The Future of English Chess

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Andrew Farthing
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The Future of English Chess

Post by Andrew Farthing » Fri Apr 24, 2009 11:42 am

Some of you will have seen the thread on a similar theme under "ECF Matters". The various contributions at that time were very useful, but I wanted to reopen the debate and ask for your help again.

For my sins, I was appointed ECF Strategic Planning Officer at the end of last year. At the April Council meeting, I committed myself to a broad consultation on what the aim should be for English chess and the ECF in the long term. As part of that process, I've sent out a note today to the Secretaries of the various Chess Unions asking for their help in seeking views.

The key part of this note runs as follows:

"Broadly speaking, I wish to construct a picture of how we should like English chess and the ECF to look in, say, 10 years' time. I've picked 10 years because this is long enough for strategies to be developed and implemented but not so distant as to seem pure fantasy. The watchwords are "ambition" and "challenge" in a context of "optimistic realism" (if you see what I mean). What I'm looking for is your thoughts on what the ECF's ambitions should be for the game by the end of this period.

This would include, for example:

- International success / Professional chess
- Domestic chess, e.g. British Championships, County competitions, other events
- The standing of the game, i.e. public image, media profile, sponsorship
- Junior chess
- "Grass roots" chess, i.e. how much chess is played (and by whom); weekend congresses, etc.; chess clubs, and so on
- Women's chess
- The role and significance of the ECF
- The nature of the ECF, e.g. organisation, governance
- The financial status of the ECF, e.g. commercial activities; sources of funding

(This is not intended as an exhaustive list, so if you have any thoughts which seem to fall outside the named items, please include them.)"


In the interests of casting my net as widely as possible, I'm using this Forum to invite other ideas and opinions. I know it's easy to reach for the cynicism button with things like this, but I promise that I have no political agenda here other than to gather and listen to as many views as possible. So please, tell me what you would like to set as targets for English chess in any of the areas listed above, but keep it constructive. I can't guarantee that any one opinion will make it into the final proposal, but I do guarantee that I'll read them all and try to make the best of the range of views offered.

What will happen with the 'vision' is that it'll be used as a benchmark to judge the most appropriate strategies for the ECF to adopt (from a range of options that I'll be presenting in a few months' time). Obviously, if we're fuzzy about where we want to go, we don't stand a chance of picking a sensible path.

Thank you.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Andrew Farthing » Fri Apr 24, 2009 1:14 pm

If there is anyone who feels uncomfortable posting their thoughts in this public forum, I'm arranging to have my contact details included on the ECF website (http://www.englishchess.org.uk/organisa ... icials.htm) so that I can be contacted direct by e-mail.

Peter Sowray
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Peter Sowray » Fri Apr 24, 2009 2:01 pm

Dear Andrew,

Thank you for posting this. Any attempt by the ECF to collect players’ views must be welcomed.

I am puzzled, though. The issues that you’ve listed below need to be addressed right now. Is the 10-year horizon your choice, or your guidance from the powers that be? If the latter, do you not sense the danger that anything you produce will be kicked into the long grass? Presumably, you’re hoping that people respond with some good ideas during this consultation … how will you accommodate those ideas that can be implemented before 2019?

I understand the need for some sort of long-term strategic vision – I’d call it the “What’s the ECF for?” question. But as chess players we all know that sometimes tactics get in the way of the best strategy. No good exploiting that weak pawn on d4 if we’re about to be mated! Likewise, it’ll be no use if you come up with a business strategy that is completely unachievable. The ECF has a track record of coming up with all sorts of objectives / targets / ambitions (the current ‘Business Plan’ runs to 27 pages of them), but seems less able to come up with the means to fulfil them. You’ll hunt in vain for any implementation plans.

Just my views. I genuinely hope this is of some help.

Kind regards,

Peter

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IM Jack Rudd
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by IM Jack Rudd » Fri Apr 24, 2009 2:49 pm

I've posted a similar thread on a site of non-chessplayers. I think a big part of English chess's problems is our lack of presence in the wider world, so I'm talking to the wider world.

Andrew Farthing
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Andrew Farthing » Fri Apr 24, 2009 3:32 pm

Peter Sowray wrote:I am puzzled, though. The issues that you’ve listed below need to be addressed right now. Is the 10-year horizon your choice, or your guidance from the powers that be? If the latter, do you not sense the danger that anything you produce will be kicked into the long grass? Presumably, you’re hoping that people respond with some good ideas during this consultation … how will you accommodate those ideas that can be implemented before 2019?

