony Miles's nemesis, on the way. Though Short lost the match quite heavily, his attacking play with the white pieces frequently tested Kasparov to the limit.

Not surprisingly, this explosion of talent had a remarkable effect on the national team too. England finished second to the mighty Soviet Union at three consecutive Chess Olympiads - 1984, 1986 and 1988.

All in all, it was a great ea in which to be a British chess enthusiast. I even worked for a chess magazine for a while after I left university.

So it was very sad to read this in Leonard Barden's Guardian chess column on Saturday:

Russia outclassed the field in this week's European team championship in Crete, where its team secured the gold medals with a round to spare and its top pair, Peter Svidler and Alex Morozevich, had the best individual performances.

England were seeded 16th and finished in that position.

Sixteenth in Europe? What has gone wrong?

One thing that has gone wrong is that the decline in chess's popularity in the UK has made it harder to get sponsorship for the national team. The result this time was that many of the best English players decided they could not afford to play for the national side this time.

But the greatest blow to the English national team was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly there was not one powerful team to contend with but more than a dozen. Armenia, the Baltic states and the Ukraine all emerged at once as powerful sides.

And this was not surprising. Some of the best Soviet players had not been from Russia but from some of the other republics. Among the world champions, Tal was from Latvia, Petrosian was from Armenia and Garry Kasparov was from Azerbaijan (though from an Armenian-Jewish background).

It was worse than that. In the Communist era the Soviet authorities were reluctant to allow their players to come to the West to participate in tournaments. Those who were allowed out tended to be older men with a comfortable stake in the existing Soviet system, because it was thought they would be less likely to defect. Though they were often great players, they could sometimes be more interested in shopping than playing chess. The result was that the best Western players had a good chance of winning tournaments in the West.

Once the Wall came down, Western tournaments were flooded with hungry young grandmasters from the former Easter bloc and almost overnight it became much harder for a Western grandmaster to earn a comfortable living from playing chess.

Worse than that, many former Soviet players settled in Western countries and started to play for their national sides in the Olympiad. Last time I looked the USA team, which England used to beat comfortably in the glory years of the 1980s, was entirely composed of Soviet emigres. But the England side was so strong that few Eastern players settled here. The result was a levelling out of standards in the West and the end of English dominance.

The other phenomenon that hurt English chess was the Big Bang and the finance boom in the City. In the 1960s the sort of people who might have become chess grandmasters tended to become lecturers in the expanding university sector and play as amateurs. When that source of employment dried up around 1970, becoming a professional chess player began to seem a more attractive proposition.

This state of affairs continued until things took off in the City. Then potential grandmasters found they could earn far more from computing or finance than they ever would from chess. Players like Matthew Sadler and Luke McShane, who might have been today's world title contenders, have drifted away from full-time play for this reason.

So there you have it. British chess declined because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the City of London. I suppose you have to put it down as an unintended consequence of Mrs Thatcher.


Anonymous said...

Possibly, though, Jonathan, it has something to do with schools and education in general.

I am not up-to-date on this, but in the 50s, 60s and 70s, chess was flourishing at the school level. Each generation was stronger than the one before.

I have the impression that schools are largely demoralised. Is there anything very much happening with chess at that level nowadays?

If not, it is clearly also the fault of Mrs Thatcher and her demonisation of the teaching profession.

Anonymous said...

Just a minor correction: Tal was Latvian.

Paul Linford said...

Genuinely fascinating Jonathan.

I guess what I find most intriguing about chess is why players seem to peak at a relatively young age. While you would expect this in other, more physical sports, you might think that the shelf-life of a chess player would be much longer. What happened to Nigel Short, for instance, after his failed world title challenge? He was still young enough to come back a better player, and yet he has scarcely been heard of again. And what happened to Kasparov? Did he genuinely go into a decline, or is he still the best player in the world and it's only chess politics that gets in the way?

Paul Walter said...

Fascinating, Jonathan. More often than not, success in sports or games boils down to kids involvement. No wonder Brazil is so good at footbal - the kids play it in the streets all the time.

You will be glad to hear that my daughters (state) primary school is doing its little bit in having a monthly chess lesson during the mathematics lessons - this is for the nine and ten year olds. They have enlisted the help of parents like myself to go in and help the kids with tips. It is amazing how enthusiastic the kids are and how quickly they pick up the rules.

Preumably, kids are playing it all the time in the Eastern Europe republics?

Jonathan Calder said...

Anonymous 1: I am not sure how important schools were in the rise of English chess. Here in Leicestershire the clubs had more of a role, and I think this was fairly typical. Though there is no doubt that some schools did encourage chess.

Anonymous 2: Of course: I have corrected the posting. I must have been thinking of Lembit, Thanks.

Paul 1: The age at which players are supposed to be at their peak gets younger and younger. These days chess is like snooker: once you slip a little it is very hard to get back because there are so many good young players fighting their way up.

I get the impression that Kasparov had been at the top for 20 years and wanted to do other things with his life. If he were motivated, he would probably still be world champion.

Paul 2: Please to hear it. The Communist regimes certainly used to encourage chess, but I don't know what happens now. Judging by how well Eastern European players still do, nothing much has changed.

Anonymous said...

I did wonder whether Lembit was in your mind, but decided not to mention my suspicion.

Anonymous 2

Anonymous said...

The position in the diagram occurs after 11 moves of a variation of the Centre Attack in the Ruy Lopez.

I'm sure your readers (or at least those that play the game) would like to know why you included it.

Anonymous 2 (for the last time)

Jonathan Calder said...

There was no great significance: it was just the first interesting position I came across when searching for a diagram. I believe you can reach it via different move orders with the pawn on a6 or a7.

I was a 1.d4 man.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. The position with the pawn on a7 occurred in the 1st game of the Lasker-Marshall world championship match in 1907. Lasker won (as black).

ejh said...

For the pawn on a6 as shown in the posting, see the diagram on page 256 of Kaufman's The Chess Advantage In Black And White where White (in Leskovar-Korneev, Málaga 2001, and other games) has contined 12.Re1. Black then has 12...Re8 13.f3 Nd6! with a good game.

For a similar discussion, see here and comments.

Nobby said...

Laughable and disingenuous.

Jonathan Calder said...

Would you care to expand upon that comment?

Or have you just learnt a new word?