I understand the need for some sort of long-term strategic vision – I’d call it the “What’s the ECF for?” question. But as chess players we all know that sometimes tactics get in the way of the best strategy. No good exploiting that weak pawn on d4 if we’re about to be mated! Likewise, it’ll be no use if you come up with a business strategy that is completely unachievable. The ECF has a track record of coming up with all sorts of objectives / targets / ambitions (the current ‘Business Plan’ runs to 27 pages of them), but seems less able to come up with the means to fulfil them. You’ll hunt in vain for any implementation plans.
Peter,

The 10-year horizon was my choice. The ECF Board has given me a free hand to pursue this as I think best.

I'm not denying the need for urgent action on a number of issues, and the more changes that can be implemented in significantly less than 10 years, the happier I'll be. The 10-year vision, however, is intended to help ensure that all of the planned actions have a consistent goal behind them.

The ECF planning process has three main elements: a 1-year business plan; a "long-term strategic plan" (which I'd see as focused mainly on the 2-5 year period) and the "vision" (which is currently a measly half-page in the long-term plan). This is pretty consistent with the shape of planning processes in business - at least in my experience - but its value is dependent on the quality of the thinking behind it and, crucially, in the execution of the strategies and plans.

The fact that I'm asking for help here to define the long-term vision doesn't mean that I'm ignoring the short- and medium-term issues. I'm trying to juggle all of the elements - urgent and otherwise - and the fact that there are urgent issues doesn't mean that it's sensible to let the long-term planning slide. I'm sure we've all seen organisations or businesses that have gone on year after year tackling just the urgent stuff, but they're never the successful ones over time. From what I've seen, the ECF directors do understand the urgency of the critical issues (the comments on the latest Council meeting on this forum notwithstanding) and they are focused on sorting them out (eg. Chess for Schools; the financial position). A big part of my role is to create scope to think about the longer-term direction while business as usual is going on and then helping to bring the longer-term ideas together with short-term action plans in a coherent, prioritised way.

The whole exercise has to be completed in time for the next ECF Council meeting (so the Board has to see it at least a month before that), so it's reasonably quick. It's the nature of the organisation that change can't happen much more quickly than this.

Regarding the Business Plan: I won't distance myself from this because I wrote the version approved at the latest Council meeting! It is lengthy, I admit, but a lot of it documents ongoing activity, i.e. actions that have been implemented and will be repeated. The quantity of ongoing activity is part of my way of explaining, "What is the ECF for?" The 'New Initiatives' recorded in the latest plan are new actions, and wherever possible these have been made as specific as possible in terms of delivery dates and measures of success. In other words, I have pressed the directors to link the actions with implementation plans.

Your comparison with strategy and tactics in chess is perfectly reasonable. My argument would be that the chances of finding a winning tactic in isolation from the correct strategy are not as good as when the two are working in tandem. Sure, we may win the odd game by finding a decent cheapo, but not many of us can make a consistently successful career out of swindles (and I know I'm laying myself open to a list of players who seem to have done precisely that!).

This has been more of a rambling answer than I intended, but I hope I've given some reassurance that I'm not just scanning the horizon while the iceberg is right in front of me.

Andrew Wainwright
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Andrew Wainwright » Fri Apr 24, 2009 4:13 pm

Andrew

I think what you are doing here is great and thoroughly support the ECF in taking this sort of positive forward thinking action.

If you want to look at success stories in the organisation of mass sporting events throughout the UK then look no further than the business model of Goals Soccer Centres (www.goalsfootball.co.uk). This company runs 5-a-side football centres throughout the UK through one centralised website. I play at the Bradford centre on Wednesday nights and can tell you first hand that as a customer of this company that its success is based on 3 key factors: (i) Excellent use of IT/Internet, (ii) Excellent Organisation of events and (iii) Advertising.

Obviously the business model is not directly transferable to chess but there are many lessons to be learned from companies like this one such as the power of the internet in organising events on a national scale through one governing body.

Personally I think your list of topics above is very comprehensive in pointing out the areas that need thinking about and I am not going to presume to comment on most of them as I am likely unqualified to do so.

However, my humble opinion on what is needed for the long term success of the ECF is:

1. Self Funding of Chess as a “Sport/Game” - Government and Commercial Funding is great but is not conducive on its own to growth. We can do nothing without adequate finances after all.
2. Better use of IT – Perhaps the biggest criticism that I personally would lobby at the ECF at the minute is the way it under utilises the internet.
3. Advertising – People need to know about chess if they are to play chess.

Perhaps the biggest advantage that Goals Soccer Centres has over the ECF as a business model is that it actually organises events and its revenue comes from those taking place in such events. The ECF does not do this. The main service it offers to its members is through the grading of matches. Grading fees alone can not support the ECF as its only means of regular income apart from small government grants and the odd generous donation here and there. Has the ECF ever thought about running events throughout the country that could create a steady revenue stream? Has the ECF ever thought about running its own chess centres and attempting to make them profitable?

Peter Sowray
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Peter Sowray » Fri Apr 24, 2009 5:17 pm

Andrew F,

Thanks for your reply. I think I now understand why you’ve chosen a long-term planning cycle, though I still think you’re going about it in an odd way! Anything with a 10-year horizon is simply not going to happen.

Forgive me, but I haven’t read your latest Business Planning and Long-Term Strategy documents. I have looked at 2008/09 (which I believe is the version still posted on the ECF web site). So I’m not as up-to-date as I should be.

To my mind, the ECF needs four things:

1) A short, snappy, comprehensible vision statement. Something that describes what the Federation is for, and can be easily conveyed to people who are not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Federation. It should be in the front of the minds of ECF officials and staff. Actually, I think the mission statement as it appears in the Long-Term Strategy document is not that bad, but I’ve never seen it referred to in any other ECF communication.

2) A business plan showing how the ECF’s vision statement is going to be delivered. This needn’t be a long document either, but it should define specific measurable activities. For example, if the vision is to promote chess to the largest possible audience, there may be an activity under the marketing heading describing how x new members will be recruited within y period of time. Each activity will have an individual responsible for it and funds identified in the budget. If it’s can’t be measured, it won’t happen. This business plan will be reviewed and may change each year, as priorities alter.

3) A budget document that shows expenditure on core activities (‘business as usual’) and project-based expenditure (e.g. on Chess for Schools, or whatever flavour of the month happens to be at the time).

4) Something to address the cynicism that you alluded to in your initial note. The ECF is very good at beating itself up – this ends up discouraging good people like you from staying in the Federation. The key here is to do something short-term to show that the ECF is serious and is changing. Right now the ECF needs to improve its credibility and it can only do this through actions rather than words.


Best,

Peter

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JustinHorton
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by JustinHorton » Fri Apr 24, 2009 6:00 pm

FM Jack Rudd wrote:I've posted a similar thread on a site of non-chessplayers. I think a big part of English chess's problems is our lack of presence in the wider world, so I'm talking to the wider world.
I agree with this.

Could I link to a previous post of mine by way of contribution to this discussion? A view I hold is that one problem with the ECF - and perhaps with much of debate about it - is that most of us come from a time when chess was encountered differently and perceived differently than in the case today. But we don't necessarily tend to recognise this and therefore we don't tend to think too often about where our potential audience is and how we might reach it.

It's also possible than we can ask useful questions of ourselves, where "ourselves" means bodies other than the ECF: how do we find and attract new chessplayers? How do clubs do it? How do web pages and blogs?
"Do you play chess?"
"Yes, but I prefer a game with a better chance of cheating."

lostontime.blogspot.com

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IM Jack Rudd
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by IM Jack Rudd » Fri Apr 24, 2009 6:29 pm

The non-chessplayers, by the way, have homed in immediately on the thought of getting celebrities involved. How best to do this, I do not know.

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Carl Hibbard
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Carl Hibbard » Fri Apr 24, 2009 7:08 pm

Peter Sowray wrote:To my mind, the ECF needs four things:
Spot on...

I would add a 5) Better communication with it's members...

Even if this forum is a no-go area :roll:
Cheers
Carl Hibbard

Andrew Farthing
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Andrew Farthing » Fri Apr 24, 2009 7:39 pm

Thanks very much for the responses so far. I'd like to pick up on a few of the points raised:
FM Jack Rudd wrote:The non-chessplayers, by the way, have homed in immediately on the thought of getting celebrities involved. How best to do this, I do not know.
I agree. In a perfect world, I'd love to see someone like Stephen Fry associated with the game. He used to be known as a keen amateur, has a very positive public image for our purposes (funny and clever but not distant from the public) and would be a magnet to outsiders who'd turn up to events to meet him even if their interest in chess was marginal at best. Of course, he's also incredibly in demand and, I imagine, expensive. It would be wrong to be defeatist, though. For my purposes here, I take the message that part of the vision for chess could be of a game with a positive public profile, generated by association with the right sort of celebrity.
Peter Sowray wrote:To my mind, the ECF needs four things:

1) A short, snappy, comprehensible vision statement. Something that describes what the Federation is for, and can be easily conveyed to people who are not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Federation. It should be in the front of the minds of ECF officials and staff. Actually, I think the mission statement as it appears in the Long-Term Strategy document is not that bad, but I’ve never seen it referred to in any other ECF communication.

2) A business plan showing how the ECF’s vision statement is going to be delivered. This needn’t be a long document either, but it should define specific measurable activities. For example, if the vision is to promote chess to the largest possible audience, there may be an activity under the marketing heading describing how x new members will be recruited within y period of time. Each activity will have an individual responsible for it and funds identified in the budget. If it’s can’t be measured, it won’t happen. This business plan will be reviewed and may change each year, as priorities alter.

3) A budget document that shows expenditure on core activities (‘business as usual’) and project-based expenditure (e.g. on Chess for Schools, or whatever flavour of the month happens to be at the time).

4) Something to address the cynicism that you alluded to in your initial note. The ECF is very good at beating itself up – this ends up discouraging good people like you from staying in the Federation. The key here is to do something short-term to show that the ECF is serious and is changing. Right now the ECF needs to improve its credibility and it can only do this through actions rather than words.
1) I like the Mission Statement too. I'd differentiate between that and the long-term vision in that the latter needs to explain what success looks like in a bit more detail.

2) I wouldn't argue with any of this either. At the moment, there is some caution about the format of the Business Plan because it fits what the Dept of Media, Culture & Sport wants to see (and they provide substantial funding to the ECF). There's probably some room for manoeuvre, however, and I'm working on this.

3) Good suggestion.

4) Again, I agree. I plan to reflect this in the short-term priorities that I propose in the next stage. On one front, it's possible (seriously) that Chess for Schools will emerge as a major achievement, although I'd accept that its problems over the last year have made it harder to see the positive.
Carl Hibbard wrote:I would add a 5) Better communication with its members...

Even if this forum is a no-go area :roll:
Maybe that will change. The plans for the ECF website say to me that better communication is a priority. Given time, maybe there could be a thaw with regard to this forum...
Andrew Wainwright wrote:However, my humble opinion on what is needed for the long term success of the ECF is:

1. Self Funding of Chess as a “Sport/Game” - Government and Commercial Funding is great but is not conducive on its own to growth. We can do nothing without adequate finances after all.
2. Better use of IT – Perhaps the biggest criticism that I personally would lobby at the ECF at the minute is the way it under utilises the internet.
3. Advertising – People need to know about chess if they are to play chess.

Perhaps the biggest advantage that Goals Soccer Centres has over the ECF as a business model is that it actually organises events and its revenue comes from those taking place in such events. The ECF does not do this. The main service it offers to its members is through the grading of matches. Grading fees alone can not support the ECF as its only means of regular income apart from small government grants and the odd generous donation here and there. Has the ECF ever thought about running events throughout the country that could create a steady revenue stream? Has the ECF ever thought about running its own chess centres and attempting to make them profitable?
I couldn't agree more about IT. There are encouraging changes planned.

The point about running events is interesting. I've been picking the brains of other chessplayers I come across at weekend congresses, and one argued very strongly that one of the big differences between the English Bridge Union and the ECF was that the EBU runs a cycle of events (which in turn generates the bridge equivalent of grades) and that this cements the organisation more firmly in people's minds as a valuable entity. What do others think? Should the ECF start organising more events? What are the gaps in the market it could fill?


Thanks again for the responses.

Peter Sowray
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Peter Sowray » Fri Apr 24, 2009 8:34 pm

Andrew Farthing wrote: On one front, it's possible (seriously) that Chess for Schools will emerge as a major achievement, although I'd accept that its problems over the last year have made it harder to see the positive.
Andrew,

Not a cat in hell's chance. I understand that some in the ECF are still bullish about this project ('the eternal optimist'), but it will never happen. Holloid are not committed, otherwise there would be some update since the last communication (before Christmas). And, of course, they would have produced some sets by now! As far as the schools are concerned, they'll all have forgotten about the project in the 12 months since they were first approached ... or assumed it's another variation of the Nigerian scam. And finally, the ECF simply does not have the expertise to deliver on a project of this complexity.

It's high time that we behaved like grown ups on this. There's an extra person employed at the ECF Office on the back of this non-existant project ... about time to cut some costs.

Peter

David Sedgwick
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by David Sedgwick » Fri Apr 24, 2009 9:17 pm

Peter Sowray wrote:
Andrew Farthing wrote: On one front, it's possible (seriously) that Chess for Schools will emerge as a major achievement, although I'd accept that its problems over the last year have made it harder to see the positive.
Andrew,

Not a cat in hell's chance. I understand that some in the ECF are still bullish about this project ('the eternal optimist'), but it will never happen. Holloid are not committed, otherwise there would be some update since the last communication (before Christmas). And, of course, they would have produced some sets by now! As far as the schools are concerned, they'll all have forgotten about the project in the 12 months since they were first approached ... or assumed it's another variation of the Nigerian scam. And finally, the ECF simply does not have the expertise to deliver on a project of this complexity.

It's high time that we behaved like grown ups on this. There's an extra person employed at the ECF Office on the back of this non-existant project ... about time to cut some costs.

Peter
Peter,

I'm certainly not an eternal optimist on this. I spent a fair amount of time around Christmas trying to do some damage limitation.

Until about ten days ago, I would have agreed with you. Now I really do think there's a good chance that you'll be proved wrong.

I was pretty forthright at the ECF Council Meeting - my comments were similar to those which you've posted. In response Chris Majer staked his reputation, and his future in the ECF, on delivering what he's now promised. That is in itself somewhat different from the 2008 situation.

We'll all know one way or another in the next six months. Either the sets will be reaching the schools and I'll be amongst those eating a fair amount of humble pie. Or the ECF will be looking for a new Chief Executive and if I'm still hanging around the organisation I'll be picking up a lot of broken glass.

Andrew's allowed for both possibilities in choosing a ten year timescale for his long term planning.

Peter Sowray
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Peter Sowray » Fri Apr 24, 2009 10:21 pm

David Sedgwick wrote:
Peter,

I'm certainly not an eternal optimist on this. I spent a fair amount of time around Christmas trying to do some damage limitation.

Until about ten days ago, I would have agreed with you. Now I really do think there's a good chance that you'll be proved wrong.

I was pretty forthright at the ECF Council Meeting - my comments were similar to those which you've posted. In response Chris Majer staked his reputation, and his future in the ECF, on delivering what he's now promised. That is in itself somewhat different from the 2008 situation.

We'll all know one way or another in the next six months. Either the sets will be reaching the schools and I'll be amongst those eating a fair amount of humble pie. Or the ECF will be looking for a new Chief Executive and if I'm still hanging around the organisation I'll be picking up a lot of broken glass.

Andrew's allowed for both possibilities in choosing a ten year timescale for his long term planning.

David,

Look ... I understand that Chris has made some commitments that have encouraged people to think this project is still alive. I am 100% sure Chris is acting in good faith. But ...

Let's assume for the moment that Holloid make good on their promise to produce a large volume of sets and to provide some degree of logistical support (and this seems to me to be a bold assumption given the current economic climate, the change in Holloid's management structure, and Holloid's previous failures to deliver). The ECF will then need to get back to all the schools who were at one time interested in taking the sets, persuade them that despite a 12-18 month delay these sets are really available, arrange delivery at the ECF's cost (remembering that these sets were offered on the basis of being free) and roll out the various teaching materials and other goodies that have been previously promised.

This is a complex project. It requires management skills, a project plan, money, and people to do the work. I can't see it ending well.

Best regards,

Peter

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Carl Hibbard
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Re: The Future of English Chess

Post by Carl Hibbard » Fri Apr 24, 2009 11:00 pm

Andrew Farthing wrote: Maybe that will change. The plans for the ECF website say to me that better communication is a priority. Given time, maybe there could be a thaw with regard to this forum...
That would be a NO...

The reasons for the change in status of this forum (loss of direct sponsorship) was always met with evasion and outright bull**it despite me asking a direct question to the people involved

It may be true but I was never happy with the rubbish I was told :(
Cheers
Carl Hibbard

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